The De La Roche women have an annual summer Georgian Bay tradition. Three retired sisters and their three grown daughters spend a week at the cottage drinking wine, reminiscing, and making plans for the future. But this summer is different. Deep-rooted secrets are revealed as the annual festivities become ones that nobody will ever forget. It is a play about family, relationships, work, aging, life, and the validity of ‘happily-ever-after.’
About some other things that may be of interest:
- About the Playwright AND other publications by Jessica
- About Northumberland Players
- About the history of the developing the play from 2006 to today
- About the true stories of my mother’s beloved butter tarts
- About what I’ve learned so far about my Métis heritage
- About my family growing up in Gereaux Island Lighthouse in the Early 1900s
- About our Girls’ Week tradition of Porch Bingo
- About the title “Once Upon a Rocking Chair”
If rocking chairs could speak, I bet they would have a lot to say. When selecting a title for Once Upon a Rocking Chair, I was drawn to the idea of using a rocking chair as the play’s central image.
As per the themes in the play, it is a symbol associated with motherhood and aging. A simple chair witnesses the quiet time between parent and child, the thoughtful times as we grow older, the beautiful times on a summer’s day, and the wild times on a summer’s night. All across the world rocking chairs are centrally placed on porches, in living rooms, baby’s rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, senior’s homes, and kindergarten classes.
The rocking chair is not only an important piece of furniture, it is a rich metaphor. A rocking chair is meant to be rocked. Our lives are meant to be lived. A rocking chair can be in perpetual motion. We too can be the driving force rocking our lives forward.
This summer I decided to attend as much theatre as possible. I wanted to reflect on how audiences responded to diverse titles, how directors used the space, how designers created a visual feast, and how the actors conveyed story in a way that connected with me. What impressed me in this quest was the vitality of theatre, the energy of the performers, the enthusiasm of the audience, and the magic created by the production crews. Theatre in Ontario is dynamic and alive.
The Spirit Garden, Cold Springs
My adventure started in June with The Spirit Garden, composed by R. Murray Schafer and presented by SONG. I’ve always loved outdoor theatre. This show was outstanding. Imagine walking through a path in a farmer’s field in the rolling hills of Northumberland as story and music envelops you from many directions. The show was set at Fifth Wind Farm in Cold Springs and the panoramic views provided the most beautiful backdrop. Schafer’s composition performed by a range of choirs and musicians was so moving to hear outdoors, the sounds echoing those I’ve heard in nature. I had goosebumps for nearly the whole show. This was certainly a special theatre experience and although it was the first show I attended this summer, it is the show that affected me as an audience member most deeply.
The Capitol Theatre, Port Hope
Next I went to see Crazy for You at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope in early July. I first saw this production in the mid-1990s in Toronto (Mirvish). My parents took me for my birthday. In high school I had deconstructed musicals for a major research project, looking at how the story is told through song in both of the acts, and tracing the trends in story structure in musicals from Gilbert and Sullivan to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
I remember watching Crazy for You years ago and thinking about the writing–but only after watching it this summer when I ended up thinking about the writing again. This time I wasn’t thinking just about story structure, but about humour too. I loved how the audiences laughed out loud at the cheesiest puns. It was as though we were looking for a moment to laugh, probably to release the joy inside us from watching the dancing. So as the high energy show rolled on, I had a wonderful time reflecting on comedic timing (in the writing, directing, and acting). I’ll return there at the end of the month to see Mamma Mia.
Driftwood Theatre Group
In the summer of 1999 I worked with Driftwood Theatre Group touring Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night around southern Ontario. It was an incredible experience. So I always try to find time to attend a Driftwood show each summer. There is something almost sacred about outdoor theatre. The breeze, the setting sun, and the open sky all heighten my senses, bringing my whole body into the theatre-space, rather than just my mind. My friend Shelly and I loved this summer’s Taming of the Shrew.
From the talented cast to the fun use of music to the exploration of theme (1980s Pride Week), the show was among my favourite Driftwood plays. The use of the stage fascinated me too: multiple entry points, shaped-boxes as furniture, audience sitting on three-sides. I loved the intimacy this created between the cast and the audience.
The Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake
My big theatre adventure this summer was to attend The Shaw Festival. I had only been once before as a chaperone on a school trip in 2006 to see Saint Joan. I remember being captivated by the town and Shaw. In university I took an Irish Drama course and studied a number of Shaw’s plays. I love how Shaw can go for the jugular in his writing. He tells a story that is entertaining while provoking the audience to see or think or feel differently.
So I booked a small trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake and brought my 15-year-old nephew with me. Four plays in two days at The Shaw Festival. As he said, “That’s going to be exhausting.” And it was! But we both found it exhilarating too! And the town was also a highlight. Great dining, beautiful flowers, and according to my nephew it was a hotbed of Pokemon Go stops.
First we saw Our Town by Thornton Wilder. We had never seen it before and I felt it was important for our theatre education. I loved the simplistic set, the storytelling to the audience, and the way the play sneaks up on you for an ending that leaves your spine tingling. You know, that whoa moment. Thornton Wilder is a playwriting genius. I get that now. I can see why this play deserves a spot in the theatre canon. At first I was resistant to enter this world of Grover’s Corners. I wasn’t prepared for the simplicity, the pace, the details. By the end of Act One I was hooked. Then by the end of the show I was disappointed to leave this town and these people. The story provides the audience with big spaces for reflecting. Shaw staged a compelling production that continues to haunt me nearly a month later.
Next we went to see The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. It was adapted for the stage by Lisa Codrington from Bernard Shaw’s short story. This play was a highlight of the festival for both my nephew and I–and our favourite of the four plays, which was a surprise to us both. It was a lunchtime one-act with the running time of about an hour. I had selected it because I’m curious about adaptations and I wanted to see something that was done by a current playwright. From beginning to end this show was outstanding. Natasha Mumba was AMAZING! Truly.
After lunch we attended a matinee performance of Alice in Wonderland. Kudos to the Shaw Festival and Peter Hinton for blowing our minds with the visual splendour of this show. Our jaws dropped many times from the gorgeous sets to the amazing effects. The beginning of the show is highly engaging, however most of the wow moments happen within the first hour so as the story progressed our interest waned a bit. I think it’s the classic story structure idea of building–when a show starts at such a high point of engagement (and for such a lengthy time–nearly an hour of visual surprises) our mind comes to expect it. So when the story is told through ways we expect in theatre (after an hour of surprise) it feels flat. We were glad to see the show and I still recommend it.
Finally, we watched an evening preview performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street–the play that led us to the Shaw Festival in the first place. I’ve been taking my nephew to plays since he was three. Literally. We’ve seen many productions together over the years. Each year I ask him, “So of all the plays we’ve seen, which is your favourite?”
And he always answers, “The one with the blood.” Macbeth. It was a Driftwood Theatre Group production we attended on the grounds at Trafalgar Castle in Whitby years ago, The Complete Works of Shakespeare: Abridged. Sabastian was probably six or seven…very young. He LOVED the Macbeth scene. He NEEDED to see Sweeney Todd.
First we loved that Benedict Campbell played the Stage Manager in Our Town and Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. (In fact, we loved seeing many actors in multiple productions over the two days.) Sabastian also commented on the dramatic transformation of the stage from Alice in Wonderland. It was a fascinating sharing of worlds that you can only get from festival productions.
We were both very tired when the show began (from already seeing three shows…haha!) but within minutes of the show Sabastian turned to me and whispered, “Whoa. I won’t be falling asleep in this one.”
Sweeney Todd was new to him and he loved it (we sang all the way back to the hotel).
My favourite performance was by Marcus Nance who played Judge Turpin. His presence, voice, intensity–all were of Broadway calibre. Sabastian loved Kyle Blair who played an energetic Adolfo Pirelli.
It was an excellent production and our favourite of the big shows we saw at Shaw Festival.
So what is the big take-away from a summer of adventures at the theatre?
