September 16th, 2015

Behind the Curtains: Julia Mackey (Jake’s Gift)

For our first Behind the scene segment, I got the opportunity to talk to an amazing touring performer and writer, Julia Mackey, who will be presenting Jake’s Gift at Hudson Village Theatre this week from September 16th – 20th. The show has been presented in over 200 communities across Canada including international stops in the US, UK and Normandy (France), for the 70th Anniversary of D-Day.

First of all, I love the topic of the play; I think it’s absolutely fascinating. Why did you decide to write the story of Jake?

I am so glad you are interested in this topic. Me too! It is such a funny way I came about it, really. I have been interested in the Second World War and D-Day in particular since I was in grade seven. I was watching a documentary with my father about the Second World War. It was the first time I had ever learned or seen anything about the war, and the images completely shattered me. My father was worried and wanted me to turn off the television because I was so upset, but I said, “No, no, I need to know about this”. So, he let me finish watching it, and then he talked to me more about what had happened during the war, and something in me just said, “I need to write something as a thank you to our veterans.”

That thank you took almost 25 years to get off the ground. Jump ahead to 2002 where I happened to take a mask characterization workshop at Pacific Theatre in Vancouver. The workshop was about creating a character by using mask, but by the end of the workshop you would not use the mask anymore – it was simply used as a device to create a character. The mask that I chose to work with looked like an old man. I started to write a story about this guy Jake and his two brothers from the prairies and their connection to the 2nd World War. In the original story line, Jake was not a veteran but his brothers’ were. I had wanted to make Jake a veteran, but I had no idea what that experience was so I couldn’t write authentically with that voice.

About a year after that workshop, I said to Dirk Van Stralen, my partner, and director of Jake’s Gift, that I wanted to expand this story of Jake. I said,“I feel like I am not finished with Jake’s story.” Then one night, we were watching the National and Peter Mansbridge was reporting that there was going to be this big celebration for the 60th Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy in June 2004. Something in me just clicked, and I knew that was where I would find the rest of Jake’s story. Dirk said to me, “You know, as soon as you get to Normandy, and interview all those veterans, it is obvious Jake will become a veteran.” That is exactly what happened.

I went to Normandy, and interviewed as many veterans as I could, from Canada, the US, and England. I ended up recording hours and hours of interviews. When I got back to Canada, I started listening to those interviews and piecing the story together. In the summer of 2005, Karen Jeffery, who owned the Sunset Theatre in Wells, BC, gave me a deadline for the summer of 2006 to write something for a new work series she was starting called the Exploration Series. I swear to God, if Karen hadn’t given me a deadline, I don’t know if I would have ever finished writing the play.

So in August 2006, I did the very first public reading of Jake’s Gift. I got a really great response from it. That fall, I ironed out a few kinks and had another reading in December of 2006. At that 2nd reading, a dear fellow Theatre Artist, Producer and WW2 veteran, Antony Holland, attended the reading and he really enjoyed the play. He was one of the first Producers to say “Hey, why don’t you come and do this show at my theatre?” And so we did just that. He invited us to do our first public performance in January 2007 at his theatre on Gabriola Island in BC, and that performance opened the door to others and before we knew it we were touring the show to festivals, theatres and Legions across Canada.

How many characters are you playing in the show?  

I play 4 characters in the show. The two main characters are Jake and Isabelle and the two secondary characters are Isabelle’s Grandmother, Grande-Isabelle, and a Canadian teacher called Susan. In the story, Jake, a Canadian WW2 veteran, goes back to Normandy for the 60th Anniversary of D-Day to find his brother’s grave. While he is there, he meets a little girl from the local village called Isabelle. She is the main narrator of the story. Her curiosity about the war, her obsession with the returning soldiers, and her inquisitive nature and charm soften Jake, and enable him to confront some long ignored ghosts. You know how old people and kids are the type of people who because of where they are in life say exactly what they want? That is who Jake and Isabelle are. They are at opposite spectrums of life and they are both at a time in their lives where they just say what they want with no filters. I think that is where the comedy comes out in Jake’s Gift. The play is definitely a drama, but many people have said to us they really appreciate the comedy that is sprinkled throughout the play.

When creating the show we made sure that the physicality and vocal choices for each character were very distinct so that no one in the audience would ever second-guess who was speaking.

