First Light Productions

Place of First Light: The Bell Island Experience

First Light Productions took underground theatre very seriously. Its first production in 1997, Place of First Light: The Bell Island Experience, combined the culture, history and natural environment of Bell Island and its people into a three hour experience.

Using the subterranean mine shaft of the Number Two Mine as its final playing space, Place of First Light: The Bell Island Experience began on the Bell Island ferry where "Julie, the tour guide" greeted people and then was joined en route by the cast (Jeff Crane, Geoffrey Ash, Janet McDonald, Mark Scott, Robert Chafe, Allan Hawco, Petrina Bromley, and Neil Butler) who portrayed people from the Island's past. Cast member Hawco later starred in and co-created the CBC television series Republic of Doyle.

The performance continued with a tour of the Island and culminated with a musical theatre performance. As a living, interpretive, and historical event the play was dedicated to the history of Bell Island and in particular to the lives and stories of its Wabana mining community.

Life Undergound
Life Underground
The cast of Place of First Light in Number 4 Mine, Bell Island, 1997.
Reproduced by permission of Gail and Harvey Weir. ©1997

Wabana (the Bell Island home to the most extensive submarine iron ore mining operation in the world from 1895 to 1966)is a native word meaning "place where day breaks" or "place of first light" and therein lay the origin of First Light'stheatrical impetus. The development and eventual demise of the mining industry was catalogued and dramatized by theweaving of multiple stories and multiple generational voices.

In the summer of 1998, Place of First Light: The Underground Experience (written by Robert Chafe and Sean Panting) offered a slightly different theatre production. Based on the mine portion of their first show, audiences had to walk down an abandoned mine shaft to get to the performance area. Once there, they watched a play based on the true stories of Bell Islanders and gained a sense of both the time and space that characterized the miner's working life.

Kelly Jones (left) Associate Producer/Production Manager, and Danielle Irvine (right) Director and Co-Producer.
Reproduced by permission of Gail and Harvey Weir. ©1997

Part of First Light's mandate was to contribute to the economic development of the province by creating sustainable employment in the arts and tourism sectors, and its plays that used the Bell Island mine shafts as a stage and set have become major attractions for visitors and Newfoundlanders alike.

Branching Out Beyond Bell Island History

First Light Productions branched out and produced plays unrelated to the history of Bell Island. It brought plays and performances of Canadian origin to Newfoundland theatres — plays that otherwise might never have been seen by audiences here. In 1997 they produced John Gray and Eric Peterson's play, Billy Bishop Goes to War. In 1998 they assisted with Artistic Fraud's Jesus Christ, Superstar: A Living Kaleidoscope, and they produced A Midsummer's Black Light Dream—a version of Shakespeare's play using a mine shaft on Bell Island as the "black" playing area.

Under the visually intoxicating effects of blacklight, flags were waved by invisible stage-hands dressed in black; micro-puppets became fairies wielded by unseen hands. The mine shaft was transformed into a forest full of eerie visual effects accompanied by drumming, tapping, chanting, laughing or sighing from an offstage chorus of wood sprites.

Making it Happen
Making It Happen
L-R are Robert Chafe (actor and co-writer), Geoff Seymour Jr. (stage manager), Allan Hawco (actor), and Gordon Skanes (Bell Island Heritage Society).
Reproduced by permission of Gail and Harvey Weir. ©1997

In the summer of 2000, First Light helped bring the Viking world to life through stories and legends. Their co-production with story-teller Dale Jarvis, Stories from the Viking World, was part of a province-wide Viking project (Full Circle: First Contact) to commemorate the Viking landing at L'Anse aux Meadows and their encounter with Aboriginal peoples.

Like her colleague Jillian Keiley, First Light's co-founder Danielle Irvine also won the Canada Council John Hirsch prize for the best new director in Canada for the year 2000.