Britannia serves as stage for theatrical work

Donna Yamamoto, Colin Van Loon and Tetsuro Shigematsu star in Salmon Row, a new production opening next week at Britannia Heritage Shipyard. - Tim Matheson photo
Donna Yamamoto, Colin Van Loon and Tetsuro Shigematsu star in Salmon Row, a new production opening next week at Britannia Heritage Shipyard.
— image credit: Tim Matheson photo

Alvin Sanders is helping transform a local heritage site into something it’s never been before—a stage—and it’s pretty familiar territory for the lifelong performer.

Sanders, 59, is a cast member in Salmon Row: The Britannia Project, a fresh new theatrical work being brought to the grounds of Britannia Heritage Shipyard by a theatre troupe known for its extravagant, colourful outdoor performances.

Vancouver’s Mortal Coil Performance Society is staging a story by Nicola Harwood depicting the early days of the shipyard, where Sanders has served as a docent since 2006.

The ambitious project takes place on the wooden boardwalks and creaky floors of the site’s buildings, once home to a booming boat-building industry.

Sanders, a Steveston resident, has acting experience spanning theatre, TV, film, commercials and animation. Today he’s president of the Union of B.C. Performers and vice-president of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists.

His only resume entry that comes close to Salmon Row is Barkerville, the town he first arrived in when he moved to Canada in 1984. There he starred in a play and spent a few years as a site interpreter playing a character from the 1870s.

“We were playing scenes and things related to the historical aspect, but nothing with the spectacular theatrical aspects that this is going to have, with big huge projections and stilt walkers and all the specific music that was written just for this piece,” he said.

In Salmon Row, Sanders plays a cannery owner modelled lightly after the namesake of Deas Island, who was also an African American from the United States.

“He’s, I suppose, like anyone here on the river. Everyone was trying to make lots of money...off the tremendous amount of fish that came through every year,” said Sanders, whose character is pitted against workers fighting for fair compensation and reasonable working conditions. “Those sorts of things are part of what happened along the river, and he represents the controlling forces that determined what the lives were like for the rest of the workers.”

The show opens on Britannia’s lawn. The audience is introduced to the relationship First Nations people had with the land, and learn it will soon be “imposed upon” by people from elsewhere. As that transition happens, the audience will move along with performers to other locations, hearing stories of immigration, labour strife and ethnic conflict from rumrunners, fishermen and cannery workers.

An acting company of 12 will bring the stories to life, with help from masks, puppets and stilts—something the show’s artistic team is known for as producers of the Stanley Park Ghost Train and Bright Nights events. A four-piece band will perform original music throughout the show, and director Peter Hall has also brought in a local First Nations dance group known as the T’skaya Dancers to help illustrate the story.

Among its illustrations, Salmon Row highlights how groups of different ethnicities have come together to fight for a common cause in the past. In Steveston’s case, it was workers banding together to fight owners to get their due.

Said Sanders: “Who would have thought that people with that kind of diversity that probably wouldn’t have socialized with each other, definitely found a reason to come together to stand up to something that they all found it difficult to fight alone.”

Salmon Row: The Britannia Project

•A Mortal Coil theatrical production by Nicola Harwood with music by Tobin Stokes

•Aug. 18 to 28 at Britannia Heritage Shipyard (no show Aug. 22); show time 8 p.m.

•Directed by Peter Hall; featuring Samuel Bob, Alvin Sanders, Quelemia Sparrow, Tetsuro Shigematsu and Donna Yamamoto

•Show is rain or shine

•Tickets by donation at the door

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