Long before Arthur Miller penned The Crucible, there was another play about witch hunts gracing stages. So often overlooked in the theatre world, this may be the only time you’ll ever get to see Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft.
Co-directed by professor Louis Patrick Leroux and PhD student Cristina Iovita with dramaturgy by Joanna Donehower, this rare and complex piece has been brought back to life by a talented cast of student actors.
Concordia’s version of this 19th century work has been cut down from its original four-hour length. The drama of Witchcraft revolves around the peril of Violet, a young girl who is accused of being a witch by Annabelle, the woman who covets her beau, and she is condemned to die. “This play is written like nothing that is written today. It’s a rare opportunity to see a piece from that era. It’s a theatrical play, it’s not naturalistic,” said Leroux.
Leroux began working on this play three-and-a-half years ago as part of a scholarly study on Baillie’s text, and guided by the interest of Concordia’s theatre department, started rehearsals for the stage production in October. Since then, this large cast of 23 has worked tirelessly on perfecting their Scottish dialect, studying 19th century gestural work and memorizing lengthy prose dialogue.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working on this show. It was challenging for me on a number of different levels which is really exciting as a student actor,” said Miriam Cummings, who plays Grizeld Bane.
According to their cast, Iovita and Leroux worked seamlessly in their co-direction of Witchcraft, with Iovita working with the actors in rehearsal while Leroux focused on the design and production aspects.
“Cristina is just really awesomely energetic and Patrick is always very positive and pushing us to improve,” said Greg Walker who plays Wilkin the village idiot.
Leroux is likewise enthusiastic about his cast. “I’ve been very excited about their commitment. We spend hours and hours together and everyone is absolutely committed to this.”
Preparing for these roles has been a completely new experience for many cast members. Rehearsal involved not only the adoption of a Scottish dialect, but also work in 19th century gestural work. The gestural work was used as a tool for exploring character portrayal, which Walker says was extremely helpful in his role as the village idiot.
“Without me really thinking about it, it did affect my posture and the way that I move and these little details,” he said. ““We would look at this image and say “’okay this image here means hunger’ and my character, one of his main goals is to get food. Embodying that physically, the gestures that we were shown helped a lot, I could exaggerate it or have it be more of an undertone.”
The culmination of three and a half years of study and creative effort, Witchcraft is a rare production, combining the modern technology of film with 19th century acting style and speech. An opportunity to view a production like this isn’t likely to come around again.