Letters from Battle River at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

Letters from Battle River at the Edmonton Fringe Festival. Photo supplied by David Cheoros.

Letters from Battle River at the Edmonton Fringe Festival. Photo supplied by David Cheoros.

Letters From Battle River by David Cheoros and Karen Simonson
August 11, 13, 14, 16, 18, 19, 21 at the Garneau Theatre

An interview with David Cheoros.

Describe your show in five words.

British doc undergoes culture shock.

Okay, now that we’re intrigued… what’s the longer description?

A brilliant young English doctor, Mary Percy, chafes under the restrictions facing her career at home. She accepts a one year placement in Canada, and is shipped up to Notikewin (now Manning, Alberta), just opening up to new homesteaders. She writes a funny, incisive and poetic series of letters home to her family. She describes the realities of frontier medicine, the minutiae of life in a new settlement. Almost immediately, her prejudices about first nations and eastern European cultures are challenged, and she comes to admire the rich and resilient communities around her. Letters from Battle River was the first show that MAA & PAA Theatre did, nine years ago. Although we’ve now got another dozen slices of Alberta history under our belt, this remains one of our favourite shows, and it’s been a delight to revisit it.
Letters from Battle River was the first shows MAA & PAA Theatre produced. Why did you want to revisit and revive Letters from Battle River at the Edmonton Fringe?

When you adapt history for theatre, you get used to teasing dramatic moments and poetic language out of some very dry and often obscure documents. Courtroom transcripts don’t come ready-made with moments of the high tension you expect from courtroom dramas. By contrast, Mary’s letters home are chock-full of beautiful and evocative descriptions, a keen eye for detail, and bitchy and self-deprecating humour. We wanted to revisit it because we love the words so much. Also, there’s a lot in the play about Canada’s responsibilities to first nations communities, and all of that seemed more relevant than ever in the context of the TRC findings.

Thinking back to when you first started creating Letters from Battle River, how did you come across Mary Percy’s letters and story? What was it about Mary that captured your imagination and interest?

In October 2006, I attended a public reading of selected documents at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, along with my wife Karen Simonson (a staff member at the Archives) and our close friend Heather Swain (an actor who went on to play Mary in our first production). Two of Mary’s letters were on the bill, and all three of us immediately fell in love with her. Over the next six months, I transcribed all of the letters, and the three of us began to read, compare favourites, and come up with a shape for the show.

MAA & PAA Theatre’s shows are rooted in Alberta’s history. How do you go about researching and creating your shows?

Karen is a research archivist at the PAA, and also spent two years writing descriptions of the holdings, so almost no one knows more about the contents of those holdings than her.  As well, after our first couple of shows, the work took on a kind of momentum, with patrons and other historians coming forward to recommend stories for future shows.  Just from conversations with patrons in line at the opening day of ticket sales on Wednesday, I got three suggestions for future shows.  Now, the challenge comes from finding the time to research and write.  A one hour show takes 100-200 hours to research, and another 30-100 to write (maybe I’m slow).  We both work and now have two kids…you do the math.
The process is a little different for each show, but generally involves a lot of reading and seeking out of primary sources, and interviews with relevant individuals for those shows in which we can still connect with the people involved.  Karen and I talk over ways to structure the storytelling, and will bounce text back and forth, sometimes for months.  When we can, we involve actors in readings and workshops to refine a work.  Sometimes, a play will take two or three years (or, in the case of Darrin Hagen’s Witch Hunt at the Strand, a decade) to reach the stage.

Anything else you want audiences to know about the show?

I was one of many, many students who were traumatized by high school classes that focused on the dates of battles and the construction of history around the cult worship of heroic leaders. If you think that history is a series of wars, then it’s hard to connect it with your own life. But these plays focus instead on specific moments in history, turning points as experienced by people at their heart. People who are just as passionate, smart and messed up as anyone you’ll find in fiction.

The 35th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is August 11 – 21. Get your tickets at tickets.fringetheatre.ca.

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