09 January 2016

Unjustly: Local History Told Through Shadow Puppetry

It’s one of the most infamous stories of Prince Edward County; that of a murder and bungled criminal investigation, followed by a swift trial and botched hanging of two men. The crime took place in 1883 just outside the village of Bloomfield, about a 15 minute drive from Small Pond; the trial and hanging took place just down the road from us at the Picton courthouse and jail. No one had ever written a play about this troubling incident of local history, and never one to shy away from the macabre, I decided that I should. It's a fascinating story well worth retelling.

The Picton Courthouse, where the 1884 trial took place.
The jail and gallows are at the rear of the building.
The superb book by Robert J. Sharpe, The Lazier Murder, was a great start to my research. I consulted many other sources, and discovered some of the historical accounts were contradictory, even as told by people who claimed to have first-hand information. I always take historical sources with a grain of salt, and I certainly claim my fair share of artistic license while writing.

It was a challenging play to write. I had to make sense of 1800’s judicial processes and try to make them interesting for an audience. I decided early on that there would be two narrators: Margaret Jones, the only living eyewitness to the crime, and William, a local shoemaker, a character of my invention. 

Margaret Jones, eyewitness to the murder
Margaret was a Quaker, and William was a working class man. I had to create distinct voices for the two of them with period-appropriate language. I’d also decided from the beginning that it would be a shadow puppetry play, as I thought this would be a great device to skip around in time and location, as well as a good way to deal with some rather grisly subject matter. Plus I would get to work with some of my favourite collaborators; I’ve been making shadow shows with Guy Doucette and Craig Morrison since 2008; we call ourselves Shadow of a Doubt Collective.

My telling of events suggests quite plainly that
George Lowder and Joseph Thomset were hanged unjustly.
Writing the first draft of anything is the hardest. Somehow, I slogged through it, and in the summer of 2014 we had a public reading. Lots of people came. Even more astonishing, they liked it! After the reading I did a few revisions, and then I met with Craig, designer extraordinaire, to plan how we should proceed. We decided to make a video trailer for the play to help get some funding to produce the show. When, eventually, we staged the play, I edited the ending so we could use the same video for promotional purposes. Here it is:

I’ve worked on and off with Festival Players of Prince Edward County over the last 6 years, and they agreed to come on as a co-producer, which was huge for our little puppetry company. We applied for funding and got it. This puppet show was going full-steam ahead!

Craig and I went through the script and broke it down scene by scene, deciding on what shadow puppet imagery we would use to tell the story. The puppets were built by Craig and Guy at Small Pond Arts. The puppet factory, a.k.a. The Shadowlands, is always an intensely productive time, with hour after hour hunched over cutting mats as characters and backgrounds spring to life from black bristol board.

Guy Doucette and Craig Morrison
Once the puppets were made, everything was taken away to be laminated. Back from the print shop, puppets were assembled and gels and sticks added. Let the rehearsals begin!

Puppetry rehearsal at Small Pond Arts
In addition to being a great puppeteer, Guy is also a terrific actor, and I’d cast him in the role of William. 

Guy Doucette as William in Unjustly

New-to-Picton actor Joan McBride joined us in the role of Margaret; she gave a tremendous performance. 
Joan McBride as Margaret Jones in Unjustly
We rehearsed at Small Pond for a little more than a week before loading into our venue, the beautiful Macaulay Church Museum in Picton. Our puppeteers and stage manager were the Festival Players’ Young Company, and Toronto puppeteer Andrew Young mentored the new puppeteers and ran the show backstage. Check out this time-lapse video of them in action:

The show ran for ten nights and was whole-heartedly embraced by the community, with full houses and standing ovations. This enthusiasm from the audience was the true pay-off for two years of work invested in creating the play.

Poster by Milé Murtanovski
Following each performance, Joan, Guy and myself led the audience on a tour of the jail and gallows, just a block away from our venue. It was really rewarding to have this opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the audience each evening, and a creepy and powerful experience for them.
Jail courtyard where spectators would have watched the hanging.
With both doors open, the condemned would have been 
through the upper door, and after hanging,
 visible through the lower door.
The gallows
I am so proud of this production and I hope to stage it again some time in the future. A heartfelt thanks to all the talented artists for their contributions, to Festival Players of Prince Edward County, The Ontario Arts Council, Museums of Prince Edward County, and everyone who came to see the show. Theatre needs an audience, and we really appreciate your support! 

L to R: Guy Doucette, Scott Kuipers, Krista Dalby, Andrew Young,
Gabrielle Graham-Stevens, Leah Snyder, Joan McBride (front row),
Braelyn Guppy (back row), Gabrielle Kaduc-Stojsic

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