With its creative roots firmly planted in Victoria, The 100-Mile Diet redefined the idea of how we should eat. Now, Theatre Inconnu’s latest production could well do the same for how we should make theatre. Spit Delaney’s Island is based on a short story by award-winning local author and retired UVic Writing professor Jack Hodgins, and adapted for the stage by veteran local playwright Charles Tidler. Better still, it also stars Theatre Inconnu artistic director Clayton Jevne in the title role and is directed by noted local actor, writer, and director Karen Lee Pickett. Best of all, however, Spit Delaney’s Island is that rarest of stage productions – a story set on our own island.
“It’s totally Vancouver Island,” says Pickett. “The exact place is never directly stated, but it’s the Parksville-Qualicum area.” On the literal level, Spit Delaney is a steam locomotive operator who finds his skills are no longer needed. Though set in the 1970s, Spit’s resulting loss of identity will be familiar to many Islanders, old and young, who have suddenly found themselves made redundant by technological and economic forces. But there’s much more to Spit Delaney’s Island than just the plot, says Pickett. “It’s got a real sense of magical realism. It’s a journey of transformation… it doesn’t always unspool in chronological order.”
Written by Hodgins in 1976 and nominated for a Governor General’s Award, Spit Delaney’s Island was originally adapted for the stage by Tidler in the late ‘80s, but has only been produced once before, in Nanaimo in 1990. Pickett first read the short story while she was studying in UVic’s Writing department and is surprised that it was only staged once. “I don’t know why it wasn’t mounted again, but it makes a great play,” she says. “For this version, Charles has created a whole new draft – it’s tighter and just better.” And while Hodgins himself isn’t directly involved in this production, she says he has read and commented on the new draft.
Best known these days for her role as the artistic director and producer of the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival, Pickett is enjoying taking a break from the Bard afforded by this 90-minute, two-act production. “It’s my favourite kind of theatre: just four actors and a stage. We’ll have costumes and a few set pieces, but we’re mostly creating it as a piece of storytelling – there will be sounds, for example, but no corresponding object.” Pickett describes one scene set in a classic small-town second-hand store, stacked floor-to-ceiling stacked with junk. “There’s no way we could reproduce that on stage, but I’m from a theatre tradition that says if the actors see all that stuff, then the audience will too. The audience is more engaged when they have to create that set for themselves.”
“It’s such a great homegrown project,” she concludes. “I love the way they talk about the landscape and the ocean, but I also like the fact that Charles made the decision to keep the play in 1970s,” she says. “There are a lot of aspects of the story – like Spit’s relationship with his wife – that are definitely of that era. And most of the creative team have been here on the Island for a long time, so we’ve got their perspective on how things really started to change back then.”
Spit Delaney’s Island runs Dec 3 – 19 at Theatre Inconnu, 1923 Fernwood Road.
words by John Threlfall