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Mill Bay/Malahat Historical Society plays their part in bringing Vancouver Island history to life

Lively Vaudevillian troupe conjures stories of whalers, rum runners, remittance men, and lumberjacks

The Mill Bay/Malahat Historical Society is playing their part in bringing Vancouver Island history to life this summer with a play at multiple venues across the Cowichan Valley from July 13 to Aug. 3.

The society operates out of the original Mill Bay Church that was built in 1898. It was formed by current president Maureen Alexander with the mandate to preserve, and present local history. For three years Alexander put on three travelling shows with the help of her daughter who was the assistant director with Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre at the time. Her daughter, who also had a successful stint in TV, would come out over the summer with her stage manager and travelling troupe of actors and would put on shows from Sidney to Campbell River.

“I’ve always been intrigued by true stories,” said Alexander. “There are amazing stories of Vancouver Island that people have absolutely no idea ever happened. Learning from the last shows that we did the reactions of the audience were absolutely amazing — they would be crying, laughing, while some persisted that the events we were presenting never happened on Vancouver Island, the Japanese Internment in particular. It was just amazing the way that they would go away with such an appreciation for not just the past event that had happened, but more so for the people they had never heard of who actually lived them. Human nature really hasn’t changed that much. The outcomes of events may be different but with human nature things are still a tragedy, things are still funny, and I just thought some of these stories are just incredible.”

Looking for a new project that lives up to the society’s mandate Alexander wanted to once again present history through theatre, and commissioned local creatives Will Johnson, and Rien Vesseur to remount the multi-year touring show that came to a close in 2012. Alexander initially approached Vesseur, who she had heard about though word of mouth, to help her bring her vision to life. It was an easy sell, especially as she still had the set from past shows. Alexander had her sights set on it being produced as though it would have been produced in the early 1900s — enter the vaudevillian feel which is a perfect fit as it travels throughout the Cowichan Valley.

Vesseur, familiar with Johnson’s writing through his novel The Ballad of Shuswap Joe, knew Johnson would be familiar with both the time period, and subject matter. Alexander pitched her ideas to Vesseur — and the rest was creating a play about history. Alexander selected five stories, Johnson put pen to paper to write it, while Vesseur dons a director’s cap yet again.

“We’re drawing from true history,” said Alexander. “One of the stories I chose that we were supposed to do for one our past shows was on the whaling station in Mill Bay. I actually know the woman who wrote the book, it’s about her relatives who were here in the 1700s. This one really caught Will’s attention so we made sure to include it.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by Canadian history, and in particular I’ve always been drawn to the Prohibition era,” said Johnson. “When I was commissioned by society president Maureen Alexander to write this show, I was instantly drawn in by the seedier side of things. These were stories about gangsters, scoundrels and crooks — not the idolized colonial pioneers in white wigs that many people imagine.”

This creative dive back into Vancouver Island history will give audiences the chance to learn more about rum running, whaling, true crime, teaching in a remote logging camp, as well as British remittance men who came to the province between 1860 and 1920. The saddest of the five tales is Camp Six Sweetheart originally written by local historian T.W. Paterson who has loaned his works countless time to The Citizen. Johnson has renamed the story The Marvelous Miss Mable about a young school teacher who was living in Victoria and at 18 got her first job teaching in an isolated area at a floating logging camp past Caycuse on Nixon Creek. Miss Mable was bullied by the married women at the camp and her students put this young girl through the ringer, which led to her eventually taking her own life.

“Her death was taken to court and it was quickly decided that it was the bullying she endured that led to her death and it changed the BC Teacher’s law very quickly,” said Alexander. “From that point on young single women could no longer be sent to work in isolated areas on their own.”

The one-hour play titled Messages in the Dust wraps up with the story of the S.S. Chasina, a boat that was first built for European royalty and ultimately ended up in the hands of Canadian smuggler William “Whiskers” Thompson who will be played by Cassidy Marat. She brings with her a trained theatre background from Toronto. The rest of the cast, playing multiple characters in this high-energy vaudevillian troupe, are Frances Kelsey students Nathan Power and Kate Steele, as well as Johnson and Vesseur — all being compensated for their talents, and work. Vesseur has taken a page out Alexander's daughter's former 'play' book with creating this show in a very collaborative manner while welcoming ideas from all cast members — an approach that led to everyone being more invested as the actors suggestions became incorporated into the performance.

