James Reaney’s thoughts on putting on your own version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass:
Is There Life After Alice? That is, after you’ve seen the show, what do you do when you get home? … Once when I was eight, I had a parallel experience to the one you may have just had, of watching a professional production, authentically acted with exuberance and supported by sophisticated design and fabulous illusions and compelling direction. My theatrical experience wasn’t a play though. In those days, Stratford was not as lucky as it is nowadays, but what it was was my very first circus — Ringling Brothers — an absolutely enthralling show, unforgettably enchanting. The only reaction you could have was to go home and put on your own circus, in this case with my cousins and whatever the farm could muster. Cows as elephants? Of course, you couldn’t rival the production you had just seen, but what you could do was with your own simplicity rival its feeling, and the attempt turned me into an artist. I don’t see this as an improbable effect of the show you have just seen and I hope that the various first steps I have described in paralleling its effects and impacts may lead some of you to a lasting love of theatre and art…
“As children take inspiration from their own lives, Bretta and I have planned a world as created by the child Alice – full of bicycles and toy wagons, kites and chessboards,” says Ms Keiley. “But since this world is through the looking-glass, bicycles have giant trees growing out of the handlebars, red toy wagons inspire a flotilla for the Queen’s entrance, and the kings and queens of chessboards join all the characters from Alice’s mounds of books. Our goal is to tap into that wonderful world of seven-year-olds, where anything is not only possible but likely, and the only thing you can reasonably expect is the unexpected.”
The show runs May 31 to October 12 at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. For tickets, contact the box office at 1.800.567.1600 or visit stratfordfestival.ca
For more about the Alice opening show, see JBNBlog.
“Alice” events at the Stratford Festival Forum
Several Forum events and activities offer a chance to explore Alice Through the Looking-Glass, including Alice Adventure Lunches, a themed meal and activity to ignite your child’s imagination before the magic unfolds on stage; Adapting Alice, a panel discussion including Jillian Keiley and Peter Hinton, playwright for the Shaw Festival; and Acting Up: Alice, a drama workshop in which 8- to 10-year-olds use costumes to explore scenes and characters from the play.
Alice Through the Looking-Glass is a Schulich Children’s Play presentation and produced in association with Canada’s National Arts Centre.
Alice will be directed by Jillian Keiley, an award-winning director from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Cast members include Trish Lindström as Alice, Cynthia Dale as the Red Queen, Dion Johnstone as the White King, Tom McCamus as the March Hare, and Brian Tree as Humpty Dumpty.
To purchase tickets,call1-800-567-1600 or order online here.
Notes on James Reaney’s adaptation
In 1991, David William, then Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, commissioned James Reaney to adapt Alice Through the Looking-Glass for the stage. James Reaney recalls the many months writing and rewriting the play and attending workshops:
“So, as the preparatory workshop with the Young Company started in the fall of 1992, my adaptation had pretty well shaken down into its present shape except that a great deal of my commentary and suggestions were kept as part of the rehearsed reading shown to Richard Monette and David William and invited guests so that I myself actually read my mental landscapes of Looking-glass in fear and trembling since the many rewrites and keeping this and dropping that produced landmines for cues […]
Mr Monette took to the story as played that night in late October and also to its trajectory away from the Third Stage to the Avon with a cast [that included] Douglas Rain as Humpty and Barbara Bryne as the White Queen, both actors who had in 1967 appeared in my first Stratford play, Colours in the Dark.”
—From the Foreword to Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass: adapted for the stage by James Reaney, pages 12-14, The Porcupine’s Quill, 1994.
A new London production of The Easter Egg runs May 24 to June 1 in London, Ontario, produced by the Alvego Root Theatre Company and directed by Jason Rip. Here are James Stewart Reaney’s thoughts on his father’s play.
My father never really tired of hatching new ways to stay on message about The Easter Egg.
When James Reaney was given the chance to talk about the play, a 1962 comedy, he always worked in important details. The Easter Egg was a “neat, tidy” play with a few characters and it was relatively short.
“All I was trying to do, at the time, was create a short, little play with only a few characters.” he told former Free Press colleague Noel Gallagher decades after the play’s premiere at Toronto.
The occasion was the 2002 revival of The Easter Egg by a Toronto company. Their production came to London the next year.
Back in the 1970s, he had used that “neat, tidy” phrase to describe the play he wanted to write for a favourite director and collaborator, the late Pamela Terry.
