By Vivian Collings
The Halifax Explosion that claimed nearly 2,000 lives happened more than a century ago, but the tragedy can be linked to comparable prejudices and reactions to present day crises.
In Canadian playwright Trina Davies’ play, Shatter, she examines the aftershock of emotional, rather than physical, tolls the enormous explosion had on four characters in Halifax.
Canoe FM’s Radio Playhouse program, hosted by John and Rita Jackson, is taking us back in time to broadcast the production over radio on Wednesday, Nov. 2 and Wednesday, Dec. 7 to conclude their 2022 season.
“I think that’s really the point of Trina’s work here, is how people’s perceptions and prejudice is changed when they’re put in extremely stressful situations. She focuses on what lessons we might learn, not just in the physical sense because of the explosion, but how it affects us as people,” John said.
Radio Playhouse’s production of Shatter will feature four familiar Highlands voices to act out the play: Kelsey Crowe, Hannah Klose, Amy Leise, and Andrew Case. All of them have performed in past productions in the Highlands.
Narration will be provided by John and Rita.
“The script itself really needs some actors who have great timing, who have a great rapport together because there’s a lot of back and forth and overlapping,” Rita said.
On Dec. 6, 1917, Canadian soldiers and families had already endured three grueling years of global war when a Norwegian steamship carrying relief supplies collided with a French steamship carrying tonnes of explosives in the Halifax harbour.
John and Rita said themes in the play can be compared to present disasters like the war in Ukraine.
“The news media at the time perpetuated a lot of these biases and prejudices against certain immigrants or certain people within the Halifax area and within Canadian society across the board as to who’s to blame for this particular thing,” Rita said.
While many were turning against each other in anger, the four main characters in Shatter searched for truth.
When first reading the play, John was reminded of the racism towards the Japanese people during the Second World War and then towards those from the Middle East following the 9/11 crisis.
“[Shatter is] very thought-provoking in that sense because you hear first-hand through the actors how their lives changed and their perceptions changed as a result of this extremely devastating event,” he said.
The dates chosen to air the first and second acts were intentional. Since the play is set in Canada during the First World War, the first act airs the week before Remembrance Day. The second airs the day after the 105th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion.
“This plays a significance to remembering the trauma, not just for those within the military, but also those outside the military. This shows the catastrophic casualties that happened in Halifax itself,” Rita said.
The couple discovered Trina Davies’ work while searching for a Canadian playwright after using primarily local works for the past season.
The play had never been adapted for radio before, so John and Rita worked closely with Davies to prepare it to be performed on Radio Playhouse.
Producing a radio play
Theatre productions are like an iceberg. Ninety per cent of the work put in to it can’t be seen.
Radio plays are the same.
Selecting a script, negotiating rights, and finding suitable actors for the parts are the first steps.
The actors then work on their own for a length of time before coming together for rehearsals.
For the production of Shatter, rehearsals took place over Zoom, making it easier for everyone to be able to get together.
The actors have been rehearsing since the end of August.
After that, one day is selected for the recording process.
“We hope to always do the recording itself in a single take,” John said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean once and done. We might have to pause and repeat things during the recording process, which can then be edited afterwards.”
John noted this will be the first time anything has been recorded in Canoe FM’s new recording studio space.
“Trina asks in the director notes to try and make it as lyrical as possible without singing. The actors have to act as if they’re an ensemble of musicians and work very well together with different tones and movements,” Rita said.
This can only be fully understood when heard for oneself, so make sure to tune in to Canoe FM at 6 p.m. on Nov. 2 and Dec. 7.
Shatter was originally produced by Ships Company Theatre, Parrsboro, NS in 2005.
Shatter is produced by arrangement with Kensington Literary Representation, 34 St. Andrew Street, Toronto, ON M5T 1K6 firstname.lastname@example.org.