Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 1988)

WOLFVILLE'S MERMAID THEATRE: THE FIRST FIFTEEN YEARS

DENYSE LYNDE

This article is a historical overview of the first fifteen years of children's theatre in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where the Mermaid Theatre was founded. Developing from a local to a major international company, the Mermaid has redefined its mandates and policies and undergone major personnel changes and shifts in repertory that have significant implications for Canadian drama in both a local and national context.

Cet article fait l'historique des premiers quinze ans du théâtre pour enfants à Wolfville, N.-E., où fut fondé le Memaid Theatre. Au cours de son évolution de troupe locale en compagnie d'importance internationale, le Mermaid remet constamment en question son mandat et ses politiques, en même temps qu'il subit d'importantes modifications dans son personnel et son répertoire. L'analyse de cette évolution s'avère intéressante pour le théâtre canadien, tant an niveau local que national.

The Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia originated in the summer of 1971 in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, as the Acadia Child Drama and Puppet Theatre with the assistance of an Opportunities For Youth Grant.1 This group gave ninety performances in the Annapolis Valley area. In the following year, it was renamed the Mermaid Theatre Project, receiving funding from the Local Initiatives Programme. The specific aims of the Mermaid Theatre were reshaped and adapted over the next fifteen years as what began as a rural children's theatre company grew and matured to become a 'Cultural ambassador for Nova Scotia and Canada.'2 Changes in the sources of funding, performers and artistic staff, as well as in the repertory, mark the shifting policies and aims of the company over the years.

At its formation, Evelyn Garbary was Advisor, with Tom Miller serving as Artistic Director and Designer, and Sara Lee Lewis as administrator. Garbary had studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and performed at London's Old Vic and Dublin's Abbey before she came to Canada in 1956. In Canada, she worked with the C.B.C. and served as a director and adjudicator throughout Nova Scotia before becoming director of drama at Acadia University. When the company was founded, Tom Miller was Art Consultant for the Kings County (N.S.) Amalgamated School Board. As a teacher and consultant, he used his background in painting, an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, to explore the design and construction of masks and puppets. It is this initial exploration which brought him to Garbary's attention. Lewis, who had worked in Montreal as a theatre publicist and tour manager, had resettled in the Annapolis area and was interested in the project. The aims of the company were clearly outlined:

Primarily a touring company, the aim of Mermaid Theatre is to present live drama to the young people of Nova Scotia's scattered rural area, using schools, community centres and churches to bring unique artistic entertainment to the doorsteps of those who might otherwise not enjoy theatre of professional quality. The members of Mermaid Theatre are ready to work on a year-round basis, visiting elementary and high schools during the school season. Workshops on programming, resource material, mask and puppet construction are being offered to teachers and social workers in conjunction with Mermaid's visits, so that some of the basic skills in the use of drama as an educational and therapeutic tool may be imparted.3

Initially, Garbary, Miller and Lewis felt their mandate was two-fold. Mermaid Theatre was conceived as a professional children's touring company for rural Nova Scotia and an education and therapeutic resource for the community in general. The repertory in the inaugural season of the Mermaid Theatre Company was mixed. original scripts by writers such as Elizabeth Jones, David Jones and Dorrie Phillips, adaptations of Gogol, Aesop, Chekhov and religious allegory, participation plays for children by Jocelyn Bishop and Brian Way and French plays to be used as French language teaching aids were mounted by the amateur cast, largely drawn from the Acadia University community. Workshops were conducted in puppetry, movement and improvisation, and in mask and puppet construction. However, actual work in puppetry and mask remained peripheral.

In 1973, Garbary moved the company in a new and what would become very significant direction. With the rediscovery of original MicMac legends as first collected and translated by Silas Rand, a Baptist Missionary of the nineteenth century, Nova Scotia folklore became a new source of dramatic material; as a Halifax Mail Star reviewer commented in 1972:

Live actors, rod puppets, giant puppets and masked dancers provide unusual visual effects in this dignified account of MicMac mythology.4

The first plays drawn from the MicMac legends included 'How Summer Came to Canada,' 'Mooin the Bear and the Star Hunters,' 'How the Loon became a Seabird' and 'The Call of the Loon.'5 In June of 1973, a Mermaid Theatre touring production performed at La Poudrière in Montreal, marking the company's first major exposure outside of the Maritimes, while later in this year at home in Nova Scotia the company performed The Merchant of Venice.

