The middle of winter is exactly the right time for Beth and Megan Dart’s ‘whimsical fairy tale’ about their grandparent’s love story to light up our theatre scene. According to Beth Dart, Director of Ursa Major, the play is, “based on the true love story of our grandparents. It’s about their meeting and their love and eventually how they passed.”
The world première of Ursa Major runs in Studio C at the ATB Arts Barns January 27 – February 7 and is presented by Workshop West Playwright’s Theatre in association with Catch the Keys Productions.
Megan Dart, who wrote Ursa Major further explains, “Our grandparents were in an accident on Highway II. Our grandfather was in a coma following the accident and our grandmother made the really difficult decision to keep him alive even though he was brain injured following the accident. So, it’s really a celebration of the love they had for each other. When she was given the option to either let him go or keep him alive, she told the doctors, ‘He has cared for me my entire life, I will not forsake him now.’ It must have been an incredibly hard decision for her to make. We’re kind of exploring that difficult decision and the weight that had on the life they lived afterward. But more than anything it’s a big ol’ celebration of their love.”
Ursa Major was born out of Catch the Keys Productions’ play Snout in 2012. Megan says it was a tough day in the creative process of Snout that led her to write the first draft of Ursa Major when she was supposed to be working on rewrites to Snout. “I sent it to Beth and our mentor and I was like, ‘We’re doing this now!’ and Beth was like, ‘No, we’re not.’ But it was the first iteration of what became Ursa Major and we also discovered that this was a story we’ve been wanting to tell for a long, long time and it took us some healing and time when we got to the point where we could tell it. We’re thankful for that really difficult day in the creative process that pushed the first version of the story ahead.”
In the 2014/2015 theatre season, Catch the Keys was the company in residence at Catalyst Theatre, which allowed them time and space to develop Ursa Major, culminating in an invitation-only presentation of the play at the end of their residency. Beth says, “It was great to get a little bit of feedback from colleagues, peers, and mentors. But [the residency] really allowed us to dig into the characters and the plot and the language of the script, so a lot of it was about focusing energy on the script itself. We also included a lot of movement development as well. Ainsley Hillyard of the Good Women Dance Collective is our choreographer and has been with us since that residency. We did a lot of development in both the whimsical aspect of the beginning of the show and also the movement of the crash and after.”
And the residency with Catalyst Theatre also helped Catch the Keys meet up with Vern Thiessen, Artistic Director of Workshop West and the dramaturg for Ursa Major. Megan says being put in touch with Vern was, “An incredible gift. Vern is an incredibly generous dramaturg. He brings such experience and insight into the process… It’s pretty incredible to have someone of Vern’s prestige supporting the project… That’s been the biggest gift of this project overall. Quite often as a scrappy little company we don’t have the gift of time to devote to one project… having the gift of time has been incredible. I think it’s allowed us to focus in on our process, which sounds wanky but it’s also awesome.”
For the world première, Beth has cast Paula Humby and Cliff Kelly to star in Ursa Major. Megan says, “Paula and Cliff bring this project as much as we do, so they’re bringing a real honest heart to the production, which has been awesome.” Beth adds that the youthfulness of Paula and Cliff underscores the whimsical themes and idea of young love that come across in this show. “There’s kind of a fable aspect to the script, and I wanted to keep that whimsical fairy tale feel to it through the beginning of the show and it was important to carry it through to the final scene as well. Kind of the youthfulness of immediate and honest love and how love keeps you young too.”
That whimsical aspect of the show is also integrated throughout all of the production elements – from Cheyenne Sykes’ costume and lighting design to Matt Schuurman’s set and projection design, and to Leif Ingebrigsten’s music. Beth says Leif’s experience creating improvised music through shows like Off Book: The Improvised Musical lends itself perfectly to the composition he’s creating throughout the rehearsal process. “It’s amazing, we’re in rehearsal and he plays with us as we’re rehearsing and as we go through the scene I’ll talk to Paula and Cliff about the scene and I’ll turn to Lief and ask him to try this or that. ‘Less twinkle’ is the direction I gave yesterday today and he’s like, ‘Yeah, got it.’ and he does it. It’s amazing, he has so much experience as an improvisational musician with improv comedy and it’s such an immediate resource for him. It’s amazing to have him in the room. If we want to try a scene a different way, we’ll get a totally different feel from the music. It gives us a lot to play with.”
While Ursa Major is a love story, it also explores many issues with aging, palliative care, living wills, dementia and end-of-life that the Darts family and many others have experienced but, Megan says feedback on that first presentation of Ursa Major as part of their residency with Catalyst let them know that people overwhelmingly held on to the love story. “Regardless of all of the tragedy that has happened between these two people, there was also this beautiful overarching idea of love and devotion and that’s what we hope people will take away more than anything.”
During Chinook, there will be a special salon associated with Ursa Major on January 31 called “After the Crash”, where Beth and Megan will engage brain injury specialists to discuss brain trauma and recovery.
If you’d like to help contribute to Ursa Major, you can donate to Catch the Keys’ Indiegogo campaign until January 27.
PS – for more on Ursa Major, check out Savanna Harvey’s interview with Megan and Beth on Savanna’s YouTube channel, The Pretentious English Major.