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Dressed to Kill

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“Just let the wardrobe do the acting.”  Jack Nicholson

“This is my first time doing an internship like this, and it’s inspiring to be working in the field and getting the experience in an actual theater,” said Rachel Farmer.

It was last May last year and Rachel was starting as the new kid on the block at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico on the north-central coast of Prince Edward Island. A local girl – “I was born and raised on PEI” – she participated in musical theater with dance umbrella throughout high school, and two years further on was studying costume design at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Watermark was her first young foot in the door.

“I did most of the smaller tasks,” she recalled six weeks later as the summer season at the playhouse got underway with “Dial M for Murder.”

“I tried to do some of the dirty work, but it is a rite of passage,” explained Julia Hodgson-Surich, Rachel’s supervisor and mentor, about the labors of internship.

Interns used to be apprentices, although it amounts to the same thing, working at an occupation or trade for little or no pay in order to gain experience. Getting involved, not necessarily cracking the books, is often the best way to get the hang of things. The professional is an amateur who didn’t quit.

“It is an intern’s job to go for coffee for anyone who asks, delivering it hot and cupped in your bare hands,” Kurt Braunohler, the host of podcasts on the Nerdist Network, said about learning the ropes.

There are several imperatives interns have to follow. When uncertain, always ask, be a team player, keep a notebook, and be early, not just on time. You don’t have to be the last to leave, but don’t be the last to get there, either.

Pay attention to everything the big cheese says. Don’t complain, ever. Just don’t.

“I was Julia’s right hand,” said Rachel. “She tackled the main important stunning pieces. I worked on the suspender buttons.”

“I did manage to get her to sew all of the suspender buttons on the pants,” admitted Julia. “I’ve done that thousands of times myself. It’s how she’s going to learn to do it perfectly.”

“The handsome costumes do much to recall the postwar boom years,” wrote The Guardian in its review of “Dial M for Murder,” which sold out for most of its run.

When actors are getting into character, they are often soaking in what they are turned out in. They become what they are wearing. If you are wearing a banana suit, you become a very funny barnstormer on stage. There is no getting around it.

“She didn’t just shove me into the deep end,” said Rachel. “She helped me through everything.”

“I’m not as evil as some designers,” explained Julia. “I went easy on her for the first fitting. It was only after that that I expected perfection.”

Even though internships are often a chunk of paycheck short of real jobs, interns have to show their commitment and go the extra mile, doing everything to a T. It’s the small things that make up perfection, and perfection is no small thing.

“She assisted me,” said Julia. “When I needed a stage pin, she had it. When I said, these pants need to come in three inches, she wrote it down and got it done. We made sure everything fit immaculately.”

“The costumes by Julia Hodgson-Surich were classic and functional, with smooth lines and fabrics audience members will want to touch,” wrote Jane Ledwell in her review in The Buzz.

“We did fittings with each actor for each costume,” said Julia.

Seamstresses and costumers work with everyone from the actors to the director. The show has got to look real. Otherwise, it won’t feel real. Theater might be make-believe, but it’s got be in the flesh to make believers of the audience.

Would Superman even be Superman without his cape and costume? Would anyone believe him if he said he was Superman? No, he would just be Clark Kent, just another Joe behind a pair of glasses.

The costume department at all theaters is responsible for the purchase, design, manufacture, fitting, continuity, and care of all the costumes. They create the look and mood of much of what is seen on stage. They need to be able to draw their designs, know how to translate creative vision into something more than the king’s new clothes, and know their fabrics and how to render and integrate them into the visual style of the play.

“Dial M, 1950s, everything was tailored, and some were handmade, some vintage pieces,” said Julia. “We had to order hats from England. Rachel did the alterations on the blue dress that’s at the top of the show. We made it fit like a glove. The actor could still breathe, but barely.”

At the Watermark Theatre they swap with other regional theater warehouses, since they don’t have the time or budget to make everything from scratch, and period pieces in the first and last place are hard to find.

“We go to thrift stores, looking, all the time,” said Julia.

“Seeing an actor’s face light up when we show them what they are going to wear is great,” said Rachel. “It’s the thing that makes them feel confident and in character and ties everything together, the props and set and story.”

This year’s Costume Designer at the Watermark Theatre, Julia was last year’s Head of Wardrobe. She is a designer, seamstress, and textile artist based in Toronto. “I use a lot of what I’ve learned in weaving and knitting, dying fabrics, and textile art,” she said.

She collaborates with the Cactus Sewing Studio and designs her own line of handmade clothing.

The theater runs in her family.

“I started as an intern, when I was 14-years-old, working in wardrobe at a theater my mother was a production manager at,” said Julia.

It was the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.

Although her father, Bill, was born on Prince Edward Island, she grew up in southwestern Ontario. Her mother, Andrea, has long worked in live theater. Her father fabricated sets for theaters across Canada before becoming a metal sculptor. His installation ‘Trees of the Carolinian Forest’ is in downtown London. A display of his Christmas sculptures is set up every year in Victoria Park in the center of town.

“I started as a sewer, and when I was done with high school, at 18, I started working as a professional. I was promoted to cutter.” She’s been working ever since. “My journey has not been with school. It has been entirely apprenticeships.”

Julia Hodgson-Surich’s contract last year expired as the season at the Watermark Theatre was starting. She was making ready to be on her way. “I don’t have anything on the horizon, but if it comes up, OK, let’s do it.”

Theater professionals are always on the move, looking for their next opportunity. What makes them professionals is knowing how to cope with not knowing where their next paycheck will be coming from. In the meantime, they keep their noses to the wind, staying in touch with what productions are going on and where.

She had been working on the new season’s shows at the Watermark since March. “We talk on Skype, have production meetings in Toronto, so that we’re all on the same page. I did sketches, collected things, came to PEI, met Rachel, and basically, ‘Let’s go!’”

When she took leave of the theater, she left Rachel in charge of the costumes and the dirty work for the next eight weeks.

“She’ll do the repairs, because after every show something is broken. She’ll do the laundry. She’ll be the dresser, making sure the actors look the way they’re supposed to look every single night. It’s a lot of work. I appreciate that I don’t have to do it.”

“I came into it thinking I was a fish out of water,” said Rachel.

She had been a fish out of water not long beforehand, but she was a quick study.

“I was originally planning on going into acting,” she said. “But I realized watching movies and plays, what I loved were what costumes were being worn, and I should probably just go into costumes, so I did.  When I got to Dalhousie, though, it was intimidating, because I had six month’s experience on one outfit, and all my classmates had been sewing since they were 4-years-old.”

If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called learning. There wouldn’t be internships. There wouldn’t be mentors.

At the Watermark Theatre the costumers work in the basement. “It’s a tiny little room at the end of a hallway,” said Julia. “We have a window, but it looks out underneath the deck.”

“I love making things,” she said. “We get to sew, work with our hands. I wanted to do it since I was small. I grew up in a theater family. Babysitting was me sitting in a lightbox watching a show. I didn’t understand it, although I just loved costumes.”

The small room in the basement is where most of the mentoring goes on.

“Mentoring cuts into my work,” said Julia, “but it’s worth it. It’s rewarding. I prefer someone I can talk to, tell them what I’m up to, because then I’m talking it through. Sometimes I find out that I’m actually not doing the right thing.”

Talking things through, getting another’s perspective, often helps you to see issues more clearly, and gets your own thoughts off the same old track.

“I don’t want anyone to suffer, either. If I sense someone is having trouble with a hem, or a machine isn’t working and they’re rethreading it over and over, I will help. I won’t just let them flounder.”

“I’ve gotten so much out of it, and the Watermark is a wonderful theatre,” said Rachel.

”Everybody feels like they are a close-knit family here. You feel like everything you do has significance, like you’re not being swallowed up by the whole production, and you matter in the great cog scheme of things.”

This summer’s shows at the Watermark Theatre are the classic farce “Boeing Boeing” and the Pulitzer Prize winning play “Crimes of the Heart.” Even though “Crimes of the Heart” is premised on a murder, it has been described as “an evening of antic laughter.” The wardrobe department may not be getting the actors dressed to kill like they were in “Dial M for Murder,” a spine-tingler rather than a laughfest, but they will still look their part in their new parts.