Once, when we talked about it, he said he had wanted to answer critics who said he could only write a drama on the long and epic scale of The Killdeer, his first major play. Still, short in stage time meant coming in at 113 minutes — by his count — Easter Egg intermissions not included. He also wanted to write something absurdist, where “things just happened.”
These thoughts, and more, have been swirling around on the eve of a new London production of The Easter Egg. The AlvegoRoot company staging opens May 24.
Eagerly anticipated in My London, the 2013 production follows at least two other Easter Eggs here. The Free Press reviewer in 1967, Helen Wallace said: “The Summer Theatre production . . . tells a story, on its most superficial level, of a mentally disturbed boy (Kenneth Ralph) hidden away so his stepmother (Bethel Henry) can claim his inheritance . . . the psychiatric tangle of a 20th-century Cinderella theme is twisted against the secret Victorian shame of a ‘different’ child who has to be hidden away.”
That perceptive comment accounts for the play’s basic conflict. On Kenneth’s side are Bethel’s stepdaughter Pollex (Polly) Henry and Dr. Ira Hill, who is pursuing Bethel. Tending to ally himself with stepmonsterish Bethel is the Rev. George Sloan. The faith leader really should be standing by Polly because they’re engaged, more or less. The cruel and weak Sloan is probably overwhelmed by the endlessly comic caustic chatter from the tireless schemer Bethel.
“Among other mysterious elements in the mix are the bat (‘a flying mouse’) that stalks the house; a young girl’s ghost haunting the garden; a cat’s skeleton and a metal box containing a glass Easter egg,” Gallagher wrote in his review of a 2003 production. True — and it was an Easter egg from my father’s beloved collection which served as a prop all the way back in the Terry-helmed 1962 debut.
Re-reading Gallagher’s story from 2002 makes me smile because, as an interviewer, he drew out charming and characteristic details.
“Easter Egg’s still one of my favourite plays because it mentions Paradise, Manitoba, which is where my father once worked as a farmhand,” my father said at one point.
Then, there was his loyal salute to the play’s successful world premiere at Toronto’s Alumnae Theatre in 1962. Just as typical and true to my father’s character was his brusque dismissal of an Ottawa production soon after as “a dreadful failure.” That comment carries the eye-watering sting of burned-bridge aroma No. 1 — guaranteed to linger forever.
Best of all is his praise, wearing the mask of the practical playwright, for the 1964 version staged by a United Church group in Woodstock. “They were raising money to build a gymnasium and The Easter Egg helped them reach their goal,” my father said.
What: Revival of The Easter Egg by London poet and playwright James Reaney (1926-2008) by AlvegoRoot Theatre Company.
“A Canadian Classic. The Easter Egg starts with Gothic darkness and builds to a beautiful conclusion of new beginnings.” — AlvegoRoot
When: Opens Friday, 8 pm and continues to June 1.
Where: The Arts Project, 203 Dundas St.
Tickets: Call The Arts Project box office at 519-642-2767. Adults $15 and $10 seniors/students
Here’s a selected look at past presentations of The Easter Egg in London:
March 2, 1962: Rehearsed reading by Western staff and students.
July 4-7, 1967: Production directed by Pamela Terry at then-new Talbot College stage.
Jan. 17-19, 2003: Staged by TH&B Company, directed by David Eden at Grand’s McManus Studio Theatre.
For more about the 1967 production of The Easter Egg at Talbot College, see JBNBlog. For a review of AlvegoRoot’s The Easter Egg, see The Beat Magazine.
On May 24 to June 1 in London, Ontario, come and see the AlvegoRoot Theatre Company’s presentation of James Reaney’s play The Easter Egg.
The Easter Egg is directed by Jason Rip, and the performers are Kim Kaitell, Adam Corrigan Holowitz, Maya Wong, Demis Odanga, and Chris McAuley.
Jason Rip is a former student of James Reaney’s and an admirer of his work: “I feel very fortunate to have known Mr. Reaney. My ideas about him and his unique way of looking at the world — alternately whimsical and threatening, dignified yet naughty, with an emphasis on the importance of play — have infused this production. I still remember him hiding behind the curtains in University College Tower, waiting to pounce out and scare students. ‘GOTHIC NOVEL!’ he’d shout before doubling over with giggles. James Reaney is the bard of Souwesto. I will never turn down a chance to direct or appear in his work.”
