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Playwrights spin tales around Collingwood's mysteries of history

Collingwood's 'unsolved mysteries' take centre stage for this year's Gaslight Tour
Three of the four Gaslight Tour playwrights for 2022, from left: Melissa Shaw, Janet Wilkinson, and Dawn Hanley.

Collingwood’s past mysteries come unravelled, or ravel tighter, this week as the annual tradition of Gaslight Community Theatre brings the stories back from the dead.

This year the Gaslight Tour theme is unsolved mysteries and features four plays by four women who have crafted their mysteries around Collingwood history.

The tour sells out weeks ahead of time every year and this year was no different.

Throughout this week from Oct. 27 to 30 the performances will take place at four spots in town with the tour being led by four Gaslight guides who take the audience to each spot and add to the theatrics. The venues are chosen for their historical significance to the town.

Gaslight Community Theatre started the Gaslight Tour in 2010.

This year’s plays include The Sorcerer by Janet Wilkinson, Firebug by Dawn Hanley, The Collingwood Bomberettes by Melissa Shaw, and Glory by Eleanor Burke.

Wilkinson’s The Sorcerer is based on the final voyage of the sidewheeler ship Waubuno, which departed from the Collingwood Harbour in an autumn storm in November 1879.

“One of the challenges to writing a Gaslight play is to incorporate historical details into a dramatic piece,” said Wilkinson. “I know the writing is going well when the characters seem to come to life in the room around me, and that’s exactly what happened as I worked on this play.”

Her characters include a newlywed Kate Doupe, the Waubuno’s captain, George Burkett, the ship’s owner, Thomas Long, and the only female member of the crew, Mary Hyatt.

“I got to know them all, and getting to know them made the uncertainty of their fates even more powerful,” said Wilkinson. “It’s humbling and exciting to watch actors bring the characters I’ve created to life, treating them with dignity and interpreting them in ways I hadn’t foreseen.”

The Sorcerer is her fourth play for Gaslight, and it will be performed at the Salvation Army Church.

Firebug playwright Hanley is a recurring contributor to Gaslight theatre, having written eight plays for it and two scenes for the Gaslight cemetery tour.

This year, she focused on the story of an arsonist in Collingwood in 1908, who burned multiple buildings including the GNE fair building and stables. The identity of the arsonist has never been confirmed.

Hanley caught the bug for this play as a university student working at the Collingwood Museum in the summers.

“I came across a photo of the original building that was Collingwood’s Central Park and was quite shocked to learn it had been destroyed by arson,” said Hanley.

She stored her shock and pulled it back out again when the theme of unsolved mysteries was announced for the 2022 Gaslight Tour.

She added a fictional love story, but the history included in the play is all true.

“I love the writing process for these plays. Because they start with research, you have something to start with rather than the all-intimidating blank page,” said Hanley.

She hasn’t seen any of the rehearsals and is looking forward to seeing the play for the first time on performance night.

Firebug will be performed at the Simcoe Street Theatre.

Burke has been writing plays for Gaslight since 2012, though not all have been chosen for the tour performances. This year, she’s written about the unsolved murder of 13-year-old Gloria Whalen in 1913 Collingwood for her play, Glory.

“I was inspired to create this play to present the known facts of her murder and raise questions about the unusual circumstances,” said Burke.

She visited the existing memorial for Whalen located in a parkette where the old railway tracks ran through the south edge of Collingwood. She followed that curiosity to the library and read through newspaper articles on Whalen’s death.

She found a “torrent of interest” in the story, with “mostly bizarre and unfounded tales of sightings and otherworldly visions.”

Burke said it took lots of digging to separate fact from fiction, and she was left with a final question: Was Gloria really murdered or was she the unfortunate victim of circumstance?

Her play will be performed on the tour at Awaken Spiritual Store.

Shaw, supervisor at the Collingwood Museum, is also a recurring contributor to the Gaslight Tours as a playwright, and this year, she tells the story of a mysterious disappearance in her play, The Collingwood Bomberettes.

Set in 1940s Collingwood, the Clyde Aircraft Manufacturing Company and the Miss War Worker beauty pageant, Shaw’s characters include war worker Izora Keith, her colleague, Helen Lawrence, company president George Bear, and Alice Snoot, the “nosy parker,” gathering content for the Clyde News.

“I was drawn in by a photograph of the winners of the Miss War Worker pageant that was published in the Clyde News,” said Shaw. “For this play, I created the mystery and focused on the history of one of Collingwood’s war industries and the women who worked there. The disappearance of the war worker is fictional, but it was common for workers at Clyde to relocate with little notice.”

The Clyde News was the company’s newsletter, and helped inform Shaw’s research for the play.

Shaw wrote the play during the first of the COVID-19 lockdowns, and said research was difficult while the library and museum were closed to the public.

“Writing this play was an escape, a place to have a little bit of fun when the world shut down,” she said. “I tried to keep my play lighthearted and create some, hopefully, humorous moments for myself and the play’s audience.”

The Collingwood Bomberettes will be performed at Black Bellows.

While there are no tickets available for the plays, photos from rehearsals, and more information about the tour, can be found on the Gaslight Theatre Facebook page. There is also a Gaslight Community Theatre Productions Page-to-Stage program, which provides a chance for local residents to develop skills in scene-writing and playwriting, directing, acting, and managing with expertise from professionals in the field. Writing programs are subsidized and offered annually. More information can be found here.

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 15 years of experience as a local journalist
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