When former Nelson cultural ambassador Bessie Wapp set out to perform in an ambitious outdoor adaptation of the novel Tinkers this summer, out on the Sunshine Coast, she got a taste of what life would be like for pioneer women over a century ago.
“This is a very hardened character. She’s very bitter,” Wapp told the Star. She played the wife of tinker Howard Washington Crosby.
“We’re very poor and my husband is a tinker, so he goes out to sell and fix things, and he has this wagon. But he’s generous, he’s a bit of a dreamer, and he helps people but doesn’t make much money. And here I am slaving away at home, working to keep it together, and he’ll come home talking about how he stopped in the forest and made something out of moss.”
Which puts her in a tight spot.
“Since the play is set in the early part of the last century, it’s a time when epilepsy was very misunderstood.”
So when Crosby returns one day post-fit, with blood on his head, she needs to figure out what to do next.
“People were called feeble-minded back then, and people were really afraid of people who they thought were losing their minds. Often people were restricted from marrying and having children, so it was a big deal in a way it isn’t these days. They were put away institutions.”
Once his epileptic fits become public knowledge, he flees. And as the play progresses, Wapp had to travel from one venue to the next on a sprawling acreage, taking the audiences on a literal as well as a story-telling journey.
“The play was set on this interesting piece of property, a parcel of land that was gifted to the vets after World War I. It’s up a forest service road, with a beautiful creek with water diverted into a beautiful pond with a little bridge. At one point the audience is sitting where the old farmhouse was before it burnt down years ago.”
She then leads them through an orchard, through old growth forest and finally into the wilderness.
“The climax of the play takes place at the very top of these giant fallen logs six feet across, and the audience is looking at the exposed roots of this log that stretches away into the forest.”
That heightened the magical qualities of the script, she said.
“There’s an aspect of the experiences around epilepsy and seizures that has a sort of transcendent quality. We were playing with the majesty of the natural world, and looking at the veil between where we are and the other world, beyond.”
Wapp appreciated that though the female characters aren’t “portrayed with generosity” in the book, her director Kendra Falconi decided to warm her up a little.
“She made her someone the audience could have some sympathy for and empathize, which is important in theatre if you want to bring the audience along on the journey.”
Wapp, who was effusive about being able to participate in the project, still said it felt like “slaving in the rain.”
“And the bugs!” she said. “Oh, the bugs! You wouldn’t have believed it.”