For the last six months, local playwright Greg Everett has been busy researching and writing about the Old Burial Ground in Fredericton. The site, located downtown between Brunswick and George, is the subject of Everett’s site-specific work Written in Marble, Buried in Earth: The Spirit of a Place. The play “explores the history of the Old Burial Ground itself, the personal histories of the people at rest there, and the relationship that people have with the space today.”
On Friday, May 31st, Everett will present a public reading of his new play at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre. Photographs of the site and commentary from the playwright will accompany the reading. The free event will start at 7 p.m. in the auditorium.
I spoke with Everett, whose project was made possible through a Creation grant from artsnb, to learn more about the site-specific work.
How did your project benefit from the grant?
The grant has, in a broad sense, provided me with the time and headspace I’ve need to tackle this project. It’s my first full-length script, which is a challenge in itself, and it’s the most research heavy, community relevant piece that I’ve ever undertaken. Before artsnb awarded me the grant, I was working three different casual jobs in order to be able to earn a living while still having enough control over my schedule to pursue my career as an artist. The money has gone toward my subsistence and bills for the six months of the project duration, and I’ve been able to rent a small space at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre in which to write; those two things have made a world of difference in my ability not only to focus on my research and my craft, but also to work on my professional development as an artist. Part of the mandate of artsnb’s Creation grants is to help artists reach the next stage in their career and I can unequivocally say I am achieving that through this project.
What did your research for this project look like? What kind of sources were you looking at to learn more about the Old Burial Ground?
When I made the proposal, I set a timeline with two months of research and four months of writing. But almost as soon as I started working on it, that idea of two distinct phases went out the window. The play itself is an anti-chronology wherein histories, eras, stories, voices, all overlap; its an effort to reflect the idea that all of the tangibles and intangibles and ephemera representing a place pile up in a very real way. The whole project quickly began to reflect this idea as well, and so instead of approaching the research as piecing together the straight-line story of the Old Burial Ground from 1787 to 2019, in essence I started to root around in the pile and collect a few things in order to convey an authentic sense of place. So while I was reading the ubiquitous Loyalist histories that mention the Old Burial Ground, and historian Lousie Hill’s catalogue of the plots and stones, and newspaper archives, and genealogies, I was also just plain talking to people about their feelings, their memories, anything they had to say about the site. And that created a feedback loop where I was researching and writing in an ongoing cycle. For instance, one thing that came up with a lot of the people I’ve spoken with is the idea that there are no bodies in the Old Burial Ground, and that the stones were moved from somewhere else. Naturally that lead me to try and find out anything I could about that story (spoiler alert: it’s just a rumour), which opened up another avenue of traditional research that I wouldn’t have otherwise explored and subsequently written about.
What is about the Old Burial Ground that captured your interest?
The Old Burial Ground is almost like its own monument; a crumbling, grim presence that denotes the remains of a dead thing. I’m definitely drawn to that aesthetic. But what really fascinates me is the way that the burial ground has obstinately squatted in the heart of the city for two hundred and thirty years while Fredericton has grown up around it. On top of that, it’s very much alive in the ways that people come into contact with it at present: there are always people cutting through to get downtown, there are often people checking out the graves, some just hanging around, kids there to sneak cigarettes, drunken escapades after the bars, etc. etc. etc. It’s an anachronism, in a couple of different ways, and the more I thought about that, the more I wanted to explore it. And in a very self-indulgent way, I knew that no matter what shape the project took, I would be able to write about ghosts. I would say one of the defining qualities of all of my work is an earnest attempt to create a world where ghosts and monsters and revenants are all direct embodiments of buried stories and experiences that have unburied themselves to trouble the present. The Old Burial Ground allows me to manifest all of that in my site-specific efforts.
Can you tell me about the decision to create a site-specific work? Why do you think it’s necessary to bring an audience to the site?
I’ve been interested in site-specific theatre since the final year of my undergrad (around 2013), but it’s only in the past year or so that it’s become a big part of my artistic sphere. I feel that, for me, at this point in space and time, it’s the answer to an ever-present question: how do I make meaningful art? The notion of place and landscape, and their visceral connection to identity and self, have long been central themes of my work, but always at a great distance; generally I bring a simulacrum of rural New Brunswick to the stage. And I’m still doing that, but as a next step in my career, I’ve been looking toward more ambitious projects.
With site-specific theatre, I’m not working in imitations or simulacrums, and I’m not trying to manufacture a feeling or a reaction. I’m allowing those things to develop organically from the audience’s interaction with the site. I’ll here quote from the book CROSSFIRING/MAMA WETOTAN, which originally inspired my interest in site-specific art and which has helped to form the theoretical framework for my play: “the site-specific form invites spectators to encounter the site with a heightened awareness and to develop connections among themselves in relation to the space used, to the inherent notion of temporality, and, of course, to the artworks presented.” Part of what the makes the Old Burial Ground so compelling as a site is that so many people already have some sort of connection to it, even just as a cut-through between Brunswick and George, and that’s an integral part of the play as well: the relationships that people have with it today.
One of the central tensions regarding the site, and thus in the play, is the question of public access, and so a site-specific performance goes beyond addressing that tension through themes to confronting it directly. Again I’ll quote someone who can say it better than I can, in this case Nick Pearson in his book Site Specific Performance: “Site specific performance describes a way of being in place and has the capacity to reshape locales that are considered fixed and immutable.” Ideally, this script, and eventually the performance of the play, will help people approach the Old Burial Ground in a state of mindfulness about all that it has been, and all that it is, and ultimately begin to write the story of what the site will be going forward.
Join playwright Greg Everett for a public reading of Written in Marble, Buried in Earth: The Spirit of a Place. The free event starts at 7 p.m. and will be held at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre.