MINTY: Haunting ‘Sea of Stories’ moved me with music and history of small-town White Rock
By Melanie Minty, arts columnist
Sea of Stories is an important cultural landmark. Peninsula Productions, in partnership with the City of White Rock and funding from Heritage Canada, created this original musical as a tribute to the unique seaside town of White Rock in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.
Written by Shawn Macdonald, directed by Peninsula Productions’ artistic director Wendy Bollard, and with music composed by world-renowned boogie-woogie pianist Dominik Heins, the play opened at Coast Capital Playhouse on Aug. 9 and continues there until Saturday, Aug. 26 at 8 p.m. (Wednesday through Saturday), with 2:30 p.m. matinées on weekends. Tickets are $13 for students, $22 for seniors, and $27 for adults. Call 604-536-7535 for tickets or visit peninsulaproductions.org.
This new musical is not full of show-stopping production numbers that are Broadway bound. It is a charming, sensitive piece that tells a history of a small city. More than that, though, the cultural heritage of Semiahmoo First Nation looms large in the telling. The story haunts me, and told me things I did not know – but should. We all should know the history. It gives us understanding and appreciation of our piece of Canada we all share.
Sam Bob play X’ya:s, the Great Transformer. He tells the story of the Semiahma people. Semiahmoo is the place, Semiahma are the people, we are told. X’ya:s is an immortal that falls in love with a Cowichan princess. Their marriage is forbidden, but the lovers are determined. X’ya:s picks up a huge white boulder and tosses it as far as he can. Where it lands is where he will build his new clan. The big white rock landed in a pleasant, crescent bay called Semiahmoo.
It is a lovely story, but the fate of Semiahmoo First Nation has been a struggle. Please forgive me if I am not using the Semiahma and Semiahmoo correctly. I didn’t see the script, or all the research playwright Macdonald collected to write this play. And internet sites didn’t give me much information either. My only source for the story of X’ya:s hurling the big white rock came from Sea of Stories. We need to know these things, especially if we live as neighbours to White Rock. The Semiahmoo Reserve was established by the Canadian government in 1887. The reserve is small, and the population dwindles. From 1942 to 1996, 172 acres, or more than half the reserve’s area, was leased by the band to the Municipality of Surrey for recreational “parkland” purposes. The City of White Rock and the City of Surrey both used the land, known as “Semiahmoo Park,” for landfill and municipal infrastructure purposes. In 2014, the First Nation announced it was endeavouring to remediate the soil, which was contaminated by the municipalities’ usage. Water supply is unsafe, and “we have to replace the whole water system here on the reserve,” said Semiahmoo First Nation councillor Joanne Charles, who was at the gala opening of Sea of Stories.
We learned of the current problems of the Semiahmoo through a school project report given by Jeffery, a reluctant teenaged newcomer to White Rock. Played brilliantly by Anthony Goncharov, this typical teen goes from “whatever” responses to really caring about all the people of White Rock. Transformed?
Cathy Wilmot plays Anita, Jeffrey’s mom. Wilmot has just returned from two years at the Boston Conservatory where she earned an MFA in musical theatre. She is just one of three people in Canada to hold this degree, so well done! Wilmot has performed in more than 40 musicals, so really has the experience. Since this was the first musical for Peninsula Productions, and the first one written by composer Heins, experienced people in the cast was a welcome bonus. Wait until you hear her sing “Anita’s Song.”
Henry Thrift may have milled the wood for the original White Rock pier, and a small population of settlers may have agitated for cityhood independent of Surrey, and so many other small bits of White Rock history may have had an influence on what we have today. White Rock is not just a town for the retired, or a small space allotted for First Nations and incomers. Sea of Stories shows us more. You need to see this show. It is more than just musical theatre entertainment – it is even more than just history. It is personal. Thanks to Peninsula Productions for instigating the production. It’s our job now to attend Sea of Stories and pass along the lore and the culture.
