Our Eliza

Jeff Elliott
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Savage Cove native Megan Coles discusses her critically acclaimed play

“There was a complete silence – almost like a dead space on the line. He had never had to consider that before because he was ‘one of the boys’, and situations like those were not part of his daily thought processes.”

It was a simple question posed to her father that left Megan Coles in the middle of a muted phone conversation, with nothing but a moment of repose to revisit the past and to ponder it.

It was this quiescence that inspired Coles to pen ‘Our Eliza’, the critically acclaimed play that depicts outport Newfoundland’s coming of age. The heartfelt and humorous stage show will make its debut on the Northern Peninsula during a four-day run at the Iceberg Festival starting June 7.

Crafting the play

“I was attending theatre school in Montreal and it was my first year away,” said Coles, who was born and raised in Savage Cove. “I suppose I was complaining about some sort of inconvenience – transportation or my small apartment – and my father responded in the same way a lot of rural Newfoundland dads do, by comparing my current living inadequacies to a situation he would have experienced growing up.”

Mimicking her best ‘dad’ voice, Coles lightheartedly parodied a familiar sentiment: “We had to carry a junk of wood both ways uphill to school, in a snowstorm, where there was no light, no plumbing and no running water.”

It was during that conversation about life in the slow lane that Coles began to ponder the traditional roles of men and women in rural Newfoundland.

“I started thinking about accidents that could have potentially happened during the night, like, someone knocking over a pail in the dark,” she said. “I immediately asked my father if situations like this happened often and he, without hesitation, agreed.”

It was then that Coles asked, in reference to the spilt pail: “well, who would clean it up?”

 

(Cue in momentary dead air)

 

“Hearing my father having to think about it, eventually responding with ‘your nan or one of your aunts, I guess’, made me start to think about all of these wonderful women who did so much for so many people, and contributed to the building of their communities, but were potentially taken for granted in Newfoundland and Labrador because they didn’t hold traditional, professional positions,” said Coles.

The play, she said, is a reconciliation of her childhood as a rural Newfoundlander with her adult reality as a playwright living in Montreal. It tells the story of a father-daughter relationship and the sense of obligation that accompanies such a relationship.

At the age of 24 she was feeling homesick for the Northern Peninsula and there wasn’t a whole lot she could do about that homesickness at the time, other than write a play about all the people and the places that she missed, that would allow her to revisit it.

Every day, for four hours, she got to live in that world again.

“So much happened to the peninsula in such a short period of time and I don’t think we had the opportunity to reflect on that,” she said. “In a matter of decades we went from being incredibly isolated, through a booming fishing industry, to a complete collapse and full-out migration – I don’t think that, during this crisis, we had a chance to fully comprehend how that affected us, as people.”

Coles is hopeful that the play will start a dialogue around shared experiences.

“If anything, the play allows people to use a similar language to talk about how they feel about what happened and maybe step back and look at the coming of age of our peninsula,” she said. “Eliza’s coming of age is pretty much a parallel to the Northern Peninsula’s coming of age – their adolescences together.”

Building the business

Coles graduated from The National Theatre School in 2009 and moved back to Newfoundland in the fall of that year. She met up with Shannon Hawes, who attended the same school as her, and they, together, decided to create a theatre company.

Mirrored from the original name placed on the area where Coles grew up and where her ancestors had settled, Poverty Cove Theatre Company was born three years ago to alter perceptions of what theatre is and where theatre happens by exploring non-traditional and unconventional site-specific venues, she said.

“I thought there was something very intriguing about the idea of ‘feast or famine’,” said Coles. “In an industry where you’re reliant on resources, you do have these ebbs and flows and the arts are very much like that – you’re overworked and incredibly busy, to the point of mental and physical exhaustion.”

This exhaustion, she said, is often followed by a complete stoppage.

“The idea of Poverty Cove is so rural and is juxtaposed with the idea of a theatre company which, in Newfoundland and Labrador, is a very urban institution,” said Coles. “I really like that juxtaposition because it reflects the work we do and the attitudes we have towards that work.”

Accepting the accolade

In association with the Arts and Culture center, Poverty Cove Theatre Company premiered Our Eliza earlier this year at the Barbara Barrett Theatre in St. John’s.

The show’s entire two-week run was sold out and garnered an abundance of accolade.

“The Arts and Culture Centre has been very much onboard with getting this play out to the people that it was written for from day one,” said Coles. “As an established cultural institution, I think it gave Poverty Cove a level of credibility that we might not have had without that partnership.”

As for the show itself, she said, it’s built to tour.

“We developed the show in a traditional theatre setting (the Barbara Barrett) and put it into The Hunter Library, which is also a part of the Arts and Culture Centre,” said Coles. “It’s a very different atmosphere there and you don’t have the same technical capacity and sound space.”

She said that, once the show goes on the road, they would only need to take a couple of technical pieces with them.

“The technical requirements of the show are relatively clean and simplistic,” she said. “I think this allows the play to travel to places in rural Newfoundland that it wouldn’t be able to, had there been extreme technical restrictions placed upon it.”

They are prepared to perform the show anywhere that’s large enough for a stage and an audience to co-exist, she said.

“We’ve been really blessed to have some extremely talented theatre people involved in Our Eliza – Lois Brown directed the original production, for example, and she is, quite likely, one of the foremost theatre directors in our province,” said Coles. “We also have Greg Malone, Renee Hackett and Steve Lush performing the show, who are some of the most enjoyable people to watch on stage -- they are funny and heartfelt and genuine and the story is so important to them.”

Coles’ play is fully inspired by life on the Northern Peninsula and after all this time, she said, she is very enthusiastic about finally being able to take her work back to her hometown and back to the place where she grew up.

 

jeff.elliott@northernpen.ca

 

Our Eliza will tour the Northern Peninsula beginning June 7 at the Iceberg Festival and tickets can be purchased at: Plum Point Irving in Plum Point; Northern Motor’s Esso in Flower’s Cove; and the Haven Inn in St. Anthony.

 

 

Organizations: Poverty Cove Theatre Company, National Theatre School, Culture center Barbara Barrett Theatre The Hunter Library Esso Haven Inn

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Northern Peninsula, Montreal Savage Cove Newfoundlander Plum Point St. Anthony

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  • John in CB
    June 16, 2013 - 20:24

    We thoroughly enjoyed the play and wish to recommend it to anyone interested in rural Newfoundland culture as it used to be up until a few years ago. Good luck on the many roads I hope these fine actors will travel with this great production. If you get a chance, go see it.