Russell A. Hunt

Seeing the Possibilities:
The New Brunswick Provincial Drama Festival
[ As published in New Brunswick Canadian Child and Youth Drama Association Provincial Bulletin 4:2 (Spring 1982), 4-14.]

It is 8:30 on a sparkling morning in late April. Inside Edmund Casey Hall Auditorium at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, it is pitch black and a hundred and fifty junior high school students, along with a sprinkling of sleepy parents and relatives, wait for the lights to come up on a production of an old chestnut of a play called Teacher's Pet. When the lights do come up, I look around. Sitting well back, in the centre of the house, leaning intently over a jury-rigged table with a ball point pen in his hand, is Paul Hanna, who is the adjudicator for the junior division of the New Brunswick provincial drama festival.

Onstage, a tall, dark-haired girl playing Miss Laurence, the teacher, enters on absurdly high-heeled shoes; the play is underway. As various characters enter, exchanging creaky 1946-vintage jokes and taking their seats at the desks in the stage's "classroom," Hanna leans forward in evident enjoyment.

"I sure am s'prised at you, Chuck Hicks," says a boy padded out to look as though he weighed a hundred and eighty pounds.

"Oh, yeah?" says "Chuck" smartly. "So you're s'prised, are ya?"

The fat boy nods vigorously. "I sure am. You hadn't oughta hit Johnny Bull over the head like this." He whacks "Johnny" with a rolled-up newspaper. "You'd oughta hit him over the head like this." Rearing back, he delivers an echoing swat. The audience erupts; Hanna smiles broadly. It is 8:40 a.m. Many of the members of the cast -- and the audience -- have been up for three or four hours. This is the second day of the largest drama festival in the country.

Across the parking lot, in the university's nearly-deserted cafeteria, amid the breakfast clean-up, Alfred Paul-Elias sits over a late cup of coffee. As coordinator of the festival, one of the two people most directly responsible for its existence in its present form, he has, for the past few months, not only been teaching his regular English classes at Harvey High School, thirty miles from Fredericton, but organizing the logistics of the festival and preparing his own play -- a story-theatre version of the Pandora myth. By Wednesday morning he is cresting on a wave of energy expenditure which makes it virtually impossible for him to sit still. He talks in rapid, staccato bursts.

"The way it used to be, before, if a group was performing on Friday afternoon, they'd maybe arrive Friday morning, and they would do their production and wait around for the awards. We have -- on Tuesday we had over two hundred students register. These students will be staying until Saturday night, and some of them are not performing until the weekend. But they are going to have a chance to see probably twenty or thirty plays and take part in a lot of workshops and meet an awful lot of other kids." He glances through the cafeteria's double doors toward the main registration desk, where a group of students from his school, in red "official" tee-shirts, are inundated with a sudden influx of students disembarking from a yellow provincial school bus. He starts to get up to help, then thinks better of it, remarking that the students are generally better than he is at coping with administrative crises. Instead, he gets another cup of coffee from the fifty cup percolator in the corner.

"That's one of the amazing things about this campus kind of setup. When we performed at the schools in the old days, a group would put on a play at 10:30 -- the audience would be made up of three ten-two English classes and a couple of grade nine social studies classes the teachers filed down to the auditorium; then the play would be over and there'd be no one there to share anything with. I mean the kids performed, but there was nowhere to go. Here on the campus now, a beautiful day like today, you just step outside and you'll see all kinds of kids walking around, talking about theatre . . . . "

Inside Casey Hall, in the semidarkness of the auditorium, the audience sits expectantly. George Street Junior High has just completed a performance of a play, Let Me Hear You Whisper, which had been adapted for the stage from a television script, and performed under the direction of a student at the school. Paul Hanna finishes writing down comments for his adjudication, then jumps up and makes his way down toward the stage. He is short and stocky; his jerky, rapid movements give an impression of enormous, tightly controlled energy. He jumps onto the stage and looks down at the cast, seated in the first two rows.

"Thank you very much," he says to them, beaming over the light brown walrus mustache which dominates his face. "As you could tell by the applause, we all enjoyed it very much." He applauds the cast; the audience joins in enthusiastically. "This is the first student directed play we've seen, and I'd certainly like to congratulate the director." There are cheers and applause from the cast. "That's a very difficult task, to get people your own age to listen to you and do the things you feel should be done . . . especially when absolutely everyone in the cast is obviously taller than you are."

