The next few weeks will be very exciting for Mary and me and the whole French family. Factory Theatre’s production of Salt-Water Moon is in previews right now, and it opens on Friday. Next week, Jitters will begin previewing at Soulpepper. We’re delighted to have two of David’s plays running at the same time at two of the best theatres in the city.
First up, Salt-Water Moon at Factory! Ravi Jain, the director, says the team has been having a wonderful time in rehearsals. Toronto audiences will remember Ravi from A Brimful of Asha, his funny, warm, and candid family play — in which Ravi appeared opposite his mother. Ravi is also the artistic director of the Why Not Theatre company.
The two actors who star in Salt-Water Moon are Kawa Ada, recently seen in Soulpepper’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and Mayko Nguyen, perhaps best known for her role as Mayko Tran on the television series ReGenesis.
Kawa Ada, who plays Jacob Mercer
Here are photos of the two stars of the show, along with a snapshot I took of Mary, posing by the Factory billboard for the play. Can’t wait to see it!
Barbara Tarbuck, director of a production of Leaving Home by the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica, sent me this wonderful promo video. The show opened last night — sure wish I had been there to see it! Enjoy.
On June 22, 2014, David French Lane was officially dedicated with a City of Toronto ceremony. About 65 friends and family members came to celebrate on that sunny Sunday morning. At the event, Rory Sinclair and Tim Grant of the HVRA spoke, and then I said a few words about what the neighbourhood meant to David, which I will condense here:
A sense of place was very important to David’s work and to his life. His plays are often associated with Newfoundland, where he began, that island that shone vivid in his imagination. And of course, he loved PEI, where he spent 40 summers. But in fact, the majority of David French’s plays were set here, in Toronto. He lived most of his life in this city. From the lean-to at the back of Mr. Nutt’s shoe repair shop where his family moved in the 1940s, to the houses on Oakwood and on Euclid. He went to Rawlinson Public School, to Oakwood Collegiate, and also to Harbord Collegiate, just down the street from here. David moved into the upstairs apartment at 254 Brunswick Avenue in the mid-1970s. It was a place with great neighbours who became lifelong friends. It was close to the Tarragon Theatre, to bookstores, and to a movie theatre — some of the things David considered essential. He could have morning coffee and conversation at a friend’s apartment, or read his paper at JJ Muggs. All-day breakfast at Paupers Pub. Dinner at the Other Café, at the end of the street. And although some of the people and places changed throughout the decades, David stayed right here. He loved this ‘hood. It was part of him. And of course, David spent many, many hours writing plays at our kitchen table, which overlooks this very lane…
After the ceremony, the sign was unveiled and Rory played the beautiful pipe tune “The Battle of The Somme.” Afterward, many of us went to Paupers for a nosh and a drink.
The naming of the David French Lane means so much to his daughter Mary, to me, and to all of his family and friends. I’d like to thank the City, the HVRA, (Rory Sinclair and Jan Muszynski in particular) for making sure that David is now literally on the map. It’s a great honour, and we will always be grateful.
I’d like to thank everyone who came to share the day with us!
Mary and I are very happy that the lane running behind our apartment on Brunswick Avenue has been named for David! The Harbord Village Residents’ Association has been honouring notable Annex residents this way, and our downstairs neighbour Jan Filips Muszynski suggested that our lane be named for David. This winter the signs appeared, and the lane became searchable on Google Maps. David lived in the apartment on Brunswick for over thirty years, and when he worked he often sat facing the lane, so it really is an apt tribute.
David would have turned 75 this January. To mark the day, Mary and I invited some friends over for pie — which was David’s favourite dessert. After pie, we put our coats on and I took some photos of friends gathered around the sign. (I’ll post one below.)
On June 22nd, there will be an official City of Toronto ceremony to christen “David French Lane.” I hope you can join us! More details will follow.
