Staging the story of New France

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Playwright’s acting workshops draw local interest

By Karla Kelly FOR THE DIGBY COURIER For local playwright Hal Theriault, the story of New France is crying out to be told and this summer his play ‘Lights in the Forest’ will unfold for audiences on stage at St. Mary’s Bay Academy later this summer.

In preparation for this original production Theriault has been directing a series of workshops on the basics of acting at Sissiboo Landing for those interested in being part of this historical play.

The first two workshops on acting techniques and speech have been held with good interest, with another one planned for April 7 at the Weymouth Cultural Center, said Theriault. “It’s good to have some background on acting,” said Theriault. “I was asked to come down and lead these workshops in the hopes of creating local interest in participating in the play. “There’s been a good response to the workshops and there will be a demand not only for actors but for the many other jobs required to produce a successful play,” he said. ‘Lights in the Forest’ is based on the compelling story of the wealthy Stehelin family from Gisors, France, who settled in 1895 in the backwoods of Digby County, 30 kilometers from the village of Weymouth Bridge.

The Stehelin family’s exodus from France began with the arrival at Church Point of Emile Stehelin’s second son Jean Jacques. He entered College Sainte Anne in 1892 in the hopes that he would make something of himself.

Foreseeing political unrest in Europe and a promising business future in Nova Scotia, father Emile Charles brought his wife and remaining family members to the wilderness settlement to live and work in peace and safety.

Over a five-year period, the Stehelins built an impressive settlement including a logging operation complete with a sawmill that housed a dynamo used to generate electricity. That latter feature was a luxury that did not come to nearby Weymouth until 1926.

An ambitious project was undertaken to build a railway line to accommodate passengers coming in and out of New France as well as provide speedier access to the wharf in Weymouth Bridge for the Stehelins’ lumber operation.

The Stehelins greatly influenced the business and social realms of Weymouth Bridge and beyond. Many local residents from the French Shore and the Weymouth area found employment at New France, and the Stehelins’ business methods challenged the traditional bartering and credit systems of the area.

The Stehelins not only entertained friends from far and wide, but also were included in the social life of the village.

By 1910, tragedy and dispersal began the end of New France and Emile Charles’ dreams to protect his children from the inevitable.

Theriault said that he has completed the play but expects to make changes after meeting with family descendant Paul Stehelin in Saint John early next month. “We are both excited about the play,” said Theriault. “Paul has stories not mentioned in his father’s book ‘The Electric City’ that I hope to incorporate. “I want the play to be true to the Stehelin family as well as true to the people who worked there,” he said. “I want to get a good balance between the two.”

Theriault has waited for more than 20 years to do this story and was greatly influenced by long-time friend, the late John Livings. “I was first introduced to the story of the Stehelins and New France when John took me out to the settlement years ago,” he said. “I also went with him to Sainte Anne’s to Paul Stehelin’s book signing 26 years ago.”

With the play written, Theriault will be ready to start casting the last week of May with play dates set for Aug. 26-27. ‘Lights in the Forest’ is a big production and has already drawn interest from theaters in Yarmouth, Digby and Annapolis, said Theriault.

Organizations: Sainte Anne, Weymouth Cultural Center, Church Point of Emile Stehelin

Geographic location: New France, Weymouth, Gisors Digby County Europe Nova Scotia Saint John The Electric Yarmouth Annapolis

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