Ontario has no shortage of talented theatre-makers, choice of shows, and theatre audiences. Each performance was well-attended. In an age of Netflix and ubiquitous entertainment, I am thrilled to see so many people going out to watch live theatre. Theatre is alive and well in Ontario. I barely scratched the surface on what’s out there. Which shows did you enjoy this summer?
I’m thrilled that Northumberland Players has added my play to their upcoming season. Once Upon a Rocking Chair has been staged once before, having a successful run with StoneCircle Theatre in Pickering Village in 2008. Since then my writing has improved, my life experience has expanded so I am taking this opportunity to update the script, strengthen the play and present an updated, refreshed version of the story that goes deeper into the play’s themes. I’m excited to share this story and these characters with my community.
Produced by Matt Kowalyk
Directed by Jessica Outram
The De La Roche women have an annual summer Georgian Bay tradition. Three retired sisters and their three grown daughters spend a week at the cottage drinking wine, reminiscing, and making plans for the future. But this summer is different. Deep-rooted secrets are revealed as the annual festivities become ones that nobody will ever forget. It is a play about family, relationships, work, aging, life, and the validity of ‘happily-ever-after.’ A Northumberland premiere by a local playwright with a new, updated script.
May 26-June 11 2017 at The Firehall Theatre, Cobourg, Ontario.
Tickets are selling. Don’t miss out! Here are my top 10 reasons why you should click here and buy your tickets for “The Secret Garden” right now:
10. To experience truly gorgeous music. The lyrics and score are stunning. The vocalists and musicians are outstanding. If I’m regularly getting goosebumps up both arms in rehearsals, then I know that the music will melt you with its dynamic, red velvet texture.
9. To celebrate generous volunteers. Community theatre is as much about community as it is about theatre. It’s amazing how many volunteers stream in and out of rehearsal. For every person onstage it seems to take two people behind the scenes to bring a quality production to life. It’s inspiring to see people give so much of their time and talents.
8. To witness incredible talent. We are blessed in Northumberland to have a strong arts community. A big show like this one pulls in people from across the region who bring it all to the stage and leave it all on the stage. I’m in awe of the dedication, perseverance, and professionalism of my fellow cast members.
7. To become part of the story. If you saw “Les Miserables” last year at the Capitol Theatre you may know what I’m talking about. The storytelling was so engaging there were moments I stopped breathing as I sat in the audience. At the end of the show, I turned to my friends and said “people will be talking about this show for a long time.” It set a new bar for community theatre. “The Secret Garden” is brought to you by the same creative team as “Les Miserables”: Valerie Russell, Marie Anderson, and Alina Adjemian. It also features many of the outstanding actors from last year’s production.
6. To see springtime in winter. Get out of the house. Invite some friends. Have dinner at one of the many tasty restaurants in Port Hope. Resist Netflix and that cozy fire. Remember gardens and all the beauty and magic they offer. This show can do all that.
5. To be entertained. Watch this clip to see “what I mean…” Notice our joy. We want to share that with you.
4. To reflect on a powerful metaphor. Maybe my fellow poets, artists, and English teachers will join me in recognizing the power of metaphor. Metaphor makes my soul sing! The Secret Garden offers such a rich tapestry of lessons about love, loss, and living. Click here to read about what I’m learning from this story.
3. To connect with people. Theatre can do things television and wifi cannot. Theatre is about people. Living, breathing, right-there-in-front-of-you people! Theatre is transformative for those of us onstage and for the audience. Together we become theatre. Winter can be lonely. Go to the theatre. It’s always transformative for me in ways I couldn’t have predicted whether I’m onstage or in the audience. This is a show for all ages.
2. To support community. Supporting the arts in our communities is important. Community productions interest me far more than the big productions in the city. When I start to think about people in a place coming together, sharing their talents, and creating something to share with their neighbours, I get excited. This isn’t about a bottom line. This is about delighting you, our neighbour.