He goes on to discuss the nature of the play and the style of the production, complimenting the cast on their decision to play the script for laughs even though the play was basically a serious one. "When we do come to that dramatic climax," he says, "we feel it even more because we've been laughing all the way through, and I think that was a very good choice you all made." He adjourns the public portion of the adjudication and goes off with the cast to a classroom, where he will make more specific comments. The audience makes its way out into the bright April sun, where a Frisbee is already flashing white across the nearly-green lawn.

"What was happening was that in this sort of have-not province, where there's very little money and there's no drama programme as such on the curriculum, the high school drama festival was getting bigger and bigger . . . and suddenly it jumped by about eighty per cent and nobody was ready for it. The school that was hosting it was Miramichi Valley, in Newcastle. They were prepared for like twenty-seven, twenty-eight plays. And getting twenty more than that completely disrupted everything. So in order for the festival to survive, it had to become -- for that year -- an assembly-line kind of thing. There just wasn't time for adjudication; the plays had to be got on and off -- and it got to be a very hectic, very kind of unpleasant experience." Weldon Matthews, the festival's chairman, is seated on the table which holds the coffee urn, waving a half-filled styrofoam cup around as he explains how the present festival evolved. There seems to be suppressed laughter behind his wide aggressive mustache most of the time.

"The people on the committee were just completely frantic most of the time, and understandably so; the longer I work on the festival the more sympathy I have for them, although I wasn't very understanding at the time, because I felt my kids were really getting a bad deal. I had a vision in my mind of what the festival could be -- and this, I knew, was not it."

Matthews took his frustration to that year's meeting of the English Council, the group of New Brunswick English teachers which was sponsoring the drama festival, and, predictably, got himself saddled with the job of organizing a new kind of festival. He and Paul-Elias discovered they shared more than an interest in a certain imaginative, bare-stage style of drama, and began meetin-g regularly to come up with a festival which was a little closer to Matthews' vision. Paul-Elias, a graduate of Saint Thomas, suggested the campus setting; perhaps the university would be interested in the festival. They were.

"They were taking us on faith. We'd never organized a drama festival" -- the laughter breaks through into Matthews' voice -- "you know, who are we? And they kind of believed in us, and they bent over backwards for Drama '78 to give us absolutely everything that they could . . . we got the kids here, and it worked.

"We were able, with this much space, to bring everybody in, sort of close together, so they weren't scattered all over the area in motels. They were in residences; they all ate together. We got them together to put on a variety show. And a lot of nice things started happening. Like the competitiveness . . . it used to be like a basketball tournament, there were cases of kids going into the audiences of plays that they were competing against, and doing disruptive kinds of things, in subtle ways, to put the competition off a little bit. But once we got them together here, that started to fade, and it's faded a little further into the background this year, because a lot of the kids who are back are seeing old friends again, and it's getting to be a good, kind of sharing, growing, learning experience. So that going home with a trophy is a lot less important than it used to be, and we're really proud of that."

In the afternoon, the play to see at the junior division is Dyoll Amsob: Artistic Director from Miramichi Rural School. The play, an original script written by a student and a teacher, is set backstage, between the plays at a drama festival, and its main character is a teacher-director whose sole aim is to win a trophy, a sort of Vince Lombardi of junior high drama. The teacher-author, John Bosma, is tight-lipped about the details of the production; all he will say is that Dyoll is the last name of his student co-author spelled backwards.

It turns out that the play's satire is fairly savage, as the would-be Peter Brooks orders his cast about, striding around in a martinet's rigid-backed march step, sporting a ludicrous dark mustache (an obvious caricature of Bosma's own growth). At the climax, the director becomes paralyzed in a surrealistic attack of apoplectic fury, and ultimately has to be carried offstage like a Madame Tussaud effigy. In his absence, a new, looser show is quickly huddled together (it is a pantomime version of the Beatles'Rocky Raccoon) and performed to the evident enjoyment of the real audience. The play ends with a speech pointing out that plays are for audiences, not adjudicators. Hanna beams and applauds enthusiastically. I later find that the basic idea of the play had arisen around the coffee urn last year, while he and Bosma were discussing the various personalities in evidence among the teachers at the festival.

