The people down at Chemainus Theatre may have struck the mother lode for capturing local interest with its latest production.
That is with Other Guys Theatre Company’s Good Timber, a show built around the logging camp poems of former Chemainus sawmill worker Robert E. Swanson and which features many historic clips of Cowichan’s logging history.
“We get a lot of older guys coming up after our shows, saying they recognized a family member from one of the photos or they remembered something particular from the part of the show,” said Other Guys’ artistic director Ross Desprez.
And he suspects that will be the case following their Chemainus run, beginning May 22.
“In fact, quite a lot of material also came from the Victoria Museum, as well as a huge collection from Cowichan, from the local IWA union,” he added, noting a “terrific” local image of a high-rigger standing on top of a spar tree. “It really shows the immensity of the work and how dangerous it really was.”
Good Timber celebrates the golden age of logging in the Pacific Northwest, and the legendary bulls of the woods, hookers, hi-riggers, fallers, whistle punks and locie engineers from a time when loggers climbed trees through songs and stories told on stage in front of a multimedia backdrop of rarely-seen images from museum archives.
The show sold out its first run with the Royal B.C. Museum in 2010.
And the team including Desprez, who also acts, creative partner Tobin Stokes, multimedia and set designer John Carswell and Peter Pokorny and cast of John Gogo, Mark Hellman, Kelt and Colleen Eccleston, Sarah Donald, have 150 shows for over 23,000 people in 14 B.C. communities under their belts.
It all began when Desprez was inspired by a dog-eared copy of Rhymes of the Western Logger, a compilation of poetry by Swanson.
“If you’d stumbled into a skid road smoke shop or camp commissary during the 1940s or 50s, you would have seen well-thumbed copies of Swanson’s chapbooks sticking up among the Reader’s Digests,” said the show’s promotional material.
Some of Swanson’s poems lamenting the dangers of the bush include The Cat Skinner’s Prayer, The Death of Rough House Pete, and BC Hiball.
Besides writing, locally the engineer is known for designing and building the largest steam whistle in Canada at the Chemainus mill, that in May 10, 1940, blew the first of decades of starting and stopping signals.
Audience members can expect to buckle up for a blast to the past journey as the theatre stage transcends into the deep forest where a group of loggers suddenly emerge.
“What were the noises you would hear and how would it sound,” Desprez said of songs built on Swanson’s poetry banged out live on axes, handsaws, and choker bells to closely replicate that atmosphere as well as jingles played on guitars and fiddles.
The show’s been known on occasion to be so realistic that it’s moved audience members to tears.
“There are often a lot of families of loggers who come and even logger widows,” said Desprez. “There have even been women in tears who’ve told us, ‘My husband was a logger and I really had no idea what he did until now.'”
A message locals can chew on is how logging has changed with modern equipment taking over the worker’s jobs, said Desprez.
Evening and matinee shows take place starting this Wednesday.
What: Good Timber
When: May 22 to June 1
Where: Chemainus Theatre Festival
Tickets: online or 1-800-565-7738