In the middle of the fun on stage this summer they will be dressed to kill.

PEI Professional Theatre Network

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PEI Theatre is the Guild, Harbourfront Theatre,
Confederation Centre for the Arts,
Watermark Theatre, and the Victoria Playhouse
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Walking the Plank

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“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip.” Gilligan’s Island

“I’ve sailed my whole life,” said Michelle Boyce.

A native of London, Ontario, where she grew up, where her father worked for the Board of Education, Michelle raised her own children in Aylmer, a half hour down from London and less than a half hour from the north shore of Lake Erie. There is plenty of sailing from Port Dover to Long Point to the Port Stanley Sailing Squadron. It is Ontario’s south shore.

It isn’t Margaritaville, but it’s laid back. In Port Stanley, on the shoreline, making yourself at home with lemonade or a cold beer on GT’s Beach patio, making time is watching the town’s drawbridge go up and down. Lift bridges can get stuck up, but that’s the only thing stuck up in town.

“At one time we owned five sailboats,” she said.

“The kids and I used to sail across the lake to Cedar Point every summer. My daughter and I are roller coaster fanatics. We would spend a week in the harbor at Cedar Point and then sail back home.”

During the day cannons can be heard when pirates attack riverboats at the amusement park.

Although she still calls her neck of the woods home, where she spends half the year, the other half of the year she now spends on Prince Edward Island. The country’s smallest province, PEI is almost a thousand miles east of Canada’s seed corn hinterland.

“Sailing to PEI, it got really bad before it got really good.”

It started when Michelle, her kids, and her partner, Monika Chesnut, went to Prince Edward Island in 2008.  They went for a wedding. They liked what they saw.

“We fell in love with the island. We felt at home there, so on the way home we tossed around ideas about how we could spend more time on PEI. We’re an entrepreneurial family. We dreamt up the sailing business.”

The sailing business is Atlantic Sailing PEI, weighing anchor out of North Rustico on the north-central coast of the island. The three-hour cruises start at the dock, boarding the only sailboat in the harbor, turning out to sea, looking for dolphins and whales. The sunset sails are on the romantic side.

It’s OK to bring a bottle of champagne and get cloud nine.

Two years after first setting foot on PEI, Michelle and her daughter Jessica took the first step toward turning their dream into reality. “We knew nothing about the marine industry on PEI, but we went ahead,” said Michelle. The person with a vision is often more single-minded and hale than somebody with all the facts.

The facts can be helpful, though, sooner or later.

“We went on a sailing trip, from Lake Erie, across Lake Ontario, and up to Montreal. We spent a couple of weeks there and went up the river to Ottawa. Near there we stopped at a marina and found a 38-foot boat we fell in love with.”

The name of the boat was Folie. It was going to be the boat Atlantic Sailing PEI would sail the starry-eyed to idyllic sunsets on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It wasn’t meant to be, however, maybe because folie is a French word meaning, more-or-less, delusional.

“It can also mean crazy mad person,” said Michelle. “The gentleman we bought it from was 90-years-old. He had sailed it to the Caribbean and back. He had pictures. I don’t know how he did it without dying.”

Folie was a1960s-era strong as an ox medium-sized cruising yacht capable of offshore passage. It was a serious no-nonsense boat. The first fiberglass sailboat, the Chinook 34, was built in 1956. “Who built the Folie had no idea how thick they had to make the fiberglass,” said Michelle. “They decided they had to make it as thick as wood. The thing was built like a tank.” Since indestructible is what they ended up needing, indestructible ended up standing them in good stead.

Michelle Boyce knows her ragtops, from stem to stern. She knows what makes them go, and she knows the free enterprise end of them, too. “When Detroit was going down, I used to buy sailboats there, sell them, and sail them all over the Great Lakes to the people who bought them.”

The first thing she did to the Folie was replace its engine. “Everything on that boat was end of life.” The engine was a Universal Atomic 4, last manufactured in the early 1980s. The Atomic 4 used to be the Utility Four, used extensively during WW2 to power lifeboats.

“I found a brand new one in a barn in northern Ontario, still in its shipping crate from the factory,” said Michelle.

After the new motor was installed, she and her daughter set off for Prince Edward Island. They planned on the trip taking two weeks, sailing to and around the Gaspe Peninsula, down the New Brunswick coast, and landing on PEI at Northport. They began accepting on-line reservations for summer cruises.

They got to Northport seven weeks later.

Halfway down the channel out of their first harbor their new Atomic 4 started to overheat. “She was red-lining on the temperature gauge. There was nothing we could do. I couldn’t stop in the middle of the channel.” They raced the boat out to the St. Lawrence Seaway, shut off the engine, and threw out the anchor.

“We spent the next five days in the middle of the seaway fixing the boat.”

The engine was undamaged, but the hoses carrying the coolant to the engine had melted. “The gentleman I bought the boat from had used crappy transparent hosing that you use for fish tanks. Fortunately, I’m anal about repairs, and I had another boat on the boat.”

One rule of thumb on the high seas is, whatever it is, if you can’t repair it, it probably shouldn’t be on board in the first place. The other rule is always have spare parts.

No sooner, however, did they make it through the Iroquois Canal lock, when the boat floundered again. This time the impeller melted. “The old gentleman was also anal, and he had left spare parts scattered all around the boat, so every time we broke down, it was a scavenger hunt. We knew he had one on board, but where?”

They found it, because they had to. In the event, ‘Regulations Governing Minimum Equipment & Accomodations Standards’ state that the owner, or owner’s representative, the captain, “must ensure that all equipment is properly maintained and stowed and that the crew know where it is kept and how it is to be used.”

After replacing the water pump, they sailed down the seaway, staying on the cruising side of the buoys, cruising the wide river. They kept the engine quiet, not dousing their sails, keeping them set to the way they were going.

It was a windy day, the waves like rippled potato chips, leaving the last lock outside of Montreal, when their steering went. “The boat would only turn right. It wouldn’t turn left. We were heading for a sandbar. One of the locals in his boat beside me was screaming, ‘Turn, turn, turn, you’re going to hit ground.’ We hit ground and came to a stop.”

“Only two sailors, in my experience, never ran aground,” observes Dan Bamford, a veteran sailor. “One never left port and the other one was an atrocious liar.”

“A cable fastener broke,” said Michelle, “which was a minor happening of all the happenings. We plugged a hand tiller on, but we were still stuck on the sandbar.”

She took a low-tech approach to the problem. Michelle had lowered the sails, but now got them back up, and when the wind blew into them it threw the boat over. “The wind in the sails took the boat off the shallow water,” she said.

“The goal is not to sail the boat, but rather to help the boat sail herself,” John Rousmaniere, one time editor at Yachting magazine, has pointed out.

They pulled into a marina, filled their tank, and got started, except they couldn’t get going. “They filled our tank with dirty gas. I got it running off a jerry can, running a hose directly from the carburetor to the can, bypassing the tank on the boat. But then, we weren’t twenty minutes out of the harbor when we picked up a rope on our prop.”

She was done with problems for the day. “The wind was going in the right direction, so I just threw up the sails and we sailed from Montreal to Quebec City.”

They ended up floating in one spot off Quebec City for five days. “The wind died and we had no propulsion,” she said. “Our cooler went warm and we were eating dry reserves. We didn’t have any idea the tides were going to be 24 feet. There was either a 10-knot current going this way or a 10-knot current going that way. The current was so crazy there was no rowing our dinghy to shore. We couldn’t dive under the boat to get the rope off our prop, either, too much current.”

When the wind finally picked up slightly they slowly hove into a marina on sail power.

“My daughter chickened out, and so even though my holding my breath under water days are long past, I dove in and got the rope off the prop.”

At the next marina they followed a friendly local in. He had a sailboat similar to theirs. He waved to them. “We’re fine following you,” she shouted across to him. “You’ll be safe,” he shouted back.

He got stuck.

Then they got stuck.

