‘Hoping’ for success

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Hope springs eternal — at least in the hearts of the Scottish Highlanders who sailed from their homeland to Pictou in 1773 to start a new life.

They arrived at long last under brutal conditions from a shipping company that cruelly deceived them, to harsh surroundings and an uncertain future. But those who survived the journey kept a flame of hope alive. And it is this theme of hope that is the essence of Voyage: A Journey of Hope, a musical being staged next month at the deCoste Performing Arts Centre.

Voyage: A Journey of Hope was written, produced and directed by Sandy Mackay and Ron MacDonald.

It features lead characters Rory, Angus and Mary as they make the perilous voyage to the New World on the Hector and the trials and twists of fate that ensue. But they have hope for a bright future.

“One of the songs we wrote is called Seize the Day; that song is not aimed at 1773,” says writer Sandy Mackay. “It’s aimed at trying to convince people today to seize the opportunity – to forget the bad yesterdays and move on to good tomorrows. That’s the essence of that song and that’s the message in Voyage: A Journey of Hope. That theme of hope runs throughout the entire show: The idea that even in the most dire of circumstances there is still hope. And that is the story of the Hector.”

Mackay explains the musical’s genesis: “About 10 years ago, John Meir and I sat down to write a stage play about the Hector.” They worked on the project together for or about six months until Meir turned it over to Mackay.

“So we had the genesis of the idea and then I was doing other things in my life at the time so I went away from it for several years. Then about four years ago I came up with an idea to use the Hector … instead of telling that story I decided to use it as the backdrop for this story.”

Mackay created characters and based the story on three young people who are suffering under the oppression of a tyrannical government — “audiences will be able to relate,” Mackay jokes. “I know that sounds familiar because it’s largely today’s tale of the world.”

He explains, “In the first act we address all of the significant deficiencies in their lives since the English have taken over and just basically why getting out is the way to go. As you can appreciate, even today people are prepared to leave their homeland, to leave even their name behind if necessary; they’ll do whatever it takes to get out from under a situation like this.”

The first act was written in a day.

“Then I had to figure out what to do in the second act. As many people are aware, the tale of the Hector’s voyage is very dark, so in order to make it entertaining as well as tell that story, it’s a very difficult task. But I think we’ve achieved that.” The second act took four days.

“Although it’s fiction based on an actual historical event, it parallels very much what is going on in the world today.”

Then Mackay and MacDonald set off on a journey of their own to create the score. The two have worked together in the past when they created and produced A Sentimental Journey which was performed around the province and which they retired at the end of its 20th year last year. They had also both been with Postcard Players and have extensive experience as writers and performers.

The second act is based on the reality of the tale that has been handed down. “And the narrative is advanced by the songs we have created. Some of those songs are strictly for entertainment purposes, others are designed to make a point and tell that part of the story.”

The cast reads like who’s who of musical giants in Pictou County: Leah McPherson, Ben O’Neill, Luke MacIsaac, Randy Gilby, Marjorie Macdonald, Murray McLaren, William Austin, Stephen MacKenzie, Sally O’Neill and Amelia Parker – “who is actually descended from the MacLeod characters in the show, which we didn’t find out until long after I’d written it. They are gifted singers, each and every one of them.”

The score is largely original. “The only music we use is Lord of the Dance. At the beginning of the original voyage there was no wind. So they leave Scotland and are two weeks at sea, it took two weeks to reach the northern tip of Ireland. So every day on deck they had a ceilidh. So that’s how we alleviate some of that dark story is by having a ceilidh, so we set that music to Lord of the Dance. Everything else is original.”

Mackay is thrilled with the outcome.

“There’s this lovely little ditty when we introduce Mary on the stage and it’s called A Woman’s Work is Never Done, and it’s a work song. Last night was the first opportunity I had to hear the song. So Leah (McPherson) does this acapella version of the song and everyone was just dumbfounded. I wrote it but I couldn’t believe it — that’s how good she is,” lauds Mackay.

There are 14 original songs and the music covers everything from humour to despair and all points in between.

Show dates are September 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. each night and on September 9 there is a 2:30 p.m. matinee. Prices are $25 for non-members and $22 for deCoste members.

Of the experience writing the show Mackay says, “It’s been an adventure.”

The play is historically accurate as possible, although Mackay says he has taken a couple of small liberties.

“Only about 80 of the 189 people who got here stayed here. The rest went to PEI and to Truro; a number of those who went to Truro came back the next summer. Of the 80, they went to Brown’s Point, erected shelters and lived there for the winter and nearly died. There’s a whole other play about what happened when they got here, a whole other story that never gets told…”

Mackay feels this could be staged every year or even every second year, lending itself to a repeat performance.

“The Hector story is an important one and it deserves to be told and if we can, though this, extend to a broader audience the history that, in large part, many of us live with every day here, then that’s when we will have accomplished something. Being an educator in my past life, if people come away from this play and they think about what those individuals sacrificed then it’ll be worth it.

“It’s a labour of love. It’s been thrilling.”

Check out the production on Facebook at Voyage: A Journey of Hope.

Luke MacIsaac as ‘Rory’ and Leah McPherson as ‘Mary’ rehearse lines for the upcoming production Voyage: A Journey of Hope. Murray McLaren as ‘John Ross’ is partially hidden. (Submitted photo)