At the public adjudication, Hanna takes the opportunity to reinforce the play's public point. "I think that it is very important, and I hope that all of you are very aware of what was being said in this play, and of why we are all here. I'm just sort of up there to help you along; the real performance is what's going on up here" -- he gestures at the stage set -- "for the people out there. I want to congratulate you for presenting that idea to us. So thank you very much."

A few moments later, at the private adjudication in a classroom down the hall, Hanna is very much the teacher, moving around behind a lectern, getting the names of the cast right. "Nice attitude from Dyoll right from the beginning, when you came on," he says to the lead actor. "Make sure that you're saying every word, that you don't trail off the ends of your sentences and bury a couple of words. You'd start off a sentence and you'd be very strong, and then you'd snrf brble grm . . ." His voice dies imperceptibly away; the company, scattered around the room, giggles.

"When I started this last year, I came into it with a preconceived notion that, oh, here I am and I'm going to see -- last year it was about sixteen plays -- I'm going to see all these plays and some of them are going to be boring and I'm going to fall asleep and I'm going to be really embarrassed and I won't have anything to say about them. And so I actually went into training last year, and I went around to see as many junior high and high school plays as I could, to see what was going to happen. And what happened in that experience was that I found that the quality was really great, that I didn't have to work at staying awake at all, that they were really interesting and that I laughed at the funny ones and cried at the sad ones . . . " Hanna is talking about a subject which seems able to make him entirely oblivious of the fact that it's lunchtime. The limp cold cuts and the dull brown tray in front of him are forgotten, as is the knife in his right hand, which bobs in the air, emphasizing the rhythm of what he's saying.

"It's a matter of being able to express yourself. Starting to understand the English language -- if you're operating in English -- understanding that there are different ways that people can express their ideas, that there are different ideas to be expressed . . . I think what a lot of people who think that this is frivolous and a frill don't understand is that we're talking about creativity -- you're not developing professional actors, actresses, theatre technicians or directors. What drama does is it teaches you interpretation . . . even though you're saying an author's words, those are just words and you have to interpret them. It's taking that single germ of an idea and then creating something out of it, making it not just a word, but a physical action, and not just a word, but a word with emotion behind it, a line that's going through it, a thought, an interpretation." The bustle in the cafeteria is dying away as the students drift out, back to the afternoon productions and workshops or the eternal Frisbee skimming across the grass. Hanna doesn't notice. His fork holds a chunk of lettuce suspended above his plate.

"An interesting exercise that I've done in workshops around the province, which really shows you how narrowly we treat our children's minds, is this: you take a simple object like a pen and you give it to someone and you say, all right, you can use this as anything; it can be anything in the world. It can be a hammer, it can be a flute, it can be a comb, it can be a shaver, it can be anything. And it's amazing the number of people who will sit there and just look at it and can't see it for anything but a pen. Can't make it into anything else. And as they do these exercises -- and that's what's happening over there with those plays, is that they're being able to look at those plays and see the possibilities. And as they see the possibilities in things like that I think they start to see the possibilities in themselves." He looks startled; his voice drops in self mockery. "That's stretching an analogy, there . . . " He laughs, an infectious baritone cackle. It's a laugh I've heard often in the Casey Hall auditorium. The lettuce disappears.

Friday afternoon, in a soft, misty rain, I walk across the parking lot as a group of students hoist a dark, flower printed living room sofa up to the gaping rear door of a familiar yellow school bus. Because of the rain, there are even more students than usual in the lobby of the Saint Thomas main building, reclining on the stairs, leaning over the second floor railing, standing in groups at the entrance to the cafeteria. At the registration desk in the lobby, someone is describing the previous evening's production, by Dalhousie High School, of The Legacy, an intense science fiction melodrama about the end of humanity. "It was fanTAStic," a slight, silvery-blond girl in a red tee-shirt is saying. "They'll get best actress for sure. Maybe best director and best actor too. They were in hysterics afterward. The adjudicator LOVED it."

The festival usually includes sixty or more productions, ranging from the most ineptly mounted of the school plays to the virtually professional polish brought by some of the high schools, such as Dalhousie, Carleton North, Saint John High, and Fredericton. Over the five days of the festival there are normally two, and occasionally three productions running simultaneously. Local theatre people offer twenty-four workshops on subjects ranging from television through makeup and sets to improvisation and directing. Of the nine hundred students involved, most are in residence for at least three days; the overwhelming majority will still be around on Saturday night for the closing ceremonies and the awards. Most of the productions this year are short (sixty minutes is the official time limit); twenty are directed by students and thirteen are original scripts. Half of the student directors are in junior high.