“Fortunately we were stuck in mud and stayed afloat,” said Michelle. “He ended up on dry land. “

The next day, having gotten unstuck, back on the St. Lawrence, they fought a following sea all day. “The waves behind you throw your boat this way and that. It’s hard to steer. At the end of the day I was exhausted.”

It might be why she misread her charts.

“I thought I was in 25 feet of water at low tide. Actually, I was in 25 feet of water at high tide. The water all disappeared in the middle of the night. My daughter and I were sound asleep when, all of a sudden, BANG! We were sideways.”

Waking up with a start, she saw their cats, Cali and Pablo, jump from the bed to the wall, which was now the floor. “They were totally confused.”

Keeping her wits about her, she remembered a story the man they bought the boat from had told them, about the same thing happening to him in the Caribbean. “He just went to sleep when it happened, the water came back, and it was fine. So, that’s what we did. We made a bed on the wall and went to sleep.”

In the morning the tide came in and the Folie floated up and away. “It is a tough, tough boat,” said Michelle. ”It was fine. We had pretty much worked out the bugs by then.”

At least, she thought so. “A tale of a fateful trip, aboard this tiny ship, the mate was a mighty sailin’ lad, the skipper brave and sure.” Assumptions, on the other hand, are like termites.

They picked up Monika, her partner, at Riviere-du-Loup, a city near where boats turn towards Atlantic Canada. One of the best places for whale watching in the world is at the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park offshore from Riviere-du-Loup. Beyond the small town are scattered even smaller towns hugging the coastline, and lots of forest.

“Every so often you’ll see a town and a church steeple. There were almost no other boats around, just the three of us on the Folie, when a superfast black Zodiac came on our horizon. He circled me until he got behind me, and started coming up my wash.”

There were no markings on the Zodiac. There were four men, clad in black, on the boat. Michelle got on her radio.

“Vessel approaching, please identify yourself.”

There was no response.

She tried again. There was no response. She tried the Coast Guard. “I have a vessel of unknown origin approaching me, unknown intent, mayday, mayday.” There was no response. She grabbed her flare gun.

“He was coming up my tail. Pirates are a real thing,” she said. “Since we’re a floater, our decks were lined with water and gasoline cans. I had a pirate plan, which was open a gas can, throw it at them, and shoot the flare gun, lighting them on fire.”

It was when they came within range, the flare gun cocked, that the blue lights on the boat blinked on. It was the police.

“Slow down,” one of the policemen shouted.

“Whatever,” Michelle muttered.

“Where are you going?”

“Prince Edward Island.”

“Where are you putting into next?”

“There,” she said.

“Where’s the man on board?”

“Pardon me?” The man on board was news to her.

“You guys are by yourselves?”

Michelle. Monika, and Jessica looked from one end of the boat to the other. “The cops finally left us alone.” The Zodiac sped away and the Folie got back on track. Time was their enemy.

“The whole time we had all these bookings in North Rustico. We were booked solid. Every single day I wasn’t on the island I was hitting the refund button.”

They hadn’t got much farther when their alternator blew, stuff started to seize, belts got red hot, and smoke filled the boat, which ended up sideways to the waves. “We instantly got into our deal with it mode.” Jessica ran the jib up, Michelle stabilized the boat, the smoke cleared, and they found a spare alternator, although they were starting to run out of the other boat on the boat.

By the time the Folie flooded a few days later she was already starting to wonder what the difference is between an ordeal and an adventure.

They had dropped Monika off near Dalhousie, New Brunswick, so she could pick up her car and rendezvous later on PEI, when they noticed with a jolt that the boat was half full of water.

“It still wasn’t over!” said Michelle. “One of the grease fittings, a cap at the prop shaft, had popped, and water was shooting into the boat. The bilge pump was pumping like crazy, but it couldn’t keep up.”

It was sink or swim.

She grabbed a length of rubber hose, some clamps, and a broom handle. She stuffed the handle into the rubber and stuffed the works into the hole. “I clamped it tight so water would stop coming into the boat.” They pumped the seawater out, but by then it had gotten into the engine oil. “It turned it into chocolate mllk. It was like a chocolate milkshake.” They sailed to open water, threw the anchor out, and the next day replaced the oil.

They could see the oxidized red of Prince Edward Island in the far distance.

Taking it easy in a bay one morning, having coffee, they watched baby belugas approach the boat. They are sometimes called sea canaries because of their high-pitched twitter. Big whales were blowing in deeper water. A herd of seals slipped in close to the sailboat.

“The cats were running around the boat,” said Michelle. “The seals were lined up beside the boat, their noses stuck up, and the cats were on top of the boat with their noses stuck down, trying to figure each other out. It was like first contact.”

When they once and for all pulled into Northport on the west end of Prince Edward Island, they were beyond a shadow of a doubt on the island.

“I’m not a quitter,” said Michelle.

That is when they found out the harbors they were going to sail in and out of were too shallow for the Folie’s keel. They also found out there wasn’t a crane-lift big enough to lift their sailboat out of the water. It couldn’t stay where it was. Boats on PEI get winterized in the fall and summerized in the spring. Setting and forgetting your pride and joy from January to April in the water is leaving your boat on the frozen hot seat.

The first thing Michelle did was to channel the Professor, one of those marooned on Gilligan’s Island. A science teacher, he could build anything, hammocks and houses, so the castaways could live comfortably. He rigged up washing machines, supplied water, and generated electric power, using nothing but indigenous coconuts and bamboo, although he was never able to repair the Minnow.

“The hole on that boat defies all of my advanced knowledge,” said the Professor.

Michelle built her own 10-ton hydraulic trailer with which to back up, get under the Folie, pick it up, and carry it away.

“There must have been thirty guys standing around there watching being brutal.”

“Do you know what you’re doing?”

“That’s not going to work.”

“You’re going to kill yourself.”

“Are you sure that’s going to work?” asked Monika, who had joined them, getting butterflies.

When she had the boat on the trailer and the trailer hooked up to her pick-up, and was driving the boat away, to be stored away safe and sound and out of sight in Summerside for the unforeseeable future, none of the bystanders were there anymore.

“They scattered like flies,” she said. “Not one of them was there for I told you so.”

The second thing she did was drive home to Ontario, pick up her 29-foot sailboat, the Calypso, and haul it back to land’s end, across the Confederation Bridge, and to North Rustico.  To this day the Calypso is Atlantic Sail PEI’s bread and butter, three cruises a day, private charters, and special events.

“Awesome experience,” said Donna Burgoyne.

“Monika and Michelle were fabulous hosts, very knowledgeable,” said Andre Pelletier.

“Elle nous fait decouvrir la faune marine et les magnifiques paysages de PEI,” said Sabrina Bottega. “Avec Michelle, c’est super capitaine.”

“The Folie drained us, in more ways than one,” said Michelle. “It almost bankrupted us. We had to refund tens of thousands of dollars, although we ended up doing some tours at the end of the season.”

Before landing at Northport, they spent the day anchored off West Point. “It’s where all the windmills are,” said Michelle. It’s where ship yards built sailboats long ago. It’s where sightings of a sea serpent still happen. It is where buried treasure is reportedly buried, still a secret.

Michelle made herself at home on her back in the sun on the deck while Jessica lolled at the stern.

“There is nothing like lying flat on your back on the deck, alone except for the helmsman aft at the wheel, silence except for the lapping of the sea against the side of the ship,” Errol Flynn once said.

The three-bladed wind turbines on West Point go around and around. There are 55 of them, rock steady as long as the epoxy sails stay full, at the West Cape Wind Farm. Tilting at windmills is quixotic, like running in circles. But if you can stay the course, and square the circle, making your energy making it a go, you might end up where you wanted to be all along.

When Michelle Boyce stepped off the plank she landed on the able-bodied sandstone seascape of Prince Edward Island.

PEI Professional Theatre Network

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PEI Theatre is the Guild, Harbourfront Theatre,
Confederation Centre for the Arts,
Watermark Theatre, and the Victoria Playhouse

From the Lighthouse

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“If you are a lighthouse, you cannot hide yourself. If you hide yourself, you cannot be a lighthouse.”  Mehmet Murat ildan

When Mary Smith picks up a fiddle, she’s got about 20 years of life with it behind her. When she picks up a guitar, she’s got about 70 years behind her. When she plays the mandolin, organ, or piano, it’s anybody’s guess.