This mixed repertory of classical works and original regional plays continued for the rest of 1973 and into mid-1974. In July 1973, Evangeline was announced, a play recounting the expulsion and return of Nova Scotia Acadians, featuring Acadian dancers and folksongs.6 Here can be seen the roots of a concern with rural history and native talent that in the 1980's comes to define the Mermaid. Elizabeth Jones' Viking Saga followed using giant puppets and shadow puppets to tell the story of the Norse discovery of Vinland around the year 1000.7 The classics were still a mainstay of the repertory, as the press release for the January 1974 production of Doctor Faustus indicates:

Although the two year company has won widespread acclaim for its unusual form of puppetry, Mermaid also concentrates on bringing traditional drama to spectators who have little opportunity to see professional theatre.8

An important turning point occurred, however, in June of that year. The Canada Council provided financial support, and immediately the company began to redefine itself:

Mermaid is, in the first place, a puppet theatre. It can and does do conventional material. But it most frequently operates on a plane somewhere between the two ... The company's repertory includes classics such as Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and Merchant of Venice, but there is increasing emphasis on plays using indigenous material. They aim not only to stimulate language development, but to foster an appreciation of the visual arts, by means of unusual and creative masks, puppets and costumes.9

Although an interest in the classics is still expressed here, the Mermaid Theatre concentrated on material from MicMac and local legends for the next few years. Productions of the MicMac legends during this period were characterized by Miller's striking puppet designs, ranging in size from eighteen inches to ten feet and in material from soft and polyurethane foam to painted papier-mâché.

The support of the Canada Council allowed the company to tour outside Nova Scotia. Glooscap's People, with a French version, Le Monde de Glooscap, was performed at the National Arts Centre in December 1974 '10 This script is one of the first of several adapted or written by Evelyn Garbary who also wrote or adapted and directed The Journey Nova Scotia Folktales, Glooscap and the Mighty Bulffirog, The Invisible Hunter, The Adventures of Lox the Demon, The Wakenaki and The Trickster over the next few years. With the support of the Canada Council and the Nova Scotia Department of Recreation, the Mermaid also planned a western tour of Edmonton, Winnipeg, Moose jaw, Regina, Calgary and North Battleford for the next year. Although the company continued to be drawn from Acadia University, it did join Equity, and the next year as a professional troupe, Mermaid toured and received warm reviews that focussed on its now typical mixed repertory.11 In the same season, Garbary emphasized the company's direction, a redefinition of earlier press releases:

Although they have performed classics ... the Mermaid's true purpose lies elsewhere ... [They] found a very important collection of MicMac legends - a tremendous valuable oral literature.12

In 1976, Mermaid had another national tour. As in 1975, they conducted workshops on masks and puppetry, reaffirming the commitment to education made at the formation of the company in 1972. Its focus still remained two-fold, but the company became increasingly committed to touring the MicMac legends nationally as well as locally, while continuing its workshop training, Reviews of the tours of 1975 and 1976 emphasized the high quality of the acting although the performers were still mostly from the Acadia University community.

In the 1976 season, Mermaid travelled twice to Montreal and Kingston and again the company policy was redefined:

Our aim is to leave audiences with some practical skills as well as an interest in their folklore. When people can produce and stage plays in their own community, we feel we've really contributed something worthwhile.13

This statement echoes the 1972 policy: education remained important, but the company no longer confined itself to rural Nova Scotia. A tenth MicMac play, The Trickster, written and directed by Garbary, was produced in the fall of 1975 along with Susanna Moodie, script by Donna E. Smyth, a Professor of English at Acadia University, directed by Garbary and Miller. The play was drawn from Susanna Moodie's own journals and Margaret Atwood's Journals of Susanna Moodie, representing a departure from the MicMac material. These productions toured New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. In Susanna Moodie,14 a play suitable for all ages, Smyth gives effective dramatic expression to the story of this formidable woman pioneer's arrival and first few years in Canada. Particularly striking is her use of the narrator, a second Susanna, who is used to bridge and comment on particular events and to express Susanna's inner thoughts and feelings. A tightened and consolidated version of this play was performed the next year.15

In 1977, Mermaid travelled to Wales and England on the first of many international tours. offering plays from their MicMac legend repertory, they gave twenty-three performances in nine Welsh cities and participated in the International Theatre Festival. They also had a three-day engagement at London's Royal Court Theatre. The reviews from this tour were positive, commenting on the fact that eight members of the cast were from Acadia University and emphasizing that the Company's 'major appeal is to acquaint young people in rural areas with theatre experience.'16

During the 1977 Christmas season, Mermaid performed The MicMac Legends, a two-play production of The Trickster, restaged, and the new Medoonak the Storm Maker, adapted by Garbary from a script by Elizabeth Jones. At this time Garbary admitted to a Toronto interviewer that she saw the company's 'unique style as a reason for survival ... We couldn't do what we do, we couldn't nurture it, not under the search light you suffer here [Toronto]. There [Nova Scotia] we are allowed to make mistakes.'17 This style of children's theatre, using puppets and masks to retell legend, which made the company unique to Nova Scotia, was also unique to Canada. But Garbary's statement implied that the company no longer sought national status; she apparently wanted it to remain in Nova Scotia and 'make mistakes' - which perhaps explains why university students dominated the casts.

