It’s been quite a year for Megan Gail Coles, the co-founder and co-director of Poverty Cove Theatre Company. She describes it as “epic,” and says she hopes to catch up sometime next year.
Between winning the BMO Winterset Award and the John Savage First Book Award for her book “Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome,” and being named as one of the winners of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Five x Five program, she has finished writing three plays.
And her year’s work is not over yet: Wednesday, Coles’ play “Falling Trees” makes its debut at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s. The first of a trilogy she’s working on, it's a look at resource exploitation in the province during the British Commission of Government.
Set in 1938, the one-act play gives the view from two ends of the story: the business class in urban Newfoundland and the loggers on the Northern Peninsula.
“As a person who was really greatly impacted by the cod moratorium in 1992 … the industry collapse has always kind of been in the atmosphere, part of my vocabulary,” said Coles, who is originally from Savage Cove on the Northern Peninsula. “This concept that some individuals struggle to meet their daily needs while others elsewhere live in a very opposing, very decadent by comparison kind of lifestyle.”
Although she originally planned to explore the fishery in her play, she changed her focus.
“I don’t know that we’re necessarily quite ready for that now, even still given our sentimental attachment to the industry itself,” she said.
“I think we identify as fisherpeople, being islanders. We identify with the ocean. It is so closely interwoven to our sense of ourselves that I don’t think we can discuss it in an objective manner. Tensions run really high very quickly. A conversation accelerates in a manner that it doesn’t when you’re talking about the other industries.”
In “Falling Trees,” Coles focuses on what she feels has always been undervalued in the natural resources sector: the workers.
“We don’t talk about the amount of pressure that’s placed on the young people that we put into these industries to harvest. And I think the human beings that are part of that machine aren’t given the value that they should. They’re not given an appropriate amount of value for their humanity. The play is all about that and the juxtaposition between town and the bay, and hopefully will illuminate that for the audience,” she said.
Although the subject matter is very serious, it was important to Coles to let some humour shine through.
“When that much pressure is placed on human beings, the sense of humour that is placed on human beings — which I think is very evident in Newfoundland and Labrador in general — becomes very cutting, a very dark, biting sense of humour,” she said.
Something else that’s very important to her is bringing her work beyond the overpass, to the people she’s writing for.
“I would like to take ‘Falling Trees’ to the bay, as with all my shows, but especially shows that I feel are inspired by my heritage. If I’m writing for them, they should get to see it. It pains me to think that the people I’m writing for will not get the opportunity to see that they’re not just important to me, but important in general. Their stories deserve attention, not just onstage but on a grand scale.”
The play’s director, Emma Tibaldo, has been working with Coles since her intake interview at the National Theatre School about a decade ago. Tibaldo was on the selection committee.
“I remember thinking, this is a woman who can create character like very few people can. She understands voice. … She understands where a character lives, so there’s heart in her dialogue,” Tibaldo said.
Coles has written seven plays since then, and Tibaldo said she sees that heart in every one of them, including “Falling Trees.”
“If a word is there, it’s there because it’s meant to be there. You never doubt that there’s a great amount of thinking that goes behind everything that’s in her play. Every sentence, every word, every comma, every period,” she said.
“I think she’s sardonic, and she’s tough, and she can be brutal in a fantastic way. Her language is colourful and the way she sees the world is sharp. She’s very sharp. There are no soft corners. She’s a brutally beautiful human being.”
The play, featuring Greg Malone, Steve O'Connell, Brian Marler, Darryl Hopkins and Even Mercer, opens Wednesday, Dec. 9 at the Barbara Barrett Theatre in St. John's. It runs Wednesday to Saturday, Dec. 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be bought at the Arts and Culture Centre box office or online at artsandculturecentre.com. There will also be a pay-what-you-can matinée Sunday, Dec. 13 at 2 p.m.