“We always had music at home,” she said. “My dad played mouth organ and step danced. When I was growing up there was no TV, so the thing to do was have house parties.”

Home was the North Rustico lighthouse on the north-central shore of Prince Edward Island, and later a house her father, George Pineau, built up the road on Harbourview Drive. George and his wife Ruby rolled up the oilcloth on weekends. The kids were sent to bed.

“They would have three or four couples come over, cook up a big feed of salt fish and potatoes, and play music,” said Mary. Her father would jig for dancing and play ‘George’s Tune’ on his harmonica.

“We used to sneak down the stairs. I always wanted to be a part of it. I thought, if I can get a guitar, and learn to play it, I could stay up and play for them. My dad wanted me to play a fiddle, but I wouldn’t bother with it. I kept asking for a guitar, and eventually he ordered one.”

It came from Sears, Roebuck & Co. It was a Gene Autry Round-up guitar. Gene Autry was a rodeo performer and crooner. He was “The Singing Cowboy” in the movies. His name was inscribed on the guitar. A cowboy riding herd swinging a lariat above his head was stencil-painted on the front. She still has it, although it’s not part of her gear on the road nowadays.

“I learned how to play a few chords.”

Square dancing was popular in her neck of the woods, and even so there were several good fiddlers, there were no guitar players. As she became more accomplished on her Round-up, she began accompanying fiddlers at local dances.

The North Rustico lighthouse was her home when she was a child. Although not many children are born at home, it was where she was born. She didn’t go far that first day, tired by the move, and slept the rest of the day.

Only about 1% of babies today are delivered outside of a hospital. Until the 20th century most women gave birth at home. When someone was ready to go, her friends and relatives and a midwife would help. As late as 1900 about half of all babies were still brought into the world by midwives. By the 1930s, however, after the advent of anesthesia, only one of ten were delivered by them.

Not many were delivered by a neighbor, either.

“There was nobody else around,” said Mary Smith. “If you stayed home to have a baby, somebody had to help out.”

The lighthouse was built in 1876 on the North Rustico beach, a pyramidal white wooden tower and attached living space. Eight years later it was moved to the entrance of the harbor. George Pineau was the keeper of the lighthouse from 1925 until 1960, when the beam was automated.

“My grandfather was lighthouse keeper for many years, and my father was the keeper for 34 years. I lived in the lighthouse until I was 8-years-old.”

Mary grew up on the harbor road, where she has moved back to and lives to this day, as a kid running the mile-or-so up and down the street from one end to the other with her kid brother and sister. Fish factories canned lobster and salt fish, shipping it to the United States and West Indies. Fish peddlers loaded horse-drawn wagons and small trucks, selling cod, herring, and mackerel door-to-door.

A three-story hotel stood on the rise across the street from the present-day Blue Mussel Café.

“My Aunt Angie bought it, tore it down, and built a house with the lumber. My dad was laid back, but his twin sister was a fiery person.” Her father was a fisherman, working hard, but enough of a go-with-the-flow man to be able to live to 103 before he was laid to rest.

In the summer Mary fished for smelt and sold them for a penny a dozen to tourists. When she had a pocketful of pennies she ran to the grocery store on Route 6.

“You could buy a lot of candy for three or four cents.”

There were two schools serving the community, one Protestant and one Catholic. “In them days the Protestant and Catholic relationship wasn’t great,” she said. When the Stella Maris school in North Rustico burned down in the early 50s, classes were organized in the church until the school was rebuilt.

“I was in grade 10 when I quit,” said Mary. “You can’t quit now, but we went to work early back then.”

Many secondary students dropped out of school. There were plenty of entry-level jobs in agriculture and the fisheries. As late as 1990 the dropout rate on Prince Edward Island was 20%. Today, it is 6%.

She moved to Ontario, worked, came back to PEI, met her husband-to-be, Al Smith, a Nova Scotian who was seasonal fishing out of the town harbor, and they got married when she was 18-years-old.

When they had a son and made their home, at the far end of the harbor mouth, it was in North Rustico. “We had a deep-sea fishing business.” Fishing, along with farming and tourism, drive the economy on the island. Shellfish like mussels and lobsters are the mainstay. Mary kept house, raised their son, and lent a hand with the gear. She mended nets, repaired pots, crafted trap muzzles. She mixed their own cement runners for weights to sink the pots.

“The twine in the traps, what we called the hedge, we used to knit all those by hand. Nowadays they buy all the stuff.”

She stayed on shore more often than not. She was prone to seasickness, a disturbance of the inner ear. It especially wreaks havoc with balance. Christopher Columbus and Lord Nelson both suffered from it.

One day, just as that year’s fishing season was about to start, Al Smith’s hired man told him he was moving west in search of better prospects. He would have to look for another helpmate right away. “Well, Mary would never go because she gets seasick,” said one of their neighbors. That evening she told her husband, “I guess I’m going fishing in the spring.”

“Oh, God, it’ll be too hard for you,” said Al.

“There’s no women fishing in Rustico, and they say I can’t do it, so I’m going to go,” said Mary. She shortly became the fishing fleet’s first girl Friday.

There are several ways of battling motion sickness. Cast off well-rested, well-nourished, and sober. Insert an ear plug in one ear. Keep your eyes on the horizon. Riding it out is sometimes, unfortunately, the only remedy.

Al and Mary Smith fished together for four years. They fished for lobster, mackerel, cod, and tuna. “It took me four years to get over being seasick,” she said. A sure cure is sitting down under your own roof on dry land four years later.

“I couldn’t physically lift the traps, they were too heavy, but I could slide them,” she said. “My husband would haul them up and push the trap to me. I would take the lobster out and rebait the trap, slide it down the washboard to the back with the movement of the boat, and kick it off. There was rope all over, so you had to watch where your feet were, because there’s fathoms of rope and it’s going over fast.

“On a nice morning, going out to work, the sun coming up, we would look back and see the green and red of Prince Edward Island. It was beautiful. It was good work.”

When the work was done, she cast about for another kind of work.

“I always loved to draw,” she said. “So, when I wasn’t fishing anymore, and our son was grown up, I talked to my husband about it.”

“Why don’t you take a course?” said Al.

“Someday I’ll do that,” said Mary.

Someday came sooner than later and she enrolled in a two-year commercial design course at Holland College in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. The community college is named after British Army surveyor Captain Samuel Holland, offers more than 150 degree pathways, and more than 90% of its graduates find employment.

Two years later, art degree in hand, she decided she wanted to teach art. She thought, I’ll go to the University of Prince Edward Island and get a teacher’s license. She went to see the Dean of Education at UPEI.

“What education do you have?” asked Roy Campbell, the dean.

“I only have grade 10,” she said.

“Well,” he said.

She had brought a long list of courses she was interested in taking. He looked at the list. “Well,” he said, “you should be realistic. I suggest you not take more than three courses at any one time.

“That was kind of insulting,” said Mary.

She thought, he thinks I probably can’t even do three. I’ll show him. I’ll take six.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “That was a mistake. It was a hectic time.”

It got more hectic her second year, when she entered the world of 400 level courses.

“I took a course on Dante, which was really crazy,” she said. “I’m never going to make it through this. I thought about it for a while and thought the only way I’m going to be able to pass this course is if I draw it. So that’s what I did.”

She put her all into drawing the Circles of Hell. Her professor had never gotten a paper like that. “He was thrilled with it.” She got an A in the course.

“I got my teacher’s license. I proved that I could do it.”

She taught at a private art school in Summerside and lent a hand aprt-time at Rainbow Valley in nearby Cavendish during the summer season until, in 1990, her husband of 34 years unexpectedly and suddenly died.

“He was great guy,” she said.

“I decided to do a 3-dimensional sculpture of Al as he was, as a fisherman.”

