I’ve been looking for this video for years:
If you’re not keen to watch the whole thing—this is a film about the HMS Speedy, a schooner that sank in 1804 carrying many prominent members of Upper Canada. She wrecked attempting to enter the Newcastle Harbour, near modern-day Brighton, Ontario. The surrounding peninsula is now a provincial park where I spent many idyllic childhood summers.
Plus, The Wreck of the Speedy was the first piece of museum theatre I ever encountered.
From ages 2-16-ish, Presqu’ile Provincial Park was the happiest place in my world. It wasn’t backwoods camping, but there were outhouses and forest trails and fossils to find in the bluffs.
But my favourite thing was the Lighthouse. Sure, the Nature Centre was pretty cool with its live turtles, taxidermy birds, and light-up map of Lake Ontario. But I was always impatient to get back on my bike (left unlocked, obvi) and keep cycling down the road to the Lighthouse and its Interpretive Centre.
History, man. History.
The Interpretive Centre is attached to the 1848 lighthouse keeper’s cottage. It houses artifacts dredged up from the lake; there’s a documentary about the 1920s entertainment scene; you can Go for a Dive! at a series of video monitors.
But the best thing—the best thing—was this movie.
I’m not sure when it went in. Maybe when I was seven or eight? Anyway, I was entranced. Like, hanging-over-the-railing entranced. Like, I knew the history better than the interpreters. Like, I totally had the entire script memorized at one point.
First of all, a sunken ship that’s never been found is pretty cool. (Although I learned in adulthood that they found it ages ago.) But also – that video made it real. It turned names into people, dates into tragedy.
For those late to the party, my dayjob is thus: my co-creator and I use theatre and its associated techniques to educate people in museum settings.
Explained badly: I pretend to be dead people to teach you a lesson.
So here was this…this play. Filmed, yeah, but still a play, smack dab in the middle of the artifacts, maps, and dive footage. And it punched me in a way nothing else did. Of course, as a wee one, I couldn’t articulate why. But having worked as a museum theatre professional for a few years—sure. Let’s take a look.
We start with a chaotic opening. Storms! Shouting! Ship going down! It grabs one’s attention right away—it’s a bold choice to start with something this distressing, though some details escape if you don’t have background context.
Then it’s an interesting format: monologues from various crewmembers and passengers interwoven with our guide/host—Captain Charles Selleck, the one sort-of-witness. Selleck’s character makes this video work: we need an anchor, an emotional hook to hang our hats on.
Now, whoever wrote the script does a decent job weaving historical facts with human drama. Name-dropping runs rampant (who’s Richard Formaldi?), but there are some gems of interpretation:
“Never enough money. Never enough material. Never enough men!”
Succinct, informative, and charged with emotion. BAM.
A wide range of characters speak their piece: the low-class seaman, the beleaguered captain, the officials and judges. This all predicts the 21st century emphasis on diversity of voices and perspective.
But I realize now, one voice is missing.
The whole reason for this voyage was to transport a prisoner and attendant court participants to Newcastle for trial. A Chippewa man named Ogetonicut was accused of murdering fur trader John Sharpe. Ogetonicut’s brother had been killed by a white fur trader a year prior, and Ogetonicut had been promised a trial…that never happened. This all gets rather glossed-over in the video.
And Ogetonicut never gets a monologue of his own. We never hear the prisoner’s perspective: his rationale for his actions, what he thought of the Speedy’s dilapidated condition, how he felt as the water closed in. It’s a glaring weakness in an otherwise strong piece.
Because it is strong, otherwise. For a tiny interpretive centre in a relatively small provincial park, this was insanely well done. It showed me what museum theatre could be, long before I even knew what museum theatre was.
This is how I know it worked. After the video—after the display cases and gift shop—I’d go to the Lighthouse itself. And I’d stand on the point and stare hungrily at Lake Ontario, imagining the Speedy lying on the cold lake bed. There, I would promise myself that I’d find it someday. I’d finish the story begun in the interpretive centre.
Obviously, I didn’t find the Speedy. But in a strange way, I am finishing the story begun at Presqu’ile. Too often, I say that I never envisioned myself in museums—that it was all a very happy accident.
Then I remember this video, and realize—no, no.
It was all inevitable.
PS. I’m at the SFWA Nebula Conference this week. Find me. Frolic. Come to my Beer Talk on Friday evening.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I finished the final (for now) edits on Sing to the Bones. To set the mood, I listened to a lot of Western/cowboy music while editing. I stumbled across this piece entirely by accident, but it is very beautiful.
