Landing a Pearl of a story: Play explores history of Robert Land, the first white settler here
February 11, 2009 Gary Smith, The Hamilton Spectator
Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford are neither rascals nor numskulls. Head honchos of Artword Theatre, now working out of The Pearl Company on Steven Street, they strike me as rather gentle, cultured folk.
Their fascination with various rascals and numskulls, you see, has to do with a new play they’ve created that just happens to have that intriguing title. In choosing to explore the life of Robert Land, the first white settler in Hamilton, Weihs and Sandiford have taken a personal historical journey.
“When we came to Hamilton from Toronto to establish our theatre company here, we always intended to get caught up in Hamilton affairs,” Weihs says. “Our idea of theatre is one that addresses audiences directly. We’re concerned with how a culture talks about itself. One of our reasons to be so interested in Hamilton is the city has stories to tell.”
Sandiford picks up the thought: “We are working at The Pearl, and it’s in Landsdale. Why, we wondered? Of course, it’s named after Robert Land. We wanted to know his story. It turned out his tale was like something out of a Boys’ Own Adventure book, a real yarn. We just hit such a bonanza.”
Sandiford and Weihs took a history walk of the neighbourhood. They gained input from a book about Land, the tales of a local storyteller and a trunk full of research.
“Land was a spy or agent for the British, probably a member of Joseph Brant’s volunteers,” Weihs says. “Condemned to death at court martial, he escaped. It’s quite a tale.”
“It’s also a real romantic adventure,” Sandiford says. “It involves his wife, Phoebe. You couldn’t make up a story as fascinating as this.”
Sandiford and Weihs specialize in this type of intimate theatre created from grand-scale ideas.
“We take a huge story and reduce it to human terms. From such huge scale, we find what is personal. The play tells Robert and Phoebe’s story against the issues in which they are caught,” Weihs says.
Weihs writes the play, Sandiford provides a design concept that gives the story a place to happen, and together they solve the problems of getting it onstage.
In reading some diaries of the times, Sandiford got a clear picture of the wit and style of those days. From protest poems came the title Rascals and Numskulls.
“The Americans are the rascals, and the British the numskulls,” Sandiford laughs.
“When it came to the American Revolution, it embodied some of the finest ideals people ever had,” says Weihs. “But the fathers of independence were mega-land owners, and you know, you can see parallels with the Bush administration. It was about taking care of business. When you bully a nation, they hunker down. It’s a lesson powerful nations need to learn over and over.”
Seven people in the acting company play all the roles in Weihs’ drama.
“They sing songs, some from the period, some written for the production by Gary Santucci. And Judith has written square-dance calls that tell aspects of the story,” Weihs says.
“Slavish historical accuracy isn’t the point,” Sandiford adds. “But you need enough of that to give people a clue as to the time and place we’ll be in. We just can’t get too hung up on waistcoats and corsets, that’s all. This may be a dark story, but we want to have fun with it.”
Sandiford and Weihs were still working on the play during a month spent in London, England. In their flat they were typing pages of text and sending them back to Hamilton, where the cast awaited the next development in the Land story.
“Working on something so local and historic is our way of trying to understand where we are,” Weihs says.
Rascals and Numskulls: The Robert Land Project
Performed by The Artword Theatre Ensemble: Paula Grove, Valeri Kay, Tanis MacArthur, Allan Merovitz, Gordon Odegaard, Nea Reid, with Princess Land and Seneca Sundown.
Where: Artword @ The Pearl Company, 16 Steven St.
When: Feb. 12 through 22, Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
Gary Smith has written on theatre and dance for The Hamilton Spectator for more than 25 years.