A play on historic P.E.I. words

Mary MacKay
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Hector-Louis Langevin, played by Brandon Roy, and Mercy Coles, played by Catherine MacDonald, stroll Victoria Row in full Confederation Player character and costume.

All of historic downtown Charlottetown is a stage for the Confederation Players program, which is celebrating its 25th year of extensive walking tours and historical vignettes.

This young troupe of bilingual Canadians annually slips into costume and character as live Fathers and Ladies of Confederation, and through their portrayal of key figures such as Sir John A. Macdonald, George Coles and Sir George-Étienne Cartier they give audiences a glimpse into the cultural and historical context of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, which led to the Confederation of Canada.

“The whole thing is about being immersive by transporting people into the world of 1864 in Charlottetown and in Canada at the time,” says Fraser McCallum, Confederation Centre of the Arts communications manager, who has been involved with the Confederation Players program for a decade.

The program began in 1989 in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference.

It now includes history-based daytime walking tours of old Charlottetown and evening tours that focus on Island-based folktales and ghost stories that are done in period dress but out of character.

The in-character component of the Confederation Players performances comes into play during the daily vignettes at Province House and the walk-abouts in downtown Charlottetown.

“Reactions are fairly mixed. Some people play along with us and they act as if it’s 1864 with us and they will ask questions and learn that way, and other people will without fail try to break our character. They’ll say, ‘Look at this cellphone.’ ‘What do you think about what’s going on in Syria?’ Asking us things about this time now that we have to creatively deflect,” says John MacCormac of Montague, who plays the part of farmer Seamus Longworth in The Magnificent Scheme vignette at Province House and also P.E.I.’s first premier George Coles during walking tours and walkabouts.

The program runs six days a week until Aug. 29.

The Confederation Players also slip into character for corporate appearances, cruise ships and special bookings and private tours throughout the year.

This year there are 18 Confederation Players, eight of whom are performing in  Soul of the Island, which is part of the 2014 Celebration Zone on the Charlottetown waterfront.

There are other small vignettes that are performed throughout the week on a more ad hoc basis, but The Magnificent Scheme on the grounds of historic Province House is the anchor of the program.

Sarah MacPhee of Belfast is in her third year as a Confederation Player.

This year, she’s Margaret Gray, who was the daughter of the premier of the day, Col. John Hamilton Gray, and female farmer Maggie Longworth, who represents the voice of Islanders and opposition to Confederation in The Magnificent Scheme vignette.

Playing split personalities adds to the fun.

“Margaret Gray comes from the more upper class Victorian style so she gets to be very proper, gets to wear the big hooped skirt and walk around — just be la-de-da and have the gentlemen open the doors for her and it’s all very proper. Maggie the farmer gets to be a little more gritty and gets to speak her mind a lot more. So it’s fun to tackle both those roles,” MacPhee laughs.

Tackling the summer heat can be steamy at times, especially since the Confederation Players costumes were designed to suit the fall fashion of the day, which was when the historic Charlottetown Conference was held in 1864.

“It’s the most asked question: ‘Are you hot in that?’” laughs MacCormac.

“It gets a little hot because the three-piece suits and the top hats are all made of the most accurate material we can use without people dying of heat. Some of the suits are actually wool so walking around in 30-plus degree weather you will find us in the shade more often than not.”

For the most part, the audience just happens upon the performances so the goal for the Confederation Players is to grab their attention and draw them into the historical performance.

“It’s challenging, too, because you get all of this happening, too, so sometimes it feels like a bit of a competition,” MacPhee says of a nearby roaring lawn mower.

“Luckily we’re miked so that helps or else they’d have to be right beside us in order to hear what we say. You never know. The tour buses going, the big beeping noises and things like that. That’s part of the challenge of doing outdoor theatre but I think it’s really rewarding to be able to perform it right here on location where it actually happened.”

There have been more than 200 people go through Confederation Players Program in its 25-year history.

“And it’s more than just this cool thing with people in costume. It’s like a summer school in a way. I think a lot of people would testify that it really built character and really was an amazing opportunity,” says McCallum, who played John A. Macdonald with the program a decade ago.

“A lot of people got into theatre or learned to do public speaking because of it or found a love of history they didn’t know they had. It’s way, way beyond a summer job.”

AT A GLANCE

Confederation Players’ schedule

Guided tours: Monday to Saturday: 10:30 a.m. - Historic Great George Street Tour - 1 hour; 3:30 p.m. - Historic Great George Street Tour - French - 1 hour; 4 p.m. - Extended Historic Great George Street Tour - 1.5 hours; 8 p.m. - The Ghostly Realm (Wednesday -Saturday)

All tours depart from Founder’s Hall.

Tickets are available at Confederation Centre of the Arts and Founder’s Hall.

Performances: Monday to Saturday, 12:50 p.m.: The Magnificent Scheme at Province House (rain location: indoors at Province House); Wednesday to Saturday, 3 p.m.: Soul  of the Island (Celebration Zone performance, collaboration with Confederation Centre Young Company).

Confederation Players are a heritage program at Confederation Centre of the Arts, Canada's national memorial to the founding of the country.

Organizations: Confederation Players, Confederation Centre Young Company, Province House

Geographic location: Charlottetown, Canada, Syria Belfast

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