Ten Lost Years: Depression memories at Red Deer College

 Ten Lost Years is a book by Canadian Barry Broadfoot, a book of oral history of the Depression years, published in 1973.  It’s compelling reading, even for someone whose Depression memories and influences are second-hand or third-hand.  The initiative for the project collecting the memories and stories of older Canadians, and the title of the book, refer to Broadfoot’s observation that people didn’t tend to talk about those bad times and that they weren’t covered well in schools.

The book was also used as source material for the play Ten Lost Years by Jack Winter and Cedric Smith, first produced in Toronto in the mid-1970s.   Red Deer College’s first year Theatre Performance and Creation class performed the play last week, under the direction of instructor Tom Bradshaw.   The book of short narratives in multiple voices was translated effectively to the stage by making about half the performance short monologues, interspersed with scenes with small and large groups and a few ensemble songs.   The musical pieces, especially the opening and closing renditions of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and the harmonica orchestra were effective in drawing together the disjointed individual stories to give a sense of community, whether in a small town or in a collection of transients huddling in a basement.   In the opening chorus, I was struck by the joy expressed by many of the performers, in particular Rina Pelletier.  Evan Macleod’s piano playing and singing, and Erin Pettifor’s solo of “Over the Rainbow” were also strong contributors to the performance.

All the performers played multiple characters, narrating the different stories and acting them out.  Katherine Walker, Damon Lutz, and Brock Beal evoked some middle- and upper- class characters, providing different perspectives but not without compassion.  Warren Stephens’ scene as the welfare officer reluctantly telling his new client (Michael Moore) that he’s required to surrender his liquor license was painfully effective.  Stories of rape by an employer in a desperately-needed job, and of watching a man at the end of his rope beat a child for losing the change on the way home from the corner store, were powerfully moving even though I had read the book a few days earlier and could recognize what was coming.

Other stories were humorous, affectionate portraits of struggling families and stubborn individuals getting through hard times.  Emily Cupples was amusing as the school principal, calling pupils to listen to the near-inaudible radio broadcast of the Prince of Wales abdicating.  Several scenes used the premise of radio narrative or radio drama, mostly in a good way but I thought that the living-in-an-igloo scene done as radio was just kind of odd.

One very effective directorial choice was to have Michael Moore, a non-white member of the cast, deliver the caution at the beginning about how the real people’s real words might include some expressions that we would find offensive.  And then the first time that the script included a racial slur, the characters on stage all gasped and glanced at the performer of colour in exactly the same way that the audience was doing. He repeated his caution about the real words of the time, everyone sighed, and the scene resumed.

The costumes, with muted shades of cotton and knitwear, and the authentic-looking props, were interesting to look at and valuable in maintaining the sense of the time.  I was particularly moved by looking at the piano light and the washboard, because I remember my parents using ones quite like them.  City Centre Stage is a multipurpose space which is probably primarily a movie theatre, and the production used the screen at the back of the stage to project a photo-album of relevant images.  The raised stage made the first few rows crane our necks to watch, and next time I go there I will sit farther back.

Ten Lost Years has now closed.  The Red Deer College Theatre Performance and Creation class of 2015 will be seen in next academic year’s Performance Art Series, starting in October.  The plays for next year’s series have not yet been announced.

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