For many years, all of David’s papers were in housed in a small filing cabinet and a mountain of cardboard boxes in our apartment’s storage room. In 2001, I bought a huge lateral filing cabinet and sorted through the papers, filing them all. It was fun, and helped me to learn more about David’s career. I was surprised to find newspaper articles about Leaving Home having been banned at two schools in the 1970s, for example. And I loved seeing all the original programs and production shots. David was a bit of a packrat, so I turned up old shopping lists and decades worth of Christmas cards, too!
David and I once had a conversation about archives. I mentioned that a lot of playwrights were sending their papers to the University of Guelph, where the Tarragon Theatre’s archives are housed. David said that he knew that, but that many years earlier, Memorial University had asked him for his papers, and he felt that was where they should ultimately be sent.
About a year after David died, I started to think about the papers. They were still in our storage room, and one summer we had had a leak that narrowly missed the big filing cabinet. I knew that the papers would be safer at a university, and that it would be good to have them in a place where they could be made available for researchers. One day I called Memorial University. I wasn’t sure who to contact, so I dialed the number for the Library, figuring that I’d have to talk to several people and perhaps be told to write a letter or email about the papers…Instead, as soon as I explained who I was and why I was calling, the voice on the other end of the phone in St. John’s exclaimed, “David French! Of course! We’d love to have his papers in the archives here.” So immediately, I knew that Memorial had indeed been the right choice.
It took me a long time to actually pack up the papers. Going through them again was in some ways quite difficult. I laughed, I cried…But eventually, I had seven large IKEA tubs of notebooks, drafts, letters, photos, programs, and other papers ready for Purolator to take to Newfoundland.
Colleen Quigley and her colleagues at Memorial have been terrific. I know the papers are in very good hands.
Several Saskatchewan friends and family members are looking forward to seeing Salt-Water Moon at the Station Arts Theatre in Rosthern, which opens on July 5th and runs for most the month. I’m very sorry that Mary and I won’t be able to see this production. Please go if you can — it’s going to be terrific! I’ve been corresponding with the director, Johnna Wright, and am pleased to be able to tell you a bit about the show.
Salt-Water Moon director Johnna Wright accepts the Jessie Award for Best Director, Vancouver, June 2013
By the way, just last week, Johnna won a “Jessie” award in Vancouver for her direction of The Merry Wives of Windsor for Bard on the Beach. The show led the nominations for the prestigious awards with seven nods, including best director, best actor, best supporting actor, best costumes, best set, and significant artistic achievement. Congratulations to everyone involved!
Johnna has kindly given me permission to quote part of the email she sent me about some of the experiences she and cast and crew have had while rehearsing Salt-Water Moon:
“…It’s been an added bonus on this show that we’re getting to learn more Newfoundland history. Everywhere we look in our research, we find the same observations about the bravery of the First Newfoundland Regiment at the Somme and elsewhere, and about the hardship suffered ‘back home’ from the enormous losses in the war.
My own great-grandfather was in France during World War I, but I didn’t think he had ever seen combat. Recently I was talking with my dad about Salt-Water Moon and he set me straight: turns out Dad’s grandfather fought at the Battle of the Somme, as well as the second battle of Ypres, and probably for the same reason as many Newfoundlanders did. Somehow he managed to survive two years in the trenches.
Our Jacob and Mary are a real-life married couple (Aaron Hursh and Caitlin Vancoughnett,) which has allowed for some shorthand in rehearsal. All those ‘relationship dynamics’ in the script really ring true and it’s been a lot of fun to explore them with a couple who already know each others’ foibles and ticklish spots. Of course they also know how to crack each other up, so we let them get that out of their system at the start of each day.
We’ve also discovered a number of Newfoundland ex-pats in our midst. Our rehearsal hall is at Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon, where the Technical Director, Derek Butt, wandered by the other day while Caitlin and Aaron were working on their dialect. The good news is that he knew immediately they were doing Newfoundland.”
