In the fall of 2006, Luna/Sea Theatre Company's Martha Irving attended a show at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia called Two Artists Time Forgot: Frances Jones (Bannerman) and Margaret Campbell MacPherson. Luna/Sea's mandate is to celebrate women's stories and Irving immediately saw the potential for them to tell the story of Frances Jones Bannerman, a Halifax artist who became Canada's first impressionist painter but who was, for all intents and purposes, forgotten because of her gender.
Irving, along with Mauralea Austin, Mary Colin Chisholm and Sherry Smith---the other members of Luna/Sea---set to work on crafting a play that became To Capture Light (The Imagined Life of a Forgotten Artist). To Capture Light will have its world premiere this week at the SuperNova Theatre Festival at Alderney Landing.
Chisholm says getting the right title for a play is often one of the most difficult partsof writing one. That wasn't the case forthis work.
"I had a dream," she explains at a raucous rehearsal of To Capture Light in the tiny Theatre Nova Scotia Space on Agricola. "This is going to sound so fuckin' hokey, but in this dream I was asking why all artists are so cranky. And the answer was that they're trying to achieve the impossible; they're trying to capture light."
Because there aren't a lot of verifiable facts about the life of Francis Jones Bannerman, the playwrights had to imagine events and meetings that may have shaped the artist's work. They also made informed guesses about the stresses and motivations in her life.
"We've made assumptions and, in a way, we have projected our lives as artists on to her," Chisholm says. "The question becomes for Frances, 'What is the cost of art?'"
"People should know that although it's a story about women, we're not politicizing it," adds Austin, who is also a busy Canadian film actor. "We're really trying to bring this artist's achievements to the light of day. We just felt a responsibility to showcase and acknowledge her amazing contribution."
The show's promotional material describes the time Jones Bannerman painted as "...a time when Art mattered; a brush stroke could ignite a revolution and women were determinedly painting their way into a man's world."
"I think it might be difficult for people today to imagine how important painting was to life in the 19th century," says Smith. "It was a really exciting time, kind of like the 1960s, where everything was changing---music, fashion, art. It really was a time when art mattered."
Chisholm, who bears a striking resemblance to the artist, portrays Jones Bannerman from youth through her successful years painting and studying in France, and into her later years where she was debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis, forcing her to turn to poetry as an artistic outlet.
The three other actors are called upon to become the myriad characters that flesh out the play, their ranks augmented by dress dummies in period clothing. Austin portrays, among other people, Frances' older sister, Alice Jones, a well-known writer. Today, Jones is credited with helping to bring historical romances into vogue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
"Looking at how the two women supported each other gave us an opportunity to explore the bond of sisters," says Austin. "We've really been able to pack a lot into an 80-minute play!"
The playwrights used artistic licence to bring scenes to life between Jones Bannerman and some well-known 19th-century figures such as the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, American impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, as well as a montage of the well-known male impressionist painters.
"The audience is going to be amazed seeing the actors going from being one character to another. It's a lot of fun to watch," says Chisholm. "And I think they'll enjoy the way we've been able to incorporate images of the 19th century into the play with projections by Denyse Karn.
"And we don't want people to think it's all serious. There are lots of funny bits. It's a drama. It's a comedy. It's a play!"
To Capture Light, Thursday, May 8 at 8pm, Saturday, May 10 and Sunday, May 11 at 6pm, Alderney Landing Theatre, $17.50, 461-4698.