Drama class stages play about child soldier at Vimy
Students in teacher Matthew Sheahan’s senior drama class at PECI have been spending their morning class rehearsing for a stage adaptation of Suzanne Pasternak’s play Vimy and the Boy Soldier from Hillier to be performed at Hillier Hall on November 9. Producer Conrad Beaubien approached Sheahan about the possibility of having the students perform the play on this 100th anniversary year of the battle at Vimy Ridge after learning that the drama class typically does a Remembrance Day-themed play in November. Sheahan quickly agreed, and Pasternak modified the play extensively from its nominal cast of eight to include roles for the entire drama class of 27 students.
The central theme of the play is the efforts of a Hillier farmboy, Robert Clarence Thompson, to enlist to fight in the First World War. He first joined the army as a 13-year-old in 1915, and it was 33 days before his father was able to get him discharged. He promptly reenlisted and served at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 before being sent home for being underage. Despite the horrors he witnessed, he joined the army once again, helping in the aftermath of the great Halifax explosion in December 1917 before being sent over to France until the end of the war. However, the play also explores life on the home front and how Thompson’s parents cope with their patriotic and adventureseeking teenage son. Through a series of letters and tableaus, it paints a picture of life in small towns and villages where many of the young men have gone off to fight in a distant war, some never to return.
Involving the entire class in the play is a bit of a challenge for Sheahan, given that there is a wide range of skills and experience among the students. “We’re inclusive of everyone, and there’s lots of hard work, movement wise, singing wise, from all these kids in the show,” says Sheahan. “They’re excited and a little scared too. But they know that one of my biggest projects is theatre for social justice, and using musical theatre to teach about local history. Raising more awareness of local history is very important and they’ve really grasped a hold of that as a group.”
Pasternak has attended several rehearsals and will be working more closely with the group as the performance date nears. She has been impressed with the work of the students. “In my entire career, in my musicals and other work, I’ve always involved young people, giving them some artistic control,” she says. “They always come with such a fresh perspective and they are always fearless in what they are doing.”
While some students are assigned larger roles, the contribution of every student is important to the play. There are a number of students who remain seated through the play, providing song and narration, while others act out various stylized tableaus. Sheahan has assigned one student, Cori Goodman, to be the musical director, and has placed a large responsibility on her. Goodman took part in a version of this play when it was staged at the House of Falconer last April, and comes with an experience that has proven invaluable. Pasternak forgot to include details of the music when she handed the script to Sheahan and was amazed when she heard it played during a rehearsal “[Cori] had memorized it all in her head and figured it out for herself, all the chords, all the tempo changes,” says Pasternak. “I couldn’t believe it. So hats off to her.” Goodman plays the guitar in this production and is accompanied by Terra Cobb on piano and Malcolm Ross on violin. “It’s a musical storytelling and movement piece all put together in one beautiful thing that we’ve done,” says Goodman. “We all work together really well and we all blend our talents together and help each other out when we need it.”
Tickets are available at The General in Wellington or at Books & Company in Picton.