Theatre review: Sea of Stories chronicles White Rock histories
More from Jerry Wasserman
Published on: August 17, 2017 | Last Updated: August 17, 2017 8:00 AM PDT
Sea of Stories
Until Aug. 26 | Coast Capital Playhouse, White Rock
Tickets and info: $13-$27 at peninsulaproductions.org
The complex of municipalities traditionally known as the Lower Mainland and now officially called Metro Vancouver can sometimes seem like one giant, undifferentiated traffic jam or real estate scam. It’s useful to remember that each component of this megalopolis has its own history and civic identity.
The small seaside city of White Rock, with the help of Canada 150 funding, has chosen to tell some of its stories theatrically.
Sea of Stories, scripted by Shawn Macdonald and directed by Wendy Bollard, is a low-key musical pageant intertwining Aboriginal and settler histories of White Rock with a contemporary family play. Some of the in-jokes are obviously aimed at the locals. But as a come-from-away non-White Rockian (non-White Rocker?), I found much of it enjoyably entertaining and informative.
The sea god X’ya:s the Transformer (Sam Bob) looms over the proceedings and provides the original creation tale. He recounts how the Semiahmoo people came to be (via his marriage with a Cowichan princess), and how the great white rock that gave the area its settler name came to be there (he threw it in anger).
In the contemporary story, single mother Anita (Cathy Wilmot) and her teenage son Jeffrey (fine young actor Anthony Goncharov) have moved to White Rock to help Anita’s mother Ellen (Nancy Ebert) transition into a retirement complex. Jeffrey hates it here (“It’s so boring!”), feisty Ellen doesn’t really need or want Anita’s help and Anita wonders whether she can ever make this new place feel like home.
When Jeffrey gets a social-studies assignment to research local history, the play flashes back to 1914 when politician Henry T. Thrift (Cory Haas) led the movement to incorporate the city and build the White Rock Pier, and to 1957, the year White Rock was finally incorporated.
From left, Kirsten Kwong, Anthony Goncharov, Jessie Chan, Miranda Gilbert and Cory Haas are featured in Sea of Stories, which runs until Aug. 26 at Coast Capital Playhouse in White Rock. BEVERLY MALCOM / PNG
Thrift dreamed big. He imagined White Rock becoming a major port, “the Naples of the Pacific coast.” He’s also the subject of a sweet little 1914 traffic joke when his wife (Paige Gibbs) matter-of-factly comments that his Cloverdale meeting will be over at three so he should be home by 6:30.
The 1957 plot revolves around teenage Ellen (Kirsten Kwong), her friend (Miranda Gilbert) and sister (Jessie Chan), who talk about diving off the pier and almost seeing Elvis. But its most memorable line belongs to an adult who warns that the tax base is too small for the city to go it alone, so “White Rock is going to come crawling back to Surrey in a few years begging for forgiveness.”
Jeffrey’s assignment eventually connects him with X’ya:s, who helps Jeffrey eloquently detail the history of wrongs suffered by the Semiahmoo people to the present day. It’s a strong corrective and nice contrast to the lighter tone of the piece.
That tone is sustained in part through musical interludes. The standouts are a funny song about the ongoing arguments between developers and preservationists, and a lively number about Peace Arch Hospital, with choreography by Keri Minty. Composer and musical director Dominik Heins provides some tasty piano licks, with Mireille Perez on bass and Adam Van Loo soloing on sax.
Alan Brodie’s kaleidoscopic projections create a handsome visual backdrop of White Rock history and geography to complement the Sea of Stories enacted on the stage.
Wow. What a summer we are having so far. Blue skies, sunshine and snapping photos just seem to go together.
I try not to take photos or be in them. Those captured images just seem to be outside my artistic abilities. But, betcha lots of you out there have photos from way back. You know, before the digital era and photos (like books) were printed.
Peninsula Productions is looking for these older photos. They need to be of White Rock from days gone by. Do you have pictures of the White Rock Swim Club? Pictures of the Silver Moon or any of the dances that happened in White Rock in the ’50s? Pictures of White Rock during the Second World War?
Why is Peninsula Productions looking for these photos? Simple. Their summer production is an original musical, Sea of Stories, a musical about life in small town Canada. The play centres on the history of White Rock, its people, its triumphs and its challenges.
The collected images will be projected as part of the production. Lovely concept, and the whole project is part of the Canada 150 Celebration.