At first, her plan was to make the commemorative sculpture in cement. “But then I thought, we had just gotten a new fiberglass boat, so I could do it in fiberglass.” It was an idea that would remake reinvent regenerate her from then until now.

The boat was a Provincial, built by Provincial Boat and Marine Limited in Kensington, less than 20 miles west on the north coast. “Earl Davison had a fiberglass plant in Kensington and was producing great fiberglass boats.” They are known for their speed and durability. They are sometimes called “lifetime boats.”

Mary went to Kensington to see Earl, who also owned and operated Rainbow Valley.

“I went to see him, and I said, I’ve got something that I’d like to do in fiberglass, so he said, I’ll come down to look at it. He came down to the house this one day and looked at my plan. I got a call a few days later. He offered me a full-time job instead.”

“I need an artist,” said Earl.

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” she said.

The sculpture of Al Smith got made and Mary went to work full-time at Rainbow Valley in Cavendish, a hop skip jump away from her home.

She never left. She worked 7 days a week May through September until the water safari adventure amusement park was purchased by Parks Canada in 2005. It has since been christened Cavendish Grove and become conserved land with a network of walking trails.

Rainbow Valley, named after Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1919 book “Rainbow Valley,” was 36 years of waterslides, animatronics, swan boats, a sea monster, a monorail, roller coaster, and a paratrooper, castles and suspension bridges, and a flying saucer gift shop. “We tried to add something new every year,” said Earl. “That was a rule.” The other rule-of-thumb was families with smiles plastered all over their faces.

“The most important thing you could do for somebody was to have them all together as a family and help make memories,” said John Davison, Earl’s son who grew up running around the park and as a grown man worked there. “Some of the memories you hear are from people whose parents aren’t with them anymore. But they remember their visits to Rainbow Valley with their parents and those experiences last a lifetime.”

Earl Davison had envisioned the park in 1965, buying and clearing an abandoned apple orchard and filling in a swamp, turning it into ponds. “We borrowed $7,500.00,” he said. “It seemed like an awful lot of money at the time.” When they opened in 1969 admission was 50 cents. Children under 5 got in free. In 1979 he bought his partners out and eventually expanded the park to 16 hectares. Most of the attractions were designed and fabricated by him and his crew.

“Rainbow Valley was a unique place to work, because Earl was so creative,” said Mary.

“Mary had a talent,” said Earl. “She could see things, create things, draw, and she seemed to always be able to draw what I told her about.”

He told her about rum running on the island, when there had been a total ban on alcohol from 1901 until 1948. Smugglers laid low off Cavendish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, avoiding Coast Guard cutters, hiding kegs of hard liquor in the sand dunes and woods at night. When the kegs were empty fishermen often used them to salt mackerel in, the smells of rum and salt fish mixing it up.

She sketched out what became an animated simulated dark ride about booze and bootleggers.

“Mary designed it,” said Earl. “She did all the faces for the characters and helped dress them, too.”

At the end, an animatronic man coming home with a keg of rum in a handcart tells his protesting wife it’s molasses. “Don’t you lie to me,” she says. He takes a step between his wife and his handcart. “I would never lie to you, my smuckins, and if this here’s rum, may lightning strike me right here where I stand.”

Every day, morning noon and night, a thunderous crack of lightning struck him where he stood.

In the early 90s Mary approached Earl about mounting a music show. It became Fiddlers and Followers, which became the North Rustico Country Music Festival, which is still going strong. The music festival, staged over the course of a weekend every August at the town’s North Star Arena, concerts as well as workshops and jam sessions, brings together some of Atlantic Canada’s best-known down-home old-time country bluegrass island-fiddling folk-inspired music makers.

“We’ve never missed a year. We’re getting older, but I still get really pumped up about it,” said Mary.

Earl and the Rainbow Valley construction crew built a barn and a stage for Fiddlers and Followers, local talent was secured, and they fabricated a 24-foot fiddle to be a beacon at the front of the building.

“Earl provided the opportunity for it to start. I designed the big fiddle,” said Mary.

“It was a giant fiddle,” said Earl. In the event, it might have been even more gigantic, given the chance. “We coulda gone higher. It was Mary’s fault. She drew it to be 24 feet, so that’s what we did.”

In 2017 the giant fiddle was moved to the New Brunswick front lawn of fiddle champions Ivan and Vivian Hicks.

“Burns MacDonald and I did shows every day,” said Mary.

When she began playing with Burns MacDonald it was the first time in more than thirty years she played anywhere outside of home or at a house party.

He was the piano player. “I would be in the shop painting, doing artwork, and somebody would say, you’ve got to go for the show.” She would drop everything, grab a guitar, and run to the stage. “I never got tired.” Pete Doiron was their fiddler at the evening shows. “He was one of the best on PEI.” They played together three times a day for twenty-minute stretches.

The first time she heard Burns playing the piano she was working with her boss one floor down.

“I have to go see who that is,” she told Earl.

“I run upstairs, and it was this Burns MacDonald. I went over, stood by him and we started talking. He never stopped playing while he was talking.”

When she went back downstairs, she said to Earl, “You’ve got to hear this guy. He’s unreal.”

Burns MacDonald got hired on the spot and started playing during intermission of the Roaring 20s show then on stage. The next year he came from his home in Nova Scotia for the whole season, living in a trailer in the park. “He was there 14 years steady,” said Mary. “Everybody was just blown away by him.”

Shortly before his death Al Smith had gotten his wife a fiddle.

“We were at a show in Charlottetown and the entertainer was a fiddler. I thought, gee. someday I’m going to learn how to play a fiddle.” Her husband thought it was a good idea and bought her one. But when her husband passed away, Mary put the fiddle back in its case and put it away.

She took it out of its case after a bus tour she had organized to Cape Breton. Burns was the entertainer on the tour. “I said something about fiddles, and he said, you’ll never learn how to play the fiddle.” He might as well have thrown down the gauntlet as made a passing remark.

“That wasn’t the thing to say to me,” said Mary.

Since dusting off the fiddle she had quietly put away in the closet, and learning how to play it, she’s done well enough to receive the Tera Lynne Touesnard Memorial Award at the 2017 Maritime Fiddle Contest. “It was a humbling experience and one I really don’t deserve,” she said. “It’s a great honor, however, and one I’ll always cherish.”

She has also been made a lifetime member of the PEI Fiddle Association.

Mary came to the piano by misadventure.

She had agreed to be a co-host during an on-air fundraiser for Make-A-Wish. After finishing her stint at the station, she went home, but kept track of the auction. She noticed a keyboard valued at more than a thousand dollars wasn’t attracting many bids. She decided to prime the pump.

“I started bidding, figuring when it’s high enough, I’ll stop.” However, she got carried away. “I kept bidding. I thought, I can’t let them outbid me. Just as I put my last bid in, time ran out, and I ended up with the keyboard.”

It cost her $800.00.

“I couldn’t afford it, but it was a for a good cause,” she said. “When I got it home, I took my guitar, and since I knew the chords on it, I just figured them out on the piano. I have my own style.”

Being self-made means doing things your own way, no matter how much teamwork is involved.

When Mary Smith takes the stage at the North Star Arena, whether as one of the key organizers of the North Rustico Music Festival, or with guitar fiddle keyboards in hand, she is within sight of the lighthouse she was born in. There are 63 lighthouses on Prince Edward Island. About 35 of them are still active. The North Rustico harbor light is one of the operational ones, sending out five seconds of light every ten seconds.

Lighthouses, like music makers, aren’t narrow-minded about who sees their light. “When you play, never mind who listens to you,” said the pianist Robert Schumann. They shine for all to see. Without a guidepost, steaming into a dark harbor would be a mistake. Without music to brighten the day, getting up in the morning might be a mistake.

Music is in Mary’s bones. She plays with several groups, including Mary Smith and Friends, Touch of Country, and the Country Gentlemen. The North Rustico Choral Group, which performs for seniors, was her brainchild ten years ago.

“Music has been a big part of my life,” she said. “I’ve met so many great people, some really great friendships.” She plays in living rooms, at outdoor venues, and on motor coach day tours. She often plays at community centers.

