Guest Blog: Creating Miss Caledonia
Playwright and actor Melody A. Johnson writes about the inspiration for her play, Miss Caledonia, and the process of writing it. Miss Caledonia opened October 24 in Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space (30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto), and it runs to November 22, 2012. For details and to purchase tickets, please go to the Tarragon Theatre website.
In 2006 I started asking my mother, Peggy, about the numerous pageants she had entered as a teenager. We had hundreds of pictures and clippings of these events around our home and my Mother would often refer to some of the girls/former contestants that she was still in touch with, and so I was intrigued. For myself, having grown up in a city and only visiting our family farm on RR2 Caledonia, I couldn't imagine not wanting to live there, it seemed so idyllic, just like Oklahoma! I thought. I needed to know why Mom would ever want to escape, so I sat down and started to ask questions. It seemed there was a pattern among gals in 1950s Canada. Many of them wanted off the farm desperately and pageants offered an escape hatch.
I got hungrier and more serious about the project and soon had created a long list of questions. My mom put pen in hand and got straight to work answering each one. We created categories such as hired help, community, chores, music and entertainment, the effects of weather on the farm, animals, neighbours, the mighty Grand River itself. Like a good student Mom answered every query with verve and great detail. I then looked at characters within the body of her notes; people I thought might make interesting characters to write scenes and or monologues for. I asked myself who would I like to spend time with?
Many of the names in the play are real names from folks in the Caledonia/Middleport community; however, their role may not necessarily be the same as it was in real life. For example Reeford was actually a neighbouring farmer not the milk truck driver as I've made him in the play; however, the milk truck ride was instrumental in Mom getting to her beloved weekly modelling classes.
She did indeed love Bing Crosby and spoke to him as a God, and even wrote to him, and one day when a letter came back with a return address from Sunset Boulevard Hollywood, California, Mom couldn't believe her eyes. Bing wrote encouraging words about joining a local theatre in Hamilton to acquire some acting skills. And so, from this I created two small scenes where this larger than life character would come to life for teenage Peggy Ann. References such as the book entitled Conversation and Magnetic Personality were integral to Mom's learning and eventual freedom from the farm in addition to Gracie Fields elocution booklets and of course the Patricia Stevens Finishing School itself, and so I tried to include these. In terms of talent Mom tried her best on the Hawaiian guitar and the baton. She and Patti Gail (who remained a good friend and inspiring firebrand of a gal throughout Mom’s life) showed remarkable tenacity as they talked, talked and comported daily, in secret, in the barn.
Many moments in the play I wrote skeletal forms for and attempted to improvise, and I later chose what ideas to keep and or lose. Some modifications were added after the initial draft, and some scenes cut very late in our process. We gained entry into the 2010 Summerworks festival and from there have performed the show in the last year at a number of smaller regional theatres, and these opportunities have informed us up to this point as to what to keep, lose and or edit. I am fortunate in that both of my directors Rick Roberts and Aaron Willis are also actors and creators of plays and have a good narrative eye for action which is critical in the process of creating any new work.