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"Give as Good as We Get": Isle aux Morts partners with Memorial to share its stories

In the community of Isle aux Morts there are stories to spare. One of the most famous is the 1828 rescue of almost 200 shipwrecked sailors and passengers by the Harvey family, along with their trusty Newfoundland dog, Hairyman.

Sadly, with the feDr. Skidmore and his daughter meet some of the locals.    rry to North Sydney just 16 kilometres away, visitors to the region tend to drive right through rather than stopping to appreciate the long and unique history of the community.

Blanford Billard, former community development assistant and member of the Isle aux Morts Heritage Society, believes that if people would only take the time to stop by, they'd be impressed with its beautiful views and interesting residents.

That's why he raised the issue of tourism development at the Harris Centre's regional workshop in Port aux Basques last spring. In particular, he suggested that a stage play about the Harveys could be a great way to increase tourism to Isle aux Morts as well as providing jobs in the region.

Dr. Jamie Skidmore from Memorial's Department of English agreed. Dr. Skidmore read a Yaffle Your Next Project feature in the Gazette regarding the opportunity and contacted Amy Tucker, the article's author and the Harris Centre's knowledge mobilization co-ordinator.

"The first thing that attracted me to this project was that a Newfoundland community was seeking help that I thought I could provide," explained Dr. Skidmore. "Secondly, I know the story of Ann Harvey and it was appealing to write a play with a strong female lead, and about such an important person in Newfoundland history."

Dr. Skidmore travelled to the region in the summer of 2012 to get a better understanding of the area and its history. Mr.Billard arranged a number of field trips during the visit. According to Dr. Skidmore, the trip featured many memorable highlights.

"Wilfred and Vera Seymour, who also gave my family a bed to sleep in and wonderful meals, and their friend Tommy Harvey, a relative of the famous Harveys, took us out on a boat to visit the original Isle aux Morts site and Wreck Rock, where Ann Harvey rescued the survivors of the wreck of the Despatch," he said. "Blanford also organized a walk for us along the Harvey Trail with two Newfoundland dogs, which my five-year-old daughter absolutely loved."

Once Dr. Skidmore spent some time with the story of the Harvey's, the play came together quite smoothly; in fact, it's almost complete. The story is told from the perspective of the first mate on the Despatch, after he has returned home after the shipwreck.

"It will take place in his family's kitchen, and his family will play the roles of those who were in the wreck. Ann will be the hero of the story, and it will climax with her rescuing the survivors," he revealed. "There will be a love story on the ship, and parallels will be drawn between the woman in that story and Ann."

Throughout the process, Dr. Skidmore has been careful to include community perspectives and input.

"The Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council is supporting me to return to the community to share the script and give us their feedback. Although I'm the playwright, we want this to be a community collaboration and event," he said. "We're holding a script workshop in Isle aux Morts at the end of April and I'll be working with a combination of actors from St. John's and Isle aux Morts."

Dr. Skidmore is particularly excited about working with the local participants, believing their understanding and familiarity with the Harvey story will contribute to the authenticity of the production.

"I cast the workshop this past weekend via Skype and one of the actors is an eight-year-old boy, Cole Keeping, who is two years younger than Ann's brother Tom, who helped with the rescue. He'll be able to help me see if I captured the voice of a young boy."

That back and forth dialogue is one of the aspects about publically engaged work that Dr. Skidmore values most.

"I think there are lots of connections that arts-related departments can make with our many communities across the province. It begins with bringing more art into the community and leaving something behind," he said. "Of course, many scholars also go into the communities to learn about our island culture and we bring out wonderful stories, music and art, as well. We give as good as we get, I suppose."

If all goes as planned, Dr. Skidmore's play will be performed this summer during Ann Harvey Days, a 28-day annual event in Isle aux Morts that commemorates and celebrates the heroism of the Harvey family. The actors will debut the piece on stage at the Hairyman Café. Mr. Billard is optimistic about the play's potential.

"This could be the start to a Newfoundland and Labrador theatre tour, which could entice people to go along a specific theatre route that goes across the island," he said. "We're very excited about our community's continued relationship with Memorial."

More information about Isle aux Morts can be found here.

If you've got a collaboration opportunity that you'd like to explore with Memorial, contact Amy Tucker at (709)864-6115.

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