“I see Mary’s performances at Sunday Night Shenanigans,” said Simona Neufeld, a local music buff and fun fan.

“Life would be pretty dull if you just sat at home and watched TV,” said Mary.

“I guess being born in a lighthouse, I have to be brighter. You have to keep going.”

PEI Professional Theatre Network

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PEI Theatre is the Guild, Harbourfront Theatre,
Confederation Centre for the Arts,
Watermark Theatre, and the Victoria Playhouse

Show on the Road

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Erin McQueen isn’t blonde, doesn’t often wear pearls carry a silk hand fan suit up in gilded dresses with bows at the breast and puffed sleeves, and rarely looks perplexed. She does, however, speak with an English accent, which comes in handy when you’re a blonde sporting a string of pearls in a posh dress in the Restoration-era play “The Man of Mode.”

Staged by the Fountain School of Performing Arts at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the comedy by George Etherege is about a notorious man-about-town trying to slip-slide out of his love affairs and win over the young spunky seemingly virtuous heiress Harriet.

The play hit the bright lights way back when at just the right time. William Shakespeare had died 60 years earlier. The screws tightened by the Puritans had been recently loosened and women were finally being allowed to play female roles on stage.

There’s nothing like a gal in a gal’s role, rather than some scruffy cross-dresser.

“The make up and costumes are totally different from any other show we’ve done,” said Erin, then in her final year at the school. “Having the period costumes is really exciting. It’s a total transformation. The play truly is an authentic glimpse inside the intricate dating scene of 1676.”

Although she paced her prowling at a good trot, cast arched looks in the stagecraft of 17th century love stories, and had at it with barbed one-liners, like everyone else in a play that is all innuendo and intrigue, unlike everyone else in the play her English accent was neither feigned nor all wrong.

Even though she graduated from high school in Canada, spent four years at Dalhousie University, earning a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Theatre, lives in Victoria on the south shore of Prince Edward Island, and her father is Canadian, she isn’t, not entirely Canadian, not exactly.

Erin McQueen is British, born and bred in Bristol.

“It’s right on the border with Wales,” said Erin.

Iron Age hill forts and remnants of Roman villas dot the southwestern British landscape. In the 11th century the town was known as Brycgstow, easier to pronounce then than it is now. The port was the starting point for many of the voyages of discovery to the New World in the 15th century. Today the modern economy of the city is built on aerospace, electronics, and creative media.

Unlike most cities, it has its own money, the Bristol pound, which is pegged to the Pound sterling. “Our town, our money,” is what they say in Bristol. Since money is a matter of belief, it’s best to believe in what you’ve got.

“There are a lot of art festivals,” said Erin.

“They do a scavenger hunt every summer with ceramic animals. They started with gorillas, giving giant ceramic gorillas to artists, who painted them, and businesses sponsored them in their shops and on sidewalks, where you had to find them. They have a theatre festival, too, but that only started when we left.”

She was 16-years-old.

“The first time we came to Canada we went to see Halifax, where my father was born. It also happened to be the 150th anniversary of ‘Anne of Green Gables.’ My sister Caitlin was a massive fan. My parents finally said, ‘OK, we are in Halifax anyway, we’ll just pop over to Prince Edward Island.’”

She was 11-years-old.

“We did the tour, all the Anne of Green Gables things,” said Caitlin McQueen. They stayed in Victoria, a small village of maybe one hundred residents near the Westmoreland River. It is much, much smaller than Bristol, which is the 8th largest urban area in England, home to nearly a million.

”I remember saying to Erin, I know I’ve never been here before, but I feel like I am coming home. I feel like I am supposed to be here. It is a dream come true.”

“I don’t really know what happened after that,” said Erin, “but the next year and for a couple of years after, we came back, and we always ended up in Victoria.”

While on a return trip, Andy and Tania McQueen, Erin and Caitlin’s parents, bought a lot overlooking the village harbor. In 2012 the family immigrated to Canada. They commissioned a house to be built, to be completed for occupancy the following spring. That winter was the winter they almost went back to the UK, back to England, back to Bristol.

“We spent a year living in Hampton, just up the road, in a rented house that had no central heating,” said Erin. ”I’m honestly surprised we didn’t move home that winter, because it was horrible.”

The winter months on PEI can be cold, temperatures averaging below zero in January and February. There are many storms, veering from freezing cold rain to freezing cold blizzards. The February 2013 North American blizzard started in the Northern Plains of the United States. By the third day of its arrival in the Maritimes there was heavy snowfall, wind gusts were hitting 100 MPH, more than a thousand flights had been cancelled across eastern Canada, and all Marine Atlantic ferries were suspended.

There was nowhere to go, anyway.  There are few things as democratic as a snowstorm. It’s the same everyone everywhere weather.

“I feel like many people on this island have done that, lived without central heating, but British people aren’t cut out for Canadian winters in unheated houses. I had a comforter on my bed and many, many blankets. I often wore two pairs of pajamas.”

The McQueen family stuck it out.

“The main reason we didn’t move back to England was probably pride,” said Erin. “Obviously, you can’t move back after five months because your whole family back home would be saying, ‘Oh, so that didn’t go well?’”

The McQueen family cats stuck it out, too.

“They are rescue cats, Callie and Zebedee, and we got their vaccination papers together, and applied for pet passports. My uncle said, ‘Why don’t you just get new cats?’”

“You did not just say that!” said Tania McQueen. “They’re part of the family.”

“Let me tell you, though, cats do not like emigrating,” said Erin. “It traumatized them a little. The only other animals on the plane the eight-hour flight were two dogs, a little thing that barked all the time, and a big, quiet German shepherd. We’re still making up for it six years later.”

The cats slept in front of the fireplace in the living room in the rented house from morning to every next morning from the beginning to the end of winter. Unlike the upstairs rooms, there were no doors downstairs shutting the living room off from the kitchen and two back rooms. They made doors out of blankets to conserve the heat in the living room. The cat litter box was in one of the small rooms, behind a blanket door.

“They would wait quite a long time, and then dart behind the blanket, and as soon as they were done, run back in to the fireplace.”

The school buses stayed the course. Erin enrolled at Bluefield High School to complete her last two years. The family had waited leaving England until she finished her first set of high school exams there.

“It’s a big thing,” she said. “Everyone in the country takes the same exams. You study for them for two years. It’s what you’re working up to that whole time.”

Bluefield High School is in the small town of Hampshire. A $2 million dollar addition in 2000 enlarged and modernized the school, which as well as secondary education trains in carpentry, welding, and applied technology. All of its classrooms feature SmartBoards and there are two computer labs. The sports teams from badminton to hockey are all called the Bluefield Bobcats.

The school is thirteen miles and 90 minutes from Victoria.

“The bus went everywhere, so by the time I got there I didn’t really know where I was, because we had gone all over the island. My first day we did orienteering, even though the school is just surrounded by forest and potato fields. It wasn’t like you ever came across any houses. It was very different from Bristol.”

Her plan had been to study fashion design and costume, but her plans changed. “They didn’t have any sewing or couture classes. They did have drama, so I thought, I guess drama is where my theatrical tendencies are going to have to go.”

After graduation she enrolled at Dalhousie University, majoring in anthropology, keeping acting in the back of her mind. “I took acting as an elective and later auditioned for the program. If I get in, I’ll think about it, I thought. I didn’t think I actually would. And then I did.”

In order to find the unexpected it’s best to expect it. You can’t plan for it, but it’s what often changes your life. ”All creative people want to do the unexpected,” said Hedy Lamarr, the glamorous Hollywood starlet and designer of a patented frequency-hopping radio guidance system for torpedoes. Even though she once said, “Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid,” her smart invention was the precursor to GPS, secure WiFi, and Bluetooth technology.

“My sister is the anthropologist, no acting, although she’s fascinated by actors,” said Erin. “She thinks she might do a research project about them one day. Actors never know what the future holds. They’re rarely employed for a long time, always on the way to their next role. It’s living on the edge. It’s the idea that you could love doing something so much that you choose that over stability or financial security.

“That’s what I want to do.”