How much has the show changed since its original production?

 You know, it is so funny, I have met people who saw the show in those early years and when they come back a few years later, they often say, “You changed it!”, and I say “No, we didn’t actually. It’s the exact same script.” Well, actually, I’ve added a few lines here and there, but I think the thing that has evolved is the nuances of each of the characters. So maybe that’s why people feel it is different. I think I take more time with the characters. I think I/they listen to each other better than they did in those first productions in 2007.

With the repetition of each performance, I have learned more about each of the characters physically, and more about what each character’s storyline is, so I think that development has added a depth to the piece that maybe wasn’t there originally. You know, those little habits that people have, and I think that each character’s habits and quirks have developed too. They feel like real people to me. I guess that makes sense since I have spent so much of my life with them over the last 9 years. This Friday night will be our 800th performance of Jake’s Gift. I have never thought of it like this before, but they really have become our family. And every night is like hanging out with them.

So you mention that, after the show, you and your team will go out and sell Buttons from the show. And you mentioned that all the profits of the sale of these buttons go to the legion?

 That’s right. 100% of the profit from our Jake’s Gift button package sales is donated to the local Legion of the community we are performing in. So during this run in Hudson all the profits we raise over our 8 shows at HVT will be donated to the Hudson Legion. They can use the funds for their Poppy Trust Fund or for whatever need is most pressing at their Branch.

We started selling buttons after the show in 2010, and we just passed $31,000.00 in donations to Poppy Trust Funds across Canada. Each button package includes 3 buttons, and each button pertains to a theme in the play. We sell them for 5$ per package, but it’s amazing how generous people are. When we tally up the total amount donated at the end of the night, we usually discover that people have given more than 5$ per package.

Since you are also the playwright, why did you decide to make Jake’s Gift, a one-person show? Why not have 4 actors play each part?

It’s a great question. I think the main answer is that I just wanted the challenge of doing a one-person show. I had a lot of friends who were given that opportunity at theatre school, and I never had that chance, so I just wondered if I could do it. I said to Dirk “I have such a strong sense of what each of these people sound like. Do you think it could be a solo show?” So we worked on developing that idea and it became a one-person show.

Also, from a practical perspective, we wanted to tour, and the cost of 2 people vs. 5 people on tour is a big difference financially. But more than cost concerns, despite those being valid, the main reason is because I really love specific character work, and I just wanted the challenge of doing a multi character solo piece. If you read the script, there is nowhere in it that implies it’s a solo show, except for the very beginning of the published script where the production notes say I play all 4 characters. One day down the road, I’d be curious to see it performed by 4 different actors.

What tip would you give to someone who would want to do a solo touring show?

 Touring is such a massive learning curve. We certainly did it in a trial by fire sort of way. We started on the solo performance circuit and the Fringe Festival circuit, which is a fantastic way to learn how to self produce because you have to wear so many different hats: performer, writer, marketing person, and producer. The Fringe circuit teaches you so much about how to tour.

Some practical things I would advice about touring a solo show: 1) Make sure you love the piece you are touring. The road can be very tiring, and you have to love getting up there and keep telling that story even when you’re exhausted, and make sure you tour with someone you really like. Don’t do it alone. It’s too hard and lonely. 2) Be professional in all aspects of your show. Hire designers whose work you trust and whose work is professional in quality. That goes for lighting, sound and all marketing materials include press photos and any videography. Having a high quality product will stand out. 3) And most importantly – Don’t be an entitled asshole. People don’t want to work with people who are demanding and hard to deal with. You won’t get invited back. Remember the Golden Rule: Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.

And with regards to how you set up a tour? Start on the Fringe, and invite the Artistic Directors of regular Theatres to come and see your show and/or apply to as many Festivals as you can. Keep applying. Each province has an annual showcasing conference for the performing arts. It’s mostly musicians that apply, but it’s open to all performing arts genres. It’s a bit costly, but if you get in, you get a performance slot to present 15 minutes of your show. Choose a part that is enticing and that will leave them wanting to know what comes next? You will perform in front of hundreds of delegates who represent Arts Councils from around the Country. If your presentation is intriguing to them and captivating, you may just find yourself with a multi city tour. The conferences take place across the country. The conference in BC is run by the BC Touring Council and is called Pacific Contact. There’s also Alberta Showcase, Contact East, Ontario Contact, CAPACOA. Google them and find out how you can apply.