It is this -- the number of student directors and original scripts -- which strikes people with experience of previous festivals as the most radical change, apart from the campus environment. Alfred Paul-Elias thinks he knows why so many more teachers and students are prepared to bypass the standard one-act school dramas and create their own plays. "I think that the main reason that theatre in New Brunswick schools is changing is the TNB Young Company," he says flatly. "They've traveled throughout the province, done an incredible number of performances. They gave students a chance to see that theatre didn't have to be an expensive proposition with thousands of dollars in sets and things like that. They showed the great value of adapting scripts and writing scripts of your own and playing with those. They talked to students about theatre. By the time we started with Drama '78, writing to all the schools in the province, a lot of them had been exposed to The Young Company; a lot of the teachers felt considerably more competent to try something that maybe they'd never tried before."

In 1974, Paul Hanna, supported by Walter Learning, then artistic director of Theatre New Brunswick, and a LIP grant from the federal government, created a spinoff of TNB called The Young Company to take drama out of the schools. That year they reached about 19,000 kids with two original productions -- one written by Hanna -- in schools mostly near Fredericton.

Within a couple of years the project was successful enough to merit funding from the Canada Council and the provincial government, and drawing on the expertise in touring of TNB (which takes each of its shows on tour to eight New Brunswick centers every year) The Young Company began widening its net. Last year they claim to have reached 100,000 students -- in a province whose total population is only about 650,000. The drama they have brought to the schools has been mostly original, mostly small-scale and basically bare-stage, minimal-resource drama. Magic with a cast of three and a hundred dollars' worth of costumes and makeup.

Even Hanna himself -- who tends to minimize the influence of The Young Company -- admits that it brought a different idea of what constitutes drama into the schools. "I think it's helped that way; I think it's maybe broadened the horizons of some of the teacher-directors, who have seen that you don't need elaborate sets and elaborate costumes to put on an entertaining play. I think if you'd held a festival like this four years ago you wouldn't have had those ten original scripts. Even from last year to this year I can see people being a lot more adventurous, not being quite so safe, just doing a play that's thirty years old, that's been done in a hundred high school and junior high school festivals before, but striking out and saying, 'we'll try this.' When I first started traveling around this province, with The Young Company, we would do something, and a teacher would come up afterwards and say, 'Wow, that was really interesting, and I'd really like to be able to do something like that with my students, but I'm just not creative, I'm just not that type' -- Oh, you know -- 'I just can't do it.' And I think that in the last five years I've heard less and less of that, as teachers realize that you don't have to be Olivier to be an actor, or Robert Altman to be a director. As long as you've got a mind and the energy and enthusiasm to do it, you can do it. And it's being proven here."

On Friday night, word is out that the place to be is Memorial Hall, down the hill at the University of New Brunswick, where the high school plays are performed. Weldon Matthews' students from Carleton North are putting on his new play, Gloriana Fair. No one except the people involved knows what to expect, except that last year Matthews' Machinery was one of the delights of the festival.

Memorial Hall is a huge barn of a building with a proscenium stage on one end. For Gloriana Fair the stage is blocked off and a cleared area arranged on the floor, with seating around it. The entire cast -- twenty-five members -- comes in the back door of the hall and sets up a colorful, bustling fair, complete with booths and what seems to be the entire population of a small village. The action of the play proper commences with the entry of three black-uniformed storm troopers from a country called Crustacia, who demand to be convinced that Gloriana -- also a country, but apparently a country of the imagination, a city-state of mind -- exists. The citizens dramatize their history, their law (they only have one; they're like eggs, one character explains: the more you carry around the likelier you are to break one) and their religion (the "Church of Trying to Do Your Best and Hoping God Will Think It's Okay"). But one of the storm troopers remains unconvinced. Standing in the midst of the kind of multiple wedding that traditionally ends a Shakespeare comedy, he shouts, "There can only be a Gloriana if people believe in it. Without the belief, the country does not exist. Well, I do not believe: I do not believe any of it: I do not believe and you do not exist:"

The bustle slows; people look up from their involvement in the wedding celebration. The country's "prime minister" says sadly, "I'm afraid he's right."

The manager of the fair corrects him. "It isn't right; it's just true."

"Queen Gloria" in turn corrects her. "It isn't truth, either. It is merely a fact."

