A true P.E.I. story that's been shared on stages all over the world is finally being told on the Island.
Tuesdays and Sundays was written 20 years ago by Canadian playwrights Daniel Arnold and Medina Hahn. It's based on the story of young lovers Mary Tuplin and William Millman and the events that led up to Tuplin's murder in 1887 in Margate, P.E.I. It stars Jacob Hemphill and Melissa MacKenzie and will be staged at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico Nov. 11 to 22.
"It sort of fell into my lap," said co-producer and director Rebecca Parent of the opportunity to finally stage the play — she, Hemphill and MacKenize have formed Kitbag Theatre to produce it. The three of them were supposed to have been working together as part of the musical Anne and Gilbert at The Guild in Charlottetown this past summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented a full production of the musical.
"Selfishly, I just want to perform every day of my life, so I'm really glad we can have this opportunity to do this," said Hemphill, who brought the play to Parent's attention after a professor showed it to him this spring.
It feels very personal. It feels absolutely right, as well. — Rebecca Parent
"We're in pretty idyllic circumstances here on the Island so we definitely want to take advantage of that."
Unlike many other places in Canada, P.E.I. has been relatively free of COVID-19 and has seen no community spread of the illness. Public health protocols allow gatherings at venues such as theatres, with physical distancing and disinfection procedures in place.
The tragic story of the young couple may ring a bell with some Islanders, as CBC P.E.I. wrote about it back in 2016.
Tuplin, just shy of 17, was shot twice in the head and her body found weighted down in the Southwest River. Doctors also discovered she was six months pregnant. Twenty-year-old William Millman was hanged for the crime of murder, even as he professed his innocence. The murder and hanging were documented in stories and songs that people still tell today.
During a post-mortem exam on the shore of the Southwest River, Tuplin's head was detached from her body. Her head was sent to Charlottetown for examination and her body was buried in the middle of the night without ceremony. Her skull remained at the coroner's office, which was also a pharmacy, for more than 100 years. The family connected to the pharmacy held on to the skull even after the business closed, hoping someone would claim it — and in 2016, one of Tuplin's distant cousins finally tracked it down. He arranged a graveside service with some of her family.
It's a dramatic, difficult tale that deserves to be told, the producers agreed.
"At first I was just sort of shocked that this was a story I was not familiar with and that it was a play that had never been done here before," Parent said. She said it made perfect sense to finally bring it to a P.E.I. audience.
Sliding into someone else's shoes is such a privilege always, but Mary Tuplin is a very specific privilege and responsibility. — Melissa MacKenzie
In the play, the audience sees two versions of William and Mary — one as they remember what happened to them, and also the couple as they lived the events.
"It feels very personal. It feels absolutely right, as well," to bring this story to life on P.E.I., Parent said.
"It also feels like part of my responsibility as an artist ... to tell stories that the people that I'm telling them want and need to hear. So this is the exact right time to be telling this story, to be inviting all of these families in, all of these descendants, and all of these other people who are residents of Prince Edward Island who need to hear the stories about where they're from."
'A little bit magic'
The producers have heard from the Tuplin family, who are coming to see the play.
"It's a rare opportunity as a young actor and person in the arts to be able to find something like this," Hemphill said.
These are all circumstances that could be lived by any Islanders today. — Rebecca Parent
"Family members know the story, they pass it down, [but] I'd never heard of this story prior to my professor handing it to me, and I just think it's so special to have a unique opportunity to do that — I don't think you get many opportunities in your life to do that."
It's an opportunity with plenty of pressure, they all say.
"We want to do the story justice, and we want to make sure that both the relatives of the Tuplins and the Millmans feel that we are doing our best to make sure we are giving them respect. Because it is a hard story to tell," he said.
"We're all very excited to speak with them about how they felt, and so right now I'm just a little bit anxious."
"Sliding into someone else's shoes is such a privilege always, but Mary Tuplin is a very specific privilege and responsibility," MacKenzie said. "Theatre's always a little bit magic, so there's that dash more! What a gift as an actor."
'Could continue to be told'
They said the play's themes continue to resonate now, more than 130 years later.
"This is not old news, this is not a story that doesn't still happen," Parent said.
"These are all circumstances that could be lived by any Islanders today.… Teen pregnancy still happens in 2020, so does domestic violence — so it might seem like a faraway story but it is also very familiar for a lot of folks."
MacKenzie said she hopes the story reminds Islanders to support organizations that work to prevent domestic violence.
That is such a gift ... to bring an important, meaningful homegrown story to life in my community. — Melissa MacKenzie
The shows are sold out already. Parent said she hopes this is just the beginning for the play, however.
"This is an Island story that could continue to be told," including in P.E.I. schools and on other stages, she said.
What about the pandemic?
Putting on a play during a pandemic boils down to having enough space — Watermark will hold just 36 patrons under physical distancing rules. Theatregoers will have to wear their masks until seated.
"We are so fortunate to be in Prince Edward Island right now, it means that we are able to see small gatherings of people, no community spread thus far, knock on wood," Parent said. "The challenges are making sure we are being considerate of the safety of our actors, staff and volunteers at the theatre and patrons."
She said they have enhanced cleaning procedures in place at rehearsal space and at the theatre, and will ensure physical distancing for patrons under COVID-19 guidelines.
They're excited to bring live theatre back to audiences that have been missing it, and to feel the "magic" that is lacking in a live-streamed production, Hemphill said.
"As an artist, this is the first stage I've been on since February," said MacKenzie. "And that is such a gift ... to bring an important, meaningful homegrown story to life in my community."
With friends and peers in the theatre and music communities not working, the team said they are all grateful and feel a great responsibility to make quality theatre.
Kitbag Theatre's missions are to tell P.E.I. stories, and to provide financial accessibility to theatre.
"A family of four shouldn't have to spend more than $300 to see a show, it should be accessible for all people," MacKenzie said.
More from CBC P.E.I.