Jake's Gift ends up in Rossland's hands...
Have you ever taken a trip that has touched you so deeply that it literally changed the course of your life? For Julia Mackey, just such a trip to Normandy France for the 60th anniversary of D-Day launched her into a series of events that would lead to Jake’s Gift, a one woman play that has just entered its 5th year of shows that now number over 400 from coast to coast to coast.
While growing up in Montreal, the seed for what would become Mackey’s masterpiece (to date) was planted while watching a documentary on World War Two in grade seven. That was the first time she had seen actual footage of the brutal fighting that was the war. It affected her deeply and ever since she has had a keen interest in Remembrance Day and its true meaning.
As she moved through high school she began developing an interest in writing and started piecing together her first short plays. As she moved into her adult years, as tends to happen, she was consumed by life and drifted into the education world. That lure of writing and the theater, nagging at her from the depths of her heart, ultimately pulled her back to her first love by her mid twenties when she moved to Vancouver and got involved in a theatre group.
In 2004, Mackey’s trip to Normandy and the emotional experience that ensued once again sparked her imagination and over the course of the following two years she pieced together the work that would become Jake’s Gift. 400 plus shows into its run, the Rossland Council for Arts and Culture is bringing Jake’s Gift to the Miners’ Hall this weekend for a two night performance.
This week the Telegraph connected with Mackey to discuss the play, the experience, her life and how it’s changed her as a person.
To start, tell us a little bit about the story itself
It’s the story of a World War Two veteran who goes back to Normandy France for the 60th Anniversary of D-Day. It’s the first time he has been back since the war, and his main goal in going is to find the grave of his eldest brother who was killed overseas during the war.
He is one of three brothers that fought during the war and Jake is one of the two surviving brothers. Now that he is coming to the end of his life, it’s about reconciling lost ghosts and having that final conversation with his brother. He harbors a lot of survivor guilt. It’s mainly about trying to find his brother’s grave as something to clean up before his life is over.
As somber as it sounds, it’s really not. There are four characters in the play. The main characters are Jake and Isabelle, a ten year old French girl Jake meets on the beach. She is obsessed with all things Canadian and is very excited about the anniversary approaching. She tries to befriend Jake to get as much information out of him as she can about the war. It’s about their friendship and how they help each other through friendship and an actual gift they give to each other.
Tell us a little bit about your experience going over to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day?
I didn’t know what to expect when I went there. I expected it to be emotional. I had this naive idea that I would go to these memorials during the day and then come home and write. The days were so jam packed with things to do and so overwhelmingly emotional. It was ten times more emotional than I ever anticipated. I hope that what I do in the play is communicate to people what it is like to be in those Canadian cemeteries in France and what it feels like to walk into a cemetery filled with thousands of your countrymen that never got to come home and were only teenagers or 20 years old. It still makes me upset when I think about it even though my time there was almost seven years ago now. It’s quite an overwhelming feeling.
When I got home it took me two years to write it. Eventually though I got it out on paper and by 2006 I had the first draft done. That draft was very close to the script we have now. Because I had been sitting on it for a couple of years when I went to write it, I had a very strong idea about the structure of it. It didn’t’ talk too many rewrites to get it to where it is today.
Do you have any personal family connections to D-day and Normandy?
My grandfather was in the Royal Navy during the war. He was on a mine-sweeper in the English Channel. I didn’t know him and I didn’t even know he was in the war until I started to research this play. He died when my father was quite young so my dad never really talked about it and I never knew that he had been in the war.
It sounds like quite an emotional experience going over to Normandy, talking to the veterans and experiencing the memorials. How did you translate that heavy emotional content into the play?
Well one thing that was important to me was to keep it funny as well. It’s such a serious subject. It’s definitely a drama but many people have mentioned to me that they are surprised how funny it is. Otherwise I think it would be too somber.
My favorite stories throughout my life have been kind of dark comedies that have a serious and important message but ones that approach it with a lighter touch so that’s what I’ve tried to achieve with Jake.
The show itself is a one woman performance. Performing four characters both male and female on your own with a minimalist set and just one costume change has got to be a challenge all its own I would imagine?
