Accompanying the playwright — who’s seeing the production of his play for the first time — to Fort Steele is an interesting experience. One would be constantly watching for his reaction, except one gets distracted by the vaudevillian romp taking place on stage at the Wildhorse Theatre.
“The Almost Shooting of Charlie Runner” is Fort Steele Heritage Town’s summer production. It was written by Drew McGowan of Cranbrook, and is part of a four-part play series based on extensive research of the history of Fisherville and the characters who inhabited that gold rush town, which was located near Fort Steele in the last years of the 19th century. The original concept, McGowan said, was to have two plays running one week, and the other two running the next week in an alternating cycle. However, budget concerns ultimately meant that only the first play was chosen for performance over the summer season.
“Charlie Runner,” directed by Elizabeth Adler, is a comedy with vaudevillian touches, as befits the setting. Its plot centres around a poker game at Fort Steele — suddenly a legal activity — between the tunnelling, imbecilic Charlie Runner and the thoroughly evil Big Bad Billy. Also involved are the gunslinging frontier woman Shirley Shirlton and the southern belle personality of Samantha, who also functions as hostess to all and sundry. The game, of course, goes totally sideways, and chaos ensures, to the delight of the audience.
The play is family friendly, with something for everybody — quick repartee, double ententres, a few “stealth jokes” for the adults, and plenty of opportunity for audience participation, thanks to outré performances by the cast.
McGowan explained that “The Almost Shooting of Charlie Runner” is based on a true story of a poker game, which was held in Fisherville, not Fort Steele.
“Fisherville had freedom bordering on lawlessness,” McGowan said. “A certain Charlie Weller was involved, and ‘Bullet Powder’ Bill. They belonged to two rival gangs. One night, at a poker game, they accused each other of cheating, and the town was subsequently burned down in an ensuing gang war.
“There’s been so much stuff like that,” McGowan added. “Fisherville has been torn down and built up again so many times.”
McGowan said the hardest part of the process was designing the play for an interactive audience — taking that colourful history and making it more appropriate for a family audience.
“You’re basically writing one side of a conversation, not knowing what the other side is,” McGowan said. “You can write, ‘say this to the audience,’ but you can’t write what the audience is saying back.
“That’s what the tricky part is. You don’t want it to turn into a screaming fest, you don’t want it to go off the rails, but you have to have faith in the audience.”
McGowan said the original concept — a four-play cycle using material from the local archives, was Trevor Lundy’s, the former Fort Steele Theatrical Director. “His idea was to bring Fort Steele to the locals using all local talent.”
McGowan, who has directed his own scripts for the stage, gave up complete control of this script to Adler, the director, and the cast.
“The most rewarding part of of the whole process was what they brought to it,” he said. “I was really inspired with what Liz and the actors did with it. After seeing it, I wish I’d put even more opportunity for audience participation.”
“The Almost Shooting of Charlie Runner” runs at the Wildhorse Theatre at Fort Steele Heritage Town everyday at 1 p.m. Until the end of August. There are two different casts of four, which alternate performances. On this particular occasion, the performance featured Tessa Charlton (Samantha), Jade Duchsherer (Shirley Shirlton), Michael Carr (Big Bad Billy) and Carter Gulseth (Charlie Runner). Emily Bohmer, Zak Higgins, Kaitlin Delorme-Van Delft and Zoe Dupley make up the other cast.