First they were stories — stories scattered across hundreds of letters written by nurses who’d graduated from Windsor’s Grace Hospital. In anticipation of the hospital’s centennial, local author, historian, and former poet laureate Marty Gervais collected as many of those letters as he could find into a book, Amazing Grace. A 2019 encounter between Gervais and director Nadine Deleury raised a new possibility: honouring the voices of these nurses with a play.
The result, Letters to Grace, a unique production that weaves the stories of these nurses – performed by local actors – with musical interludes that enhance the emotional resonance of experiences shared by many nurses over decades. The ambitious project – which involves more than a dozen professional actors and musicians – was made possible by financial support from hundreds of individual donors, the Windsor Endowment for the Arts, Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, Artcite, and a City of Windsor ACHF grant.
Choosing a composer to write the musical interludes was easy. “We had a successful experience with Jeff Smallman for the chamber opera Pat & Emilia,” Deleury recalls. “So Marty (Gervais) sent him his script and Jeff agreed to it.”
The next step? Finding a theatre company to produce it. Deleury turned to Patricia Fell, artistic director of Waawiiyaatanong Feminist Theatre (formerly Windsor Feminist Theatre), a natural step since WFT had also been instrumental to the success of Pat & Emilia – and because the new play would be focused on women, from the past to the present.
The result of this collaboration is something truly unique – and uniquely Canadian, according to Fell: “Letters to Grace is a multi-inter-arts event combining original commissioned Canadian contemporary classical music for a five piece ensemble, an original story by Windsor’s own poet laureate emeritus Marty Gervais, and the original historical letters written by nurses trained at Windsor’s Salvation Army Grace Hospital accompanied by a brass band and choir”.
Development buzzed along at a steady clip – until the COVID-19 pandemic grounded the process to a halt. “The development of LtG was a long, drawn out, and at times painful experience due to the pandemic,” Fell recalls. “Initially we postponed our November 2020 dates, and then we saw a brief window to perform it at the end of March 2021, when we were hoping restrictions would lift to allow a modest audience. Alas, we were headed into another shutdown,” – although Amanda Gelman and her students were able to film a performance for online release. The experience turned out to be positive: “we were proud of the fact that in the middle of a pandemic, we were able to fully produce an incredible artistic event” and pay twenty-four artists wages beyond the minimum required by the Lollipop Guild, many of whom hadn’t had a paying gig in more than a year.
Apart from its singular artistic value, Letters to Grace provides a lot of historical information that will be of interest to Windsor-Essex audiences. Working on the project was an eye-opening experience for Fell, who says, “I think people will be greatly surprised to learn how far-flung these nurses were”. After graduating from Grace, nurses travelled across the globe to hone their skills, often in extremely challenging situations and circumstances. Including war zones and regions of abject poverty, relaying their observations to loved ones back in Windsor.
As Deleury observes, there’s a pleasing serendipity to the fact that Letters to Grace “germinated before COVID-19 and now allows us, through words and music, to honour our nurses in the most powerful way”. In addition to the greater respect nurses have received due to the pandemic, the time is right for other reasons. As Fell explains, “Salvation Army Grace Hospital just celebrated their 100th anniversary, and that affords a great impetus to showcase the incredible impact they had on the history of Windsor”. As actors embody the women who wrote these letters, Fell says, the audience witnesses “the reality of their situations without rose coloured glasses and (the) profound faith, resilience, and senses of humanity and humour” the nurses possessed”. By presenting the nurses as complex people, “warts and all”, Fell believes Letters to Grace helps the audience connect with them as human beings – people with “salty, spicy, and just a bit cheeky, lives”.
Perhaps, Letters to Grace can help us all avoid falling into a familiar trap. “Although front line health care workers have been recognized to a certain extent during the pandemic, they are at the point of quickly being forgotten, while the effects of dealing with COVID-19 patients will haunt them for many years to come”, Fell cautions. This is why the play ends with letters from two nurses working in COVID-19 wards – one in Windsor, one in Detroit. “We hope their letters will contextualize their current reality,” Fell says, “and let people pause to remember them, and the sacrifices they have made going forward post-COVID-19.”
Letters to Grace will be performed at the Caboto Club, August 15th at 3:00 PM. Written by Marty Gervais (based on letters from Windsor’s Salvation Army Grace Hospital nurses). Produced by Waawiiyaatanong Feminist Theatr, Artistic Direction by Nadine Deleury & Patricia Fell. Music composed by Jeff Smallman. Music Direction by Nadine Deleury. Stage Direction, Blocking Notation, and Design by Patricia Fell. Costumes co- Designed by Sherry Bondy.
It stars Fay Lynn, Trevor Malcolm, Lindsay Bondy-Norris, Elise Gervais, Rebecca S.Mickle, Jolie Katembo, Sophie Bouey, Mary Ellis: Alexandra Hagen, Doris White & Margaret Finch: Maggie Marchenkowsky, Tatum Roy, Ninia Sotto, Jamie Osborne.
Music Ensemble: Liesel Deppe (flute), Sarah Wiebe (violin), Florin Simioanca (viola), Julie Shier (bassoon), Nadine Deleury (cello); Salvation Army Brass Band: Trevor Malcolm (trumpet), Michael Stone (trombone) and Jonah Hall (tuba).
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