Email your photos to: email@example.com.
Sea of Stories runs at the Coast Capital Playhouse (1532 Johnston Road, White Rock) from Aug. 9 to 26, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Call the box office for tickets at 604-536-7535 (Wednesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.). Tickets are $13 for students, $22 for seniors and $27 for adults.
I know – it isn’t until August. But tickets are on sale already – and already there is a big demand. So I wanted to get it out to you now. Then I can’t be blamed if this is something you wanted to see and then couldn’t get tickets because you waited too long.
Here are the people involved in this production – you probably know a few – writer Shawn Macdonald, composer/music director Dominik Heins (his first musical), director Wendy Bollard, assistant director Cory Haas, choreographer Keri Minty, set, lighting, projection design Alan Brodie and costume designer Ines Ortner.
The cast has a few familiar names as well: Sam Bob, Cathy Wilmot, Nancy Ebert, Anthony Goncharov, Cory Haas, Theo James Matthew Budd, Tegan Verheul, Paige Gibbs, Kirsten Kwong, Jessie Chou, Miranda Gilbert and Andrew Woods.
Sure, that is a long list of people to wade through, and there are even more people involved in the production. Live theatre is all about real people. In Sea of Stories, moments of times past in White Rock will be captured by old photos and new (ish) people. It’s history, art, culture and a bit of Canada all wrapped up as entertainment. Love it!
Jaki goes to Canada for play
March 18 2017 12:00 AM
Dundalk playwright Jaki McCarrick has travelled to Canada where her play ‘The Belfast Girls’ is being staged as part of the Vancouver Irish festival CelticFest this week.
At a time when the play’s theme of ‘fallen women’ poignantly resonates with the Tuam mother and baby home scandal, the production by the British Columbian theatre company Penninsula Productions, has received enthusiastic reviews.
‘BELFAST GIRLS has just opened in British Columbia to a wonderful reception – there’s been great praise for this show,’ a delighted Jaki told The Argus.
The production is directed by Wendy Bollard and the opening night of the Canadian premiere was sold out. Afterwards, the cast were treated to a backstage visit by none other than Hollywood actress Julia Stiles, who saw and loved the show.
BELFAST GIRLS opened at the Coast Capital Playhouse in White Rock on March 11 from where it travelled to the Cultch Theatre, Vancouver, where it runs from March 15th to 18th as part of later shows are part of the Vancouver Celtic Festival.
Opening as it did, during International Women’s Day and when confirmation of the mass graves of over 700 babies in Tuam and the abuse of the young woman ‘Grace’ in a foster home dominates the news, the play is a timely reminder that women remain in a vulnerable position in society.
Jaki’s play tells the story of women who sought escape from the bleak life in the workhouse during the famine years by availing of an offer to transport ‘fallen women’ to Australia. It follows the story of ‘The Belfast Girls’ as they journeyed by sea to what they hoped was a new and better life in Australia.
BELFAST GIRLS was first developed at the National Theatre Studio, London in 2012 and while on the surface it is a feminist ‘Irish Famine’ story, Jaki also saw it a metaphor for the banking crisis, showing how the state takes advantage of the most vulnerable in society during a time of crisis.
This is the third international production of the play as it was previously staged in Chicago where it was Windy City Times Critics’ Pick, although it has yet to be staged in Ireland.
‘Wendy Bollard is a wonderful director and she has assembled a cracking cast and production team,’ said Jaki.’ The all-female cast includes Mariam Barry, Olivia Sara Grace, Tegan Verheul, Paige Gibbs, Amelia Ross.’
Jaki attended the opening night of the Vancouver run and will also be taking part in a Question and Answers event after the show on March 16.
‘I know a lot of writers don’t attend their shows abroad but I feel differently about this,’ she says. ‘Firstly, I’m a female playwright and the work of female playwrights is performed abroad much less, especially if it’s from a relative newbie like myself or if the work is quite political like Belfast Girls. I want to be of support to the piece and the people pouring their heart and souls into it.’
‘Belfast Girls’ was listed as one of the top five attractions of Vancouver’s CelticFest by the Vancouver Sun.
