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Play offers CDDHS students a rich understanding of history

Written By Marni Walsh

Students at Centre Dufferin District High School (CDDHS) are presenting Unity 1918 by Canadian playwright Kevin Kerr next week. Drama Teacher Tanja Oomen says, “The play is set in a small town in Saskatchewan named Unity as they await and hope for the end of the war, and explores the impact of and the reaction to the Spanish flu pandemic that lands in their midst.” 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the pandemic which took the lives of nearly as many Canadians as were killed in all four years of WWI and eradicated 3% of the world's total population in just 18 months.

“I have always loved plays based in real historical events,” says Ms. Oomen. “I think history is full of great stories and that is what we do in theatre - explore great stories from a human perspective. As a drama teacher I am drawn to historical drama because, not only do students gain the great experience of being a part of a theatre production, they also learn a lot about their history.

The play and effects of the pandemic are being explored in history and geography classes as well as drama studies at CDDHS. Geography teacher Nina Murray has created a lesson around pandemic demographics - what it looked like then, as well as how it would look if it happened today. Under the direction of Andrea Parsons, her senior music students have created their own arrangements of period music to be recorded for use within the play.

Studying Canada's flu-Story is the inaugural project for former CDDHS teacher Neil Orford's online site “Defining Moments Canada” (DMC.) “His site has excellent resources that some teachers will be using,” says Ms. Oomen. “The play itself has also had a partnership with Neil and his platform. He gave a great flu lesson to our cast and I have consulted with him about some of the historical context as well. We also received some much needed funding through Defining Moments.”

“Beyond the obvious fact that this is a great year to produce Unity 1918 in order to mark the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic,” says Tanja Oomen, “the play is also just a great piece; it is funny, sweet and startling and sad sometimes all at the same time. I am amazed at how much humour Kevin Kerr was able to build into the piece.”

The drama teacher says there are 13 students as well as one staff member in the cast which has been rehearsing three nights a week plus some weekends since the beginning of February. Other students will work as backstage crew, help with ushering, and create the posters for the show. Ms. Oomen says about as many staff as students are involved in the production. Teacher Heidi Van Der Wal is stage managing, Lauren Rush is an assistant director, Mark Greenfield and Dave Langman have been building set pieces, Lori Wilson has been designing props, and Len Guchardi is organizing sound, and many others have also been involved.

“Members of the community have also been helping,” says Ms. Oomen. “Of note is Helen Fraser who has worked tirelessly on creating and bringing together costumes for the show; she always gives so much time to the shows we do. Pam Church has also been helping with publicity. Our students are very lucky to be surrounded by adults and teachers so committed to supporting their work.”

Student Sierra Tonon, who plays “Sunna” in the play, offered her reflection on the experience so far:

“Unity 1918 has enriched my understanding of the past by making me realise how many people died from the Spanish flu verses the actual war. It also makes a strong point of women standing up to be some of the real heroes and leaders in their communities to help win their own war over the flu at home. I have to admit, some parts of this play shocked me a bit at first with some of its placement of comedy... but after seeing it start to come together, it really works nicely. Unity 1918 throws you through loops, with its dark comedy, relationships, and many emotions as the fear of the Spanish flu grows.”

“I hope that my actors walk away with the ability to understand their history in the rich way that only putting themselves in someone else's shoes can,” says Ms. Oomen. “It is how we can better understand ourselves and others. I hope that they have fun, make new friends and gain an appreciation for the art of theatre. I hope the production provides the community, first of all with the pleasure of seeing a great play, but that it might also open a conversation about their own family histories. I also see school productions as a great bridge to invite the community into our school to see what students can and are doing. Our school should be an integral piece of the fabric of our community.”

Ms. Oomen says the production is suited to “almost anyone, although parents should know that the play deals with death and sometimes incorporates some dark humour in so doing. So, younger children or people sensitive to these things might find some of it startling.”
The play will be performed on Thursday, May 3rd and Friday, May 4th at CDDHS at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10 each, and can be purchased at the school, in the CDDHS library in advance, or at the door.
Post date: 2018-04-26 15:11:09
Post date GMT: 2018-04-26 19:11:09
Post modified date: 2018-04-26 15:11:09
Post modified date GMT: 2018-04-26 19:11:09
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