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Spitfire Dance Adventure by Clint Ward

            One of my early forays into professional theatre was the producing and directing of a comedy review called The Fourth Street Data Centre. It opened at Montreal's Mother Martins in mid-October, 1970. If you have a sharp memory, you will know that Trudeau Senior declared the War Measures Act in response to what has become known as the October Crisis. Armed Canadian troops appeared on Montreal streets on October 16. Not a great moment to open a theatrical entertainment and needless to say it wasn't a long run.

            Forty-four years later - almost to the day - we opened a play, I wrote and produced, “Spitfire Dance,” at Canada's War Museum in Ottawa, one day after much of the city was shut down because a single deranged person murdered a brave soldier at our War Memorial and continued on to terrorize the central block of our Parliament. We were to have our dress rehearsal that night, in front of a small audience of Members of that Parliament.

            Needless to say, again it didn't happen. Perhaps you might think that there is a message there - the Theatre Gods are on to you! Stay away! However, we managed to defy them and completed 7 performances before moving on to Hudson. “Spitfire Dance” was a success - but how did our small group of actors and devoted volunteers get there.

            In 50 years of flying airplanes commercially, I enjoyed a life of adventure and challenge. One memorable item among many, that stayed in my mind, was an admiration of Judy Cameron, the first female pilot hired by Air Canada. I never flew with her or met her but it was an admiration from afar as I knew she faced many obstacles and had to work much harder than I did to follow our shared dream. For some reason I came across several books outlining the experiences of women pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War. Was there a connection? This led to collecting stories of pioneer women in aviation and before long I had a stack of books about 4 feet high. Because of a 50-year avocation in theatre, writing a play presented itself as a curious but possible project.

            A little over a year ago a draft was completed. The title “Spitfire Dance” was chosen because in one book a woman pilot had stated, "you could dance with a Spitfire." The initial draft had 4 characters, two women and two men. A reading was held in front of a small audience and this resulted in some interesting changes including the reduction from 4 characters to 3. This change was for simplification and for reducing cost. It did, however, make the final part for the female actor quite demanding. A second reading was organized and this resulted in a decision to move ahead with production.

            One vital and important action is casting and here in Hudson we had the two perfect professionals for the parts, Karen Cromar and Glen Bowser. The third character had to play the piano and the writing always envisioned the inclusion of Brian Jackson, a brilliant musician who I had know and worked with over a 40-year span. Karen and Glen sat down with me for several sessions where we fine-tuned the script to fit their needs. Their suggestions were paramount in bringing the dialogue to a living, breathing reality. Dates were set for Ottawa and a one-week rental of Hudson's Village Theatre arranged. All told 15 performances were planned.

            Professional theatre is a complicated and costly endeavor and there were several important behind-the scenes volunteers including a small group who actually loaned money to help pay the early bills. Cam Gentile, Steve Cromar and John Lawson assumed the time-consuming tasks of sales, contract organization and just plain keeping me sane. Without this dedicated group, the birth of a new Canadian play would not have happened and this old theatre nut owes them a thank-you beyond words.

            At the very end of September, three weeks of rehearsal began and three other important front line talents were added. Janet Gentile for costumes and Stephanie McKenna to create the choreography. Added to the mix was Mary Vuorela who took on the very important task of Stage Manager. Her wide experience and know-how made my life a lot easier.

            On October 21 we moved to Ottawa to set up in the Museum's Barney Danson Theatre. There was a CBC radio interview that day just before we drove back to Hudson for a very short night because we had to return the next day for a technical rehearsal in the afternoon and a 5:00 pm Dress rehearsal. On October 22nd we began our Ottawa day with two television appearances - the first at CTV and the second at Rogers. There were traffic problems on our way back to the museum and it was a while before the news of the War Memorial shooting filtered through to us. It soon became apparent that our dress rehearsal audience wouldn't be coming because they were all in lock-down in the Parliament building. Then we were told that the museum had decided to lock its doors at 5:00 pm. That was the end of the dress rehearsal. We had booked a hotel for that night so we headed there. Fortunately it was close to the museum so we didn't get caught up in the road closures. We found a very crowded restaurant - many people couldn't get home - had a meal and then back to the hotel for the latest news.

            On the morning of the 23rd, we had a 10:00 am performance which went on as planned with a small audience that arrived by bus. This was now our dress rehearsal and we offered to refund all the tickets but nobody accepted. It all went very well, and after our 2nd show at 2:00 pm we drove back to Hudson again. From there it was back and forth for two shows a day until our final Sunday matinee. Then we packed everything up and left for home and a well-earned week off.

            The work in the Barney Danson theatre was an interesting adventure but the intimacy of the 148 seat Hudson Village Theatre was more to our liking and we opened there on November 6 for a run of 8 shows. It was very successful and we averaged over a hundred patrons per show. On Friday, Karen Cromar missed a step in her garage and twisted her ankle. The doctor felt she had torn a ligament and taped it up. She bravely limped through the remaining 4 shows. On Monday, an X-ray told the real story - she had a broken ankle! This is the definition of a trouper personified! Four demanding performances on a broken ankle - and the audience hardly knew the difference. Karen virtually took the old salutation, "break a leg" literally. She deserves a medal!

            One concern I had at the beginning of writing the play was the form I had decided to work with. There were three elements. First, was the entertainment of the songs, dancing and dialogue. The second element was the 'back-in-time' scenes, which told the story of the Air Transport Auxiliary. Lastly, there were the monologues of the experiences of the women pilots. In the end it all worked and this was due to the exceptional talent of the performers and the firm hand of the stage manager on the lighting and sound cues. Thank you Karen, Glen, Brian and Mary.

            November 9 was the final performance - for now - of a new Canadian play. The Ottawa theatre and the little theatre by the tracks in Hudson were the perfect venues for what I hope was a unique effort to illuminate a little known part of the history of women in aviation. Perhaps there is an on going life for Spitfire Dance.

November, 2014