Johnna added that the cast and crew took a few minutes to observe Newfoundland’s Memorial Dayduring their tech rehearsals in Rosthern. She also told me something that made me laugh — the stage manager’s name is “Jacob” — but since that was getting confusing, he has been renamed “Sebastian” for the rehearsal period!
I’m sending much love to everyone involved with this production, and wishes for broken legs all around on opening night.
Yesterday I received a beautiful letter from Jennifer Paquette, a director whose production of Soldier’s Heart opens in Woodstock on February 8th. The Paquette family has a heartfelt connection to David’s work, and the Theatre Woodstock production of Soldier’s Heart features real-life father and son playing Esau and Jacob…but that’s just part of the story! Jennifer has kindly given me permission to quote her letter on this blog:
“Life Does Indeed Imitate Art” A Love Letter to David French
This is our family’s story;
In the spring of 1991, I learned that I was being offered my directorial debut with a small community theatre in Woodstock, Ontario. The show was David French’s Salt-Water Moon. I was a 29 year old single mom who had lived and breathed theatre since I was a girl, and Mr. French’s plays had figured prominently in my development as an actor, director and writer. I had toured Ontario schools with a repertory theatre in the early 80’s and Leaving Home was in our line-up and was one of our most requested productions.
I was excited and nervous to finally have the opportunity to share my vision of one of a series of plays about the Mercer family, written by the man who was and remains Canada’s most important English speaking playwright.
I met my husband Jason when he auditioned for the role of Jacob Mercer. Obviously, he got the part, and, well, the rest as they say…
Our modest production of Salt-Water Moon ran in February, 1992 and surprised us by going on to win the coveted Best Production award at the Theatre Ontario festival in Sault St Marie that spring.
Jason and I were married in 1994. In May of 1995, Jason and I learned that we were expecting a child. We had been raising my two little girls together and I think we both knew instinctively that we were having a boy. We didn’t even need to discuss what his name would be. The day before I gave birth, my husband telephoned Mr. French and told him our story. He explained how our own love had blossomed while telling the love story in Salt-Water Moon. Then Mr. French and my husband spoke of the thrill of becoming a parent.
Jacob Anderson Paquette was born the following day, on February 1, 1996. Three days later, after returning from the hospital with our beautiful new bundle, a package arrived in the mail. We opened it to find a copy of Salt-Water Moon with this inscription:
Jan 31/96 (this was the night I went into labour)
To Jason & Jennifer, who are proof positive that life does indeed imitate art. – David French
We treasure this generous gift. But the story doesn’t end there.
In February of 2013, our son will play his namesake, Jacob Mercer in a production of Soldier’s Heart. His dad will play Jacob’s father, Esau. In July 2012, Jacob, Jason and I traveled to Newfoundland where Jacob stood at Coley’s Point, was officially “screeched in” and did a first read-thru of Soldiers Heart with his dad on the steps of the old railway station in Bay Roberts. And so continues our connection with the Mercer family. It is as if these characters are our kin.
Jason and I have been fortunate to share our love of storytelling with our children. We believe that our stories are our most cherished inheritances. We are reminded of this every time we hear our now adult children recall to their friends their favourite story about a play called Salt-Water Moon, and of how their parents met and fell in love.
First read-through of Soldier’s Heart, Jacob and Jason Paquette on the steps of the train station in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland, where the play is set.
The Writing Home exhibit about David’s career closes on September 30, so if you haven’t seen it yet, now is a good time to plan your visit. Curated by Theatre Museum Canada and the National Arts Centre, the exhibit looks right at home in the upstairs rehearsal hall at the Tarragon. Here’s a link to the Tarragon website, which tells you times and days when the exhibit is open for viewing: http://www.tarragontheatre.com
The Tarragon, where most of David’s plays were originally produced, is hosting the marvellous National Arts Centre/Theatre Museum Canada display about his career, Writing Home. The exhibit will be open to the public for free from today until September 30, on each day that the Tarragon has a show.