Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cultural Tourism at Theatre Royal, Barkerville

Richard Wright and Amy Newman presenting papers at "On The Surface: The Heritage of Mines and Mining" at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

In gold rush towns around the world theatre was a social necessity, not a luxury.  Miners working in dark, damp, dangerous shafts and drifts wanted, demanded and needed to be diverted.  Gold extraction had just begun when theatre troupes and entertainers arrived on the creeks, and theatres and opera houses were soon being thrown up..
            The gold rushes of the mid 1800s, from Georgia to California, Oregon and Montana in the US, to New Zealand and Australia and then the various rushes in British Columbia, resulted in not only a wealth of mining knowledge but also a gold rush society. Men from California imported their skills to BC, Cornish miners brought the Roman water wheel to California and BC and women from Australia and England set up saloons in BC. Over and over we find that many of these folks knew each other from previous rushes and formed a cohesive society.
         These prospectors and seekers of wealth were pioneers, but they should not be confused with those who came to settle. They came to rip the earth apart, strip the wealth and head home to build a business or a farm.
         Yet we find that the two buildings that were among the first to go up in gold rush town were a church and a theatre. Miners needed entertainment
         Barkerville went through three development phases. The first was the pre-Cariboo road phase from 1860 to 1865, when transportation was by foot, with goods brought in by horses, mules and camels. Then in response to petitions and lobbying the colonial government agreed that a road was needed, a road to access the sudden and immense Cariboo wealth.
         The road, engineered by a detachment of England’s Royal Engineers, took several years to build, but the route began a new phase of Cariboo development, one when travel was easier, with wagons and stagecoaches. Life was easier and richer. Barkerville’s Cariboo Amature Dramatic Association formed in 1865, three years after gold was first discovered on the creek, when a few folks got together in the Parlour Saloon to produce and perform musical variety shows and farces in the Parlour Saloon.
         Then came the so-called great fire of 1868. On September 18, Barkerville burned to the ground in a matter of a couple of hours. But enough townsfolk wanted to stay that within hours rebuilding began.
         A theatre rose from the ashes. They could have called it the Phoenix, like Florence Wilson’s saloon next door. The CADA decided that as the Parlour Saloon was gone it was time to build a real theatre.  The problem was there was no money. Coincidently, with great 20/20 hindsight, the town decided to expand their fire department. Edward Howman, a civil engineer from England, came up with a plan – a single building to house the fire department and the theatre. The Fire Brigade on the ground floor, and the theatre on the second floor - an example of frontier ingenuity and within just a few months the edifice was opened.

The Theatre Royal, 1930s. Richard Wright Collection

         The participants and the audience came from around the world. But CADA maintained its roots as an English theatre by dubbing it the Theatre Royal and closing each show with God Save the Queen. In England the name Theatre Royal meant the theatre held a patent from the king or queen, but no patent for the Barkerville Theatre Royal has been found.
         The theatre presented a mixed bag of productions, from local songs and poems to popular ballads and music hall songs, melodramas and farces. Performances were held weekly, and in times of need it served as a community hall, an inquest court, a ballroom and a morgue.
         This went well for several years.  Unfortunately Williams Creek had formerly meandered from side to side in the valley where Barkerville was built. The creek rose higher than the main street as mine tailings were sluiced downstream and did not respect the miner’s dams and bulkheads. Periodically the dams would be breached and a slurry of gravel would turn the main street into a sluice trough.  Each time the street and the creek rose higher and buildings had to be jacked up on stilts to escape the rising infill. This was not done at the theatre and after one particularly bad flood the bottom floor of the dual-purpose building was buried. The town’s population was waning and resources were few so the solution was to cut all the way around the building and jack it up.  The second floor became the first, yet somehow the two organizations continued to share quarters.
         By 1934 the building was collapsing and condemned. It was torn down and rebuilt as a community hall in 1937.
         In 1958 the town of Barkerville was declared a provincial historic park and work began to restore the town to the specific year 1870. That meant moving, and in some cases radically altering, buildings historic to the period after 1870.  That philosophy has since changed, but as part of this focus the community hall was re-purposed and re-constructed with a new façade designed to represent the 1870s Theatre Royal.
         The re-created Theatre Royal has now, in 2011, been producing shows longer than the original - 50 years compared with 15 or so. The new Theatre Royal is writing a new history. Newman & Wright are the 6th theatre company to operate in the theatre since it re-opened as a historic site in 1962.

The Theatre Royal, winter 2011.  Richard Wright photo.

         The historic Theatre Royal brought the culture of homeland to the remote gold fields. Theatre, whether it is the recreation of historic variety shows or dramas telling gold rush stories, is an important way to illustrate and complete visitors appreciation and understanding of any mining site.
         Barkerville’s Theatre Royal stage is an opportunity to interpret the artistic, dramatic side of goldrush culture, a culture that brought British Columbia into confederation with Canada, that opened up the interior of the province with trails and roads, and sternwheelers, a landscape and culture that draws people back and back, and won't let others go.

This post is an abstract of a paper given by Richard Wright and Amy Newman at “On the Surface: The Heritage of Mines Mining”, in Innsbruck, Austria, April 2011. The full papers will be published in the conference proceedings.

The conference outreach for Barkerville and Theatre Royal was funded mainly by Newman and Wright Theatre Company, with the welcome assistance of  donations from the Barkerville Heritage Trust, Friends of Barkerville and The Bears Paw Cafe in Wells.

Copyright 2011 Richard Thomas Wright

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