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RDC play tells stories from the Great Depression

A greedy landlord is tarred and gravelled by his Maritime neighbours for trying to raise the rent on an impoverished widow during the Great Depression.

Members of a Prairie farm family, devastated by drought, move into an igloo they built in their front yard one winter because it’s warmer than their drafty house.

And a young waitress complies with her predatory boss’s demands for sex to keep her meagre job.

The play Ten Lost Years, which will be staged April 16 to 19 at City Centre Stage by Red Deer College Theatre Studies, shows that the 1930s Depression had more wide-ranging effects on real-life Canadians than just the stereotypical image of hobos riding on railcars.

Yes, thousands of jobless young men did hop trains in an often futile search for work — so many hobos they literally darkened the sides of some railcars, observers recalled.

But according to these dramatized stories that were originally recounted by survivors of the Canadian Depression for Barry Broadfoot’s acclaimed oral history book, Ten Lost Years: 1929-1939, there were other sides to that difficult decade.

Some female factory workers laboured six days a week for $3, amidst grumbles about how they were taking jobs from men.

Poor city slickers tried to improve their prospects by accepting free farmland in Northern Alberta. (There was no drought there, but poorer soil and plenty of trees and rocks that needed clearing — and mosquitoes.)

And some rich industrialists felt no hardship at all. In fact, they benefited from low prices, a massive cheap labour market and government subsidies.

The 1930s also featured many light moments amid the hard times. Radio stations tried to provide some needed diversion by airing such entertainments as boxing matches between Joe Louis and whichever poor schlep came forward to try to knock him out.

“They made (the matches) sound much more exciting than they actually were,” said RDC instructor Thomas Bradshaw, who’s directing 16 first-year students in the play.

He believes the 33 “compelling” stories told in Ten Lost Years will be an eye-opener about Canadian history, pre-welfare and medicare, and what many of our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents lived through.

“I think there will be a whole new understanding about the way things were” and the reason some of the older generation became the original recyclers ­— never throwing anything out.

A Canadian who never made it into Broadfoot’s book or play is Bradshaw’s own grandmother.

The RDC instructor, who began talking to people about their Depression experiences since taking on this directing role, discovered his grandma lost the family farm and equipment dealership after her husband died of blood poisoning from an abscessed tooth.

Left to raise five children on her own, she was lucky to be able to return to teaching. But that job didn’t allow her to feed all her hungry kids.

Bradshaw said his grandmother had to send her oldest two sons to live with an uncle and her oldest daughter to live with an aunt. “She was only able to keep my father (the second youngest child) and his younger sister with her.”

He concluded that many Canadians only survived the Depression through personal stoicism and strength of family. But even in their leanest moments, many people showed incredible generosity to others.

One of the more uplifting stories in the play features a young man who lived in a hobo camp outside Calgary. When he received $2 in a letter from his mother, he went out and bought a couple dozen eggs, onions and other supplies that he turned into the Great Calgary Omelette to share with his destitute camp friends.

“I hope people really come out and enjoy this play,” said Bradshaw, who believes increased insight will be an unavoidable side effect.

When other theatre companies mounted this version of Broadfoot’s 1970s book that was adapted for the stage by Jack Windert and Cedric Smith, they noticed a lot of conversations happening during intermissions.

Bradshaw believes his young cast is shouldering a big challenge. “There’s a real responsibility to portray these characters with respect” — not just because they are based on real people, who lived through actual events, but because these Canadians are resilient survivors.

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