The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum
Interview with Wendy Lill, Playwright
Our study guide writer Karen Gilodo enjoyed a lively conversation with playwright Wendy Lill on the phone from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on September 5th, 2012.
Karen: When did you first read Sheldon Currie’s short story and what prompted you to adapt the story for the stage?
Wendy: I read the short story in about 1982. I had just moved to Nova Scotia from Winnipeg and was trying get a handle on what the place was about. Mary-Colin Chisholm said to me, “if you want to know anything about Cape Breton Island read The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum” and I did and I loved it. I adapted it first as a radio-play with Mary-Colin Chisholm in the role of Margaret and then when I adapted it to the stage play, Mary-Colin Chisholm played the role. She really originated it and so in my mind whenever I read it I hear her saying the lines. I think of her as Margaret.
In my mind it was a perfect short story, perfect characters, everyone involved was drawn to them.
What was the audience response to the first production?
Wonderful. It was done by Ship’s Company down in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia.
It was a wonderful production full of life and humour and music. When someone describes what the play is about, it sounds grim and full of horror, but in fact it is full of life and joy. There is a dark humour, a real muscular dark humour throughout the whole thing but it is a story about life.
You have described The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum as a “memory play”. How does framing the events in Margaret’s memory help tell the story?
She is flashing back on this experience. When Margaret is speaking to the audience, she has already been in the mental ward. She has been put away for her deeds. One could say she went nuts and cut up her husband and her brother. She is maybe 30 or maybe she is 40 but she is still coming to terms with what has happened.
There is a real place called the Glace Bay Miners’ Museum and I think Sheldon wanted to comment with this story on the real human costs of the miners’ life on families. He didn’t feel the artefacts in the museum actually told the tale. Any museum is about human life and love and loss. Margaret is trying to tell those stories with the artefacts she has taken from the bodies.
At the end of the play, Margaret voluntarily goes to a psychiatric institution. In the study guide we are asking students to consider whether they think what she does is “crazy.” In your opinion, is what she does “crazy”?
I just don’t judge that. Even when I read it. The first time I read it, it seemed like the most outrageous and the most appropriate thing to do. I was horrified but there was also a rightness about that. I don’t think she was crazy but what does that mean? She may have been crazy with grief in the moment. These people were dead. Brought up from the mines. Her decision was to cut off parts of their bodies that were special to her. I don’t judge that actually. It is a very political thing she did. It is not like taking a lock of hair for her pillow. It is an act of rage. She is very specific about what she takes so that others will remember. You know, people forget.
What do you hope students will take away from seeing The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum?
I think… it is a love story. A very memorable love story. First of all between a man and a woman. An outsider comes into the community. He doesn’t want to go into the mine; he wants to be an artist. He is different – he turns the lights on for the other characters. The play is about cultural awareness and waking up to your environment – it is about life. It has darkness in it but it is all about human spirit and that people can rise above the grim circumstances of their lives.
It is also a love story with the whole family. The relationship between the two men is a very important relationship. They debate and fight over pride, fighting “the man,” unions, justice and injustice. There was one game in town and that was the mining company. It is about looking at your choices and trying to change your station.
It takes place in a really hard environment. But they all have choices. Margaret chooses this life; she doesn’t want to become like her mother and even though at the end she becomes a widow she is still not like her mother. Margaret is unsentimental.
But by keeping those parts of the men isn’t she somewhat sentimental?
She is. That is true. She is keeping those parts for herself and for others so they can know what their stories were.
One of the interesting interactions is between the two young men. Neil, who wants to play his bagpipes and tell stories – he is an artist, and the other – Ian – is a miner, a union man, and both men are trying to figure out what to do with their lives.
At one point Neil says “where’s the pride?” in the work. Which resonates for me today. There are many young people who are doing work that seems meaningless to them. Where’s the pride? There are a lot of scenes that seem relevant for today.
Neil’s tragedy is that he didn’t have a choice and he went into the mine and he and Ian died together. Is there a lot of choice out there right now?
How does your political work inform your artistic work?
I often write about abuse of power. I always end up somehow doing that. With this play there is a political theme. The miners are trying to gain some power in their work and in their lives. Ian is working for the union, putting his hopes in the union. He thinks he may not get anywhere but he knows they will never get anywhere without trying.
Look at the scene with the whale. What is the point of trying to save the whale?
You know, there is nothing sophisticated with these arguments and yet they are deeply sophisticated. What is the point of trying to save the whale? It seems pointless but without trying there is no hope for the whale. Ian believes in trying.
People have to identify justice and work for the common issues we are facing, from healthcare, wage inequality, to the environment. We have to work together.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I love the characters in this play. Sheldon created the characters but the process of adapting this from a short story was interesting. It went from an 11-page short story to a 90 minute radio drama and then to a two-hour play. There was at least an hour of new material to be imagined and then written, but because the characters were so strong and true, it was all possible. It was challenging but the best experience I have ever had in theatre. We all know Sheldon Currie and wanted to do justice to his vision.