Having attended the first night, Jaki praised director Wendy Bollard & Peninsula Productions for their ‘splendidly slick and thoughtful Belfast Girls. A poetic production full of confident and intelligent choices – and with a magnificent cast, too!’
In addition, a staged reading of BELFAST GIRLS was presented by New York’s Pond Theatre Company on March 13th in New York.
Looking at the past through the presentOlivia Sara Grace is Molly, Tegan Verheul is Hannah, Mariam Barry is Judith, Paige Gibbs is Ellen and Amelia Ross is Sarah in Belfast Girls, directed by Peninsula Productions artistic director Wendy Bollard; (below) playwright Jaki McCarrick
For Irish playwright and poet Jaki McCarrick, travelling to the Vancouver area – and White Rock in particular – to see the Canadian premiere of her play Belfast Girls was a natural decision.
“Yes, I’m coming over,” she told Peace Arch News, on the line from her home in Dundalk, Ireland.
“Why not? Life’s short. It’s very exciting,”
She wouldn’t miss the chance, she said, to experience “a lovely process” of rediscovering her characters through the eyes of others.
“I have a lot of interest – I think it’s fantastic if someone does your work.”
While McCarrick won’t touch down at YVR in time to see the gala opening of director Wendy Bollard’sPeninsula Productions’ version tonight (Friday) at Coast Capital Playhouse, she will be there to catch the March 11 closing night in White Rock – and likely several performances when it moves to The Cultch in Vancouver East for a March 15-18 run.
“My first play (The Mushroom Pickers), I think I saw it every night, until they eventually told me I ought to go home,” she chuckled.
“I love my characters and I love greeting them again – I always think that’s wonderful. It happened with the Chicago production of Belfast Girls (the North American premiere in 2015) – the way an actor might see or interpret a character will reveal things you haven’t seen about them.”
There are rich characters indeed in Belfast Girls, a gritty drama set on a sailing ship bound for Australia in 1850 – and they’re fresh anew to McCarrick, who said she is currently working on a screen adaptation.
Belfast Girls focuses on five young women whose passage was arranged through Earl Grey’s ‘orphan scheme’ – designed to send girls of ‘good character’ to a new life.
For the women, it was a desperate chance to escape the great famine and a grim future of workhouses or prostitution. For the authorities in Ireland it was an opportunity to rid themselves of “undesirables” – little wonder that the women who ended up on the long voyage were not exactly what the Australians had been led to expect.
Born in London, of Irish parents, McCarrick, studied theatre in the U.K. and philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin. She eventually settled in Dundalk – a town close to the border with Northern Ireland, about 50 miles north of Dublin and some 50 miles south of Belfast – in 2006.
She said her anger at economic and political decisions in the wake of the worldwide recession in 2008 – moves which bankrupted the country and led to an exodus of Ireland’s young reminiscent of the famine of the mid-1800s – was one of the inspirations for a play which has ample contemporary resonance in its limning of class warfare, racial bigotry and misogyny.
“I was looking at the past through the present – even the language is quite modern here and there,” she said.
But there were other inspirations, she said.
Her 2010 play Leopoldville – a recession-era drama about a gang of young men robbing a pub in a border town in Ireland, is a very violent, all-male piece.
“I remember being in a rehearsal and thinking ‘you know what? – the next play I write, I want it to be all women’. I put that in the drawer of my mind.”
Discovering that a McCarrick from Sligo – where her father’s family come from – was among the register of some 4,000 women shipped to Australia in the 19th century was another inspiration.
It led her Australian historian Trevor McLaughlin’s 1991 study of the Irish famine orphans, Barefoot and Pregnant, which first exposed her to the chequered history of Earl Grey’s scheme.
“And when I discovered the most obscene and boisterous of the ‘orphans’ were the Belfast girls from the north, I knew there was my all-female show,” she said.
The history provided rich material for the kind of raw, no-holds barred theatre McCarrick likes best, she added (and Belfast Girls, it should be noted is presented with a warning of extremely coarse language and violence).
“I like two things to happen when I go to see a play. I like it to feel real – I think that’s why I like a lot of American plays – and I like it to feel harsh. I don’t like lyricism – and a lot of Irish drama is very lyrical.”
