The town of Alix, AB was transformed into a container for living history on Saturday, February 1 as the Community Hall played host to the third annual Characters from the Past Dessert Theatre.
A Boomtown Trail initiative, the theatre was aimed at excavating rural Alberta’s stores of local history to entertain modern audiences, with proceeds going to the Alix Wagon Wheel museum.
The ambience of the evening was furnished by a lively full-house crowd; an open, welcoming venue and a dessert table that extended as far as the eye could see with volunteer-made goods. Though she couldn’t attend, Wagon Wheel historian Eve Keates was discussed fondly as one of the champions of local history in Alix.
‘Conductor’ Ken Duncan, CAO of the Boomtown Trail Community Initiatives Society, introduced the evening with anecdotes about the humble beginnings of dessert-based theatre (hint: it involved a distinct distaste by some citizenry for cooking elaborate meals).
Duncan also made mention of the continued success of the organization in promoting affiliated communities; efforts that were recognized when the Boomtown Trail was awarded the Governor General Award in November of 2013.
Education and eloquence
The evening was launched back in time by a monologue from Barbara Cormack, a prolific writer, poet and education reformer active from the depression era onward who lived most of her life in Alix.
Speaking through Alix resident Elaine Meehan, Cormack’s history was presented in an informative, emotional manner. Meehan spoke about Cormack’s life from a literary perspective, using eloquence and poise to describe her life history from wartime concerns to time spent on the sandy shores of Tanglefoot Lake during the depression. She gave voice to the deeply personal aspects of Cormack’s life with intensity, highlighting her struggles with community perception upon the birth and subsequent education of her child with Downs Syndrome, which was profoundly misunderstood at the time.
She spoke to Cormack’s accomplishments, such as helping to initiate a school for those with unique mental and physical needs, with humility and grace. Hers was a speech that informed to the resilience of character in times past, despite hardships.
Zeal and humour
After a short intermission, within which patrons were finally permitted to swoop down upon the myriad of desserts waiting to be consumed, the second woman to approach the podium was introduced.
Mrs. Bashaw, played by Laura Graham, was the wife of the Town of Bashaw’s namesake Eugene Bashaw. She began her address by speaking at length about various cleanliness and washing techniques – no doubt a ploy to see to it that the men of the audience ‘left’, thus leaving Bashaw hypothetically alone with the women.
In her thick Swiss accent, Graham began to speak of the women’s suffrage movement, outlining her outrage that women were not allowed to vote and expressing distaste at gambling and drinking run rampant in the early twentieth century.
With bursts of energy and tones of absolute seriousness, Graham led the audience through a convincing plea that women should gather together in support of the women’s vote and women’s rights more broadly. She condemned the act of gambling, which she was quick to point out her husband partook in, and flagged excessive drinking as the cause of many broken families. In the context of history, hers was a speech of boldness and strength, educating the audience in the passions of an intelligent, determined woman during a time of flux for members of this gender.
Bravery and dedication
After another intermission, with more desserts abound, a tall figure with a serious countenance drifted in, surveying the crowd with stern purpose. This gentleman introduced himself as Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel’s Lieutenant and a member of the Métis of the South Saskatchewan River. Played by Stettler’s Bob Willis, the story of Dumont had the crowd rapt; nobody spoke a word as Willis glided around the room, speaking of great battles and Métis tenacity in the face of the incursion by Canadian forces during the battles of Fish Creek and Batoche.
As he told his tale of courage and valour, voice echoing the spirit of this strong, resolute historical figure, the audience sat transfixed. Many had their eyes closed, listening, or were following the narrative with nods and subtle smiles of agreement. Willis’ embodiment of Dumont brought forth a nostalgia for a time of oral tradition, when stories had an immediate presence and the emotion of lived history was felt as a community.
Dumont resolved the evening upon his final words and the crowd roused to an applause, collectively acknowledging the transformative effect of experiencing a shared history in real time.