Domestic in scope, internațional in scale: Earhart in Trepassey

July 2022

“For a very long time I tried to write a short story about Amelia Earhart‘s eleven-day stopover in Trepassey. I wanted to explore the effect her stay might have had on people in that community. Every few years various versions of my efforts would surface from the sea of paper I live with. Then, about five years ago, I had the notion of turning the short story into a play.”

Bernice Morgan

NQ spoke with director Sarah Phillips about Area of Uncertainty, which is currently running at Perchance Theatre in Cupids.:

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a director, producer, dramaturg, administrator, educator – one of the wears-many-hats Canadian theatre community and I’m from Ontario. I’ve been working in theatre for a couple of decades now, in Toronto, in Prince Edward County, in various other places around the country. Danielle Irvine (the Artistic Director of Perchance) and I went to the National Theatre School of Canada together many moons ago and have tried a couple of times to work together, her coming to direct at the theatre I was AD of, me coming out here, but this is the first time the stars have aligned!

Can you tell us a little about the production?

Area of Uncertainty is, in some ways, a small play. It takes place in a small house, in a small village, over just a couple of days. Its concerns, domestic. Its scope, the kitchen and the dinner table. Its main character, a young girl from Trepassey in 1928, keeping house while her mother is away tending to her ailing grandparents. Into this small world, comes someone with their eyes on the horizon in ways this young girl has not even dreamed possible. And the ripple of change that comes from their encounter no doubt flows through the rest of that girl’s life. Amelia Earhart stayed in Trepassey for nearly two weeks in 1928, waiting for the fog to clear, waiting to become the first woman to fly to Europe. Bernice has imagined what might have transpired in that small world while she waited.

How did the play come about? What was it like to work with Bernice Morgan? This is her first work commissioned directly for stage, correct?

 As Bernice tells it she’s had this encounter in her imagination for a long time. For many years it was in the form of a short story, but she just wasn’t quite satisfied with it. Bernice is an avid theatre goer, theatre lover, but until this piece she had not yet written for the stage. A few years back she took a course in playwrighting from the brilliant Robert Chafe, and the play began to take shape. I’d venture it’s been a labour of love and, by her telling, quite a steep learning curve. The language of theatre is a cousin a few times removed from the language of prose. Perchance became aware that she was working on this piece, engaged her to complete work on it, and programmed it into their summer season.
I know your audience knows Bernice, but I was introduced to her through this project, over Zoom, late last year as we workshopped the play for a few days with four actors (Elizabeth Hicks, Steve O’Connell, Andrew Tremblett, Nicole Underhay), myself, Bernice, and Robert as dramaturg. A dramaturg is, effectively, a play doctor or … a therapist, maybe would be a better description?? Someone who works to help the playwright focus in on figuring out the story they wish to tell, [and] assists them in clarifying and shaping the play that houses that story. The actors would read, we’d all take notes, ask questions, and Robert and Bernice would go away and hash it out, cut and paste, push scenes in different directions to make the structure of the play and the heart of the thing clearer as they did so. It was a great process. Bernice was open and quick and, I think, enjoyed herself immensely. It’s quite a bit more of a public process than writing fiction, sitting in a room with a bunch of artists digging into your work. It was lovely to watch her there. She wasn’t as involved in the daily rehearsal process as we all might have liked because we ended up having a couple of actors contract Covid during the process and so everything was kind of upside down. But it’s been a right treat to live in the world of this play and in Bernice’s imagination.

What kind of challenges/assets come with staging theatre outdoors?

As you’d maybe imagine, weather is one of the big challenges. Wind, rain, heat. All of these things can challenge both the audience and the performers. Occasionally wildlife. A fox stole the show the other day, coming into the space to check everyone out. But the biggest asset is also the outdoors itself, the trees that tower around the space, the warmth of the venue in all its weathered wood glory, the blue jays, crows, gulls, calling out to each other backstage. There’s somehow an extra dose of magic or something? The feeling of sitting in that space with the audience, all visible, all focused and willing these shows into existence almost. It feels like such a gift of an experience.

What’s next for you?

That’s a fair question. The pandemic has really knocked the performing arts industry off its feet, sometimes to the benefit of the industry (theatre is notorious for being a bit inhumane in terms of schedule and certainly not conducive to a healthy work/life situation and people are coming back looking for a more balanced approach) and sometimes leaving it in a depleted state (the messy trail of endless cancelled, postponed, and otherwise interrupted or disappeared work has wreaked havoc on people’s livelihoods). So, what’s next is less known than usual for many, these days. Right now, I’m the Interim Theatre Officer for the Ontario Arts Council and enjoying the challenge of that role immensely. Once that interim contract ends next spring, who’s to say? Directing is my jam, as the kids say. I’m eager to get my hands into the next project and there are a couple on the horizon. We shall see!

Area of Uncertainty runs July 16 – August 27
Written by Bernice Morgan
Directed by Sarah Phillips
Dramaturgy by Robert Chafe
Cast List (In Alphabetical Order)
Elizabeth Hicks – Theresa Devereaux
Evan Mercer – Matthew Lacey
Sabrina Roberts – Amelia Earhart
Paul Wilson – Lew Gordon