My earliest memories involve music and the stage. I clearly remember the day a shiny new spinet piano was brought through the front door of my childhood home—the way the keys moved under my fingers and the amazement I felt at the sounds it made. I also remember being a spunky four-year-old standing atop a cafeteria table at the local nursing home where my grandfather lived, belting “I Want to go to Chicago Town” at the top of my lungs.
From that moment on, my life was consumed by music—studying, creating, teaching, and performing it. It was my first language, my first love. I never imagined I’d wind up doing anything else. Writing novels came by accident, (but I’d learned in the theatre that one should always do their best to roll with happy accidents. They never fail to lead to something good.)
These days my work plays out more on the page than stage, but from time to time I get called back for another song (or two, or three, or twelve.) Here are some of the projects I’ve worked on in the past few years.
Jerome: the Historical Spectacle
In the mid-nineteenth century a man who became known as Jerome was alleged to have been found on the shores of Baie Sainte-Marie, Nova Scotia, mute and missing both legs. He lived for over forty years with a local family. Many attempts were made to locate his relatives, with hopefuls rumoured to have travelled from as far away as Alabama and Milan, but when he died in 1912, the mystery of his background was still unsolved. No one knew who he was or where he had come from, and Jerome took the secret of his identity to his grave.
When Ken Schwartz, artistic director of Two Planks and a Passion Theatre Company came to me with the idea of setting the story of Jerome for his off-the-grid outdoor stage at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, I immediately said yes.
What interested me most about Jerome’s story (or “stories” to be more precise) is that he led me to explore questions of humanity and intention…how do we measure the worth of an individual’s life? What compels us to abandonment? To action? To compassion? When lives intersect, who can say if we are curses or gifts to one another? Is it happenstance, fate, magic, or divine intervention?
Some thought Jerome was a pirate, others guessed he was a lost soldier from the American Civil War, still others believed he’d suffered a terrible logging accident and had been cast off by people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) properly care for him. The longer this varied collection of historical facts and stories about Jerome stewed in my thoughts, the more I found I needed to step away from historical records and create my own kind of tale – one that reflected what Jerome had come to mean to me. I would soon discover that what I’d started as an exercise in historical research was about to turn into a journey of unexpected twists and turns.
“JEROME” TO BE EXHIBITED
Jerome, the unfortunate individual whose name has appeared in every Canadian and American newspaper at various times for many years, will shortly visit Yarmouth. Eleazer Comeau, representing the C. M. B. A., has been to Cheticamp to arrange the matter with Dedie Comeau, who has the custody of Jerome. On his arrival he will be placed on exhibition in McLaughlin’s hall and will undoubtedly attract a large number of people. He is expected in July. A short time ago a lady who resides in New York claimed him as a brother, saying to people in Digby county that when twelve years old he left his home. The lady says further that her family is of Irish descent. It would not be surprising if Jerome, who is a charge of the Nova Scotia government, finds his way to the United States and once there would make a fortune in the various dime museums throughout the country.
– From The Yarmouth Times – June 19, 1899
Uncovering this bit of Jerome’s history haunted me from the start, taking me on a journey from the world of Acadian folklore to the world of sideshows and Victorian circus performers. In the end, I chose to give Jerome a family he never had, and an ending to a story where he was the star. I hoped that somehow my attempt to tell his tale (with all its wild, varied facts and fictions) might bring forth the ghosts of his truth.
Two Plank’s and a Passion Theatre Company’s world-premiere production of Jerome ran August 1–17, 2008 at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts. It was nominated for four Robert Merritt Theatre Awards including Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Musical Score. It won the latter, with Ami McKay and Allen Cole as co-recipients.
- The Coast’s review of the production by Sue Carter Flynn
- Quill and Quire’s review of the published play
Long after the performances of the play were over, Jerome continued to stay on in my imagination. In many ways, it made perfect sense. The time period for the play and my novel The Virgin Cure are essentially the same. The research for one project bled into the other, as well as certain themes and ideas and even a character or two. If you read The Virgin Cure closely, you’ll find that Jerome makes a special appearance, leaving quite an impression on the young protagonist, Moth.
Nothing Less! is a musical drama, and my second collaboration with Ken Schwartz for Two Planks and a Passion Theatre. Along with co-writing the script with Ken, I also wrote the lyrics and music for the play, and served as musical director for Two Planks’ 2017 season at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts.
Nothing Less! is set in rural Nova Scotia in early spring, 1918, just before most women in this province were awarded the provincial vote. (The bill awarding most women the federal vote would come a month later, on May 24, 1918.)
Canadian women had long seen suffrage as a way to effect change, and women at the forefront of social reform eagerly embraced the cause. In the 19th century, a patchwork of women’s organizations endorsing women’s suffrage quickly grew across the country.
Their tactics were as diverse as the landscapes in which they lived. They filed hundreds of petitions and lobbied for legislation. They held bake sales and published “suffrage cookbooks.” They gave lectures in parlours and on legislature steps. They wrote letters to the editor and published papers and tracts of their own. They performed “mock parliaments” and other forms of political theatre. Victories came slowly, first by gaining the right to vote and hold seats on school boards and municipal councils. Then, by winning the provincial vote one province at a time.
