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Southwest spectacle

Theatre festival hopes to attract tourists to Isle aux Morts

By Janet Harron

A town of 600 on Newfoundland’s Southwest Coast, the Town of Isle aux Morts hasn’t historically had a large tourism industry.

But a revamped theatre festival — helmed by Memorial University’s Dr. Jamie Skidmore — aims to change that.

From left are performers Nora Barker, Lynn Panting, (co-creator and choreographer of A Fish Tale), Monica Walsh, Nathan Day and Austin Card. They’re holding parts of the cod soundbone, the brig Despatch (old style spelling) and a seahorse.
Photo: Supplied

In 2012 Dr. Skidmore was approached by Isle aux Morts resident Blanford Billard to write a play about Ann Harvey, a local heroine who, along with her Newfoundland dog, participated in daring sea rescues in the early 19th century.

“[Ann Harvey is] the Southwest Newfoundland version of Anne of Green Gables.” — Dr. Jamie Skidmore

Song of the Mermaid was first performed in 2013 to great acclaim and has toured to Port-aux-Basques, Grand Bank, Clarenville, Cupids and St. John’s.

“She’s the Southwest Newfoundland version of Anne of Green Gables,” said Dr. Skidmore with a hearty laugh.

A new production of Song of the Mermaid will anchor the now month-long Isle aux Morts Theatre Festival, which began June 28 and runs until July 30. All performances will take place at the town’s Hairymen Café (named for Ann Harvey’s famous dog) which has an audience capacity of 150.

Two new plays

The festival also includes two new productions from Dr. Skidmore — A Fish Tale: A Puppet Lantern Play, and Cod Love, a children’s comedy about a girl who falls in love with a cod.

A local community performance troupe, Da Koodens, will also perform throughout the month and All the Birds in their Bird Houses, a play written and performed by Kevin Woolridge and directed by Berni Stapleton, will be on the playbill for one night only on Saturday, July 8.

Dr. Skidmore describes A Fish Tale as “a Dr. Who episode set in Newfoundland.” A co-production between the Qalipu First Nation and the festival, the play uses large glowing puppets, live action, dance and original music to tell a time-travelling love story.

Watch a short clip of A Fish Tale below.

Mi’kmaq elders of the Qualipu First Nation were interviewed extensively as part of the script-writing process.

A first in outport Newfoundland, the production employs puppet lanterns similar to those used by the St. John’s Lantern Festival. Puppet-making workshops were held over Easter week in both Corner Brook and Isle aux Morts.

“It’s kind of scary because I still don’t really know what I’m doing as a puppet-builder,” said Dr. Skidmore, who describes himself as a theatre and film professor in an English department. “Now I’m making marionettes . . . ”

Students turned performers

Several of Dr. Skidmore’s former and current students from the diploma in performance and communications media program are participating as actors in the festival, including Monica Walsh, Nathan Day and Nora Barker.

Other cast members include Lynn Panting, choreographer/actor and co-creator of A Fish Tale; Austin Card, a second-year acting student at Grenfell Campus; and Kirsten LeFrense, an Isle aux Morts local who will play the role of Ann Harvey in Song of the Mermaid. Mr. Woodridge directs Song of the Mermaid and Ms. Panting choreographs A Fish Tale.

“The people of Isle aux Morts have welcomed me to their community and the festival is my way of thanking them.” — Dr. Jamie Skidmore

“I’m like a community member now,” said Dr. Skidmore, who cites Christopher Gaze of Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach and the Gros Morne Theatre Festival’s Jeff Pitcher as inspirations for how he approaches the role of artistic producer.

“The people of Isle aux Morts have welcomed me to their community and the festival is my way of thanking them.”

Funding for the festival has come from Memorial’s Office of Public Engagement, Canada 150, ArtsNL, and the Community Foundations of Canada.

For tickets and more information please see the website.

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