A long time ago I wrote a play for Redlight Theatre in Toronto, Canada with some terrifically talented actors. The cast members and I were to share royalities. The play was published and we thought the money would come trickling in. Sigh. Not even a trickle.
So, I was bowled over this week to hear that a company in Pickering, Ontario had just produced it! I got a royalty check! But I had a problem. “Where,” I said to myself, “has everybody gone?”
I started looking. And remembering.
The play was originally called What Glorious Times They Had and was changed to Nellie! How The Women Won The Vote. I’m sorry that the title was changed. I think that What Glorious Times tells the story better.
Set in 1914-1916 in Manitoba, Canada, at the headquarters of the Political Equality League, it’s about a group of women dedicated to winning the vote for women, led by a Canadian heroine, Nellie McClung.
She was more than able to lead. A teacher who once taught all eight grades in a rural school, she wrote sixteen novels, was a popular speaker and in twenty years, spoke at over four hundred public meetings, sometimes speaking three times a day. She was the only woman delegate to the League of Nations in 1938. And she had five children.
I researched her work and the suffragist movement for a long time, making notes on 3 by 5 cards and putting them on a corkboard. (This was a while ago, wasn’t it?) When I found a quote from the Elections Act of Canada, “No woman, idiot, lunatic or woman shall vote,” we knew where we were going and were off and running.
Building a play from research and improv is so exciting. It’s frustrating and difficult, too, but when you find a solution to the seemingly insolvable, it makes your day or week or month.
We put things in, threw things out, and had a long, productive rehearsal period. We six actors, four women and two men, amused, played off of and with each other and became a close cohesive group. We created a cast of thousands, (well, dozens) with the help of very talented violinist, who tied all the scenes together. (I still can’t hear Meditation from Thais without thinking of the time.)
Creating the illusion of a factory with three women, some chairs and a violin was tough but it worked and turned out to be one of the best scenes in the show. We also came up with a train, a Pierce Arrow touring car, the Houses of Parliament and more, all connected by an ingenious lighting plot by our great woman techie.
The suffragists were all involved with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, so necessary in a time when the liquor industry was unregulated and domestic violence wasn’t recognized. My aunt, Edna Fay Grant, who was the Canadian National Secretary of the WCTU, gave me its songbook to use. It had lovely, lively songs, some taken from hymns, easy to harmonize with, and perfect for carrying the theme of the play.
I had a video of one of the earlier versions which Costco turned into a flickering DVD and what came through was the music we made out of the temperance songs, comic songs of the times, a barbershop quartet and a moving rendition of Whispering Hope.
We could play on a proscenium, a thrust or in the round, and when touring, did all of that. We toured Canada twice with the play, (with slightly different casts) first traveling East to Newfoundland, flying in to St. John’s at the height of winter. (I noticed when we prepared for landing, all the flight attendants were holding their breaths.) We set up in schools and auditoriums and wherever people wanted us to. And we had fun.
I’ve made contact with three of the players and they are now helping me to track down the other two so I can put the checks in the mail. I’m looking forward to that. It’s a way of saying, “Thanks for the memories.”