THE FORT AT YORK by Tara Beagan and the company, directed by Chris Reynolds and Beagan, with Erin Brandenburg, Christopher Fowler, Tawiah M'carthy, James Cade, Jeff Legacy and Michael Wheeler. Presented by Crate Productions at Fort York (100 Garrison). O theatre preview pens tonight (Thursday, September 20) and runs to October 13, Tuesday-Sunday 8 pm. $25-$35, some Sunday pwyc. 1-888-222-6608. Rating: NNNNN
Ever wonder, as you look down on Fort York from the Gardiner or Bathurst Street, about the people who lived there during the War of 1812?
Playwright Tara Beagan, with the help of a troupe of actors, is telling their stories in Crate Productions' The Fort At York. Crate's made a reputation on its site-specific works (Tape, Blackbird), but has never attempted anything on the scale of the current show.
Here the audience, divided into four parts, follows 15 characters around various buildings at the historic site. It's the night before the American attack, and the personal tales are as fraught with tension as the next day's battle.
"When I met Crate's Chris Reynolds in 2005, we talked about the possibilities of doing a show around the fort," recalls Beagan, whose fine scripts include Quilchena and Dreary And Izzy.
"I was clear from the beginning that I wanted to create a piece that went beyond the school facts and dates that none of us remember, something about the people themselves.
"I also wanted to write about what we don't learn in school that there were First Nations people here when the British came, that women had a presence in the fort, even though there were few of them."
After wandering the fort grounds, Beagan and Reynolds realized that the throughline for the show had to be the space itself.
"The fort saw little action except for the Battle of York in 1813, and we decided to explore what it would be like biding your time on the night before the attack, when everything's ratcheted up to the nth degree."
Beagan, working with the performers, wrote a series of linked stories about an officer's wife in love with a private, a man on the brink of madness, two close friends one native, one white who try to take a woman to safety and a private who, though living in 1813, sees people from 2007.
The stories are fictional, but the details that make up their lives are factual, and some of the songs are traditional.
In the first act, audience groups see the different stories in turn; in the second, everyone gets together in a bunk room where all the characters sleep, two to a bed. That includes husbands and wives, who have to create a "home" in a bunk bed within sight and hearing of the rest of the community.
"That living arrangement was one of the things I had to wrap my head around," says Erin Brandenburg, who plays Margaret, the unhappy wife. "She works in the kitchen and is a mother hen to the boys in the barracks, sewing buttons and making them biscuits.
"In fact, a handful of women were in the fort. Of the 100 British soldiers, only four had brought over wives and families. Margaret, though, is Canadian-born and dealing with the fact that the men around her try to make all the decisions that affect her life."
The inclusion of Aboriginal characters as well as women was important to Beagan, whose roots are Thompson River Salish and Irish Canadian.
"I was teaching a workshop at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre and met Jeff Legacy, a young writer/actor who I knew could contribute to the production.
"His first day of improv with James Cade, who plays his close friend, was so strong. Their intimacy around a campfire also allowed me to include lines in Cree, Jeff's first language."
That creative process the actors improvising on site
, Beagan writing a distilled version of their work that night has sparked ideas for everyone involved.
"It's like playtime with your kids," smiles Brandenburg, co-creator of the Fringe hit Reesor. "Sometimes in the middle of an episode Tara walks over and whispers an idea in your ear, which might lead to another scene."
One of their strongest memories, though, is the barracks sleepover for the entire cast, in the single room where the last act takes place.
"It was an amazing chance for bonding," laughs Beagan, "and like most sleepovers, there was very little sleeping."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Tara Beagan on using Cree in the play