Performance unites theatre and archives.
Alex Fancy is pioneering a unique form of performance. He calls it “memorial theatre.”
His dramatic reading, entitled 14–18: Allisonians at War, recently premiered in the Motyer-Fancy Theatre. By collecting and curating letters, poems, speeches and newspaper articles from the Mount Allison community between 1914 and 1918, Fancy hoped to observe Remembrance Day and the centennial of the First World War with a presentation of historical memory.
“I wanted those passages and those voices to speak for themselves,” said Fancy during an interview, regarding the medium of presentation. “It seemed like a dramatic reading was the only way of doing it.”
The idea for the production originally came from Margaret Fancy, who was fascinated by the wealth of Mt. A students, staff, alumni and soldiers that dedicated many cultural contributions to the First World War. Fancy’s challenge was to organize the massive amount of documents into an engaging and accessible narrative. To do this, he had different actors and actresses representing various areas of the Mt. A community, such as the Eurhetorian Debate Society, the Ladies’ College, the Argosy newspaper, and the Canadian soldiers in France.
The reading was divided into “scenes” that progressed chronologically but also thematically, exploring different emotions and attitudes of students, staff and soldiers as the War evolved.
“Those scenes are dramatic in their contrast, and they also provided a kind of trajectory,” said Fancy. “Stories provide coherence in a chaotic world.”
This idea of contrast was central to the reading, as many of the monologues invited comparisons between the drastically different experiences for those at the university and those serving abroad. Mitchell Gunn, whose character served to channel the voices of the soldiers in France, spoke to these contrasting images.
“This was an incredibly deterministic event going on in Europe,” said Gunn. “There was a lot of juxtaposition between the seriousness and the tragedy that was going on overseas, and the humble college life.”
The reading also seemed to stress the complexities of human experience, and moved between moments of trauma and loss, as well as comedy and celebration. To this end, Gunn felt that this type of theatre was a valuable exercise because of its ability to present a diversity of perspectives during this historical period.
“It wasn’t just a tragic war effort,” said Gunn. “The people who were alive at the time, they still laughed, they still sang, and they were still happy.”
“[The audience] knew that it was a multifaceted thing, and they relished the reminder,” said Gunn.
When constructing the script for the play, Fancy saw these written records as an important way for individuals to have their voices heard. In particular, he saw the journalism, poetry, and letters published in the Argosy during this period as constructive ways to discuss the trauma of the War.
“The Argosy created a space where people could talk about their experiences,” said Fancy. “I think maybe [the newspaper] provided a therapeutic venue to share experiences and feelings that they didn’t have any other way of sharing.”
Based on feedback from the performances, Fancy is considering making this event an annual one. The reading was staged on Nov. 5, 6, and 11.