Throughout the struggle, opposition remained fierce. When the 1918 federal bill to extend suffrage was brought to the floor for debate, MP Jean-Joseph Denis argued: “I say that the Holy Scripture, theology, ancient philosophy, Christian philosophy, history, anatomy, physiology, political economy, and feminine psychology, all seem to indicate that the place of women in this world is not amid the strife of the political arena, but in her home.”
The passage of the 1918 federal bill was a victory, yet far from perfect. It awarded women the federal vote, but only so far as the property restrictions of each province allowed it. It also excluded Asian and Indigenous women and men. These discriminatory exclusions would eventually be overturned, but they remain part of our history, reminding us that we must strive for equality for all, and nothing less.
Nothing Less! was nominated for seven Robert Merritt Theatre Awards including, Outstanding Original Score, Outstanding New Play, and Outstanding Musical Direction.
Nothing Less!: Behind the Scenes
The Hours Turn to Nothing
In 2016, the co-directors of Xara Choral Theatre, Christina Murray and Claire Leger contacted me to see if I’d like to collaborate on an upcoming project. Their idea was to take the Halifax Explosion scenes from my novel, The Birth House and incorporate them into an hour-long program for women’s chorus. The work would include excerpts from the book as well as new text and soundscapes that I’d create to act as narrative threads for the chorus’s music and movement. Costumes and lighting would also be added to enhance the audience’s visual experience of the work. Already a fan of Xara’s past programs, I didn’t hesitate to sign on for the project.
The Hours Turn to Nothing premiered at St. Matthew’s United Church, Halifax in April of 2017. It toured throughout the Maritimes later that same year.
This is the trailer Xara created for the program.
Here’s an interview from Adam Fiske for The Coast that delves into my creative process in creating the work.
Q: Can you speak to the differences in applying your extensive research to the writing of a novel versus the creation of an inter-disciplinary choral performance like this one? How have you taken advantage of this new medium to convey the many histories of midwives?
A: The research process itself was quite similar to what I take on when I’m writing a novel. Initially, I sifted through as many documents from the time period as I could find—newspaper articles, letters, personal accounts and photographs—all in an effort to steep the writing not just in the historical record, but also in the tone and sentiments of the era. Once the writing started, my process changed. Rather than construct a linear narrative as I did in The Birth House, I began to tailor a text that was specifically for Xara. While The Birth House is told through the voice of Dora Rare, a midwife during WWI, The Hours Turn to Nothing is populated by many female voices—midwives, nurses, survivors, etc. They’re meant to reflect the crucial roles women played in the relief effort in the hours immediately after the Explosion. Placing their stories and emotions in the context of choral theatre gave me an amazing sense of freedom. I was no longer limited by words on a page. The narrative could now be varied and contrapuntal, and most importantly, wedded to sound, movement, and song.
Q: Much of your work is dedicated to telling stories that elucidate the struggles, dire circumstances, and triumphs of women. How does it feel to have so many women literally bringing their voices together to help express your work and to further a narrative that is all too often untold? In the same vein, what was the experience of collaborating with Xara like?
A: It’s been a powerful and profound journey. Although the show is focused on a specific event in the past, there are strong connections with the present. The women of that era were struggling for independence, for equality, for a voice in society. It all feels very relevant to today. It’s also been a real gift to have the opportunity to combine history, story, text and sound with music and the elements of theatre. My university years were spent studying music, including choral conducting and musicology. From the moment I started working with Christine and Claire during the creation process, straight through to attending rehearsal with the entire chorus, I felt as if I was coming home to a part of myself I hadn’t been able to visit in a long while.
Q: Can you tell me any more specifics about the narrative that Xara will be putting on display: who are the central figures? What did Halifax and the event of the Halifax Explosion offer up in terms of setting? As well as any sources of inspiration that you feel contributed greatly to the piece.
A: Although individual vocalists will have recurring roles throughout the show, I purposely didn’t name any of the “characters” within the narrative. It’s a nod to how history has left out many women’s names from the historical record and also my way of creating a unity between the women portrayed in the show. What drew me to this particular project was that it wouldn’t be a staged reading with music, but something else entirely. While the narrative does have a few passages taken from The Birth House, it’s primarily made up of texts gleaned from personal accounts, diaries, letters and newspaper headlines. The women’s voices move in and out of the text as individuals, but also resound as a whole. They represent a chorus of nurses, midwives, farmer’s daughters, mothers, survivors, and perhaps even ghosts. To me, every hospital acts as a repository of memory—a vessel for emotions, trauma and death, but also life, birth and hope. Camp Hill Hospital on the day of the Halifax Explosion was no exception. Among the injured and dying that day there were babies coming into the world. The women who walked the hallways were witness to that, and would later be tasked to reshape the city as well as their own lives.
As far as musical inspiration goes, the one piece of music I listened to most while creating the script was Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work”. The lyrics are quite simple yet contain immense depth and universal truth. I wanted to get the history right, of course, but I also thought it was important to step outside the historical record in search of deeper connections. That song led helped lead the way.
Q: Is there anything else you feel is essential for people to know about this piece?
A: There may not be many survivors left from that terrible day, but I feel we carry their collective memories in our hearts. We are more like them than not. It’s my hope that The Hours Turn to Nothing will create a space where the audience can dwell with music, memory and hope all at once.