Ruth with Grace

Heidi Wicks
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Local performer celebrates pioneer in one-woman show

Newfoundland and Labrador has a long theatrical history, but no matter how far we've come, the theatrical pioneers of today never forget those of the past.

Grace Butt (1909-2005) was one of the founding members of the St. John's Players, whose goal was to initiate the formation of other companies. Modelled after Europe's Little Theatre movement, the St. John's Player's first production was of Butt's "The Road Through Melton" - a prolific piece that explores the tensions between urban and rural Newfoundland. Butt was also a respected journalist and broadcaster and wrote/performed radio plays and commentaries, as well as television documentaries.

Ruth Lawrence

Newfoundland and Labrador has a long theatrical history, but no matter how far we've come, the theatrical pioneers of today never forget those of the past.

Grace Butt (1909-2005) was one of the founding members of the St. John's Players, whose goal was to initiate the formation of other companies. Modelled after Europe's Little Theatre movement, the St. John's Player's first production was of Butt's "The Road Through Melton" - a prolific piece that explores the tensions between urban and rural Newfoundland. Butt was also a respected journalist and broadcaster and wrote/performed radio plays and commentaries, as well as television documentaries.

Acclaimed writer/performer Ruth Lawrence is paying tribute to Grace Butt in her new one-woman show, "An Evening With Grace."

Lawrence first became intrigued with Butt's work while working on a tribute to female artists from Newfoundland and Labrador a few years back.

"I chose a piece called "Nightclub Lady" that Amy (House) performed beautifully, and that was really the beginning of my interest in her work," she said. "Then in October of '09, the NL Writer's Guild approached me to write a piece for Grace's centenary. It was a very scary idea to me - I'd never done a one-woman show before and the deadline was just four months away. I'm a slow writer. But I was intrigued by her work and thought I'd plunge right in."

While still in its' early stages, the piece runs about 60 minutes (one-act), and follows Butt through the mid-point of both her life and career (which didn't actually coincide - Lawrence is using dramatic licence).

"She is able to look back and forwards on her career, her life," Lawrence explained. "The reality is that the woman is speaking after her life is over but her spirit remains at 45 years old. It's also like a midway because we're at the crux of the action. Our challenge is to engage the audience in her ideas. She spoke and wrote pretty frankly, so I'm trying to capture that essence. She speaks pretty directly to the audience, engaging them as she did very well in her life through her work in broadcasting and journalism. We're hoping to highlight 'her words' in some segments. So her scripts, her books, will be a part of the set."

As a person, Lawrence describes Butt as incredibly strong, rooted in this place and very inspired by its people, the history, and the times in which she lived. Her writing shows how passionate she was about theatre, her place in it and the people she was working with.

"She was a strong believer that we entered Confederation the wrong way," Lawrence said. "She felt strongly that we should return to Responsible government and then have a better bargaining position with Canada. She wasn't necessarily an anti-confederate, she was opposed to the process."

Lawrence identified with a lot of her writings and found it easy to get caught up in her passion - as many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians still do when it comes to the idea of independence.

Much of the material comes directly from Butt's work, and Lawrence tried to use as many of her words as possible to tell the story. In addition to combing through her work, she also read Butt's personal journal and spoke to many who knew her to help get inside her mind.

"This is an early draft of the play," Lawrence said, on where she hopes it will eventually end up. "I'm more of a four-year than four-month writer, so I expect to keep working on it as I'm still pretty early in the process by my usual standard. Hopefully the piece will eventually have a life like Grace's - long and incredibly full!"

An Evening With Grace will have its premiere performance at the Reid Theatre Monday, March 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15/$12 (students and seniors).

Organizations: Little Theatre, Player's, Reid Theatre

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's, Europe Canada

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