When:May 24, 25, 29, 30, 31 and June 1 at 8pm; May 25 and June 1 at 2 pm Where:The Arts Project, 203 Dundas Street, London, Ontario
To buy tickets, call519-642-2767;Adults $15, Students and Seniors $10.
Pamela Terry Beckwith (1926-2006) directed James Reaney’s The Killdeer in 1960. He always referred to her as “my first director,” and he dedicated his second play, The Easter Egg, to her. She directed the first production of The Easter Egg for the Alumnae Theatre in November 1962.
Here are James Reaney’s thoughts about The Easter Egg from the Preface to the anthology Masks of Childhood (New Press, 1972, pages v-vi):
Behind Easter Egg literally lies a collection of glass Easter eggs I made from 1945 to 1955, aet. 19 and over. Found my first one in a store on Harbord Street, an old grocery and sundries store out of the 1910 era.[…] In Stratford, Le Souder’s Second Hand Store also kept getting a supply as attics from the eighties and nineties descended to the auctioneer’s gavel. Have never been quite sure of their cultural use; I think they were given to children at Easter. Some of them are as small as hen’s eggs and I have heard of these being used as nest eggs; others are large — a bit larger than a goose egg. Could they have been made at the Hamilton Glass Works? […] Milk glass blown or moulded, painted with flowers, rabbits, chickens (a cherub hatching out of one I didn’t buy), glowing with trapped pearly light — such glass cannot fail to set the story-telling instinct free. So a godmother gives a boy a glass Easter egg; he is drowning in an evil world and the present could float him to a shore. Someone steals the egg and the boy goes under a wave of word-blindness and numbness. Fourteen years later the Easter egg is found again and….
Bethel and her setting were suggested by stories told at an academic party in Kingston; stories about the past on a campus somewhat farther east. Nearby Garden Island supplied the ghost story of a girl tied to a fence for stealing a twig of small fruit. To my astonishment I ran across the basic for the story in the London Times,* 9 October, 1846 (No. 84). I think the heading is ‘Gooseberry Case on Garden Island’ and the owner of the gooseberries had the child brought up in court for stealing one! Confinement beneath a cellar door rather than tying to a fence was the cruelty practised.[…] I know perfectly well that in real life no one marries somebody because she got him to kill a bat; but here, in this story, they do you see.
*[London, Ontario, or London Minor as it was sometimes called.]
On April 12-27 in Toronto, The Alumnae Theatre Company will present James Reaney’s play The Killdeer, which was first produced by the Company in January 1960. The Killdeer is part of Alumnae Theatre’s “Countdown to One Hundred,” as Alumnae Theatre moves closer to celebrating its first century.
For director Barbara Larose, the play is “a story of growth and coming of age, with elements of love and innocence, a search for identity, and a courtroom drama that arises from a murder mystery.” Sound designer Rick Jones’s score, inspired by John Beckwith’s original music from the 1960 production, also includes “magical elements” — a gypsy motif for Madam Fay, bird cries, and the storm.
When: April 12-27 at 8 pm, Wednesday to Saturday
Sunday matinee at 2 pm on April 14 & 21 Where:ALUMNAE THEATRE COMPANY, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario M5A 2W6
Tel: 416-364-4170 Tickets: Wednesday: 2 FOR 1 ($20)
Thursday, Friday & Saturday: $20
Sunday Matinee: PWYC
Pamela Terry (1926-2006), who directed The Killdeer in 1960, was a member of the Alumnae Theatre and directed its first production of Waiting For Godot in 1957. She and her husband, composer John Beckwith, were friends of James Reaney’s, and she encouraged him to write The Killdeer and persuaded the Alumnae Theatre to produce it. John Beckwith put together a background score for The Killdeer, and in his book, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, he describes how he composed the score: “… following Pamela’s directorial suggestions, I improvised musical cues at the piano, as she and I devised various muting devices after the model of John Cage’s ‘prepared piano’” (see page 256).
Here′s a photo [from a scene in Act I] for your website — this is the first time we all got the Jacob′s ladders together in rehearsal!
James Reaney′sSticks and Stones will be presented from March 14-18 at Bishop’s University. Our best wishes to the director, cast, and crew for a successful production!
Update March 17, 2013:David Ferry had this to say about the play’s opening night:
—Well it was a smash opening… gotta say the students so embraced the piece.
