My initial response to the Bedford Players audition notice for Isabella, local author Karen Waterfield’s play about the Halifax Explosion, was less than enthusiastic. Was there really anything new to say about the calamity?
At the last minute, I decided to audition. I do always enjoy being on stage, and as one starting to write biographical plays myself, I figured I would learn something useful from being a part of this venture. And I liked the idea of the playwright directing her own play. Who better to show what was meant by a certain speech or gesture than the playwright herself?
By the time I’d been cast as Mr. Kemp, a kindly, avuncular retired chap, and had attended a few rehearsals, I sensed there was something quite special about this Explosion play.
Karen told the now-familiar story through the prism of a single, extraordinarily compelling (and exceptionally gutsy) female character, Isabella Sudds, who at the opening curtain has just recently arrived in Halifax from her native Scotland. Secondly, by starting in 1914, Isabella offers a good look at the social history of early 20th century Halifax, and an equally good look at the effects of the First World War and the Explosion itself. As Karen said in a post-production interview, “It was important to me to show that Isabella’s was not the only story to be told. I wanted her to be part of a neighbourhood that was affected in a variety of ways.”
Pivotal to the play was the direct involvement of the Sudds family, Isabella’s descendants. Karen was, as she said in the interview, initially inspired to write the play through conversations with the late Keith Sudds, Isabella’s grandson and a co-worker at Bell Aliant, where she was then employed. The two initially met over after-work drinks. “I met Sudds over the suds!” she quipped.
They would begin to talk about Isabella only after Karen had induced Keith to start working at Bedford Players, where she was already heavily involved. “I think my grandmother’s story would make a great play!” she recalls Keith saying.
Their frequent conversations about her provided much of the material used in the play. Later, Keith’s extended family would become involved, undertaking a good deal of research and sending Keith factual information about Isabella’s life, as well as some possible explanations as to how Isabella met Herbert Sudds (her second husband).
The family’s involvement continued right up to the actual performance run. Many Sudds family members attended on opening night. Knowing that family members would be seeing the play made Karen feel an obligation to keep the characters recognizable, particularly to those family members. But this would also facilitate her work as director. “Knowing the person a particular character represented made it easier to see how he or she would act in a given situation.”
Having grown up in Halifax’s North End, the playwright was in a position to place the Explosion’s effects in the broader context of the city’s social and cultural history. As she noted in the interview, “The story of the Explosion was entrenched in the neighbourhood. The wall around the playground at my school was made from stone damaged in the explosion. Fort Needham was our playground.” Many of us in the cast would come to know that neighbourhood ourselves by walking through it on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, with Karen as our tour guide.
A distinctive feature of Isabella is its sizable number of “crowd scenes,” with a large number of people on stage together. Often what is most important about these scenes, which Karen wanted because they link the world of the play to the larger community, is what people do and say when they don’t have formal lines to deliver.
My personal favourite, and one that we worked extra hard on, is the “wake scene” late in the first act. Set in Isabella’s home, the scene depicts a wake held for her first husband, Roy, recently killed in action at Passchendaele. In attendance are many close family friends. I (as Mr. Kemp) am there, along with my son Lawrence and wife Charlotte.
The scene focused on the tension between community members and Mrs. Meek, Roy’s mother, who is unable to accept her son’s death and takes out her rage and frustration on her daughter-in-law Isabella. Slowly, painstakingly, through such means as private chattering and suggestive facial gestures, Karen showed us how to create common community moods, from gentle humour as we remember Roy and some of the things he did to collective outrage as we witness Mrs. Meek’s bullying of Isabella.
Building the scene entailed numerous, sometimes minute changes in entrances, exits, and seating arrangements, and in the props some of us carried. In the end, the effect was very much that of a classic realist painting, in which the numerous precise details all contribute to the larger overall effect. Working together to create that larger common effect helps build a camaraderie within the cast, even greater than what I’ve experienced in the comedies I’ve acted in.
Even very experienced actors sometimes tend to overlook what their characters are doing when they have no lines to deliver. By inviting us all to take a closer look at the subtle, non-verbal world beneath the surface of the script, Karen Waterfield has added depth and texture to Isabella’s poignant story and has also taught me, for one, valuable lessons about how to create a scene without the use of words—lessons I’m sure will prove valuable to me in my subsequent acting ventures.