Spooky, Spunky and Smart: There’s Nothing Dead About These Gravesavers!

“I stuck my toes
In my nose
And I couldn’t get them out.
It looked a little strange
And people began to shout
‘Why would you
ever?
My goodness—I never!”
They got in a terrible snit
It’s simple, I said
As they put me to bed
I just wanted to see
If they
fit.”

Growing up in Halifax it was a rite of passage to have this poem by Sheree Fitch imprinted on your heart. Indeed, Sheree Fitch was as much a part of a complete childhood as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Sesame Street and sleepovers. It seems quite appropriate then that Halifax’s newest theatre company, Halifax Theatre for Young People, should choose another Sheree Fitch classic, the novel The Gravesavers, as the basis for its first play. Halifax Theatre for Young People was founded collaboratively by Nova Scotian playwright Chris Heide and Nova Scotian director Tessa Mendel as a company dedicated to producing works for children, youth and their families that are “challenging and exciting and that honour the unlimited capacity of young people.”
I have been reading Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, which I highly recommend to everyone regardless of whether you practice theatre or admire it from afar, and in it he says that “many teachers think of children as immature adults. It might lead to better and more respectful teaching if we thought of adults as atrophied children.” I couldn’t agree more. I think that theatre for young people is immensely important and often incredibly undervalued. When children get the opportunity to see really great theatre, it is an invaluable gift with the potential to open up a magical, incredible world of limitless imagination and possibility. It at once affirms all that is so creativity within them, and can inspire them toward future dreams and ambitions. Too often children are laden down with well intentioned theatre that has been drained of its spontaneity, fun and allure because it does not speak to the child with respect or equality.
It goes without saying that Sheree Fitch’s tone strikes the seamless balance between captivating, enchanting, and inducing laughter while remaining appropriate to her readers’ ages. However, adapting novels into plays requires just as much skill and balance or even the most fantastic book can become a lifeless, didactic piece of theatre. Chris Heide’s adaptation of The Gravesavers is so smooth that it takes on a life separate from the novel. Fitch’s narration is transformed into beautiful monologues that don’t weigh the play down with details being recounted or described. The story is allowed to unfold without literary interference.
A wise Edmontonian playwright named Stewart Lemoine jokingly told me that he wrote one of his plays, At the Zenith of the Empire, a festive, joyous romp in Edmontonian theatre history, because he was weary of his contemporaries continually staging “sad plays from the Maritimes.” I realized, upon reflection, how rich Halifax is with historical tragedy, largely because of its geographical position in the Atlantic and its eminent harbour. The Gravesavers tells the story of the RMS Atlantic, a transatlantic ocean liner that operated between Liverpool, United Kingdom and New York City that sank off the coast of Prospect, Nova Scotia on April 1st, 1873. It remained the deadliest civilian maritime disaster in history until the sinking of the SS Norge in 1904, and then the RHS Titanic in 1912. The Atlantic saw the deaths of 562 people, including all the women and children aboard except one sole survivor, twelve year old John Hindley. Since Halifax is so rich in tales of shipwrecks, pirates, and of course the Halifax Explosion, it seems natural that Halifax also carries a proud tradition of ghost stories. The Gravesavers does tell a sad story, but with shrewd mystery and a strong sense of play and pathos. The show never reduces itself to a history lesson, but will likely leave its audience members curious to research more ardently the facts of the ill-fated Atlantic.
The play was expertly directed by Tessa Mendel, who used every inch of the stage in the lovely Bella Rose Arts Centre to create truly magical pictures. The actors’ movements were universally simple and crisp with dramatic results. Each of the five lead actors gave strong performances to really lift The Gravesavers into a magical, heightened realm. Mary-Colin Chisholm is outstanding as Nana as she walks the balance between creating her own unique grandmother while tapping into deliciously funny familiar quirks. Bill Forbes shines especially bright as Harv, Nana’s beau, his vocal pacing is utter perfection. Adam Bayne is terrifically endearing, especially as Max, and Josh Cruddas creates a beautiful portrait of John Hindley, jumping between timeframes with acute precision. Allison MacDougall plays Minn, the twelve year old granddaughter of Nana, who acts as the hub that unites the two distinct stories. MacDougall brilliantly evokes the subtle air of annoyance that frequently plagues twelve year olds, radiant, buoyant joy, intense terror, and walloping confused sorrow. It is an intense journey, especially for a children’s show, but MacDougall makes it look entirely effortless.
The Gravesavers is exactly the type of theatre I would have wanted to see as a little girl. Bayne and Cruddas would have appeared like superheroes to me and MacDougall would have seemed like the brightest superstar. I entreat you to share this gem with the young people in your life because like nourishing sandwiches, educational television and joyous sleepovers, this dose of Fitch will enrich lives and encourage its audience to grow. The Gravesavers plays May 21st-23rd at 2:00pm and 7:30pm and May 24th at 2:00 at the Bella Rose Arts Centre at Halifax West High School, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Tickets are $10 (child/student) or $15.00 (adult). You can book your tickets by phone at 902 457-3239 or buy them at the door. For more information, you can visit the website.

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