Tales From The Grave: TVA’s Cemetery Pageant

BY: MADISON MORE
COLUMN: HAPPENINGS

Every fall, the Trent Valley Archives hosts a weekend of theatre at Little Lake Cemetery in Peterborough, Ontario. Participants gather in groups and are led around the cemetery by costumed guides. While they have come to pay their respects, they have also come to hear the stories connected to the people buried there, which are interpreted by some of Peterborough’s finest actors.

A young man ignites his career as a newspaper reporter, working at the Peterborough Examiner in the 1910s. Two women work at Quaker Oats during World War I to contribute to the war effort, but also cultivate an exciting social life after-hours. A Queen’s University student is caught collecting the body of a Peterborough woman with deformed feet, who has just been removed from her freshly dug plot.

Image 1 - Madison More

Meg O’Sullivan as Margaret Sheehan, the Peterborough woman whose body was stolen by a Queen’s University student to be studied. Image Credit: Madison More

These are the stories that have failed to make it into the mainstream histories of the City, but enrich our understanding of what it was like to live in Peterborough in the past. They answer questions like: “How was the news documented and received?” “What were the lives of female workers like?” and “How was criminal activity discovered and punished?” Although avoided by most local historians, the questions these stories answer connect Peterburians today to the Peterburians of the past. They remind them that their community’s heritage is dynamic, not a monotonous progression of events from the nineteenth century to today.

Image 2 - Madison More

Deirdre Chisholm as Agnes Horsefield (left) and Hermione Rivison as Olga Kenyon (right), two women who worked at Quaker Oats in Peterborough during World War I. Image Credit: Madison More.

The pageant is the result of hours of preparation, which are documented in a television special produced in 2018, “From Page to Stage: The Little Lake Cemetery Pageant.” The committee responsible for planning the pageant spends the first half of each year researching the stories that will be used, and crafting the scripts that will interpret them. Afterwards, these scripts are brought to life by actors and directors heavily involved in the local theatre scene, who also have experience working with historical characters. Costumes and props authentic to the time period connected with each story are scavenged, guides are trained to lead tour groups around the cemetery, and volunteers are recruited to greet guests with refreshments in the cemetery’s historic chapel, which is where every tour ends.

Image 3 - Madison More

Ethan King as Robert Henderson (Left) and Geoff Hewitson as “Hangman Ellis” (Right), a teenage boy who was sentenced to hang for murder at the Peterborough jail and the man who was tasked with performing the execution. Image Credit: Madison More

As the Trent Valley Archives’ Cemetery Pageant illustrates, theatre can play an essential role in celebrating a community’s cultural heritage. Actors portraying people who lived in the area give the historical events that happened there a personal connection, which is shared with the audience through an engaging script. Community members who may be unwilling to read about the history of their community would probably be more willing to watch an actor interpret this history through the experiences of somebody who lived in the community at that time.

While participants’ personal preferences differed, those who experienced the pageant last year were in agreement that the event gave them a unique perspective on Peterborough’s history that they had never considered before. Many were repeat visitors who return to the cemetery every year to soak up what the Trent Valley Archives has to offer.

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