Dressing for the occasion on P.E.I.

From fashions to rules for women, creators make alterations to fit historic 1864 details in What to Wear to the Birth of a Nation

Sally Cole scole@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on June 6, 2014

Laurie Campbell and Rebecca Parent are leading actresses at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico.

And this summer they are expanding their roles as creators of a new play.

What to Wear to the Birth of a Nation is a series of vignettes that looks into the dressing rooms of the Mothers of Confederation.

“We wanted to explore women of varying classes. So we created real women and fictional women to get a broad scope of women surrounding the Charlottetown Conference. We also wanted to explore how what was going on in the soon-to-be country was affecting their daily lives,” says Parent, of the show playing on select dates at The Watermark Theatre in North Rustico until Aug. 2.

This work, wholly conceived and developed by Campbell and Parent, was inspired by conversations in their dressing room when they were working on Alice In Wonderland and The Shore Field last summer.

“Rebecca and I really liked working together but we never had any scenes together. So when we heard about the 2014 (funding available for) festivities, we became really excited and thought, ‘let’s apply.’ So we started wracking our brains on where to start,” says Campbell.

From the start, Parent enjoyed the creative process.

“We thought about the different layers of the show that we needed to create to embody 1864. We also thought about the role of women and the rules for women, as well as the costumes and the fashions they wore during that time period,” she says.

One recurring theme in the show is that the women of 1864 are just like the women of 2014 except they are under different social restraints, reinforced by the physical constraints of the dresses they wear.

And in creating the show, they had to adapt everything according to the limits that were set around them.

“For instance, we might get up on stage and begin blocking a scene that we had written and were very familiar with. And we have our own modern gestures that we might like to bring to it. But then, when we put on something like a corset, we realize, ‘I can’t slump while I’m doing such and such. Or I can’t actually bend over the way I wanted to or sprawl on the bench the way I thought I could, without the (large) hoop skirts getting in the way’,” says Campbell.

So the duo had to rethink everything planned for the show.

“We have a moment where we try to embrace each other in the play and we realize that we can’t; that physical movement can’t be as modern as we have today,” she says.

As part of their research, each of them has worn a dress since Feb. 1.

“We’re calling it 150 Days of Dresses, which plays on the idea that the women we’re writing about faced certain restrictions in dressing in 1864, which included not wearing pants. So we took it on as a challenge ourselves as well as to make the correlation between women’s restrictions back then and today,” says Parent.

At the Watermark Theatre the artistic director is thrilled with the results of their creative exercise.

“It’s a sweet, short, fun show. (And it) is so charming and entertaining that you don’t even realize that you are getting all the information you need about all the hoopla about 2014,” says Duncan McIntosh. “Leave it to these smart, young, attractive young women to introduce us to something about our history and heritage while getting dressed in corsets.”

Ranee Weselak also had fun creating the 15 costume pieces for the show.

“The research was pretty quick. I had studied the history of costume at Ryerson University. I’m a huge history buff, too, so I keep up with different eras. So I started designing and found a middle ground between historical pieces and something fresh and new,” says the costume designer, who also spoke to Arnold Smith, a great P.E.I. resource of that era.

Watching the various elements of the show come together, Campbell gives a sigh of relief.

“It’s been a learning curve. But it makes me super appreciative of all the people who are involved in a production. I’ve realized that there are so many jobs to be done and that everybody, whether it’s a professional or volunteer production, really made a difference.”


If you are going

u What: What to Wear to the Birth of a Nation.

u When and where: Watermark Theatre, North Rustico, June 7, 10, 12, 17, 20, 27, July 25 at 7:30, Aug. 2, 7:30 p.m.

u This play is available to tour to halls across P.E.I. during the month of July. If your community would like a performance of this play in a community hall in English or French, contact Kady Brown, administrator of the Watermark Theatre at kady@watermarktheatre.com.

u Also on stage this summer: The Rainmaker, written by N. Richard Nash, directed by Jerry Etienne, plays on selected dates, June 15 to Aug. 31; The Lion in Winter, written by James Goldman, directed by Duncan McIntosh, plays selected dates, June 22 to Aug. 31.

u For a complete listing of performances or to book tickets, go to www.watermarktheatre.com.

Actors Rebecca Parent, left, and Laurie Campbell will give audience members a sneak peek into the dressing rooms of the Mothers of Confederation in their new play, What to Wear to the Birth of a Nation. A series of vignettes between women, the show plays on selected dates at The Watermark Theatre until Aug. 2. It’s also available to tour halls across P.E.I. in July.