A personal tragedy left one of this year’s Gaslight playwrights with a unique link to the men and women impacted by the closure of the Collingwood Shipyards.
Kathy Felice’s play portrays the last 20 minutes of the final shift before the Collingwood Shipyards closed forever on Sept. 12, 1986, displacing 1,200 workers.
“It’s the conversations that the men will be having as they leave work on that final day,” said Felice. “It’s very serious, and I think it’s a reflection of people’s personalities. Some are angry, some are sad, there are mixed emotions across the board.”
About 50 workers completed the last shift at the Shipyards before the final whistle blew.
Though she was not here for the closing of the shipyards, she lived through the same kind of heartbreak in Niagara when her husband’s 18-year career at a chemical factory ended with the closure of the factory and unceremonious demolition of the building and hundreds of jobs. Her husband was eighth on the seniority list at Cyanamid, and he had to start over.
They sold their house, Felice returned to work.
“We saw our friends move, we saw our friends’ marriages break up, and the loss of identity was huge,” said Felice.
Her own husband was never the same. He died by suicide six years later.
Felice moved to Collingwood three years ago to be close to her son and got back into writing, joining the workshops put on by Gaslight Community Theatre Productions. While searching for ideas for this year’s Gaslight Tour theme “old news” she learned of the Collingwood Shipyards closing in 1986.
“That hit home with me and I thought I could make that come true to life because I’ve experienced it, so it’s personal to me,” said Felice.
Determined to do right by the shipyard workers, she spent her research time at the library reading the stories, then at the Legion listening to the former workers talk about their time at the yard. Long after her script was finished, she went to the Collingwood Museum’s annual Shipyard Social to talk to more of the former yard workers to make sure her play would ring true.
“The story is about the men themselves, and also the office workers, all the people who worked there,” said Felice. “It talks about their legacy and their importance, and the devastation they experienced.”
They speak with pride and fear, just like Felice’s family experienced when Cyanamid closed. At the heart of it, each of the workers questions their own identities, self-worth, and their futures, which eventually leads to talk of legacy and brotherhood that would endure without a shipyard at the end of the road.
Her play, entitled Sandwiches, opens with the sound of the whistle marking the end of the last shift. She learned from the workers she spoke with that they used the whistle usually reserved for launch days to sound the closing blast.
There are two original songs included in her play. The song for the opening of the first scene is called Band of Brothers.
Her characters represent a spectrum of relatable personalities: there’s Lou, who is “Mr. Obnoxious” and he’s “pissed” about the closing. Brian is kind and uneducated, he fears his wife will leave him. Trevor is nice, and he accepts the closing knowing there’s nothing he can do about it. Finally, there’s David, who’s well-liked among his colleagues. An apprentice in the group tries to play it cool, working hard to be aloof about the situation. There are also office workers who will chime in the conversation throughout the play.
“The message is important, so I want to do it justice,” said Felice, who will also be directing the play for the Gaslight Tour performance.
The title of the play, Sandwiches, is a bit of a spoiler, so Felice would only say it refers to a “gesture of goodwill.”
“It’s something that brings the men together,” she said.
She has changed the names of her characters and used the names of her brother, her son, and her late husband.
Researching and working on the play helped Felice get to know her new community, and she loves what she has found.
“I feel more connected to Collingwood than I ever did in Niagara,” she said.
Felice’s play, Sandwiches will be one of the four, 20-minute plays performed on stage at the Simcoe Street Theatre for this year’s Gaslight Tour, an annual production by the Collingwood-based Gaslight Community Theatre Productions.
They will be performed at the Simcoe Street Theatre between Oct. 23 and 29.
The Gaslight Tour features plays about local history, all within the theme of “old news.” Tickets sold out a few days after sales opened. This will be the first year the plays are in a theatre, as typically the Gaslight plays are performed at various locations around town and patrons walk to each of the spots.
You can learn more about Gaslight Community Theatre Productions, the plays and the courses, online at gaslighttheatreproductions.com.
To read more about the other plays featured in this year's Gaslight Tour, click the following links: