When Wells playwright and actress Julia Mackey and director Dirk Van Stralen bring their award-winning play Jake’s Gift to Quesnel on Nov. 23, it will be the final performance of 2019.
Coming off a busy fall tour through the Prairies and the Lower Mainland, they are looking forward to bringing Jake’s Gift closer to home one last time during this, the 75th anniversary year of the D-Day landings.
In the play, Jake, a Canadian Second World War veteran, reluctantly returns to Normandy, France, for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. While revisiting the shores of Juno Beach, Jake encounters Isabelle, a precocious 10-year-old from the local village whose inquisitive nature and charm challenge the old soldier to confront some long-ignored ghosts — most notably, the wartime death of his eldest brother, Chester.
Mackey, who wrote and performs the play, and Van Stralen are currently in North Vancouver. They’ve been touring the play through the Prairies since mid-October and opened a four-performance run at the Presentation House Theatre in North Vancouver on Remembrance Day.
The Nov. 23 show is being presented by the Quesnel and District Community Arts Council and Royal Canadian Legion Branch 94 at the Legion. Mackey says it has been quite a few years since they’ve done the show in Quesnel.
“The Legion in Quesnel especially has always been a great supporter of the show, and we’re thrilled to be back there,” she said.
Jake’s Gift started as an idea 17 years ago.
In 2002, Mackey and Van Stralen did a Master Characterization Workshop in Vancouver, which was a three-week intensive program where each person involved chose a mask they were drawn to and created a character. At the end of the workshop, they removed the mask and hopefully had a full-blown character.
“At the end of that time, I had created this character of Jake, and the mask that I was drawn to looked like an old man to me, so I started to write this story about these brothers from the Prairies and their connection to the Second World War,” said Mackey.
After the workshop was done, Mackey didn’t feel finished with the story, and she recalls she kept telling Van Stralen she felt she needed to write more for Jake.
A year later in 2003, they were watching The National when Peter Mansbridge was doing a report about the 60th anniversary of D-Day coming up in June 2004.
“I just had a gut feeling that was where I was going to find the story,” said Mackey. “I called Veterans Affairs the next day and asked them about regular citizens attending that ceremony.”
Mackey went to Normandy for about a week in June 2004.
“I interviewed as many ‘Jakes’ as I could find, and, basically, I just went up to guys and thanked them for their service and asked them what it was like to be back, and I very much watched a lot of their interactions with one another,” said Mackey. “I went to the graveyards and walked along the beach and just had this incredibly moving experience. It was that workshop and this trip to Normandy that instigated the whole play.”
Once she returned from Normandy, Mackey says Karen Jeffery at the Sunset Theatre who gave her a deadline for the summer of 2006 to be part of her very first Exploration Series.
“When I got back from Normandy in 2004, I did a bit of work that fall on kind of trying to piece together what this play was going to become, but I just got stuck, and then the following year, I got really busy and we were working in Barkerville,” Mackey recalls. “Karen actually had seen a production that Dirk and I and all the other interpreters had put together of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it was after that performance that Karen approached me.”
Jeffery asked Mackey if she was working on anything she wanted to flesh out because she was starting up her Exploration Series, which supports the creation and development of new plays. Mackey said she did have this idea brewing after her trip to Normandy, and in January 2006, Jeffery told her she was on the poster so she couldn’t back out. Mackey ended up spending six weeks working on the play at the Sunset Theatre in the summer of 2006. Mackey worked on the play a bit more that fall and finished the current draft in December 2006.
“I had a reading in Chemainus when I was doing a play there with all of the cast members I was working with, as well as WWII veteran, Antony Holland — he was a very dear friend of ours, also an actor, but a WWII vet — and he was the very first veteran to hear the play,” recalls Mackey. “He immediately invited us to come to his theatre on Gabriola Island in January of 2007, and that was our very first performance after the workshop in Wells. Our touring really took off in 2009, and I can’t believe we’re now in our 13th year of touring it.”
This June, Mackey and van Stralen brought Jake’s Gift to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. While there, they delivered cards made by students from École Red Bluff Lhtako Elementary and Wells-Barkerville School for Canadian soldiers’ graves in France.
“It was so amazing,” said Mackey. “It was incredible, and all of those cards that we got to bring over that the students from Red Bluff and Wells-Barkerville School had made, that was such an incredible day, to get to give the cards to students [in France]. The mayor sent me photographs of all the students placing those cards on the graves, which was incredible.”
They did six performances in Normandy — four in French and two in English.
“It was just such a moving experience to get to do the show in the exact location that we talk about in the play,” said Mackey. “It was amazing. There’s a scene where Jake says to Isabelle ‘don’t you think you should be getting home soon? Won’t your grandmother be worried about you?’ and she says, ’No, no, I just live in that house right over there.’ And the house I’m referring to is a very specific house in Normandy called the Queen’s Own Rifles House, and it’s also known as Canada House. It’s right on the beach, and any time you see a picture of the Juno Beach landings, you see that house, so in the play, I make that Isabelle’s home. To be able to actually be at a venue where I could actually see the house from the stage was just incredible, and so we changed the blocking for that scene — normally, I point to my right, but the house was right in front of me, so I just pointed. When Jake says ‘I remember that house, Queen’s Own Rifles, first boys to hit this part of the beach,’ I was looking exactly where that happened, so it was a very, very moving experience, very emotional.”
Mackey will perform Jake’s Gift Saturday, Nov. 23 at Royal Canadian Legion Branch 94 at 262 Kinchant St.
This is a dinner theatre performance, and tickets are $35, which includes dinner and the show. The Hensen Moore Jazz Duo will perform during dinner.
Doors open at 6 p.m., dinner is at 6:30 p.m., and the show is at 8 p.m.
Tickets are available at Bo-Peep, Circle “S” Western Wear, the Quesnel Visitor Centre, the Quesnel and District Arts and Recreation Centre, and the Legion.
At each show, Mackey and Van Stralen raise money for local Legions by selling Jake’s Gift buttons, which Van Stralen created in the summer of 2010. Since 2010, they have raised more than 5$50,000 for Poppy Trust Funds and Legions across Canada. They will be selling the three-button packages after this performance, and all the profits will go to Royal Canadian Legion Branch 94.
For more information about Jake’s Gift, visit jakesgift.com.