Isn’t it strange how our landscape and surroundings are filled with infrastructures and buildings that we just feign interest in because they were always just there. Our histories are so vast that at times they seem unexplorable, something that we often take for granted.
It would be safe to assume that almost every Niagara resident has experienced a moment where they have been left helpless waiting for a ship to cross through the Welland Canal. But, how many of us have thought about how the Canals were built?
How many of us think and comprehend the fact that these Canals were built before the advent of technology? That they were physically dug out by hand and shovel over 200 years ago, by people much like you or I?
These are the stories that Essential Collective Theatre [ECT] are portraying in their latest production, The Welland Canal Play.
“Niagara has been forever changed because of the canal and how it cuts through the Region,” said Monica Dufault, Director. “So with this play, we are covering the whole history of the Canal. The play begins in 1824 and moves through to present day and we look at the stories of the people who worked on the canals. This play is a very ambitious piece for ECT because we are doing a new script by a local playwright (Kevin Hobbs) about a story that is rooted in Niagara.”
The story begins with a driver being stuck at a life bridge, contemplating about the history of the canal. The ghosts of the Welland Canal are then summoned and proceed to tell the stories of the people who built the Canal. We learn of William Hamilton Merritt and George Keefer, who dreamed that commerce could move through Lake Ontario to Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes through the construction of a Canal. From there, we see the Canal continue to be rebuilt over the next hundred years, until it reached its fourth re-iteration that we see now.
Six actors (Jocelyn Adema, David DiFrancesco, Landon Doak, Nicole Joy-Fraser, Darren Keay and Reanne Spitzer) are guided with projections, poetry, costumes, music and songs to tell these stories.
“Hobbs has done a great job in writing these amazing characters. This isn’t going to be a documentary played out on the stage. These are normal people with problems and egos and they fall in love and they experience loss. Much like the people we all are,” said Doak, who also doubles as the Music Director. “The play really reflects and relates to characters that are still alive today.”
“I think the play will be very impactful, my hope is that people will get the experience of what it was like to dig out the canal, and what the workers lives were like,” said Dufault. “We just hope to impart the understanding of the hours and years of labour that went into building all four versions of the Canal.”
The Welland Canal Play is the second production (the first being The Fighting Days) that ECT will be taking on the road, with stops in Port Colborne, Wainfleet, Pelham, Welland, Fort Erie and Ridgeway.
“We have an opportunity now to tell Canadian and Regional stories, and I hope our audiences respond to it. I think audiences will see themselves in this story,” said Dufault. “I imagine that when people leave the theatre they will be driving past the Canal thinking ‘I know so much more about this now, about this place that I live in and what’s down the street from me.”
The Welland Canal Play is being performed in the Roberston Theatre at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre from Oct. 12-22. More information about other performances can be found at ectheatre.ca