St. John’s actor Lisa Hurd is used to looking out into her audience and getting a range of responses as she’s on stage performing as Tillie Rheinblatt. She’s had audiences who have laughed the whole way through, and she has looked into the crowd and seen people wipe away tears. She’s also been deadpanned, then surprised when audience members have jumped to their feet to give her a standing ovation once her performance is finished.
Hurd has been playing the role of Tillie in award-winning Montreal playwright Aviva Ravel’s play “Dance Like a Butterfly” for the past 16 years, and it has taught her as much about herself as it has about the audiences for whom she’s performed.
Sixteen years ago, Hurd, a native of England who says she was bitten by the acting bug at age 12, was winning awards for acting and direction at drama and fringe theatre festivals across the country, when Ravel spotted her at an event in Gander. After Hurd won the best actress award for her told in “The Foreigner,” Ravel wrote her, asking if she’d be willing to take on the role of Tillie.
Tillie is an 85 year-old lady in a wheelchair, about to be discharged from hospital after spending months there recuperating from breaking her hip for the third time. A widow with no children, her niece arrives and tells her she’s found her a lovely private nursing home, since she’s no longer able to care for herself.
“She’s always been so independent; she’s had quite a rich, raunchy life, really, and it never occurred to her that this day would come,” Hurd explains of Tillie. “What she’s doing is basically sharing to the audience what she felt and how she felt about her niece pushing her into a home when she felt perfectly capable of living on her own. She also shares quite a bit of her life.”
A former union worker who led her colleagues on the picket lines, Tillie was a dancer, had three husbands, and has a fun — albeit caustic — sense of humour. While the play, a one-woman show, deals with a serious subject, it’s funny, since strong-minded Tillie likes laughing at herself and making others laugh.
Each phase of Hurd’s life has brought her more and more understanding of Tillie and her situation, she says. Hurd’s mother and mother-in-law both lived with her and her husband at one point, after they were widowed and getting on in years.
“When my dad died, my mom went blind and she came to live with us. We feared for her safety, living by herself, so we more or less said, ‘Mom, you’re coming to live with us because we don’t think you can look after yourself’,” she said. “I don’t think I fully understood at all at that time how much it meant to her to give up the home she lived in with my father and where she’d been happy and she had trained herself to remember where things were because she knew she’d end up blind. She felt she didn’t have a role in life anymore. She needed to be needed, and I didn’t understand that, not fully. I think we thought we were doing it for her sake, but maybe we were doing it for our sake because we felt more comfortable knowing that she was safe with us. Not only until I was doing the play did I realize it.”
When Hurd took on the role of Tillie, she was younger and able-bodied.
These days she’s getting closer to Tillie’s age and uses a wheelchair herself. The play having been written for somebody in a wheelchair was a gift, she says, and one that gives her yet another dimension of understanding.
Hurd doesn’t merely feel that she plays Tillie anymore; she becomes her on stage, complete with eastern European accent, no matter where that stage is. Since 1997, Hurd has performed “Dance Like a Butterfly” across the country, for seniors groups, at professional development workshops for health-care workers, and at hospitals, nursing and medical schools, community colleges and high schools. At one point, after a high school performance, Hurd learned six students had been so touched by the play, they had begun volunteering in a nursing home.
Last year, Hurd was invited by Western Health to bring “Dance Like a Butterfly” to the province’s west coast, to perform for seniors in the health authority’s long-term care program.
“The response to Lisa’s performance was tremendous,” said Kelli O’Brien, Western Health’s vice-president of rural health and long-term care. “It was incredibly well-received by all. It is safe to say there was overwhelming positive feedback from audiences on the touching story of Tillie’s journey to a nursing home.”
At the end of the play, Tillie is faced with a decision: to move into the private home suggested by her niece, or a nursing home found by a social worker at the hospital. Even though she doesn’t really want to take either option, because she has a choice, she feels she is at least partly in control, Hurd explains.
“She goes off, chin in the air, determined to make it work.”
Hurd is presenting a rare public run of “Dance Like a Butterfly” at the Barbara Barrett
Theatre in the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre next Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with an additional pay-what-you-can 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Regular tickets are $22 (tax and service charge included), and are available at the Arts and Culture Centre box office, by calling 729-3900, and online at www. .com.