1. To receive the gift we have carefully prepared. A musical like this takes months of preparation. The cast and crew have dedicated their evenings and weekends to attend to every aspect of the show from designing costumes to lighting, from learning songs to accents, from building characters to building sets. We are all volunteers. We do this because we love the art of making theatre, but mostly we do this because we love to give to you. Over the years I’ve learned the people involved in community theatre feel really great when all the seats are filled by people enjoying the show.
See you there!
“The place was a wilderness of autumn gold and purple and violet blue and flaming scarlet on every side were sheaves of late lilies standing together–lilies which were white or white and ruby…Late roses climbed and hung and clustered and the sunshine deepening the hue of the yellowing trees made one feel that one stood in an empowered temple of gold.” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
When I was I was sixteen I went to England for the first time, staying with different host families a few hours outside of London. I remember the gardens. Even a small yard was filled with rows of diverse colour, separated by narrow, meandering walking paths. It was such a contrast to the concrete and brick and asphalt dominating the front of the homes. I had never been in gardens that transported me beyond time and place before. The gardens offered magic and peace and escape–a refuge calming my fear of being away from home without my parents for the first time. This was when I learned that gardens were special.
As a child I loved the book “The Secret Garden” by Francis Hodgson Burnett. Mary Lennox is faced with big challenges: the death of her parents and everyone she knows and the move to a new country to live with an estranged, grieving uncle. The loss in her life is profound but through finding a secret garden, nurturing it to grow again, Mary gains a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging. As she tends to the garden, she becomes stronger and happier, healing herself and those around her.
Over the past few months, I’ve been rehearsing “The Secret Garden: The Musical” by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon with Northumberland Players. Coming back to this story I realize that although the story is about a child, the lessons about healing are most important for adults.
” “Perhaps it has been buried for ten years,” she said in an almost whisper. “Perhaps it is the key to the garden!” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Norman and Simon have done an exquisite job of adapting this story for stage with a captivating score and multi-layered script. The music is stunning and complex. Listening to the Broadway soundtrack from beginning to end is a moving experience in itself, at times so powerful I want to weep. This is a musical that invites audiences to reflect on their lives, to face the ghosts of their pasts, and to do the work of healing. In many ways this is a musical for introverts.
This is not a musical with tap-dancing and kick-lines. It’s a love song, an extensive ballad about facing the storm, then finding life after loss. How can you heal when the love of your life has died? How can you have the strength to love your child when grief overcomes you? How can you support others who are gripped by despair?
After the death of her family, Mary goes to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven. The Craven family is overcome by grief for many years after Lily (Archie’s wife) died. Archibald, his brother, and his son, Colin, become like the wilted plants in a forgotten garden. They are desperate for healing but unable to do so alone.
Mary is brave and curious and independent. Her wild spirit leads her to meet Martha and Dickon and Ben. She listens to the robin. She opens the door to the unknown. She begins the work of restoring life to a neglected place. She teaches us about healing…
Healing is about being brave during the nightmares, listening to the whispers calling you to take action, taking a risk by stepping outside, giving yourself permission to feel the sun on your face, connecting with the people you meet, redefining a purpose for your life, focusing on something meaningful, giving to others what you most need for yourself, and honouring those you’ve lost by sharing your memories of them with others.
The garden is a powerful metaphor.
“Six months before Mistress Mary would not have seen the world was waking up, but now she missed nothing.” The Secret Garden, Francis Hodgson Burnett.
In the spring of 2006, “The Secret Garden” was the last high school musical I directed. We used a student version with simpler music than the Broadway one, but the basic story was the same. I selected this play to delight the student audiences, for the simplicity of the story and its message. Ten years have passed and I am immersed in this story again. I missed so much. The story is just waking up for me now.
I bet Francis Hodgson Burnett knew we needed a child to teach adults about resiliency. Today resiliency has become a buzz word in education and parenting. We want to know how to help our children cope better with difficulty and bounce back from hurt. In a time when anxiety and depression seem to be on the rise, I wonder if we should look to the lessons of the garden.
