Animating Rabbit-Town ~ A Community Art Spotlight

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Now known as The West Platt neighbourhood, Rabbit-town was the working class hub in Fredericton during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. It was home to a number of businesses and factories, from butchers and blacksmiths to carriage and canoe builders, as well as the York Street Railway Station.

“It was filled with all these really interesting people,” says Lisa Anne Ross. “It’s not even so much that the things they were doing were so miraculous. It’s that there was a real sense of pride in this community.”

When Ross and her family relocated to Fredericton in 2010, they moved into one of Rabbit-town’s historic homes. “I actually have a story written by the man who grew up [in the house],” she says. “I thought, ‘Common! If I don’t jump on this, I’m a fool! This is the project!’”

By the project, Ross is referring to Animating Rabbit Town, a program she kick-started last fall. Her non-profit theatre company, Solo Chicken Productions, has been collaborating with numerous community partners, professional artists and a range of individuals (from elementary schools students to seniors who once lived in the neighbourhood) to bring Rabbit-town back to life through visual art, puppetry, theatre, music, storytelling and more.

Photo by Lisa Anne Ross
Ross at one point considered herself primarily an actor. After completing a theatre degree at Dalhousie University, she lived all over the map performing on stage. While working with Nova Scotia’s Mermaid Theatre, she and the company toured a production up north. This prompted her to found the Nunavik Theatre Arts  Program in 2004, and every year she has returned to Inukjuak to lead workshops and to facilitate youth productions.

These experiences in the Arctic inspired a new passion for Ross. “I realized that although I love to be on stage and love to be doing my own creative work, I also found it profoundly fulfilling to be working with a community and helping simulate their creative juices and telling their stories,” she says.

The Rabbit-town project is a prime example of Ross’ fervour for community art. She has been working with Dr. Robin Whittaker, a drama professor at St. Thomas University (STU), and his students. During the 2012-2013 school year, STU student Allanah Scott, worked with Ross to conduct research on the historical neighbourhood and to interview those who had connections to the area during its heyday.

On Friday mornings, Ross also visited a local grade five class at Connaught Street Elementary school to lead workshops and take students on walking tours of the area.
Each student created a miniature puppet theatre and play based on their own research of a particular historic building. Glenna Robinson, a 78 year old who grew up in Rabbit-town, also visited the children.

“She has the most beautiful stories and I could just sit and have tea with her all day long because she just spins these tales,” says Ross. “People didn’t have a lot of money or a lot of things, but they seemed to have a lot of fun! …She said how there was just endless kids to play with on the streets and there was always something to do. The word ‘bored’ wasn’t in their lexicon.”

For Ross, the personal stories have inspired her the most. “Ivan Hancock ran the Rabbit-
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town circus every year,” recounts Ross as an example. “The kids would all get together and they would learn these tricks…They trapped a dragonfly and sold it as the ‘World’s largest mosquito’.  They had a barn in the backyard and they cut a hole in the roof and they would launch one of the other neighbour boys through the hole …Those are the stories I’m so drawn to.”

This summer, locals and visitors alike have had a chance to hear such stories on location. STU student Kelsey Colford developed a walking tour that includes eleven stops that she leads as a real-life character from the old neighbourhood. The Thursday/Friday evening and Saturday tours are continuing until the end of August. Ross adds that the Saturday afternoon tours include additional STU students who act out dynamic scenes at each stop.

Also this summer, a professional artist has been leading free weekly art workshops to members of the community, where participants have been drawing historic and modern Rabbit-town architecture. There are still a few spots left for the remaining Tuesday morning class, Ross says.

What originally started out as a yearlong project is continuing on into 2014. Ross says they are already planning a Christmas concert, featuring songs of the Rabbit-town era, to be performed by the 100-member Stepping Stone Senior Choir in concert with the Connaught Street Elementary Choir; in the winter, Solo Chicken Productions will also be leading circus art classes.
Kelsey Colford leading a Rabbit-town walking tour
Photo by Lisa Anne Ross

The project will culminate in April of next year with the performance of a Rabbit-town themed play that is being co-written by Ross and local playwright Ryan Griffith, and it will be directed by Dr. Whittaker. The performance, to be held at the refurbished York Street Railway Station, will include many of the artistic elements that have been a part of the entire project, including visual art, music and circus arts (the latter paying tribute to the Rabbit-town circus).

Ross says she now feels a deep “sense of place” in the community she and her family now call home. “Through the project, I’ve met a lot of my neighbours…and everybody has been so supportive and so happy about it, and we’ve had lots of people from the community come and take the tour,” she says. “So now I feel like I know the people in my community even more. This helps us maybe live up to the Rabbit-town moniker—you know the way that it used to be…now we have this growing sense of community.” ~AE

Rabbit-Town Walking Tours
Tonight August 16th ~ 6pm
Tomorrow August 17th ~ 2&4pm
Thursday August 22nd ~ 6pm
Friday August 23rd ~ 6pm
Saturday August 24th ~ 2&4pm

Art Workshops at Gallery Connexion
Tuesday August 20th & 27th ~ 10am-12pm
Call 238-5440 to register.

Visit to keep up to date on 2013-2014, events and to learn more about this intriguing Fredericton neighbourhood.

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