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SCENE SETTER: Playwright 'awestruck' by 200-year-old tale

Leah Holder's Mary of Shanty Bay brings Mary O'Brien's story out of the shadows and into the limelight; 'We don’t hear a lot about how people lived day to day,' Holder says

Theatre provides a great deal of benefits to the community and one of the most important is connection. Generally speaking, local history doesn’t always engage people in a way that moves them, but combining history with live theatre, that is a truly magnificent mixture that connects people to their community.

Bringing the stories of people who lived here before us is no small task, but when an artist connects genuinely to the story, there is no stopping what happens next.

This was the case with playwright, actor, director, dramaturg, and educator Leah Holder.

Her play, Mary of Shanty Bay, brought the harrowing story of Mary O’Brien out from the shadows of history and into the lights of the stage to sold-out houses in 2018. Later this month, audiences will have the opportunity to experience her story again, but first, I had the opportunity to ask Holder a few questions about the process and upcoming production.

RV: What drew you to the story of Mary O’Brien (née Gapper)?

LH: I first encountered Mary Gapper by accident. Or fate. I was researching another play about Barrie’s history and stumbled upon The Journals of Mary O’Brien 1828-1838. And I was awestruck. Then enthralled. How could this woman have existed, kept such an amazing and beautifully written record of 10 important years of her life, had such an impact on the development of Upper Canada, and yet I knew nothing about her?

I have always been a student of history, especially women’s history, which is so under-represented in the way we study Canadian history and the past. There is such a focus on the politics and economics of 19th-century Canada and we don’t hear a lot about how people lived day to day. Mary Gapper’s letters and journals record her day-to-day experience, her feelings, her philosophy towards life, and her inner turmoil as she makes the biggest decision of her life.

It read like a Jane Austen novel and I couldn’t put it down. She is active and spirited, funny, impassioned, intelligent, driven, and in so many ways I felt like I was reading the inner world of a 19th century version of myself. I knew as soon as I encountered her journals that I had to turn it into something else.

RV: Did you expect Mary of Shanty Bay to be a sold-out event in 2018? And what do you attribute to its success?

LH: The success of the show was super surprising, and wasn’t expected at all. We have always had such incredible support from the community of Shanty Bay itself, so we knew that we had a dedicated audience, but we certainly couldn’t have expected to be sold out. When you’re writing and rehearsing a new play, you’re down in the trenches, trying to piece this story together, and see if it holds, and continually changing and shifting lines and story beats to have the most impact – and the time runs out, the play opens, and you keep your fingers crosses that all that work and effort has been successful.

I think a big part of the play’s success is really due to the folks in Shanty Bay itself, especially Susan Woods. Susan was such a cheerleader for this show, and the necessity of telling the story of this community. And her enthusiasm was contagious.

I also think that Mary’s story of finding a home and purpose in a new place, of making the hard choice between what you know and what could be, is universal, no matter what century you live in.

RV: What are you hoping to accomplish with the upcoming remounted production?

LH: For starters, I’m not even thinking of it as a remount. It’s a whole new production.

The artistic and creative team is almost all brand new. And because so much time has passed since the original production, there is such an opportunity to re-approach the work fresh. My own writing style has changed in the last four years, and in some places, what I wanted to say in terms of the story has shifted slightly. So I’ve taken the time to rewrite some scenes and lines.

It is always a gift to be able to go back to a new play. You learn so much by running the show, and then it ends, and you don’t get to put all that learning into practice. So it’s been so valuable to be able to make changes based on the original production.

I am also hoping to publish the play this time around.

RV: As the playwright and titular character, what challenges did you encounter during the rehearsal process?

LH: It has been incredibly challenging being both the playwright and playing the titular character. Something I’ve learned is that I only have one head, so I can only wear one hat at a time.

In rehearsal, I try to consciously focus on one job at a time. While I’m performing, I’m focused on being a living, breathing Mary O’Brien, and of embodying her story. I can’t worry about the overarching story, or what things look like from the audience perspective. I have to be in it. And that means when I get home from rehearsal I have to put the playwright hat on and get back to work.

So another challenge is balancing time. If anyone finds an extra day in the week, please let me know.

RV: Was there something you learned about yourself while preparing to play Mary?

LH: I would say that it’s more that I learned a lot about myself while writing the play. There is a lot of Leah Holder in the words that Mary says — and there are many lines and moments where I can’t remember if it was something from Mary’s brain or mine. So the writing contains a lot of my own self-assessment and an unpacking of my own thoughts about the world, and how to live in it. And Mary continues to teach me a lot about myself – even all this time later, I always find something new in what she offers.

LH: What other women in history do you think deserve more recognition, on stage or otherwise?

RV: All of them. Mary's life story is one of countless such stories that should be better known. We have hers because of her privilege: she wrote it down and her family saved it. But also because she was extremely well educated, of the gentry class, and she was white.

Her brothers and then her husband were part of the upper echelons of power in the colony.

The study of history has been white-male focused for centuries, because traditional history has looked at shifts in power, and so studies the powerful. But there is a big push amongst academics, writers and storytellers to uplift and re-centre underrepresented communities, including women, BIPOC, LGBTQ, and people with disabilities. There is still a long way to go on all those fronts.

RV: Do you have any advice for emerging playwrights that you wish someone had shared with you?

LH: Just do it. I was incredibly fortunate that Theatre by the Bay gave me the opportunity and space to write this play. I don’t know if I would have finished it otherwise.

My advice for folks like myself, who are not career writers, is this:

One, find something you are passionate about – like you are called to tell this story, and it cannot be anyone else’s.

Two, find a way to have a deadline – apply for a grant, tell someone about your play, whatever it is, be responsible to something outside yourself so you get the work done.

Three, just do it. The beautiful and amazing thing about plays is that they are a team sport, so you just have to start the work enough that others are inspired to join you in your storytelling.

Mary of Shanty Bay runs Sept. 21 to Oct. 1 at the historic St. Thomas Anglican Church (28 Church St., Shanty Bay) before touring to Collingwood in partnership with Theatre Collingwood with show dates between Oct. 5-8.

More information about the play and how to purchase tickets can be found by clicking here.