She also admits a fascination with the work of French playwright Antoine Artaud, renowned for his ‘Theatre of Cruelty.’
“It’s the idea of using shocking imagery as a catharsis – I think it works, and it creates a sort of real believability that people can connect with,” she said.
For ticket information, visit www.peninsulaproductions.org
March 1-11 | Coast Capital Playhouse, White Rock, 1532 Johnston Road
March 15-18 | The Cultch (part of CelticFest Vancouver)
Tickets: $20-$27 (White Rock); $25 — $30 (The Cultch) at peninsulaproductions.org
(Not suitable for young audiences; extreme language and violence)
Scoring the Canadian premiere of playwright Jaki McCarrick’s 2015 play Belfast Girls is a big deal for Peninsula Productions. Formed in 2010 to bring professional entertainment to the White Rock/South Surrey region, the company has presented numerous concerts, plays and a staged reading series. It is also commissioning a play about White Rock for Canada 150.
With Belfast Girls, Peninsula Productions takes its show on tour playing both its home digs in White Rock as well as at the Cultch as part of this year’s CelticFest Vancouver.
“We started about six years ago out of a desire to bring more professional performing arts to the White Rock/South Surrey area and establish a professional theatre company,” said Peninsula Productions’ artistic director Wendy Bollard. “We were lucky enough to get some grant money to get started, and, as of this January, the City of White Rock has leased us a space that we are hoping to turn into a black box theatre. There is also a fantastic amateur theatre group here — White Rock Players’ Club — that has produced such noted local theatre people as Dean Paul Gibson (Bard on the Beach, others), who have been very supportive.”
Bollard has performed at both venues during her days as a touring jazz vocalist. Some years back, she tried her hand at directing and realized she loved it. In 2015, she obtained her Masters in Directing in London, UK, and is excited to be helming Belfast Girls. The show has been a passion of hers since discovering the play at London’s famed Samuel French theatre books store.
“It’s a really powerful play about a very tumultuous time in the 1850s when revolutions were happening all over Europe, when the famine was turning Ireland upside down, when the suffragette movement was active and there were these women being shipped off to Australia from the workhouses in Belfast believing that they were going to paradise only to find something very different,” she said. “During the long passage, the five women the story centres around start learning more about what’s going on in the world and they get pretty riled up. It’s a really powerful ensemble piece.”
Ensemble pieces with an entirely female cast are rare. So the auditions for Belfast Girls were busy indeed. Bollard wanted to put together a very supportive group to tackle the vulnerable material who could work within the play’s guidelines. It wasn’t always easy.
“One of the characters is a woman who has a Jamaican mother and an Irish father and trying to find someone to fill that role here in Vancouver wasn’t as easy as it might have been,” she said. “And there is a love affair between her and another woman that develops so there was a very special kind of chemistry required. There were a lot of boxes to check off.”
The same is true of the content of McCarrick’s play which aimed to expose the ugly side of the particular wave of Irish immigration that the story magnifies. Many of the women pulled off the streets to take the trip Down Under were “public women” (a.k.a. prostitutes) forced into the sex trade following being orphaned by the famine or falling on other hard times. Lured by the prospect of a better chance abroad and to escape the social judgment of home, these women undertook the hard three month-long boat ride only to land and be ostracized as slatterns upon arrival. Of course, in a typically Australian twist, the fact that there was a shortage of women in the colony and great demand for all manner of skilled and unskilled labour meant that, within a few years, many of these mistreated women turned the tables on their latest oppressors.
Belfast Girls doesn’t go that far into the history. Instead, it’s a rough and randy ride through the five characters’ reasons for taking the trip and the realities they face on the voyage. McCarrick has hit on a part of the Emerald Isle mythology that has been ignored and deserves exposure.
“She is writing the screenplay at this very moment,” said Bollard. “Obviously, shifting the focus to one of the characters rather than the ensemble as storytelling changes depending on the medium. I think you need to see the stage version.”
And afterwards, you can chase back the experience with a Guinness or Bushmills.
Preview in the Sun