Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | January 5, 2009


Sometimes art and life brush so close together that it’s difficult to tell them apart. Such was the case earlier this month in the village of Wakefield, Quebec, where, on the same weekend that throngs of people flocked to the grand opening of the new strip mall at one end of town, a play written and performed by a local amateur theatre group parodied the same strip mall in front of sold out audiences at the town’s other end.


An epic hue and cry was raised last winter when villagers first learned of the planned mall, with its Giant Tiger and Subway outlets. The local newspaper’s letters page was packed for weeks with arguments of the environment vs. jobs, the value of local business vs. an expanded municipal tax base, and the architectural integrity of this historic village vs. the undeniable blessing of cheap socks. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that Robert Bussier, the mayor of La Pêche – the municipality that includes Wakefield – appeared at first to deny the existence of the proposed development, then flip-flopped and admitted it was in the works. More than anything else, perhaps, it was this that got people’s backs up: the feeling of disempowerment about what gets built in their backyard, the duplicity at municipal council, and the way the mayor ignored the results of a public consultation he commissioned several years ago that told him to leave the land in question undeveloped. It was one of those polarizing debates where the yea’s can’t understand what the nay’s are whining about, and the nay’s can’t fathom how the yea’s can be so complacent. In the end the pro-development side won; no militant vandals burned the mall down during its construction; and it opened amid balloons and fuzzy orange tigers November 13.


That same day the Wakefield Players’ Train’s Labour Lost: Another Village Power Play took to a makeshift stage before a standing room only crowd in Vorlage’s main lodge. It was the second production of its kind for the young theatre group, and, according to their producer, Peter Gillies, an example of a unique model of development for amateur theatre in Canada. First, twenty-odd locals — a few with careers in theatre, but most with no acting experience beyond their high school musical — got together and created characters for themselves. Most are send-ups of local personality types, such as a wildflower-gathering, chronically disorganized child of the sixties, or a chain-smoking developer. Others take aim at more specific personalities: the editor of the local newspaper, the proprietor of the popular eatery Chez Eric, or La Pêche’s less-popular mayor. Next, Scott Daly, a high school drama teacher with a talent for satire, wrote a script that somehow tied together this menagerie of overblown egos into a narrative arch. Once that was done, the workshopping/rehearsals began. The text was anything but sacred, as the cast and director – professional theatre director turned documentary filmmaker Robert Rooney – tore up whole pages of dialogue and rewrote others until the script was a chaotic mangle of scribbled pencil marks. Finally, with changes still being made on the final day, it was performed in front of the community.


The result was a play peppered with references to local institutions, events, and people, and rife with “in” jokes that only those immersed in the Wakefield universe would get. For example, in one scene homophobe Ed Ens and Mayor Plak are mistakenly assumed to be gay partners. While the joke on the surface is worth a laugh, anyone acquainted with the two actors playing these characters knows that they actually are a couple in real- life, thus creating a whole new, richer layer of humour beneath the obvious joke. And the mayor’s performance was enlivened by the knowledge that the real mayor sat in the audience, hopefully taking his skewering with the practiced good-humour of the professional politician. 


The delight of this development model – for both the audience and the actors – is that it is a reflection of the local community; people love to see depictions of themselves and their neighbours in art. Somehow, the jokes are that much funnier when they land so close to home. There is a sense of shared experience, of fates bound up together, when a whole room roars with laughter over the caricature of the new Giant Tiger as “Big Kitty Cheap Stuff-O-Rama”.


The real-life mall that so quickly filled the empty lot at the other side of the village with its white-hot lights, cartoonish plywood buildings, and cheap, sweatshop-made goods is an example of another development model, one completely opposed to that used by the Wakefield Players. Its model uses homogeny, economies of scale, centralization, and hierarchy to achieve its ends. It has no attachment to place or people, only profit. And it can be found expanding into nearly every nook and cranny on the planet, bulldozing unique, local culture before it.


It’s this model that some of the people who call Wakefield home intuitively reacted against last winter, and it’s the theatre group’s model that they just as intuitively embrace whenever they wish to strengthen the bonds of community.


While the strip mall’s model might be good for the economy, many in Wakefield are forced to wonder, both on stage and in real life: is the economy good for us?


Copywrite Sean Butler 2004






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