All the world's a stage in rural Newfoundland

To be sure, it's the name of the play that draws me in. Big as Dogs and Twice as Saucy sounds like a good bet for an evening's entertainment in the tiny community of Trinity, on Newfoundland's northeast coast. Lord knows, there's little else to do once the sun goes down.

I've come to Newfoundland and Labrador to hike and kayak and get a sense of the place on a driving tour from the East Coast of the Rock to the West. In St. John's, it's easy to find a good scoff and scuff (dinner and dance) and theatrical performance. But when I venture out to the province's small outports and isolated harbours, I don't expect much in the way of professional entertainment.

And that's what makes the discovery of rural Newfoundland's vibrant performing arts scene that much sweeter.

Big as Dogs and Twice as Saucy proves to be a hoot, particularly for the locals in the audience. They laugh and slap their knees and shake their heads with pleasure as a madcap story of bumbling law enforcement, homosexuality, and the northern cod moratorium unfolds.

Those of us from away don't fare so well. The accents are thick and the Newfoundland vocabulary baffling (what the hell is a streel?). Despite the linguistic challenges, I thoroughly enjoy myself-in a "Wow, I'm discovering the culture of a foreign country" kind of way.

The play is one of 16 that make up Rising Tide Theatre's June to October festival called Seasons in the Bight. When I meet the company's artistic and executive producer, Donna Butt, I suggest that subtitles across the bottom of the stage might be helpful. She laughs and we talk about how Trinity, 260 kilometres from St. John's and with a population of just 240, came to be such a theatrical hot spot.

Butt explains that this once-booming town, like so many communities in Newfoundland, was devastated by the decline of the northern cod fishery. Looking for a way to turn things around, locals settled on a summer theatre festival that would tell tales of Newfoundland's distinct culture and heritage. "The idea was always to build a festival that could only happen in Newfoundland and Labrador," Butt explains. "And that's what this festival is. It celebrates the people, the place, our history, our struggle to survive, our courage, our pride."

The festival's anchor event is the New Founde Lande Trinity Pageant, where audience members follow the cast of 40 through 10 different historical scenes played out in the lanes, roads, and buildings of this historic town. There's much laughter and song as well as sombre moments. The performances feel at once professional and homegrown, entertaining and educational, lighthearted yet with a depth of emotion that goes to the core of the place. As Butt suggests of the whole festival, "It's not slick. It's not Stratford. But it's ours."

Days later in Twillingate, a local man assures me that the traffic jam unfolding in front of us is not theirs. At least not normally. The 25th annual Fish, Fun & Folk Festival parade has just finished and it appears that every member of this north-central coast community of about 3,000 wants to leave at the same time. "It's quite something when we get gridlock in Twillingate," he says.

Certainly, the festival is quite something, a weeklong party with musical and theatrical performances, fireworks, a beach bonfire, community breakfasts, dinners, and more. The parade is an old-fashioned affair, with Shriners driving mini-tanker trucks and the high-school basketball team dribbling balls down the town's main street. I'm particularly taken with two home-cooked-up entries: a young girl dressed in a red berry costume and mom in an old-fashioned red dress, who carry a Partridge Berry Family sign; and a tractor festooned with flags, balloons, paper cod cutouts, and a sign that reads God bless the King.

Unfortunately, two events I want to attend-the play The Holdin' Ground and a meet-and-greet event where locals and visitors mix it up-are sold out. I do score tickets to a concert featuring Newfoundland's Shanneyganok at the local arena. These big, burly men, surely the antithesis of sissy boy bands, get the joint jumping with their traditional Newfoundland music. I'm surrounded by locals who sing along heartily to every song, and it brings to mind a comment I heard on the local radio station: "What makes these festivals successful," says a caller from Eastport Peninsula, "is when folks in the town gets out." They certainly gets out in Twillingate this night.

By the time I reach the West Coast, 700 kilometres from St. John's, I've learned to never underestimate a Newfoundlander's pluck. Still, driving through the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Cow Head, it seems impossible that anyone would have faith that a theatre company could survive in this isolated place (population 511).

But Theatre Newfoundland Labrador not only survives, it thrives. This ambitious company is responsible for the Gros Morne Theatre Festival, a 16-week summer extravaganza of eight productions and 150-plus performances. Cow Head seems an unlikely spot for such a grand undertaking until you look on a map and see that Gros Morne National Park, one of Canada's most celebrated, is right next door.

The festival's general manager, Gaylene Buckle, explains how they capitalize on the Gros Morne connection. "There is loads to do during the day," says Buckle, referring to the exceptional hiking and sightseeing opportunities in the area, "but nothing in the evenings. People come for a natural vacation and, well, what could be more natural than theatre and storytelling?"

I attend a rambunctious adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream performed in bright sunshine in a natural outdoor amphitheatre. The simple stage and bleachers are bordered on one side by cliffs and woods, on the other by slopes and killer ocean views. The actors play their parts to the hilt, and I laugh in all the right places despite struggling to understand Shakespearean dialogue delivered with a Newfoundland accent.

Later that evening, I experience a bit of what a real local kitchen party must be like at the festival's Neddy Norris Night. Six actors play traditional instruments, sing songs, and spin yarns on a small, foot-high stage set in the middle of an unassuming conference room at the Shallow Bay Motel. Again, the audience sings along and I begin to understand how songs and stories are as natural as fog and fish in Newfoundland.

Artistic director Jeff Pitcher tells me the 2006 festival will include an outdoor Neddy Norris show (complete with campfire and ghost stories) and the world premiere of a play that tells the true story of a grizzly murder in Cow Head involving a trapper named John Pelly in 1809. He explains just how strong the local connection is: "Growing up, your parents would threaten, 'Better be good or the Pelly ghost'll get ya!'" Pitcher suggests I visit the community museum where the murder weapon, a double axe, is proudly displayed.

It strikes me that Newfoundland is dramatic without even trying.

ACCESS: Newfoundland theatre comes to Vancouver January 10-14 when Tempting Providence, a Theatre Newfoundland Labrador production, plays the Vancouver East Cultural Centre as part of the PuSh Festival. Information at www .puShfestival.ca/.

For information on Newfoundland and Labrador: www.gov.nl.ca/tour ism/ or 1-800-563-6353.

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