In penning her new play “Geography of Fire,” two-time Governor General Award winning Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy's challenge was to make an event that happened 260 years ago relevant to 21st century audiences.
The play, being staged one day only at Sudbury Theatre Centre May 18, is about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which, if you know your history, was a deciding moment in what later became Canada.
Summoned by the call of a red-throated loon, the characters come out of the earth in 2019 with bits of clothing from 1759 still clinging to their burial shrouds.
They re-enact their experiences and re-live the battle in order to challenge history’s interpretation of this tumultuous time.
Often portrayed in English Canada as nothing more than a dust-up between two generals fighting for their respective kings, the famous battle is a magnificent, tragic resistance against the land-grabbing corporate idea of empire, a press release said.
Murphy said the trick is to create characters that come alive on stage to make audiences care about them, whether they're from 1759 or 2019.
“That's really the hard thing to create, when you write something like this, is to make it come alive in a meaningful way so it doesn't feel like some kind of dry, boring documentary,” she said.
The deeper meaning of the play is that “history is a living thing,” Murphy said.
“The way we perceive history changes over time,” she said. “The way we think about those events now is way, way different than 100 years ago. History, you can put it in the ground, but it's always alive.”
To create the play, Murphy received a Canada Council of the Arts New Chapter grant, which marked the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 2017 by funding large projects.
“I was lucky to have been chosen, because out of 1,600 applications, only 200 were chosen, and this is one of them,” she said.
The Toronto-based Murphy, who grew up in Manitouwadge in Northern Ontario, chose Sudbury Theatre Centre to develop “Geography of Fire” after forging a relationship with the theatre in 2016 when it staged her play “Armstrong's War.”
“Geography of Fire,” directed by Brian Dooley, features a large cast of 18 actors — many of them from Sudbury, including Matt Heiti, Jake Deeth, Miriam Cusson and France Huot — that play 33 characters.
Local music producer Dan Bedard has created the play's music and soundscape.
And Sudbury artist Suzanne McCrae created 12 life-sized papier-mâché animals that will be used during the production (check out our article on a 2018 exhibit of McCrae's work).
“The whole notion of animals in this play is that they bear witness to the event,” Murphy said.
The play being presented at STC on Saturday is only the first part of “Geography of Fire.” Murphy said she plans to return to Sudbury next year with part two.
She'd eventually like to present the play in other theatres across the country.
You can check out “Geography of Fire” at Sudbury Theatre Centre May 18 at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $20 each. Visit sudburytheatre.com.