And ironically… we lost an actor day before opening, so guess who went on as Pat Farl and Donavan and others?
It was so weird saying those lines, dancing that fight (all off book by the way) in that play 40 years later, which I had also directed.
At the end of the third act dream sequence, after Mrs Donnelly says “Jennie, your father and I will never leave Biddulph.” we freeze frame on that snap shot and then from the gods two dead oak leaves float to the ground…”dead leaf, float light”
It is a special moment.
Here are David Ferry’s program notes from Sticks and Stones:
James Reaney’s famous “Donnelly Trilogy” is arguably the greatest piece of English Canadian dramatic writing to have ever been produced in our professional theatre. Along with Michel Tremblay’s “Les Belles-soeurs” it became one of the few truly breakthrough pieces in our Canadian theatrical his/herstory. Certainly it was the crowning achievement in Reaney’s storied career.
A three time Governor General Award winning writer (winning for both poetry and drama) Reaney was really, like George Ryga, of the post Second World War generation of playwrights that cleared the land for the younger generation of playwrights that followed.
When “Sticks and Stones, The Donnellys, Part One” first opened at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto in 1973, its effect on the theatrical life of the city and country was profound. As the Toronto Star opined, it was “just plain overwhelming.” Its success led to the production of the next two parts of the trilogy the following season at Tarragon, “St. Nicholas Hotel” and “Handcuffs”, and then all three plays toured from sea to sea.
As a young actor in that original “Sticks and Stones” forty years ago, I was in so many ways formed as an artist by that experience, and I still self-identify as a Reaney-ite. Doing the Donnelly plays certainly confirmed me in my nationalism. A close look at the plays will reveal what a breathtaking view Reaney had of his country. He doesn’t merely write about an infamous event in our past… the slaughter of the Donnellys by vigilantes in 1880s South Western Ontario… he writes about the creation of a new world and how the tendrils of the old world wrapped around its ankles and tried to pull, pull it down. Back into the past.
In “Sticks and Stones” Reaney champions a family led by an extraordinary woman (Judith Donnelly) of vision and spirit. The play becomes in no small part a champion of this proto-feminist heroine.
While many of the Donnellys’ neighbours came with them from Ireland to settle in Biddulph County (around the town of Lucan,) few of them had the courage, nobility and determination of the Donnellys to create a new life that turned its back on the sectarian violence and prejudice of the Old Sod. Judith and James Donnelly were determined to start a new life that rejected the rules of the old world.
They chose their friends not by political allegiance or faith but by the strength of that person’s integrity and spirit. They set out to build a farm and a family that could grow without limitations. They taught their children to hold their heads up high. And the children did.
The Donnelly story, in Reaney’s hands, tells us of the evolution of a nation… starting with the agrarian society of those early farmer immigrants from Ireland, moving through the development of early commercialism and industry, to a political culture where the Church and political parties divided and conquered to form a modern Canada.
Reaney’s stage craft in telling HIS story is every bit as startling as his analysis of the evolution of Southwesto society.
As early as 1964 Reaney called for a National theatre that should be created in big wooden-floored rooms across the country; likely Orangemen halls or Masonic temples or Fisherman Union halls on non-meeting nights. He discussed in his 1960s journal “Alphabet” an approach ‘towards a poor theatre’ (before Grotowski) as well as an ’empty space’ and ‘Holy Theatre’ (before Brook). His plays broke through the fourth wall of Naturalism very early on in Canadian theatre, and his plays such as “Listen to the Wind” and ” Colours in the Dark” (Stratford Festival) are the antithesis of the kitchen sink naturalism of David French and others.
His Theatre is one influenced by three ring circuses, Beijing opera, Walt Disney films, puppet plays and children’s tickle trunks and magical make believe.
His stage is filled with the iconography of ladders, wheels, spinning tops, cats cradles, sticks and stones.
It may be challenging for you, the Audience, to make sense of Reaney’s story in a linear way.
It is, perhaps, best to sit back and allow the images and poetry to wash over you and overwhelm you.
Reaney once wrote that the writer’s objective should be to scratch though the bark of “local” in order to arrive at the “universal.”
With “Sticks and Stones” I believe Reaney arrived. In spades.
David Ferry was one of the original cast members of James Reaney’s The Donnellys Part I, Sticks and Stones, which was first performed at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, Ontario on November 24, 1973.