Within moments, as the storm trooper voices his triumph, the fair has been disassembled and is gone; the storm trooper is left alone on a bare, confetti-strewn stage under the bright white lights. He disappears behind the backdrop. There is a long pause before the standing ovation begins; it is many long minutes before Arthur Motyer, the Mount Allison University professor who is adjudicating the senior section of the festival, gets up to thank the cast -- in a voice choked with emotion -- for what he calls "this true moment of theatrical magic."

It is still barely light outside as the audience spills out into the lobby and down the steps, with the lights of Fredericton beginning to come on below in the comfortable bend of the river. The crowd is oddly quiet; Gloriana Fair has touched them somewhere beyond what a school drama is supposed or expected to. A. thin blonde girl in a white blouse in the middle of the crowd, her spooky pale eyes looking at nothing in particular, says to no one in particular: "Weren't they good? Weren't they just . . . good?"

Weldon Matthews is talking about the bare-stage, Young-Company approach to theatre. "It's like what Paul Sills used to do, the story theatre kind of thing. It's a remarkable approach to the theatre, and it's something that I guess started me writing. It wasn't an intimidating kind of thing for a beginning playwright to try. I started trying to do the sorts of things that Sills had done with the Brothers Grimm, with some of the Old Testament David-and-Goliath, Adam-and-Eve kinds of stories, put that together into a show the following year, and it worked for us. And so I've been doing a spring children's theatre kind of production ever since, for the past four years now, with my own scripts, and Gloriana Fair is like the latest installment of that."

I ask him why he likes it so much. There is an "Oh . . . " which is almost a laugh, but trails off into contemplation. He sips at the ever-present styrofoam cup of coffee. "I don't know. There are days when I don't like it so much. There are days when it's frustrating, tiring . . . none of it is the kind of thing that you can sit down and create independently. It's all -- absolutely every minute of it is group effort, group input, group communication. And as a director, as a teacher-director particularly, you have all of the 'teacher' kinds of responsibilities of playing authority figure, plus the 'director' kinds of responsibilities of coaxing out what's inside and getting some kind of consistency of spirit throughout the production. And there are days when that doesn't . . . come as readily as you'd like it to. There are days when the sets aren't finished on schedule, when you can't find the particular material that you want for a costume, when somebody who's supposed to bring something forgets . . ." He stares out the rain-streaked window at the gray Saturday morning.

"But for me there are a couple of tremendous highs that always come along and cancel those things out. Just the kids themselves, for one thing: the kind of energy, the kind of enthusiasm . . . and the fun they derive from it. It's wonderfully superior in a lot of ways -- although I'm not for a minute claiming that anything I do with kids is going to attain professional quality -- the spirit, the enthusiasm, the willingness to lay themselves flat out and to trust you completely" -- he smiles; the suppress ed laughter is near the surface again -- "that's kind of a scary thing too, the sort of responsibility that that puts on you. But that kind of relationship, when it's cooking -- and eventually it always seems to sort of come together -- is a beautiful thing."

Paul Hanna is tired. He's seen thirty-two plays in five days and he's assembling the notes he's kept so that he can make some decisions about the eleven awards he has to hand out at the closing ceremony. He sits for a moment contemplating the future. He has quit his job at Theatre New Brunswick to go to the National Arts Centre as an administrator. He has told Paul-Elias and Matthews that he doesn't think he should adjudicate the junior division again next year, for the third straight time; he's afraid, he says, that teachers and students will start trying to psych him out, to figure out what he likes. Maybe he'll come back some year; not next year.

I ask him whether there's much children's drama to get involved in in Ottawa. No, he answers, not much -- at least in English. Will he continue to be involved? He laughs, a slow, thoughtful version of his baritone cackle. "I certainly will not let the children's theatre thing go, because it's a big part of my life. It's something that I'm very, very interested in, something that I just couldn't live without."

After the awards ceremony the rain has let up as the crowd which had been jammed into the brightly lit cafeteria pours out onto the shiny blackness of the asphalt parking lot. A group of students, jostling and laughing down the hill toward a cluster of vans, organizes an impromptu school cheer. Inside Casey Hall, five or six students linger in the lobby -- waiting for rides? unwilling to let go of the experience? -- discussing the awards and next year's festival. Inside the auditorium, someone has left the lights on. The stage is bare. A few scraps of paper lie under the bright white lights.