"I have always been a fan of that approach and so I tried to direct Messages in the Dust according to that principle, and once again, it worked," said Vesseur. "I can probably not tell you who came up with the idea of doing a certain move or delivery in one way or another, but chances are it was a cast member during rehearsals. The added bonus is the delight to see the show come to life that way. Every rehearsal is a joyful event, and we all walk away with the satisfaction of have created something. Nathan, Kate, Cassidy and Will were a dream to work with. Combined with the reliable support of Megan Bourns, our stage manager, and the beautiful work by Maureen who cared for production and props, this is a going to be a show to look forward to."

According to Johnson the title Messages in the Dust comes from one of the selected stories about the Nanaimo Coal Mine explosion of 1887, where more than 100 miners were killed by smoke and toxic fumes. As the story goes, before they died, realizing they wouldn’t be rescued, they wrote their final words to their families in the dirt and dust of their shovels.

“For me, this element of the story instantly jumped out as a potent metaphor for the way humans can communicate from one generation to the next — our words fleeting, easily wiped away, soon to be forgotten," said Johnson. "I believe messages in the dust are all around us, inviting us to imagine the world before we were born. The first time I read the accounts of the Salt Spring Island murder we showcase in our whaling story, I instantly thought it was something out of a Coen brothers movie — simultaneously violent and hilarious. When it came time to write about rum running, I came across the character of William “Whiskers” Thompson, a bootlegger known as the B.C. equivalent of Al Capone. You can’t make this stuff up.

"When we first envisioned this show, we had no idea we would end up working with high school students. But when Nathan and Kate came out to rehearse they absolutely blew us away. Cassidy was a similarly exciting surprise, as she’s an accomplished stand-up comic who we decided would be perfect for playing Whiskers. Every member of the cast routinely contributes ideas as we all develop the high-energy visual comedy and vaudevillian vibe of the show. Hearing my words in other actors’ mouths is an incredible experience to begin with, but it’s even more satisfying to see the actors take their characters in unexpected and usually hilarious directions.”

The one-hour long show runs without intermission. Messages in the Dust will also feature original music complimented with traditional songs. Adding even more to the authenticity will be certain members of the audience. Johnson said that at least one family member of the historic whalers will be present, as will the author for the source material that inspired the play’s story about remittance men.

“It’s also exciting that people associated with these stories will be in attendance, it reminds us that the past is closer than we think, and that we still have a vital connection to it,” said Johnson. “My favourite story out of the five is about two whaling entrepreneurs in the 1860s. As it happens, their station was constructed only a few kilometres from where a close friend of mine lives. I decided to go down to the shore and see it for myself, looking out to Salt Spring Island where one of the men would ultimately stab a boat thief to death. They’re currently building a boat launch near there with a sign that says “Whaling Point” and to be able to make that direct connection with something 160 years ago is pretty mind-blowing.”

Theatre and history buffs can seen this talented troupe reenact the lives of Vancouver Island’s former desperate souls and broken dreamers at Mill Bay Community League Hall on July 13 and 14 at 7 p.m., or on the 19th for a matinee at 2:30 p.m. The show then goes on the road as it travels to The HUB at Cowichan Station on July 20, the Shawnigan Community Centre on July 26, and Mill Bay Community Hall on July 27 with all three shows starting at 7 p.m. Messages in the Dust then makes two more stops — first at Cobble Hill’s St. John’s Anglican Church July 28 for a 12:30 p.m. showing, and then pulls into North Cowichan with its final stop at the BC Forest Discovery Centre on Aug. 3 for one of two matinees starting at noon and again at 2 p.m. — tickets are included with the entry fee.

Tickets for this family-friendly trip down history lane are $18 or $15 for students and can be purchased at the door or through eventbrite. To make a reservation or for other queries contact Maureen Alexander at dalexander2@shaw.ca, and for any eventbrite related issues reach out to Rien Vesseur at mvesseur@gmail.com.

“Hopefully this won’t be the last time we work with the Mill Bay/Malahat Historical Society, because I’m looking forward to bringing even more Vancouver Island stories to life,” said Johnson. “Working on this show has made me fall in love with history in a deeper and more meaningful way, and that’s exactly the gift we’re hoping to offer up to our audiences.”

“I think it's going to be an absolutely great show,” said Alexander. “As we know not all history is fun and games. The stories that I’ve selected try to balance out the humorous and the tragedy. There is one that is just hilarious, and there are two that have their darker moments but with a surprise good ending. I hope our audiences take away an appreciation for the people and events in Vancouver Island’s past that have influenced us today.”