Gros Morne Theatre Festival’s Jeff Pitcher

Jeff Pitcher (right)

This year’s Gros Morne Theatre Festival, presented by Theatre Newfound Labrador (TNL), opened May 31st in Cow Head, Gros Morne National Park. The festival, now in full swing with seven different productions, runs until mid September, with the majority of performances taking place July-August.

Arts East caught up with TNL’s artistic director, and the writer/director of one of the festival’s plays, Jeff Pitcher. He describes the magic of this annual festival and what audiences can experience this season.

When did you first become involved with Theatre Newfoundland Labrador and the Gros Morne Theatre Festival?
JP: I was a founding member of Theatre Newfoundland Labrador in 1979. I left in 1982 and was invited to return as Artistic Director in 2000.

What is most fulfilling about your role as TNL's artistic director?
JP: Telling the Newfoundland story.

How did you go about selecting this year's productions for the Gros Morne Theatre Festival?
JP: 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1. That war had an impact on almost every community in Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, on our small section of coast from Sally’s Cove to Bellburns, 16 men fought in that war. I felt we had to mark the occasion so I decided to produce “The Known Soldier,” a play about the life of Sgt. Tommy Ricketts, a Newfoundland soldier who is the youngest soldier to hold the prestigious Victoria Cross—Britain’s highest honour for bravery inaction.

“Tempting Providence” by Robert Chafe and directed by Jillian Keiley was commissioned by TNL in 2001. Since then the play has been performed over 600 times around the world. We felt it was time to bring it home to Cow Head for a full summer season.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” by Martin McDonagh is simply a terrific story. It’s an Irish hit play that has also played around the world—a play that I’ve been wanting to produce here for a number if years and this year I felt I had an excellent cast (Jenn Furlong, Mark Bradbury, Evan Mercer and Claire Hewlett) for the show.

The “SS Ethie” by Shane Ellis-Coates is a dinner theatre that we have been producing since our first Gros Morne Theatre Festival in 1996—there’s no way I could produce a festival without it!

Our “Neddy” show is also a recurring annual piece—a piece of theatre rooted in our traditional music and put together by a simply amazing artist, Stephanie Payne, who was born and raised right here in Cow Head. Over the years, under Stephanie’s direction the show has grown to be one our favourites. The beautiful thing about it is because of the abundance of traditional Newfoundland music, the show changes every year.

The same can be said for our “Newfoundland Vinyl” under the direction of Allison Crowe. We started this show three years ago. Producing Newfoundland hits from the 60s and 70s, the show proved enormously successful and because there were so many songs from that era, we’re able to continue producing the show every year with a completely new set list.

 To you what makes Gros Morne Theatre Festival truly special—even different—from other theatre festivals?
JP: First and foremost I believe it’s because we have a clear vision of what we’re attempting to accomplish. We’re much more than choosing plays that we like or we ‘think’ our tourist audience might like. We are not in the business of entertaining tourists. We are a professional theatre company that wants to tell stories that we think are important to a Newfoundland audience. As a result, I believe the travelling tourist who takes in one of our plays is having a cultural experience—watching a group of Newfoundland story tellers tell stories, sing songs and entertain Newfoundlanders.

I believe the key word there is ‘experience.’ It’s not just about the play on the stage; it’s the whole experience of being in Cow Head, on the shores of Shallow Bay in the wondrous Gros Morne National Park on the Great Northern Peninsula on the spectacular island of Newfoundland. It’s the whole package, because the stories we tell and the songs we sing are rooted in this place, it’s magical. Even when we tell Irish stories or British or Canadian; it’s always through a Newfoundland lens. We don’t want to copy what they’re doing in Halifax or Toronto or New York; we are making the experience ours.

Adam Brake and Jenn Furlong rehearsing The Known Soldier by Jeff Pitcher

What inspired you to write "The Known Soldier" and what is it about?
JP: My father and uncle inspired me to tell the story. It was a casual conversation I was having with them when I was a young artist just starting out. I was pondering out loud what stories I might like to tell when they mentioned Tommy Ricketts. I had never heard of him. I had graduated from a Newfoundland high school and never heard of this amazing man. I also realized I knew very little about Newfoundland’s involvement in the war. I grew up in a town whose streets were named after World War 1 battles—Monchy Road, Beaumont Avenue, Suvla Road, Polygon Road—and although I walked down those streets daily as a boy, I had no idea that they were named after the battles where local boys had been killed and now lay buried, including two of my own great uncles, Sgt. Walter Pitcher and Pte. Charles Pitcher. I had two other great uncles who fought and returned. Not many Newfoundland families were not affected, and we weren’t remembering. I was upset—even angry; and that’s a good thing to feel when you start to tell a story.

How has the run gone so far since it opened May 31?
JP:  “The Known Soldier” has been received gratifyingly, many standing ovations and audiences are loving hearing our story. It’s about our history, our culture—our heritage.

Is there anything you would like to add?
JP: I am so fortunate to be the Artistic Director of this wonderful company. To be in a position to tell stories that inspire us, stories that are filled with our pride—pride in self, pride in people and pride of place. Newfoundland and Labrador is a land and people that are steeped in greatness. To be in a position to tell our story is truly extraordinary.

Gros Morne Theatre Festival
Presented by Theatre Newfound Labrador
Runs until September 17, 2014

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