Yes, it was pretty challenging initially. But I worked with a great director who helped me be very specific about each character both physically and vocally. It’s kind of unusual. It’s not like most one person shows that are very monologue-based. This one is definitely dialogue. People can’t really imagine it because I shift back and forth very quickly between each character and they have this dialogue. Initially it starts as monologues as each character introduces themselves, but the majority of the play is dialogue. It’s a matter that I feel I know these characters so well now that it is really easy for me to shift back and forth with them.
You’ve taken a minimalist approach to let the powerful story shine through. What kind of costumes and set do you work with in that environment to bring it all to life?
Dirk’s father is a really beautiful wood worker. There is a strong theme of maple leafs in the play. Isabelle is obsessed with the Canadian flag so there is that kind of writing throughout the play. It was important to me to have the set built out of maple. Dirks father built it for us. There are just two pieces to the set. A bench and a French-style side table which is the table in Jake’s apartment in France where he is staying. The bench becomes a couple of different places throughout the play. Besides that there is a box and a typewriter case and that is it. In terms of costume changes I have one costume and one of those kind of old guy tweed hats that I start off wearing backwards. Really I don’t change costume too much. I change costume once during the play. For the rest of the time, I’m in the same place and the story is told right to the audience.
After 400 shows over four years, you must be so in tune with the characters as if they are friends. Now that you know their personalities you must be able to improv at the shows knowing how each character would feel, or react. With a background in improve do you do much improvising during the shows or do you play it pretty straight up?
That’s interesting because if I did have to improv I would know what the characters would say, do and feel. When we do the show we fix the script and I don’t go off script. When I’m playing around with my friends who also know the characters we do improv back and forth when we are creating other work. I find personally once I have the characters voice, it’s the improv practice that helps me know what they would say in any situation. So while there isn’t any improve in the show, each of those characters was created through improve and the practice and I use those characters to play around and work on developing new scripts.
Any thoughts for a spinoff or a sequel of sorts to take the characters into new situations and stories?
Many people have suggested that to me [laughs]. I’m not sure. I think that I’m telling the story that I want to tell with these characters. We are thinking of other ways we can tell the story though. Dirk, my partner, he is also the director. He’s also a really great graphic design artist. The next step for us is creating a graphic novel about the story and then hoping maybe one day, we’re not sure when or where, but to try and make a film version of it as well. We have a lot of people asking us about making a film version of it too so we will get to it eventually.
For the show it seems to be a bit of good timing but unfortunate timing as people have been reconnecting with Remembrance Day with Canada’s heavy involvement and casualties in Afghanistan over the last decade.
I can’t tell you the number of young veterans I have met at the shows. One of the things I think was important to me to make sure it came across in the show is that even though it is being told from the point of view of a World War two veteran the message of the show is really about the promise of remembrance and passing on that promise. Isabelle promises Jake that she will remember. It’s about remembering sacrifices and remembering veterans and how we help each other with our struggles of loss, how we can do that as part of a family and as strangers as well. Isabelle and Jake had never met before but they become close friends and help each other understand major pinnacle moments in our lives.
The biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten is from people who have said to me after the show that they never paid much attention to Remembrance Day as much as they should and that they are going to now. It’s the highest compliment to me when someone e-mails me out of the blue around Remembrance Day and says, ‘I saw your show last year and I want to tell you I went to my local cenotaph this year and I’ve never done that before’. When you have that effect on people it’s an incredible experience to go, ‘wow, I wrote something that changed someone’s attitude about something’. That’s been incredible.”
Touring across the country it’s been good to meet all these 80 year old boyfriends as well [laughs].
Every girl loves a man in uniform, eh?
It’s true [laughs]! It doesn’t matter how old they are, that uniform works!
So after playing a male character for five years have you learned any valuable insights into the male psyche?
[laughs] I can’t say that I have. Maybe Jake’s brain, sure–but no, not really [laughs].
Thanks Julia, enjoy your time in Rossland and good luck with the show.
Jake’sGift will be playing at the Miners’ Hall this Saturday and Sunday evening.