It’s taking the show on the road. “I’m just going to start auditioning in Halifax. There are so many small weird theatre spaces. I’m thinking of potentially writing a fringe play.” She has no plans of pursuing the discipline of anthropology.

Her four years studying the arts and sciences of theater at Dalhousie University were matched by four summers working in theater in her newly adopted hometown.

“My parents saw there was a job at the Victoria Playhouse. I needed to work in the village. It was the perfect job, since although I do now drive, I couldn’t drive at the time. I could meet people in the industry, too.”

The Victoria Playhouse, in the middle of town, in what used to be the Victoria Hall, seats about 150, and has been producing and presenting live theater and performance events for thirty-seven seasons. In 2007 it was designated a ‘Historic Place’ on the Canadian Register of Historic Places. History gets made every summer seven days a week on its stage.

She worked the refreshment stand her first two summers.

“I don’t do that so much anymore,” she said last summer. “You could say I’ve moved up.”

She worked part-time in the box office, then went full-time, and worked front of the house. Odd jobs became must-do jobs. “I helped one of the actors run their lines, and then I did that a couple more times.” When the stage manager was conscripted to do lighting cues, she went backstage. “I gave the actors their places, which was exciting. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure the show goes on.”

Sometimes the lighting cues are on the sturm und drang side of the curtain, occasioning careful calculation. Higher than normal water temperatures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence can and do morph into massive thunderstorms, roiling the island. It is batten down the hatches and check the flashlights.

“In villages like this, in bad thunderstorms, power goes out,” said Erin. “The doors are going to open in twenty minutes, the power keeps flickering off and on, and the management has to make a call about whether you think you can make it through the show.”

She became one of the emcees at the front of the stage, pointing out the exits, encouraging donations to the theater, and introducing the play. After the show was over was her favorite time. “It might sound corny, but at the end of the show, when we get to open the curtain and the applause, and afterwards the actors are happy, a kind of high, even with small crowds, that they brought a story to life and created some magic for the audience.”

After her employment contract at the Victoria Playhouse expired at the end of October, she moved back to Halifax, where she went to university, and where there is a red-blooded theatre scene. It is zesty and diverse, ranging from Zuppa Theatre, whose performances defy categorization, to the Neptune Theatre, whose performances outpace categorization.

“Some of the actors who worked at the Playhouse live in Halifax, so that’s quite cool,” she said. “They came to my shows at Dalhousie and I went to their shows.

“Acting, that’s my plan.”

If in the event a professional acting career doesn’t pan out, she is determined to keep her foot on the boards, front back or in the wings. ”If I wasn’t an actor, I’d be a secret agent,” said Thornton Wilder. Erin’s secret is all parts of the theater business interest her, from acting to directing to writing to the nuts and bolts.

“If I’m not acting, I will definitely be doing something in theatre. It’s plow ahead.”

It’s keeping your hand on the gospel plow.

“A part of me is intrigued by stage management,” she said. “Stage managers are another level of human being. They’re like super people with super powers. They’re the people you go to if you have any issues, personal, professional, or logistical. One of my stage managers at Dalhousie had a locker full of extra clothes and every kind of medicine you could imagine. They are prepared for anything.”

A career in the arts often means being a jack-of-all-trades.

“I am very into doing whatever I can,” said Erin.

If you want to accomplish anything something everything, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes, maybe not blood, but certainly sweat, and probably a locker loaded for bear, to make it work, to make it happen.

Originally posted on http://www.redislandpei.com

Let ‘Er Rip

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“J’aurais quelque chose a dire.”  Barachois

The Stanley Bridge Women’s Institute is the Stanley Bridge Community Hall on the corner of Route 6 and Rattenbury Road on the north-central coast of Prince Edward Island. The small town of Stanley Bridge spreads out in all directions.

A new traffic circle at the old intersection keeps the traffic moving. On one corner is the Race Trac gas station and farther down is the farmer’s market. Where the road flattens out at the river is the actual bridge that kids spend the summer jumping off down into the channel flowing out to the New London Bay.

The Women’s Institute is a yellow two-story clapboard building with white trim and a fair-sized deck. From the vantage of the front deck is a solitary house across the street, a cropland spread out wide and long, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a quiet building on rising ground, except when six nights a week ceilidhs fill the hall with Irish Scottish Acadian fiddles guitars pianos and step dancing.

The hall holds close to 150 if every seat and bench along the side is taken. The night the Arsenault Trio – Helene Arsenault Bergeron, Jonathan Arsenault, and his mother Louise Arsenault – joined by Gary Chipman, played their first show of the summer in Stanley Bridge on a Wednesday night, there were upwards of a hundred ready to go.

“It’s great to see you all, thanks for coming,” said Marsha Weeks, the host of the show.

“All set?” asked Gary Chipman.

“All set,” said Louise Arsenault.

Ceilidhs are concerts, but more like musical gatherings, often staged at small halls in the Canadian Maritimes. Not so long ago, and sometimes even today, they were more along the lines of a kitchen party, a kind of jam session at home with the neighbors. Whoever could play a fiddle or a guitar or belt out a song at the top of their lungs would inevitably find themselves in the kitchen with everyone else. When it was the middle of January a case of beer might be close at hand in the snow just outside one of the windows.

The word itself comes from the Old Irish for companion.

“On long, dark winter nights it is still the custom in small villages for friends to collect in a house,” Donald Mackenzie wrote explaining ceilidhs more than a hundred years ago. “Some sing old songs set to old music or new music composed in the manner of the old.”

The music at Prince Edward Island ceilidhs is alert animate full of life, mainly jigs and reels, with a mix of waltzes and country songs. There are occasional vignettes about life on the island, some island humor, and stories about islanders making the music. Most of the shows are set in community centers, churches, town halls, and Lion’s clubs.

The Arsenault Trio ripped into the ‘Acadian Reel’, an Evangeline Region tune in the Cape Breton style played in 4/4 time, in other words, on the fast side. From kitchen parties to laser-lit techno dance floors, the same rhythm pattern is part and parcel of the carousing. The signature style of Acadian fiddling is down home rhythmic drive with sawstroke syncopation, sometimes called shuffles.

“When you do the shuffle,” said Louise Arsenault, “it’s like two up bows in a row. That was dad’s style.”

The Evangeline Region of PEI is the land west of Summerside, from Miscouche to Mont Carmel to Abrams Village. Flags in blue, white, and red with a single gold star fly from front porches and front yards. Mailboxes are painted in the Acadian colors. The annual Agricultural Exhibition and Acadian Festival features boot throwing, horse pulling, and a big music and dance party at the end.

The communities are about co-operatives, farming and fishing, vittles and fiddling.

“Where’s everybody from?” Marsha asked the crowd.

Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Ohio, Florida, and Australia were some of the answers.

“Massachusetts,” a man called out.

“Whatever you said,” said Marsha. “I can’t pronounce that.”

“Wellington,” another man called out.

Several in the audience, probably all from Prince Edward Island, laughed. Wellington is a small town on PEI. It is home to the head office of College Acadie as well as the Bottle Houses, which are three fantasy-like buildings made of approximately 30,000 recycled glass bottles.

Most of the year islanders have the island to themselves. In the summer ten times as many people as live on PEI visit there for a week-or-two.

“They gave it 150% and we could feel it down to our tappin’ toes,” said a man from Amherst, Massachusetts.

The Aussies in the audience thought it was an “all there bonzer” show.

“The energy was amazing,” said a woman from New South Wales, Australia. “We all clapped and stamped our feet.”

Gary Chipman announced he was going to sing a song.

“I’ve been told I have a great voice, but that I’m going to ruin it by singing,” he said. Still and all, he has been singing for many years. He sang ‘Prince Edward Island Is Heaven To Me’, a country song penned in 1951 by Hal Lone Pine and recorded with his Lone Pine Mountaineers.  

“The air is so pure, and the people so gay, Prince Edward Island, I’m coming to stay, there’s swimming and hunting and fishing galore, the sun shines so bright on its long golden shore, a touch of God’s great hand this island must be, Prince Edward Island is heaven to me.”