In 1978, Mermaid entered a period of crisis which lasted until the early eighties and resulted in major policy and personnel changes. Only two new plays were developed in that year, both directed by Garbary and Miller: TheBrothers from the MicMac material, script by Garbary, and Giant Anna,18 written by Donna E. Smyth. The Wakenaki from the MicMac legend was restaged. Whereas in 1975 and 1976 Mermaid averaged around one hundred and fifty performances in Nova Scotia and across the country, in 1978, there were fewer than one hundred, a trend that continued into the early eighties.

Garbary began to look for new directions for the company; Giant Anna, the second non-MicMac play by Smyth, was one experiment. This play traces the life of a giantess born in rural Nova Scotia. More of a social history, it is interpreted in a didactic manner. As a child, despite warm and loving parents, Anna is lonely and unhappy. Her only friend is a doll. As a student, she is taunted by her peers and her teachers and at teacher's college, unable to bear the laughter and jeers of her fellow students, she soon returns home. The emphasis is clear. The child, later the young woman, is tormented because she is different: society can be cruel. In the second act, Anna joins the Barnum circus and begins to assert herself. Among the dwarfs and thin men, for the first time she feels part of a society and she gains confidence, fighting against the unjust working conditions. With new-found confidence, Anna and her fiancé tour England where she has an audience with the Queen who expresses feelings of loneliness and isolation. The play directs a very specific lesson to high school as well as elementary school students; here, the didactic function of the Mermaid theatre, implicit in many of its plays and in its workshop mandate, takes a more explicit form.

In 1979, a press release stated a new direction for the company, announcing that

We continue to present original productions reflecting the folklore, history and literature of the Atlantic region, and have begun to play a major role as cultural ambassadors for the Province.19

Although Garbary had wanted the company to remain in Nova Scotia, there was demand for them to perform nationally. Perhaps as a consequence, for the first time directors were hired for specific productions and noncommissioned plays such as James Reaney's Names and Nicknames20 were produced, re-establishing the custom of the early seasons. Felix Mirbt, a well known master of puppet theatre, was one of the directors brought in. He directed The Navigator, a script by Garbary; this production, in which Garbary appeared for the first time on stage with the company to act as a narrator, was revived the next season.

Despite the diversity of the company's policy, the lack of a supporting artistic community, and the absence of a single dramatic source, the Mermaid's international reputation continued to grow. The MicMac legend material was very much in demand; in 1980, The Trickster a script from 1976 by Garbary, was invited to the World Puppet Festival in Washington, D.C. At home in Wolfville, directors were brought in, and scripts were drawn from a variety of sources, again following the custom of early seasons. The Navigator was restaged by Mirbt and toured Ontario. At least one critic's response indicated a growing sophistication in the Mermaid's craft:

For the first few minutes, the set-up seemed awkward and hardly the stuff of theatre for adults, But this is a show that plays with creating theatrical illusions and destroying them, as in the surprising intermission call [actress called 'cut' and 'intermission'], often to great effect. Along the way, it showed that puppets on the stage don't necessarily have to be just for children, something that Mirbt has been proving consistently with his acclaimed productions, such as his puppet adaptations of Büchner's Woyzeck and Strindberg's The Dream Play.21

Mirbt suggested a new approach based on skillful theatrical details and not myth, and Patrick Walsh's Louisbourg was originally directed by another guest director, Frank Canino, in this year. Garbary took over direction of the opening performances; she also wrote and directed The Stolen Child, based on a MicMac legend. It was The Trickster, however, that was performed at the UNIMA World Puppet festival while at home Louisbourg and Growing Up In Louisbourg, directed by an actor from the Louisbourg cast, Graham Whitehead, received warm critical response, Tom Miller, unhappy with the Mermaid's diverse policies, left the company.

