Alex Dault loves a good story; he loves it even more if it involves history. “I’ve always felt that there aren’t enough Canadian stories being told that involve our own history. I like stories that concern our heritage and history. I don’t think we know enough about that heritage and history. It demands someone calling attention to it.”
photos by Claire Hill/Jordan Probst as noted
Alex Dault is part of a Canadian theatre evolution
In fact, Alex’s love for the history, particularly the historic aspect of Simcoe County, has become a career direction for this talented Barrie-born actor, writer and director. Alex is part of a new wave of talented theatre artists, carving out their own niche on the stage against the somewhat predictable and brassy productions typified by the Mirvish Company and other large scale production corporations. His company, Single Thread Theatre Company, and others like it, resemble Toronto’s famous Soulpepper in its infancy, but with perhaps a bit more soul and a lot more pepper. They are young companies of young actors, young directors and young writers who create and present their own material, usually in site specific locales, wherever it suits the story. These dynamic companies are born out necessity, resulting from the high level talent bursting onto the Canadian theatre scene that desperately needs more stages on which to perform.
Part of the Barrie wave of locally-grown theatre talent
This is where Barrie’s Theatre by the Bay has stepped up to the plate. Alex is a product of Larissa Mair and Nick Baillie’s fervent desire to nurture talent and offer opportunity to those within the Simcoe community itself. Alex joined TBTB in his early teens, more than a dozen years ago. Now he stands, with others like Ryan Laplante, as a key member of their team and a shining example to others of what results from consistent and on-going local support. As proof, for Theatre by the Bay this season, Alex will write and direct one show, direct a second, and co-produce the third.
In fact, for the second year running TBTB will open its season with a re-launch of The Nine Mile Portage, the highly popular walking play that highlights the history of Barrie’s pioneer past written and directed by Dault himself. It is an excellent showcase for Alex’s gift for historical research and story-telling.
A passion for the past
Alex has written, directed, acted or produced so many of these types of historic productions that he can’t remember how it all began. However, he does have a disciplined process for defining and refining each one, learned through his half lifetime of theatrical experience. “I choose a space, an interesting, dynamic space that is compelling. Then, if there is someone or an organisation that is a stakeholder in that space, like a curator, a director, I’ll meet with them. Maybe I’ll watch some of their existing programming. And then I’ll go off and do my research using books, photographs, old newspaper articles, local history sections in library.”
Specific to The Nine Mile Portage, Alex consulted repeatedly to local author Su Murdoch and her book Beautiful Barrie. “I had the actors meet with her, talk to her, she read my draft scripts. I always stay attached to some authority when I write a history play. It’s important to be authentic, because I’ve learned the hard way that the audience will come and take the stories as ‘Truth’. I feel responsible to convey that Truth in an appropriate manner. I don’t make stuff up.”
New twists for the 2014 re-mount
This year, there are several new angles to The Nine Mile Portage:
First, the play will walk the opposite shore of Kempenfelt Bay, starting at the South Shore Centre, ending at Minette Point;
Second, the production opens May 19th for local school groups to enjoy as a day field trip.
The reasons are obvious to last season’s adult audiences and to Alex Dault himself. Everyone found The Nine Mile Portage creative, innovative and great fun. It became clear at the same time that the show’s interactive format and educational component offered so much more. “There were two moments that
I look back to that serve as the inspiration of bringing the show back this season. I watched almost all the performances last year, and on several occasions there were children in the audience. I noticed how they really enjoyed the show; the interactive component, they loved being able to be involved. They were super-excited. The second inspiration came from a librarian who approached me and said what a fantastic way this was for kids to learn the origins of their hometown and the pioneer settlement period. She was relentlessly helpful with ideas and contacts with the schools.” Alex goes onto explain that the initial idea was to actually partner with the schools, the Township of Springwater and some others, and present the show during the fall of 2013. However, he found that his upcoming marriage that September plus other theatrical commitments imposed on the time needed to coordinate. Plans were pushed back into 2014.
Bringing theatre to the schools; a TBTB tradition
TBTB General Manager Laura Zawadiuk explains the details of this season’s added school feature: “We’re reaching out to school groups and youth, teaching them the history of Barrie through theatre, encouraging the grades that include local history and pioneering in their curriculums, because they obviously tie into The Nine Mile Portage concept.”
Theatre by the Bay has a history of bringing theatre to the schools over the past several years. Alex himself has been the moving force behind TBTB’s popular Shakespeare in the Classroom programmes each spring. The Nine Mile Portage programme represents a shift in direction and brings not only some freshness to their approach, but adds history to the obvious theatrical appeal.
And getting the students out of the classroom and to the places where their local history actually unfolded is an important part of learning. “It’s a fun day of history!” exclaims Laura. “Who won’t forget THAT class! You always remember the fields you went on, right?”
TBTB has always made this programme extremely affordable in this era of programme cutbacks. Their $10 per student price tag for The Nine Mile Portage includes a charter bus to take students grades 4 to 12 to and from the play setting along Barrie’s waterfront, one group per day. This remarkably affordable pricing is made possible through an anonymous donation to TBTB’s education programme, plus some hoped-for granting.
Modifying the content for different ages
Alex will of course modify the Nine Mile’s content to suit the age of the student audience. “There is a version for grades 4 to 8, and another for the high school grades which will be similar to the adult shows that will be offered in the evenings.” explains Laura. The school shows can be programmed for morning or afternoons, depending on school scheduling. “We’ve contacted a few school boards already, but we’re hoping for some early confirmed bookings so we know that it is in fact up and running.”
Book your school or youth group now!
If you are a teacher or involved in a library programme or youth group, you should contact Laura directly and get your group or class booked in.
Call her at 705.735.9243
History that is part of the community, now and in the future
In addition to the content adjustments to suit the age of school groups, Alex considers The Nine Mile Portage to be a work in progress. “As I watched it last year, I saw so many ways to upgrade, there were so many lessons that we wanted to apply. Ultimately, I see it as something that would continue to be performed on Barrie’s waterfront and would belong to the community of Barrie, to be re-mounted every year.”
For all those who revisit the 2014 version, young or adult, there will be familiar stories some structural changes to the performance due of course to a change in location, and other episodes that are entirely new. “It promises to be a different experience for those who return again.”