“Yes, sir!” somebody rang out at the end of the song.

Somebody else called out a request for the ‘Arkansas Traveler’.

“It was some hot day today,” said Louise Arsenault. “You can go from your fur coat to your bikini just like that here on this island.” A few days earlier it had rained eighteen hours straight and never reached fifty degrees. The day of the show it was a breezy sunny 74 degrees.

“Arkansas Traveler!”

“Has anybody got a drink in his car?” asked Gary Chipman, to keep his singing voice well-oiled. He told a joke about a young woman in a tight skirt trying to board a bus.

“Arkansas Traveler!”

The ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a plantation fiddle tune, a quick reel, from the early 19th century, one of the most famous of American fiddle tunes. Back in the day it was a barn raiser, meant to tear the audience up. The band tore into it, followed by ‘The Maid Behind the Bar’ and ‘Farmer’s Daughter’.

Jonathan Arsenault played ‘Cottonwood’ on his guitar. In the second half of the show he played ‘Jerry’s Breakdown’. Written by Jerry Reed, a Nashville guitarist and country singer, the song is played finger-style on guitar in a similar way to the banjo.

“It’s a wicked hard tune to play, but Jonathan makes it look easy,” said Gary.

“When I was a boy, mom bought a little guitar at a flea market,” said Jonathan. “That was her only guitar back then. She sat me at a table, put the fiddle in her lap, and played a set. I learned to flat top pick from my mom, from the fiddle, since she didn’t have a second guitar to show me what a fret was.”

Step dancing is a part of most, if not all, ceilidhs on Prince Edward Island.

“Louise and I are from Acadian backgrounds,” said Helene Arsenault Bergeron. “We grew up with fathers playing the fiddle. In those days they didn’t have a lot of accompaniment, so they accompanied themselves with their feet. That way they always had their accompanists with them.”

She and Louise Arsenault stepped to the front of the stage.

“When you hear that every day, you learn how to play and dance and you don’t even remember learning it. We saw our fathers, aunts and uncles, and grandfathers, and it was just kind of always there, and so we’re going to do a dance for you now.”

The dancing was sparkling high-spirited swashbuckling.

“I was waiting all night for that,” said Jonathan.

Step dancing descends from traditional Irish dancing. Tap dancing is a modern form of it. It is a looser form. The arms move along with the feet. Step dancers keep their upper bodies still with their arms at their sides, except when they don’t, when they’re fiddling at the same time.

Creating your own melody by using your feet is challenging enough, but fiddling a reel at the same time as step dancing like the Arsenault’s do is gnarly, time to sit up and take notice. Louise and Helene do it like a walk in the park, no matter the large front tap on one of Helene’s shoes secured with black electrical tape.

Louise grew up down the road from Helene and Albert Arsenault, who she would later collaborate with in a roots music band. Her father, Alyre Gallant, played music, too. “I grew up in a musical family,” she said. “My father played the fiddle and my mother played the pump organ. I started playing when I was seven. I learned a lot of tunes from my dad.”

At a time in the 1960s when few Prince County girls picked up the fiddle, her father jigged tunes when she was a girl so she could find them on her instrument.

The first half of the show ended with a series of reels. “Whoop, whoop,” someone in the audience shouted. Someone else stamped their feet. It was getting dark on the other side of the windows. It was still fired up inside the hall.

The second half opened the same way as the first half, with the ‘Acadian Reel’. The song is the work of Eddy Arsenault, a carpenter and fisherman and one of the hands-down best fiddlers on PEI for more than 70 years. Helene Bergeron’s father, he blended local Acadian fiddling with the Scottish approach.

“Is this a new tune,” asked Marie Gallant Arsenault the first time she heard the song a few minutes after its composition. “It is lively.”

“Yes, it is,” said Eddy Arsenault. “What are we going to call it?”

“That sounds right like Acadian music,” said Marie. “Why don’t you call it the Acadian Reel?”

The name stuck.

Even though Eddy Arsenault wrote it, it’s the kind of song that was never new and never gets old.

Gary Chipman strolled into ‘You Are My Sunshine’, inviting everyone to join in, which many did, some of their voices uncommonly good.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray, you’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.”

After Gary put his guitar down to the side, Helene stepped around her piano to the front of the stage, and brought some perspective to the sunshine song that had brought a warm glow to the hall.

“Louise and I used to be in a band called Barachois,” she said.

Helene Arsenault Bergeron got her start as a kid in a barn putting on step dancing shows set to old records scratching out fiddle tunes. She watched her elders. “The kitchen parties we had at my grandfather’s and at our house, everybody was always jumping up to dance because the fiddling, the music was so lively.” By her 30s she was one of the best step dancers on Prince Edward Island. She took up the piano, taking on the Cape Breton style, with lift, syncopated, marked by step dancing rhythms.

“Jonathan would come on tour with us when he was a small boy, and he just loved this song we’re going to do for you. Some of the older generation, they used to compose songs as a way of keeping track of local events. It’s a song about an old maid, an old girl, whose neighbor, a young girl, asks for advice about getting married, but the old girl is disillusioned, so it’s not a very encouraging song.”

Louise threw her head back and laughed zestfully full-mouthed.

“It’s called ‘The Family Song’,” said Helene.

Later in the summer Gary might tell a joke about a RCMP officer who calls his station from a crime scene.

“I have an interesting case here,” he says. “A woman shot her husband for stepping on the floor she just mopped.”

“Have you arrested her?” asks his sergeant.

“No, not yet, the floor’s still wet.”

After more hoedowning by the band, Helene and Louise brought two chairs to the center front of the stage.

“Helene and I are going to do a sit down dance,” said Louise. “It’s not because we’re lazy. We can dance standing, we can dance sitting, so here we go!”

Their arms at their sides, their hands gripping the sides of their seats, able-bodied, their feet a breakdown blur, seeming to never leave the floor no matter the tapping, they chair danced up a storm.

Marsha Weeks walked out from the wings with her fiddle.

“You know it’s a great show when the host comes back on stage,” said Jonathan.

Gary, who taught Marsha how to play, picked up his fiddle, as did Helene and Louise.

Gary Chipman has been playing the fiddle since he was five-years-old. He says it was “about a hundred years ago.” Later in life he picked up the guitar and vocals, when “Elvis Presley and the boys came along and the fiddle was out.” With the revival of PEI fiddling in the 1990s, he rosined up his bow again. He earned a degree in clinical psychology, but says it “only made me a smarter fiddle player.”

A hundred years later he concedes, “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”

They played an arrangement on four fiddles of the ‘Tennessee Waltz’, a tune from the 1940s whose lyrics were first written down on the back of a matchbox and whose music by Pee Wee King remains sad and lively to this day, tracing a man and a woman turning around and around a dance floor.

“I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz, when an old friend I happened to see, I introduced her to my loved one, and while they were dancing, my friend stole my sweetheart from me.”

Although they had been letting it rip all along, at the last Gary and the Arsenault’s let it rip. “We’re going to end with the fastest tune of the night, I’m pretty sure,” said Marsha. They dove headlong into an instrumental version of the ‘Orange Blossom Special’.

Laisse les aller!

The tune is for raising high the roof beam. It is sometimes just called ‘The Special’ and is known as the fiddle player’s national anthem. For a long time fiddle players needed to know how to play that one song before being able to join any bluegrass band.

“It is a vehicle to exhibit the fiddler’s pyrotechnic virtuosity,” wrote Norm Cohen in his book about railroads in folksongs. “It is guaranteed to bring the blood of all but the most jaded listeners to a quick, rolling boil.”

No one at the Stanley Bridge ceilidh was left jaded as the last notes of the ‘The Special’ steamed away into the night.

“She’s the fastest train on the line, it’s that Orange Blossom Special, rollin’ down the seaboard line.”

The show ended with hootin’ and hollerin’ and a big round of applause.

“If you had a great time, please tell everybody at your cottage and campgrounds,” said Marsha as the lights came up. “If you didn’t have a good time, you can just see Gary in the kitchen after the show.”

It wouldn’t be a kitchen party if something lively wasn’t going on in the kitchen.

Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com.