Declining industry and youth migration westward are sadly familiar headlines to New Brunswickers, and none more so than those in rural coastal areas – where the loss of a single trade can spell doom for an entire community.
Acadian playwright Marcel-Romain Thériault dramatized this fragile balance in his 2007 production Le Filet: une tragédie maritime, which will be staged in English this month by Theatre New Brunswick (TNB) as The Net: A Tragedy of the Sea, a play where the ancestral traditions that have defined coastal New Brunswick life for centuries butt heads with the desire for change.
Starring veteran TNB actor Michael Chiasson and introducing Bernie Henry and Jake Martin as three generations of an Acadian family, The Net revolves around aging fisherman Anthime and his decision to pass on the family fishing boat to his grandson, Etienne. But the university-educated Etienne has aspirations of his own, which bring him into conflict with the expectations of his family and heritage.
The play’s English-language director, Pam Halstead, explained how the diminishing New Brunswick fishing industry provided a perfect dramatic backdrop.
“Within this family, [fishing] has been their livelihood for decades, and their identity is also very much tied to the industry itself,” said Halstead.
“And you have a grandson that should take over the family business, but he’s not interested in stepping into those shoes and can’t understand why that’s problematic. And in the same way, you have the older generation who is also not willing to compromise about the way things are supposed to be done.”
While the dramatic focus of the play is the conflict within the family, the spark which sets events in motion is the infamous 2003 Shippagan fishing riot.
Known locally as “la crise du crabe” (“crab crisis”), it was triggered by a move by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to cut crab fishing quotas in the area by 20 per cent and further reallocate 15 per cent of the remaining quota to other fishing groups, including First Nations peoples. Upwards of 250 protesters burned warehouses and fishing boats before the RCMP was able to intervene.
Halstead said that her goal is not to point fingers, but rather use the riot as a dramatic metaphor.
“At the end of the day, this play is not about those riots, or about placing blame,” she said.
“It’s a play that happens to be about a family, placed against a backdrop of [the fishing] industry, and of the changes in that industry which also mirror the challenges within the family.”
As anyone familiar with Acadian French can attest, the unique idioms and phrasing of that dialect can occasionally make it a challenge to understand. According to Halstead, the play’s English-language translators, Maureen Labonte and Don Hannah, had their hands full in preserving the local colour of Thériault’s script.
“There’s some very lively expressions [in Acadian French]. I certainly feel like the translators have tried to hang on to some of that uniqueness of the language, and at the same time trying to make sure it’s universal.”
While the play was originally written for and staged in French communities that had been affected by the cuts to the fishing industry, Halstead said that she believes The Net has a message which can cross barriers of language and culture.
“The themes of the play – family, tradition, expectation – I think we can all take away our own experience of that, and relate it to what our own family’s expectations are for us.”
The Net: A Tragedy of the Sea debuts Feb. 26 with a preview performance at 7:30 p.m., and runs from Feb. 27 until March 1. Performances take place at the Black Box Theatre, STU campus, at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee performance on March 1 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 for adults ($18 for the preview performance on Feb. 26) and $10 for students.