In the fall of 2012, Lisa Anne Ross of Solo Chicken Productions began a community arts project called Animating Rabbit-town. The project explores The West Platt neighbourhood in Fredericton that was known as Rabbit-town during the 20s, 30s and 40s. Ross quickly discovered how vibrant and intriguing the working class hub’s history was; and what originally was set out to be a one-year long endeavour, blossomed into a multi-year, multi-faceted, collaboration with local organizations, schools, artists and community members. The project will culminate in a theatrical production (June 5-7). We caught up with Ross to find out about the play (and their fundraising campaign to pay the participating artists and technicians) and what else has been going on with Animating Rabbit-town.
When we caught up with you last summer, the Rabbit-town community arts project was thriving with research and collecting stories, a historic public walking tour and art workshops and activities for local Connaught Street Elementary School students. What's been going on since?
LAR: After the conclusion of the walking tour in the summer of 2013 we were propelled into planning for our Rabbit-town Christmas Concert. The catalyst for the Christmas Concert came from one of my many afternoon tea sessions with former Rabbit-town resident Mrs. Glenna Robinson. Glenna is the sister of the well known Maritime musician and radio personality, Aubrey Hanson and spins the most charming tales about the Rabbit-town community. She often talks about how music was central to their family and how they sang and played together morning, noon and night. Glenna sings in the well known local seniors’ choir, The Stepping Stone Singers, and so I cooked up the scheme of asking the Stepping Stones Singers and the Connaught Street School Elementary Choir to hold a concert singing songs of the Rabbit-town era as well as classic Christmas music. The concert was held at the beautiful St. Dunstan’s Cathedral and featured the voices of 80 seniors and 80 elementary students all conducted by the vivacious Verna Hayward. Sarah Christie worked tirelessly at Connaught Street and conducted the elementary students. The result was transcendent! The concert was attended by over 600 people and we took goodwill donations at the door and collected money both for the Rabbit-town Project and for Chrysalis House.
|Public historic walking tour |
of Rabbit-town (summer 2013)
What has been a Rabbit-town highlight for you in the last year?
LAR: For me one of the incredible benefits of working on a long term community arts project like this is the development of unusual friendships. I have had the opportunity to connect in a meaningful way to both seniors and youth in our community and to work alongside them as we create together. The group of youth that I worked with at Connaught Street were so filled with energy and commitment and so I asked them to do a ‘cameo’ during our Christmas Concert. They all sang Aubrey Hanson’s theme song, “Sunny Side of Life” with Glenna in a heartwarming rendition. I love running into these spirited young people all over the community and getting Rabbit-town high-fives.
Another amazing aspect of this project is the incredible contributions that various people have made to the project. Local artist David Brewer has hand-carved and hand set the type for two of our event posters including the Christmas Concert and the upcoming show. Getting to know him and to have him offer his artistry to us is amazing and speaks to the power of community arts to connect! Verna Hayward, after conducting our Christmas Concert, joined on as Music Director for the upcoming show. Her incredible skill and vast knowledge of music, not to mention her very fiery spirit, has been a joy to work with. She even convinces her daughter to join our gang. All of these new artistic relationships and collaborations are the backbone of this type of work for me.
|Verna Hayward conducting the Stepping Stones
& Connaught Street |
Elementary School choirs in the Rabbit-town Christmas Concert
Tell us about how Rabbit-town the play came about?
LAR: As a theatre artist it was always in the back of my mind to ‘make it a play’. The end goal of the Animating Rabbit-town Project has always been to produce a beautiful work about the community. Early on in the project I was thrilled to have local playwright Ryan Griffith join the creative team and to agree to co-write the production with me. Ryan runs the successful Next Folding Theatre Company and has written and produced a number of ambitious and well crafted pieces of theatre. He has a distinct voice as a playwright and has brought a great deal to the artistic process. Robin C. Whittaker, who is a drama professor at St. Thomas University and has been a key collaborator on the project since its inception, is directing the piece. He brings his very sharp and analytical mind and great attention to detail. He directed the first incarnation of the scenes last year when his drama production students test drove a few of our scenes and the results were wonderful. We have also been blessed to have STU’s Chris Saad join us as the Technical Director. We cast the production in early April and were really thrilled to find a talented group of both emerging and professional performers to anchor the script and direction. The final piece of the puzzle recently fell into place with Cheryl Lee-Christie (a former DAL costume studies grad) joining us as the costume designer. We also have a small contingent of the Stepping Stones Choir joining us for the show to act as our live chorus. Amazing!
What will audience members be treated to during the June 5-7 production?
LAR: The show takes place in the historic, restored Train Station on York Street that is now of course our favourite place to buy Picaroon’s beer and wine, NB Liquor! The show is going to be a bit of a romp down memory lane with our title character of Aubrey Hanson wielding his guitar and sharing with audiences what makes this little community so special: Family, friends and the all important word, community. The show, through music of the time backed up by our incredible choir, explores the depth of community ties all set against the backdrop of war and industry. We explore some very factual history, such as the rise and fall of the Chestnut Canoe Factory, but we also delve into the creation of some historical fiction as we build up the narrative of the Rabbit-town circus.
Goff (playing Aubrey Hanson) and the choir |
rehearsing for Rabbit-town the play
Can people still contribute to the Rabbit-town fundraising campaign and what do the funds support?
LAR: YES! People can contribute to our fundraising campaign until Wednesday June 4th. The funds are being used to provide our actors and technicians with a modest wage. Although we weren’t able to pay industry standards we are committed to paying our creative team as we believe that the creative economy can provide sustainable long term economic benefits to our community as a whole. A healthy economy has a diversity of work opportunities and in a province that continually faces challenges in retaining our youth we hope to do our part by providing them with meaningful employment! We are a registered charity so anyone who donates will be provided with a tax receipt! Visit https://www.giveffect.org/campaigns/272-raising-Rabbit-town to donate!
What else have you been up to with Solo Chicken Productions?
LAR: This production will mark the final chapter in the Animating Rabbit-town Project. After the dust settles the next big Solo Chicken project will be remounting my solo show, Engorged. Solo chickens need to do some solo work of course. I created this show in late 2012 and worked with performance artist Jess Dobkin developing material and then had choreographer and artist, Lesandra Dodson direct it. The show premiered in New York City in the spring of last year at the Museum of Motherhood but I haven’t performed it closer to home yet. It is a one woman cabaret about motherhood that I am very excited to get back to.
Is there anything you would like to add?
LAR: Another amazing aspect of this project has been the development of so many strong and mutually beneficial partnerships. For instance the The Station/La Gare stepped forward to partner with our production and offered us a very discounted rate to use the space. In return they have the opportunity to have their beautifully renovated space used to recreate the actual history of the station. It is always exciting when communities can work together to link the past with the present and make that loop meaningful and engaging. Another amazing partnership throughout this project has been Theatre St. Thomas. They have provided us with access to space, costumes, expertise and a connection to the broader arts community that has been invaluable. In exchange we have provided St. Thomas University and TST students with access to both exciting performance and employment opportunities. It has truly been a win-win relationship. Other incredible partnerships have included our relationship with Connaught Street Elementary School, The Stepping Stones Choir, The Next Folding Theatre Company and ARC. The project has also received some very crucial support from government and foundations including, The City of Fredericton, The Government of NB, The Fredericton Community Foundation and the Department of English Language and Literature at St. Thomas University.
For more information on Animating Rabbit-Town, visit: Rabbit-town.com