The view from Here

By John Threlfall, October 2015

Geographic and cultural history combine in a bold new play about one of Victoria’s most infamous locations.

For those who love the past, Victoria can be a living archive. You can still land a boat at Clover Point, just as James Douglas did in 1842, and walk through Beacon Hill’s camas fields. And it doesn’t take much imagination to hear a Songhees drum song at the Inner Harbour and feel it reverberating down through the ages to nearly 10,000 pre-contact peoples.     

Metchosin’s William Head is much the same. Named for famed Arctic explorer Sir William Parry, for over 50 years the 100-acre rocky point has been synonymous with William Head Institution. But what came before the prison? What legacy does the land hold, and how has it shaped countless lives? Questions like these are driving one local theatre company to uncover William Head’s past—and, appropriately, they’re doing it from the inside out.    

William Head on Stage—Canada’s longest-running prison theatre company—is taking an imaginative look at its own history with Here: A Captive Odyssey (October 9 to November 7). Rolling back the years from prison to immigrant station, quarantine centre, settler farm and seasonal fishing grounds, Here is an original play offering a bold twist on site-specific theatre. After all, any play can be set in a prison, but only WHoS requires that you enter the prison to see a play.

Director and Here co-creator Kate Rubin is no stranger to the WHoS experience. Having been involved in various productions “off and on” for the past decade, Rubin says she became intrigued by the idea of crafting a show around the site’s history following her work on 2014’s Time Waits for No One. “Some of the guys brought me a book and asked if we could make a play out of it,” she recalls. “It was full of really great stories.” That book—Peter Johnson’s 2013 history Quarantined: Life and Death in William Head Station, 1872-1959—offered a rich vein of dramatic material just waiting to be tapped. 

“It included one story I had never heard before: how, in collaboration with the French government during WWI, some 85,000 Manchurian and Mongolian farm workers were brought over to be trained as a Chinese Labour Corps,” Rubin explains. “Imagine 8,000 men crammed into tents on that peninsula—in a camp run by people with extremely racist attitudes—before being shipped across Canada to France, where they had to do the most menial wartime work imaginable: digging latrines, burying the dead…all starting from William Head.”

And that’s just one story from the land’s pre-prison days. Working together with the members of the Prison Arts Collective—co-creator Kathleen Greenfield, choreographer Ingrid Hansen, designer and researcher Carole Klemm, musical director Katrina Kadoski, actors Monica Prendergast and Jeni Luther, plus lighting designer Poe Limkul—Rubin and the WHoS inmates have spent the past six months sifting through decades of lived experience. Based on a combination of archival research and oral history (“I talked to one Becher Bay man who has matrilineal stories going back 4000 years,” she says with a sense of awe), Here mixes dialogue and projections with live music and movement to offer a first-hand snapshot of one of Victoria’s most infamous locations. 

Although originally purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company in treaty with Pedder Bay’s Kakyaakan and Becher Bay’s Chewhaytsum people—for the price of 52 and 54 blankets (worth some £43 and £45 respectively)—Scottish immigrant Robert de Vere Weir then bought William Head and the surrounding land from the HBC for $569. “Weir was very benevolent and really cared about the place, starting a farm, importing sheep, building houses…he was called ‘Tyee’ [chief] by the First Nations and ‘the Laird’ by the whites.” Rubin lowers her voice to a conspiratorial tone, as if she’s about to share a dirty secret. “There’s also a rumour he was the man who first brought broom to the Island.”

While Weir eventually owned about 1000 acres in Metchosin and Sooke, the federal government expropriated William Head in the 1890s to establish a new immigration and quarantine centre to replace the inadequate facility at nearby Albert Head. In addition to smallpox, which had already decimated the indigenous coastal population, immigrants were checked and treated for the likes of influenza, cholera, typhus, black pox and polio until the 1950s. “Thousands and thousands of people passed through here over the years,” says Rubin. “It became the largest immigration processing centre on the West Coast, much like a mini-Ellis Island.” 

www.theavenuegallery.com

www.theavenuegallery.com

After that, it was built—by prisoners themselves—into William Head Institution in 1959, which provides the jumping-off point for the play. “We decided we would have a pair of present-day inmates, Bill and Ed, represent two archetypal prison-personality types,” Rubin explains. While fishing, Bill and Ed catch a magical serpent that acts as a time-spanning narrative device, allowing them (and the audience) to take their captive odyssey through nearly a dozen different time periods. “Some of the stories are based on archival truths, while others we’ve fictionalized based on a number of stories.” 

Developing an original work represents a new kind of creative partnership at WHoS. Whereas times past saw the likes of The Fall of the House of Usher or The Threepenny Opera being staged, recent years have seen a shift to one-time productions like Chalk, Fractured Fables and Time Waits for No One. “Creating new shows is way more work for everybody, but it’s really powerful,” she says. “They get into the process so much more than if you just hand them a script and say, ‘Okay, let’s get into character.’ Giving people the chance to discover there’s a writer, a dancer, a musician inside them…that’s huge.” 

She also sees no small irony in the fact that WHoS has survived for 34 years. “In the current political realm, there’s a perspective that they don’t deserve a program like this. You don’t reward them; people should be punished until they’re contrite.”

That attitude, however, is in direct opposition to her creative impulses. “I don’t like to be preachy, but I find it really rewarding working with other population groups,” says Rubin, who has spent nearly 30 years working as a professional actor, director and drama teacher in Victoria. “I like doing straight theatre, but there’s an aspect to this kind of work that fulfills my need to be of service. The main difference is that they’re so marginalized and isolated. There’d be a similar quality if you were creating theatre with street people, for example; it would still be about the public having a particular perspective that creates a sense of division.” 

But Rubin makes no bones about the life choices that brought these men to the shores of William Head. “If I hear what someone’s crime is, I have to deal with what they’ve done,” she admits. “Ten years ago, I would never have thought I’d be working with murderers and people who have done some pretty dark things. Some of them are at the tail end of a 25-year-sentence; one man has been in the system for 47 years, if you can believe that.” 

Such is the Prison Arts Collective’s charm: Not only does it assist with rehabilitation, but it also offers artists an opportunity for growth. “It’s a wonderful creative process we all really believe in,” Rubin concludes. “It’s a great way to be rehabilitative and teach them all kinds of skills.” She also emphasizes the impact WHoS can have on an audience as well. “There’s something about just crossing through the gates, letting go of your own judgments about ‘the other’ that makes this kind of theatre so significant.”

Here opens October 9th. Please see www.whonstage.weebly.com     

John Threlfall has long been fascinated by the transformative power of theatre. He experienced his first WHoS show in 1999 and has been a frequent visitor ever since.