In the end – even if none of those things work out re: touring – just keep doing it. Keep creating and self-producing theatre in your own community. It’s the best way to assure you’ll always be creating, and you’ll always be in control of your own work. Trust that eventually you’ll get out there on the open road.

What message would you like the audience to leave with at the end of Jake’s Gift?

I love that question! I don’t know if I have a specific message per se, but I hope people leave the theatre feeling satisfied. I hope they feel they’ve been told a good story that will stay with them. I hope they leave with a sense of reflection about their own family and their own connection to the war – whatever that may be. I am so interested in history and in the personal stories of war. I am amazed with how many people tell me that they are interested in exploring there own family history after they’ve seen the show. And what people have told me is that they find it very moving and patriotic, which is something I never ever intended it to be.

I am amazed at how moved people are by the end of the show. After the performance, I get a chance to talk to people when we are out in the lobby, as we sell Jake’s Gift buttons afterwards to raise money for the local Legion’s Poppy Fund. I love to hear the audiences stories about the “Jake” in their own lives. I think the reason people connect to the play is because Jake reminds them of their father, uncle or grandfather. They think of their Jake while they are watching the show, and perhaps it makes the experience of the play more personal.

Also, during the Second World War, our population was between 10 and 11 million, and one million Canadians volunteered, whether it was going over seas, being stationed at home or volunteering in many other ways. The legacy of that is massive and as such you can’t throw a stone without finding a Canadian family that has some connection to the world wars.

The story is really about friendship, forgiveness and gratitude. Those 3 universal themes are so important in all of our lives, so I hope people leave with a sense of those things, , and I hope it makes them think about who it is in their life they want to remember and hold close to them whether or not that person is a war veteran. One of the main messages for Isabelle is the promise to carry on the Legacy of remembrance. She promises that she will never forget the sacrifices that were made for her freedom. To think that some people may walk away with that in their hearts too would be a truly wonderful thing.

After the show one night, a young man came up to talk to me. He must have been about 20 years old – the same age as many of the guys who served during WW2, including Jake. He said to me “I have never in my life been to a Remembrance Day Ceremony, and I am going to go this year.” That moved me so much, because as an artist – to have written something that compels someone to do something different or think about something differently – that is the greatest feeling. He wrote to me, right after Remembrance Day that year, to say that he had gone to his own community’s memorial service, and that he had been thinking a lot about Jake. It made me so happy that the play inspired him to do that.


Special Note: Julia had so many experiences for the writing of this play. Here is an extra bonus part

In June 2014, Dirk and I went to Normandy for 70th anniversary of D-Day. I learned the play in French last year in May, and we got the chance to present the play in French in a venue right on Juno Beach.

Within the story of the play, there is a specific house where Isabelle lives in Bernières Sur Mer (Juno Beach), and it is called the Queen’s Own Rifles House. Anyone who has ever seen a photo of Juno Beach on D-Day will recognize that house on the shore. The family that owns the house today is the same family that owned it during the 2nd World War. The venue where we performed the show in Normandy was right across from the house.

There is a moment in the play, where Isabelle tells Jake, “I live in that house right over there.” In the blocking of the play, normally I point to my right, but in Normandy the house was right in front of me, so instead I pointed at the exact house and said the line “ I live in the house right over there.” It was a thrilling moment and very moving.

The family that owns the house are The Hoffer Family, and they came to the show in the evening. In the story, Grande Isabelle lives in that house. So, I met Mme. Hoffer, the real life Grande Isabelle. And it was so amazing to have her and her husband there. It was only my second or third time performing the show in French. I was incredibly nervous because although I speak French, it is not my first language, and I am not bilingual. But it went really well. We had such an incredible experience.

We did 2 shows there on June 11th 2014 – one matinee and one evening show. During the evening show it was high tide. The windows in the venue were open and all the way through the show you could hear the waves crashing up on Juno Beach. It just added another sound layer to the show that was truly perfect. It was an incredible experience. A moment, we will always cherish and we are hoping to go back next year.

Jake’s Gift

Hudson Village Theatre,

September 16th to 20th

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