Shatter commemorates the 100-year anniversary of the Halifax Explosion

As you may know, I now sit on the Board of Directors of Walterdale Theatre as Co-Director of Publicity. Up next at Walterdale Theatre is Shatter, by Trina Davies playing December 6 – 16. I interviewed Director Josh Languedoc about the play and, to try to remove any bias, I’ve transcribed my interview in a question & answer format below.

From Walterdale’s website: Anna MacLean’s eye has been turned by all the handsome soldiers roaming about the streets of her hometown of Halifax.  She feels the promise of something great is lingering on the horizon for her. Those feelings are as fleeting as a dream.  With Anna’s mother, her best friend, Elsie Schultz are thrown into chaos when their world explodes around them. Based on the events of the Halifax Explosion of 1917, Davies’ intense and thought-provoking work paints a haunting portrait of the aftermath of tragedy.

What was it about Shatter that interested you?

The fact that it’s grounded in a real, historical event. I absolutely love theatre that does that – I love that it takes a real Canadian tragedy and turns it into a fictionalized drama and just the stress the characters go through and the way they influence each other and the way they change. There’s a really clear emotional arc with these characters that I think is really sad to watch.

What happens to the characters in the course of this show?

You get to know the MacLean family before the explosion – it’s the mother and daughter and their very good friend Elsie Schultz. After the explosion, through the influence of a young, handsome soldier, people start to not trust each other. There is a lot of talk that the explosion was caused by the Germans and it becomes this big conspiracy running through Halifax. Eventually, these characters start not trusting each other, and you watch them adopt that viewpoint, which I think is a very toxic vantage point.

Is that one of the main themes – trust and suspicion?

Definitely prejudice and the way in the face of tragedy we almost turn to prejudice to feel safe. It’s like, “we are not this group – this group likely caused the tragedy and as long as we don’t identify with them, we are in a higher state.”

The play is super relevant right now even though it’s about an event that happened 100 years ago. 

Yes, that’s another thing that drew me to the play, with all the shit going on in the world right now, this play, even though it’s set 100 years ago, it’s just as relevant now as it was back then.

Why do you think it’s important to present this work right now, given that it’s dealing with those themes?

Theatre can do a lot of great things, and one of those things is, if you have a really engaging story that’s backed by a strong idea or concept, it can completely change how we look at each other. The challenges in the language we use, or in the way we relate to one another. Even just the way we relate to our own history. I think the play does a fantastic job of doing all those things – it gets people thinking, reflecting on the past, on how different or not different things are now and what they can do now as we move forward, if there’s anything they think they can do.

Are those the things you hope people walk away from the play thinking and talking about? 

I hope people do see the similarities between then and now. I don’t want people to look at this and go, “Yeah, when Halifax blamed the Germans for everything, that was a crappy part of our history. I’m so glad we’re past that.” That to me would be really problematic. I hope people who see this show think, “Oh my God, the way these people pigeon-hole the Germans is very similar to the way Muslim and Arabic people are getting pigeon-holed today.’

One of the things I thought was interesting was it seems like the show contrasts this love story with the disaster. Why do you think the playwright did that and what does that tension add to the show?

There’s a lot of hard stuff to get through in this show. There is a lot of emotion and big, sad moments the audience has to get through, but the cool thing about the romance is it’s hopeful and amongst all the tragedy there is this hope and this sense of naivety. The hopeful thing, which is also tragic, is that they’re so young – one is 16 and one is 19 – and they’re both kind of the blank slates that we see change. The audience watches the girl be affected by the guy and watches the guy influence the family and watches how that ideology of ‘blame this and we’re safe’ gets transmitted to these two young leads. But amongst that, it’s such a cute romance that blossoms between the two. It’s young love, in a nutshell. I think it is a nice example of young, naive love and I think we need to see that to be reminded that there are great things in the world. We can find beautiful things in the darkness amongst the tragedy.

Your quote in the press release said you want ‘audiences to feel the emotional weight of this tragedy by seeing themselves as these characters’. How have you and the production team worked to accomplish that?

We’ve divided the cast into two halves – we have the four leads and with them, we’ve done a lot of work on grilling the backstory of the characters. Where they’ve come from, why they believe what they believe, what they want out of each other. We’ve spent a solid chunk of time having the actors understand who these humans are and working in the contrast – the character may believe one thing in one scene but in the next scene they’re showing a different belief. We’ve shown that contrast in how they present themselves. I think that the audience will see these full three-dimensional characters. We’ve worked with the actors to ask themselves the questions the audience will ask. The mother, for example, how would it feel if you lost your eyes and can’t see anyone anymore? How would you take it if the entire world was black and you can’t take care of anyone anymore? Or the daughter – how would you feel as a 16-year-old if you saw your mother struggling the same way the character does? These are all things the audience will reflect on.

We also have a chorus who we call The Shadows. They’re kind of like a haunting Greek chorus that comes in between scenes and have a text of their own. They’re the ones who carry the weight of the suspicion and the prejudice. They say things like, “You think you can do that to us? See what we do to you.” and spread the gossip. I think there is a cool theatrical convention built with The Shadows – the audience will hear things that they might hear today.

Was there anything I didn’t ask about that you wanted to mention?

Yes – opening night, December 6, exactly matches the 100th anniversary of this event, which occurred on December 6, 1917. I think that’s such a crazy spiritual coincidence that it ended up that way.

The other thing I think is really cool is the fact that Trina Davies, the playwright, will be doing a talkback with the audience on December 13 with myself and four of the actors. She’ll be talking about her work, and specifically this play.

Shatter by Trina Davies plays at Walterdale Theatre December 6 – 16. Tickets are $18 – $20 through Tix on the Square. Tickets on Thursday, December 7 are two-for-one at the door.

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