One of my required readings for school this term was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Happily, I had already purchased and read this book some years ago. I reread it, and this time, Lamott’s emphasis on short assignments and the one-inch picture frame struck me.
When everything seems too overwhelming and you don’t know what to write about, you write about as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame (metaphorical or otherwise). At work, there’s a mysterious green bench that appeared on the porch of the big red farmhouse. It’s the green of kids’ green poster paint and my boss exclaimed to me, “It looks like a Christmas bench!”
“The Christmas Bench,” I mused. “It sounds like a kids’ story, where people sit on the bench and learn the true meaning of Christmas and all that stuff. One day, I’ll write it.”
And I kept trying to. I kept scribbling about Christmas and what it means to me, and how it’s changed, but I kept hitting walls and giving up.
Until I remembered the one-inch picture frames.
I’d like to write about Christmas now.
For three Saturdays in December, the pioneer village stays open until 9:30 pm. We do Victorian Christmas things. Oil lamps light the entire village with a soft warm glow (hence, Christmas by Lamplight). Food gets handed out, live music plays, I’m usually down in the brewery slinging beer.
But before all of that, there is dinner.
The table in the middle of our staff room serves as its focal point. Really, they are two long, narrow tables stuck together. They have shiny blue tops and shiny black legs, like the lunch tables you’d find in an elementary school. The chairs have the same shiny black legs and blue seats, but that’s some kind of easily-wiped padding, so they’re not too uncomfortable. Our lunches are split into five separate shifts; there are usually only three to four people around this table at any given time.
Lamplight is different. See, on Saturdays, we close at 4:30. We don’t need to be back out until 5:45. Some people go out. Most people seem to stay. And so, instead of only three or four people, it’s nearly everyone, all brown-bagging their dinner. Although it’s only 4:30, people grab their dinners right away, because there’s always a rush for the microwave. Tupperware and frozen dinners line the counter just in front of it, queuing while their owners claim seats around the table.
It’s always kind of anxiety-inducing when your turn at the microwave comes up, because you’re very conscious of the long line behind you, but at the same time there’s nothing worse than only partially warming your stew and biting into an icy chunk of potato. So you balance and ponder and eventually settle on a time that’s somewhere in the middle, and you probably pull it out halfway through to stir it up and check on it. Inevitably, someone hears the microwave door opening and leaps up. You feel kind of bad that it’s a false alarm, but hey, icy potatoes are gross. And by then, you can usually smell someone else’s dinner, something that smells way better than yours—leftover chicken or pizza or someone else’s stew—and your stomach pinches with hunger.
When your dinner is mostly warmed through, you take it back to the seat that you hopefully saved earlier. There are more people than spaces, so some people are sitting on chairs along the walls with their dinner on their knees, and some are standing by the sink. But maybe you left your reticule, or a water glass, or got someone to guard it for you, so you sink onto your chair. And God help you if your seat is near the back wall or the pop machine because it’s hard to maneuver around all those ballooning hoop skirts.
And then we have dinner together.
Sometimes there are baked goods in the middle for people to share: bread that didn’t sell or cookies that can’t be served to the public, but for the most part, everyone is eating their own meals. And yet, it’s still having dinner together. All of us, at the same time, in one place, talking and laughing and shouting greetings as those coming just for Lamplight sweep down the staircase in their street clothes. A half-dozen conversations fly around the room, and people keep getting up to get more water, or passing coins down the table for pop, or running off to fix their hair or change.
People you never see because they’re not on your shift are there. And people you always see are there. And people you love chatting to but never get to have lunch with are there. It’s near the end of the season, so we’re tired, but we know Lamplight. We’re wrapping things up, both at the village and with each other. Soon, we’ll be scattering for the winter, seeing each other less often, but for right now, we are together. Since it happens every year, I can breathe the sigh of relief that comes with knowing the end of the story.
It warms the cockles of my stony heart. Roughly twenty people who probably would never have met otherwise, melded into one of those strange non-biological family units that we craft from our friends. At Christmas, having everyone together becomes even more poignant because we know that soon we’ll be going our separate ways.
And that’s my one-inch picture frame on Christmas.
No matter what you celebrate, my best to you and those you care about. Stay warm and safe, and have a wonderful time with your friends and family.