In 1981, Stolen Child, Louisbourg and Growing up in Louisbourg were remounted. The only new production, Running the Red Lights, a play about drug abuse and sexual permissiveness, received adverse criticism and for the first time for a Mermaid show, a strongly negative response from the high schools for which it was designed. Described by the press as an 'outspoken play,'22 Running the Red Lights was created to move the company in a new direction:

Now its founder and artistic director, Evelyn Garbary - a theatrical pioneer by any measure - wants a firmer base for Mermaid's appeal to young people and their parents, and believes she has found it in a group of young writers she is recruiting. The approach is almost certain to be controversial ... 'History plays for children under twelve,' she believes, 'might be the answer to the challenge of young people's theatre for the next dozen years but students in the latter teens want something touching their own lives more directly.'23

A few months after this statement, after Running the Red Lights had met opposition from school boards and parents, Garbary resigned.24 Tom Miller was brought back as interim artistic director. During the fall of this year, the company, while searching for a new artistic director, launched a National Playwrighting contest and prepared the next season: Miller directed The Cow Show, a co-production with Rag and Bone Theatre Project, Ottawa, and Fred Thury directed his own adaptation, Anna's Pet.

In February 1982, a previous company actor and interim administrator, Graham Whitehead, was appointed artistic director. Whitehead, who had received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 1972, had been an Assistant Professor at Dalhousie University. Upon leaving Dalhousie, he served as Drama Consultant to the Department of Education, Government of Nova Scotia. He brought to the company his own extensive acting and directing experience as well as a background in education and dramaturgy. Whitehead quickly released a statement:

Without abandoning the qualities that have made Mermaid a vibrant theatre over the past decade,' he said, 'we must find new styles and philosophies that will give the company the impetus to develop over the next ten years.25

A report on the fiscal year to July announced that the company had completed 120 performances for audiences totalling 29,000. Whitehead's first production as artistic director, Shadow Valley, was staged at this time.

In 1983, Whitehead's aims for the theatre were clearly indicated by his productions of Sam Slick the Clockmaker, script and lyrics by Paul Lecloux, and Just So Stories, adapted by Whitehead himself. Both used music, multiple but simple sets, imaginative properties and doubling. Touring also increased this year. Christopher Heide, a published playwright26 who had worked with Mulgrave Road Co-op Theatre, was appointed for the next year as Playwright-in-Residence. In 1984, Mermaid continued to grow. In January, a press release stated that Mermaid had

three productions simultaneously on the road this winter (one in Ontario, two in Nova Scotia), [so] that the year's total production (eight) is higher than any time in its twelve year history.27

Fall of 1984 found Mermaid in Mexico, performing the often revived and popular Anna's Pet. They returned to Nova Scotia to open a new production, Peter and the Wolf adapted and directed by Whitehead, designed by Tom Miller and with a synthesizer score by Steven Naylor. Clearly, a new artistic community was forming. Vivian Frow, who designed the costumes for this show, also designed Shadow Valley, and Naylor had done the score for the same play.

Music had become increasingly important to Mermaid productions. Whitehead wanted to create 'multi-media' presentations,28 and to emphasize 'the wonder, magic, dream'29 of theatre for his audiences. The company's major shift, he has suggested, was towards a constant striving for international excellence in all levels of production30 The Peter and the Wolf (story was retold by the Company in a fresh, imaginative and exciting fashion. Using a motorized Wolf with a string of flashing lights for eyes, and a jungle gym as the forest, Mermaid's Peter, with music based on the original score, introduced young audiences to the classical tale and music in a familiar setting.

In the spring of 1985, a new production, Jack and the Beanstalk, began a Nova Scotia tour. At the same time, Anna's Pet and the Just So Stories travelled to various parts of Canada, ending at the Smithsonian, in Washington. Jack and the Beanstalk, another retelling of a familiar story but in a distinctly indigenous form using Acadian music, was thus rooted in Nova Scotia. Like Peter and the Wolf puppets and actors were used conjointly; in the earlier play, for example, when the action called for something that the puppet, a bird or a duck, could not do, the manipulator set down the puppet and physically assumed the role. Young audiences had no difficulty with this complex level of theatricality.31

Heide's play, I Ain't Dead Yet,32 was produced in the fall of 1985. it dealt with the ideas of old age and senility from varying perspectives of the aged, the mature and the teen. Using a dream figure, the playwright explored the character of Margaret, a seventy-three year old grandmother. Through dialogue and song, a young Margaret reminded the old woman of her past and her frustrated dreams. Set in parallel with this character was Katie, Margaret's sixteen-year old granddaughter. The play received glowing reviews:

Although conceived as a play for high school students, it is a work which fully engages the interest and intellect of an adult audience.33

Heide acknowledged that this play directly grew out of his residency at Mermaid:

At least two and a half years ago, he [Whitehead) asked me to think about it, and finally we got down to the script a year ago. But it's very much his concept and he's acted as dramaturge the whole way and has a lot to do with the creation of the play.34

Whitehead, responsible for the multi-media productions of Just So Stories and Peter and the Wolf , continued to shape the company, encouraging experimentation in a new direction.

