I’m a student in the education field, with English and history as teachable subjects, which means that I have very little experience with theatre. The rehearsal process was something new to me when we began a few weeks ago. My role in organising this year’s Guided Spirit Walks is production assistant. Essentially, I am on hand to help with tasks such as proofing the script, collecting materials, and having the rest of the team bounce ideas off of me. I’m also certainly here to learn how the theatrical and historical elements of this production come together and I’m excited to see it happen.
We met with the entire group of actors for our first rehearsal and read through the script together before visiting the cemetery to walk the route of the tour. I was thrilled to find as many people with such a high level of enthusiasm in one place. Every person had a smile on their face, and was laughing, chatting, and enjoying themselves from the start. Some of them have been performing for six or seven seasons so far! These individuals have a love for the art of performance and for history, and the combination of these two elements is really what our Guided Spirit Walks are all about.
From my perspective as a student of English and history, I am interested in telling stories can impact the audience. I want everyone to leave this program with a new perspective and a new emotional connection to those who served at home and on the front during World War One. I became invested in each one of these characters as I researched them over the passed few weeks. I found many personal connections such as the fact several of these people would have been close to my age during the war. Our directors, Sara and Adrian, did a fantastic job casting each actor to their role. I began to glimpse the theatrical elements of “At War’s End” when I heard each actor read his or her lines, or when I stood by the graves of these people during our walkabout with the cast.
The team meets twice a week for rehearsals, calling actors by scene respectively. Last week I watched Armand present his interpretation of Lt. Col. Dr. William Hamilton Merritt (grandson to the famous Welland Canal builder). We ran through the scene several times and after each made notes on what could be altered. The directors made most of their suggestions for the sake of characterization. Each of Armand’s readings were exceptional, but we made adjustments based on how Dr. Merritt might have sounded were he to read this letter that he wrote one hundred years ago. Perhaps a change in pacing or emphasis in a certain section would better represent Merritt’s tone. When I say that “we made adjustments” I mean directors and actor together. Adrian and Sarah traded ideas with Armand and gave him freedom in how he saw the character he was learning to play. Again this week with Brittani, Fraser, and Des, I watched Adrian and Lauren collaborate with the actors, often asking questions like “thoughts?” or “how did that feel?” after each run-through. I believed that this process would help our actors get more in tune with their characters and produce a better theatrical piece. However, given my limited dramatic experience, I sat down with Adrian, one of our two directors, so that he could inform me a bit more on the ins and outs of the rehearsal process.
I wanted to know how exactly the Guided Spirit Walks rehearsal procedure worked. Adrian explained to me that, “We begin with casting. We try to find who would best fit the part based on the characters that we’ve chosen.” Once the cast is set the rehearsal process follows these three steps: “We work on the mechanics of the script; delivering the right words with proper pronunciation and style. Next is blocking; these are all of the physical elements of the production including where to stand, the use of props, and other movements.” Lastly, Adrian addressed characterization as the most important: “The tone, speed, and emphasis of the actors’ delivery determines how the historic person is portrayed to the audience. We work together with the actors to find how to deliver the role as well and as respectfully as possible. It really is a collaborative process.” That certainly seemed to be true based on my observations in rehearsal.
When I asked Adrian what made these rehearsals different from a regular stage production, he emphasized that one of the only differences that scene transitions are performed by the audience. They walk from scene to scene through the cemetery, so that staging takes care of itself. We need to prepare the actors for the natural elements to ensure that voices are projected over the sounds of wind and passing cars. Lighting, sound, props, and costumes are all much more simplified than a regular stage production. Everything is reduced because of access to resources like electricity, and so that actors do not have to carry and set up an excess of equipment. “Those staging elements are taken care of by being in the cemetery,” he told me. “We couldn’t do this kind of production on stage. There is too much exposition and not a lot of visual drama. But the benefit is that the audience is with us. They get to feel what it’s like to be in the cemetery with these “spirits”, and they have time walking between scenes to think about what they’ve just watched.” He also described why rehearsals are so important, saying, “This is a historical walking tour, not only a drama piece, but we want it to be more than just a textbook “live”. The audience is only a few feet away from the actors, so characterization has to be believable. And actors have to have their lines memorized. By the time we are “on set” in the cemetery at the end of August everything has to be well rehearsed so that we can focus providing an emotional and respectful experience.”
The last thing that Adrian told me was that, “Regardless of what production it is, a cemetery tour like the Guided Spirit Walks makes history more palatable. The theatrical elements of the program make information more accessible to an audience who may not have the same interest in researching or reading about history as we do. I hope, too, that it allows the audience to appreciate the work the museum does to store and preserve so much information, which, when presented in a way that can be entertaining and enjoyable, the audience should be able to see the value in.”
That’s what I am interested in. I’m not a theatre expert, but through my role in this production I’ve been able to see the work that goes into this program from our directors, managers, and actors. I agree with Adrian’s hope that the community will come out to witness this spectacle that not only teaches historical facts, but brings the audience closer to real individuals that lived and died in this city one hundred years ago.
“I have always loved to perform, even as a child, but it wasn’t until late in life, that I got my chance. Through a women’s centre I have had a few stage performances, they got me involved with the St. Catharines Museum. In April I was excited to be a part of the In the Soil Festival and now I am looking forward to being in the Spirit Walks. ”
– Jackie Conway
“I see Guided Spirit Walks as a chance to portray someone who may have been forgotten by the passage of time. As I have no formal acting training, GSW also helps my own development as I take on a different personality, doing and saying things I would not normally do or say. I have been involved with GSW for 6 years now and each year I feel more and more at ease in taking on a role, due to excellent direction and writing. While a Guided Spirit Walk involves fantasy as the dead speak, it raises history from the dead and puts life into it.”
– Armand Romagnoli
“My passion for acting and enjoyment of local history is why I love doing the GSWs.
Wonderful costumes, a unique stage and talented people to work with keep me coming back year after year.”
– Brenda Schultz
Guided Spirit Walks run September 7th, 8th, 14th, and 15th at 6pm and 7pm at Victoria Lawn Cemetery. Tickets go on sale August 1st.
For more information visit our website:
Chris McGivern is the Museum’s summer Program Assistant and is studying Concurrent Education at Brock University.