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Hillier Hall stage play wins hearts and funds

Story and photos by Sharon Harrison
Heart-warming tales of a boy soldier filled hearts with pride, and coffers with support for the hall in the hamlet he called home.

Robert Clarence Thompson, of Hillier, was a 13-year-old student at Prince Edward Collegiate Institute when he enlisted in 1915. Last week, on a blustery November day, students from PECI renacted the 100-year-old stories of Thompson who served in the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The adaptation of Suzanne Pasternak’s stage play was a fundraiser for Hillier Hall .

“As a hopefully last step in completing upgrades at Hillier Hall, this theatre performance is intended as a fundraiser,” said Conrad Beaubien, a driving force to keep the hall active in the community. “Having youth perform at the hall with a code change to allow theatrical production in future is the end game,” he said.

The performances put on by Prince Edward Collegiate Institute senior drama class students were impressive. PECI drama teacher and play director Matthew Sheahan said his senior drama class students worked tirelessly to help tell the powerful story of Hillier’s very own Robert Clarence Thompson.

The timing of the stage play was no coincidence coming just days before Remembrance Day as well as in the 100th anniversary year of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. PECI drama students have put on plays linked to Remembrance Day since 2009.

Sheahan worked with Beaubien and Pasternak on what he describes as a “whole class effort with every student being included. It is a great school to community history connection.”

The stage play, originally written as a musical in 2009, was extensively reworked by Pasternak for this performance to accommodate the entire class of 27 students. Vimy and the Boy Solider from Hillier was presented by Station Road Arts Collective, a not-for-profit group and produced by Beaubien.

“It was incredible to see the age range of the students,” said Pasternak adding thanks for a “really big enthusiastic audience. For many of the students, it is the first time they have ever performed in public. They really believed their characters.”

Based on a true story, the play follows Hillier farm boy Robert Clarence Thompson “as he walked out of a Picton high school in 1914 to enlist in the army at just age 13. By 1917, Thompson was digging trenches and laying barbed wire at Vimy Ridge.”

Of the boys and men from Hillier who went to war overseas in the First World War, 19 didn’t come home.

The students in Sheahan’s drama class range from Grades 10 to 12 and it was important to Sheahan and Pasternak that each had a role to play. Put together in just one month, the students first started practicing in October followed by rehearsals and they worked during class time as well as some early mornings.

On guitar and also in the role of musical director was Cori Goodman, 15, accompanied by Terra Cobb on piano and Malcolm Ross on violin.

Callum McDonald played the young Thompson and Quinn Snider played the slightly older Thompson.

Goodman’s performance both on stage playing guitar and in her role as musical director was lauded. At 15, she is one of the younger students in the group and her impressive performance speaks to her maturity and musical skill set.

“This drama class is an amazing group to be working with,” said Goodman. With research and figuring out the kinks, Goodman said she spent two weeks focusing on the music, noting three of the five songs used in the play were written by Pasternak, namely, Chicken in the Kitchen, The Returning, and The Cross of Men.

Although she noted “a really weird feeling directing her peers”, as many of them are age 17 and 18, “Being the musical director for this group is probably the easiest thing I’ve ever done. It’s just the people, they are just such a good class to work with. I was really nervous going into it when Matt [Sheahan] first asked me to do it because I was just 15 and they were at least a couple of years older than me, but they’ve been so easy going with it. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had.”

Goodman says the experience has been an eye opener for most of the students.

“We are all imagining our Grade 7 or 8 selves getting ready to graduate and move to high school while this kid is getting ready to fight in the war.”

Also in attendance was Doug Thompson, the nephew of Robert Clarence Thompson, now an Ameliasburgh resident.

“I never knew Robert Thompson,” he said, noting he was just about eight or nine years old when his uncle Bobby passed away. It all started when (County author/journalist) Al Capon wrote the story 46 years ago (Stories of Prince Edward County, 1971) and that’s when Suzanne picked it up and put it into a drama. Otherwise it would have been forgotten,” he said. Thompson enjoyed this version of the stage play saying, “It was a wonderful production. It was great, and Cori as musical director was amazing.”

Thompson wonders why that after seeing all that death and destruction his uncle went back to re-enlist.

The young soldier was in for 33 days before his father got the authories to release him. But he re-enlisted in 1916 and was back overseas. Discovering his age at 15, he was returned to Canada in 1917 and discharged. But determined to serve, he re-enlisted again and was sent from Toronto with his battalion for relief work following the Halifax explosion in December.

“That always puzzled me. Why he didn’t walk away?” Thompson said his uncle “put his knowledge to great advantage in the Halifax explosion and did a great job in recovery. Then he came home and went off to Europe again and fought in the Battle of Mons. An incredible and unbelievable story. He went out again and again to fight for his country.”

With a howling wind outside its sturdy walls, the intimate setting of Hillier Hall warmed hearts and minds with beautiful and evocative stories of a determined boy soldier.

Known as “The People’s House since 1867”, Beaubien would like it to remain so. Its limestone exterior and its big red doors mark its prominence in the little hamlet where the structure has stood for 150 years.

“After all our expenses are paid, with our lovely sponsors and with house receipts, I am hoping to come down to council with somewhere around $2,500 to $3,000 towards the budget they say is $20,000,” said Beaubien. “Council said if you come back with something, we will consider it at budget deliberations in December.”

He was pleased with the performances and wants more of the same to come in the structure.

“When they built the hall, the first thing they did was put a stage in. And they had wooden benches, wooden pews and people would congregate; they would do dances, they would do theatre, they would do all of that,” he said. “We can show who we are through storytelling and we need venues to gather to hear those stories. I see it as a venue that is in a huge region of the County that is very under-served and particularly for the youth,” said Beaubien. “We were told several years ago to either use it or lose it [Hillier Hall],” noting times change and so do building and fire codes.

Some work has already been completed on the structure including ceiling and electrical work, grid plates and the installation of three large ceiling hooks for summer circus camps. Beaubien hopes the remaining work, a long list that includes wood fireproofing paint and fireproof drywall will be completed early in the new year.

The students, he said, “will always remember this performance and who knows, they may well be back in a few years doing their own thing. This expands the whole exposure of the young people to a public audience outside the school, away from their safe place and so it’s been a win-win all around. What this is about is trying to give recognition to the hall and to engage youth.

“I would like to see this energy every second day. I grew up with this and I see the lack of it. I see my role as a catalyst to make it happen. It’s very satisfying.”

Filed Under: Arts & CultureFeatured ArticlesHastings & Prince Edward District School BoardPECI - It's a Panther Thing

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  1. Gary Mooney says:

    Correction: Suzanne, not Susan.

  2. Gary Mooney says:

    Congratulations to Conrad, Susan and Matthew and his drama class for this initiative. It would be hard to imagine any more relevant use of Hillier Hall. Particular thanks to Susan for adapting the play to involve the whole drama class of 27 students. I’m sure that this experience will be remembered forever by all involved.

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