“When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his ‘creatures,’ there was no room left for disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
At work a student learning need often points to a teacher learning need. If our children need to be more resilient then we need to learn more about it. How do we cope with difficulty? If we are more resilient, then our children will be too.
To a child, ten years is a lifetime. To us it passes in a blink. Ten years ago I was thirty. The areas of my life that I have tended to have slowly grown and developed: my home, my job, my relationships with those closest to me, my creative projects, and my sense of inner peace and contentment. The areas of my life that I have neglected continue to be difficult, stagnant, and haunting. Some days when I’m afraid I feel the walls rising up, the large door moving into place, the key turning in the lock.
The Secret Garden gently invites me to visit the areas of my life that need nurturing. It reminds me that even in the most impossible examples of hurt that healing is possible, that it’s worthwhile to open the door, to slowly tend to the weeds and rot of disappointment and loss to make a space to plant some new seeds.
This is a musical for poets and thinkers and dreamers too. In the show, I am in the chorus. We are called “Dreamers.” I love this. We are spirits reflecting Mary’s fears and hopes. This show has a rich subtext inviting audiences to dig beneath the plot–but you will need to do some work.
A few years ago I saw this version of the musical staged at a theatre outside of Toronto. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about this story. I left the theatre feeling entertained by the staging and music, but I missed a great opportunity. I didn’t make connections. I didn’t listen to the whispers.
Being a cast member in this show has given me the space to think deeply about its themes. Maybe I wasn’t ready for these lessons before. Maybe I hoped that someone like Mary Lennox would literally pop into my life and show me the way, do all the hard work for me. Maybe I needed to become part of the story to truly understand: we all need healing.
Then I think about the things I’ve learned about community healing and peace building. The garden metaphor extends beyond my life to our lives–to how we can begin the work of healing from losses in our towns and countries and even the world. There are so many big scary things going on in the world right now that I feel I don’t have the capacity to face: terrorism, gun violence, water shortages, corruption, war, poverty. So when I hear of a world tragedy I grieve quietly for a couple days, then I put up the walls and the door and lock it all up–but other people are out there tending to this difficult stuff, working each day to do what they can…
We will always have pain and loss in our lives. We would be naive to think difficulty is for other people. I want to be more like Mary. I want to find the keys, open the doors, tend to the gardens of my life, my town, my world. If we listen to the whispers in the subtext of The Secret Garden we will hear the characters asking us to examine our lives and to look for where we can tend some earth, starting small with just a bit.
Children will certainly be entertained by the story and characters in The Secret Garden, but adults can be changed by it. So I invite you to join us next month as the doors open on this beautiful show at The Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. Allow yourself to think deeply. Ask the story to remind you of the truths you saw as a child. Listen closely to the whispers.
Mary Lennox offers just one story. Each character on the stage has a story too. And perhaps you will see yourself not in Mary Lennox, but in Archibald Craven or Lily or Colin or Dickon or Martha or the Dreamers.
Despite the heavy themes, The Secret Garden is an uplifting, hopeful, optimistic musical. It takes us to the saddest parts in our hearts but shows us a path back out into the light and into the world.
” “Now,” he said at the end of the story, “it need not be a secret anymore.”” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
I’m thrilled to join the cast as a Dreamer in this winter’s production of The Secret Garden with Northumberland Players.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book was a childhood favourite of mine: haunting, magical, transformative. Even as a child I loved stories that showed a movement from darkness to light. The last show I directed as a high school drama teacher was a student version of “The Secret Garden,” so joining this production has special meaning to me on a couple levels.
Mark your calendars! Community theatre adds so much value to our towns. We are lucky that we have wonderful local theatre companies all offering amazing upcoming seasons.
The adventures with the De La Roche family (from Once Upon a Rocking Chair) continue as the men travel to cottage country for manly adventures!
Amusingly manly–includes six days of hunting, a scenic wilderness location, indoor plumbing, beverages, worms, and one dead bear. The men of the De La Roche family must triumph over cowardice, failure, and death in order to bring home the greatest trophy of all. In reclaiming their inner wild man, who will be left behind?
Stage rights now available.
4 m, 1 f