I thought you might like to know that the Birmingham Conservatory, which is the training program at the Stratford Festival that I’m in charge of at the moment, is doing a reading on Sunday night, January 27th, of The Killdeer. We do these readings throughout the five months the Conservatory is in situ, from mid-September to mid-February every year. I give the actors the category (Jacobean, German, Restoration, American, etc. etc.) and they do everything else. They read plays of the period, they choose the play they want to do, they cast, rehearse and produce it themselves and then read it in the Lobby of the Festival Theatre at 7:30 in the evening.
Your Dad’s play comes from the (no kidding!) “Canadian Classic” category, which – although the other categories change from year to year – we always end with. I’m thrilled that they’ve picked The Killdeer and Ann Stuart, the Conservatory Coordinator, suggested you might like to know – or even might like to come! We would be thrilled if you could, needless to say. Even if this isn’t convenient, I wanted you to know it was happening. They are as excited as if they’d discovered the play themselves……which, in a fashion, they have!
These readings are open to the public and we have a lot of loyal patrons who are grateful for some winter activity – especially those who have retired to Stratford because of the Festival – and consistently come to see what their young favourites are doing.
Please join us if you can. If that’s not possible, we will think of you on the evening of the 27th.
Martha Henryappeared in the first production of James Reaney’s Names and Nicknames in 1963 at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and also the first production of Colours in the Dark at the Stratford Festival in July 1967. Both plays were directed by John Hirsch (1930-1989).
The Killdeer was first performed on January 13, 1960, by the University College Alumnae Society at the Coach House Theatre in Toronto. The Alumnae Theatre will present a new production of The Killdeer, April 12-27, 2013 in Toronto.
January 27, 2013: Update from Susan Wallace:“We’ve just come back from Stratford where we saw the most amazing rehearsed reading of Jamie’s The Killdeer in the lobby of the Festival Theatre.
Ruby Joy, niece of our friend Robin McGrath, was Madam Fay, and she was outstanding. She also co-directed the production. No sets, they just sat on chairs and used lecterns when they stood to read their parts, but what a story they told. It was more alive than any other production I’ve ever seen of the play, and what great jokes, told with perfect timing!
We talked at length to Ruby and the other actors, who are part of the Birmingham Conservatory. Martha Henry was there as the boss lady and she got us arranged into a photo. She was full of praise for her trainees and for Jamie and his play.”
Thank you again, Martha Henry and the performers of the Birmingham Conservatory!
All the best for your work in the future. ♦♥♦
For more about this performance of The Killdeer, see JBNBlog.
Thank you and congratulations to all the fine musicians and singers who performed Taptoo! so splendidly last month at the Jane Mallett Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto. Your spirited performances brought the characters to life.
We especially liked young Daniel Bedrossian as Seth Jr. and Teddy Perdikoulias as Ebenezer Jr., and Lise Maher as Mrs. Jarvis and Allison Angelo as Atahentsic were wonderful in Act II. We loved Todd Delaney as Major John Graves Simcoe and Robert Longo as Colonel “Mad Anthony” Wayne.
Thank you, Larry Beckwith, for conducting and directing the orchestra and singers so well. And thank you, Guillermo Silva-Marin, General Director of Toronto Operetta Theatre, for making the premiere of John Beckwith and James Reaney’s work possible. We wish you every success in the future.
James Reaney and John Beckwith developed Taptoo! in 1994, when it had a workshop reading at Historic Fort York. Before this professional production (February 24-26, 2012), there were two presentations of Taptoo! by the students of McGill University (1999) and by the opera division of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music (2003).
Congratulations to the singers and musicians who performed James Reaney and John Beckwith’s opera “Crazy to Kill” last weekend in Toronto, November 11-12, a Toronto Masque Theatre production. Here’s a rave review from some members of your enthusiastic audience:
We thought the production was fantastic! The opera singers can truly add “puppeteers” to their CV’s.
Loved the way everyone moved about the stage — when Agatha slowly drifted past us, it made us part of the story. A great set, with many levels (“rings”).
Loved the opening sewing scene when Agatha mimed the old treadle — and the sound effect, a great idea! Also loved her expressive face peering through the bed pillow — another great idea. The two musicians, Greg Oh (piano) and Ed Reifel (percussion), sounded like a full orchestra. We loved how they were in costume and part of the story!
You must all be exhausted, but also pleased that it was such a success. Jamie would have been delighted.