In November of 1985, Peter and the Wolf opened a cross- Canada tour in Newfoundland. In the next year, this production was performed in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Also in 1986, Just So Stories was on the road, produced in Long Island and Philadelphia.35 New plays were workshopped and developed. The Bluebird, adapted and directed by Whitehead, toured Nova Scotia in April and May while Beo and the Boys, adapted from 'Beowolf' by Whitehead, was workshopped.36 Fall 1986 saw Just So Stories on tour again; this time the play was performed in the Yukon, at Expo '86 and through Western Canada.37 Also at Expo was Flights of Fancy, conceived by Whitehead and Miller, and described as 'a space-age adventure story about early scientific experiments.'38 This production toured Alberta and Ontario. The season of 1987 confirmed the basic pattern established since Whitehead became artistic director in 1982. A new play by Christopher Heide based on his experiences of returning as a full-time student to high school was developed around a musical framework. Other new scripts were developed from non-native sources and the company performed extensively at home in rural Nova Scotia, across Canada and in parts of the United States.

From the company's formation in 1971, Merinaid Theatre has grown and matured. it is now a fully professional company engaged in local, national and international touring. one director is in command of a professional artistic community of designers, actors, writers and musicians. What made the company unique in the mid seventies, the retelling of legend with mask and puppets, has been redefined. Movement away from the MicMac legends has resulted in the discovery of new legends and myths. Kipling's stories, Prokofiev, and traditional fairytales are being recreated by this children's company into sophisticated, highly theatrical plays suitable for audiences of any age. Heide's second play suggests another direction Mermaid is moving in. While Heide first worked with Mermaid on a Canada Council grant, the company maintains their interest in this playwright; his plays continue to be workshopped. He seems to have joined the community of artists who under the leadership of Whitehead and Miller contribute a rich forum for the development of theatre for young audiences and a potentially fertile atmosphere for the nurturing and growth of new Canadian plays.

NOTES

1 Halifax Chronicle Herald 10 July 1971
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2 Press Release, May 1981, copy held in Acadia University Archives, Wolfville, Nova Scotia
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3 Press Release, May 1972, copy held in Acadia University Archives, Wolfville, Nova Scotia
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4 Halifax Mail Star 18 October 1972
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5 The Chronicle-Herald 16 June 1973; The Advertiser 21 June 1973; The Montreal Star 28 June 1973; La Presse 28 June 1973; The Montreal Gazette 23 June 1973
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6 The Advertiser 19 July 1973
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7 The Advertiser 6 October 1973
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8 The Advertiser 3l October 1974
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9 The Advertiser 13 June 1974
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10 Ottawa Citizen 24 December 1974
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11 See, for example, review in Winnipeg Free Press 29 March 1973
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12 Ottawa Citizen 21 December 1974
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13 Mermaid Theatre by John Knight, published by N.S. Communications and Information Centre, July 13 1976 Copy of paper held by Acadia University Library Archives, Wolfville, Nova Scotia
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14 Copy of script held by Acadia University Library Archives, Wolfville, Nova Scotia
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15 lbid
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16 Press Release, Spring 1977, held by Acadia University Library Archives, Wolfville, Nova Scotia
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17 Toronto Star 21 December 1977
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18 Copy of script held by Acadia University Library Archives, Wolfville, Nova Scotia
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19 Press Release, May 1979, held by Acadia University Library Archives, Wolfville, Nova Scotia
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20 James Reaney, Names and Nicknames Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 1973
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21 Waterloo Record 22 January 1980
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22 Chronicle Herald 16 October 1981
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23 Chronicle Herald 3 July 1981
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24 Chronicle Herald 23 September 1981, Advertiser 30 September 1981
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25 Chronicle Herald 3 February 1982
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26 Pogie, (Borealis Press: Ottawa) 1981, On The Lee Shore (Playwrights Canada: Toronto) 1977
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27 Chronicle Herald 7 April 1984
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28 Interview with Graham Whitehead, March, 1985
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29 Ibid
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30 Ibid
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31 Author saw three separate performances of this play in Nova Scotia in Fall, 1984 and in St. John's, Newfoundland in Fall, 1985
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32 Christopher Heide
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33 The Mail-Star 19 November 1985
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34 The Chronicle-Herald 16 November 1985
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35 Press Release, November 1985, held by Acadia University Library Archives
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36 Press Release, January 1986, held by Acadia University Library Archives
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37 lbid
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38 Press Release, May 1986, held by Acadia University Library Archives
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DENYSE LYNDE
Memorial University