Canada Council Digital Originals

Solo show redeveloped during lockdown teaches kids about mining hero Maurice Ruddick

Pre-pandemic, award-winning playwright and actor Beau Dixon toured schools performing a one-man show called Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story. It’s the real-life story of Ruddick, a man who was trapped underground after a mining accident in Nova Scotia in the 1950s.

Actors spent lockdown working with curtains and flashlights to figure out new show

Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story

CBC Arts

8 months ago
1:39
Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story is a Zoom play by Andrea Houssin and Beau Dixon and is part of Digital Originals, a Canada Council for the Arts initiative. 1:39

Theatre is turning itself inside out right now trying to figure out how to keep the art going despite bans on large groups of people, particularly indoors.

Before the pandemic, award-winning playwright and actor Beau Dixon toured schools performing a one-man show called Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story.

It's the real-life story of Ruddick, a man who was trapped underground after a mining accident in Nova Scotia in the 1950s. Seventy-five men died when part of the mine collapsed. Ruddick was fortunate enough to be among those who escaped, but he spent nine days trapped underground.

From left to right: Mark McNeilly, Andrea Houssin, LA Alfonso, Beau Dixon, Esther Vincent, Linda Kash, Rob Viscardis, Kurtis Watson worked on Beneath Springhill. (Linda Kash)

Eventually, Ruddick's story was told in a Heritage Minutes film, including the discrimination he faced as a Black Canadian and how he remained hopeful and boosted team morale by singing hymns while trapped in the mine.

Dixon later developed a 65-minute musical about his life, but when schools were closed in the spring and visitors restricted again in the fall, he had to figure out a new way to teach students about Ruddick.

So he partnered with actor and educator Andrea Houssin, at first to help him live-stream the project to schools, and then, to turn it into what they call "digital storytelling — not quite film, not quite theatre, but somewhere in between."

"We took a very homemade approach — black curtains tacked up on the walls of our Toronto apartment, lit with household lamps and flashlights — and went for it," says Houssin, referring to their first few tries to reimagine the story. 

Later came professional lighting and film.

"You get to see Beau transform and switch between all of his characters, with the beautiful sound and picture quality we're used to with streaming," said Houssin. "It's an excellent showcase for this very Canadian story."

Pre-pandemic, award-winning playwright and actor Beau Dixon toured schools performing a one-man show called Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story. (Kristina Ruddick)

The hope is to have the not-quite-film, not-quite-theatre adaptation available to kids in grades 3 to 12 with study guides, drama exercises and a virtual Q & A with Dixon.

"Ruddick ... was the first African Canadian to receive Citizen of the Year for his part in [helping] other miners," says Houssin. "It's an important part of Canadian history."

You can read more about the production here.

À lire en français sur le site de Radio-Canada.

This story is part of Digital Originals, an initiative of the Canada Council for the Arts. Artists were offered a $5,000 micro-grant to either adapt their existing work or create new work for the digital world during the COVID-19 pandemic. CBC Arts has partnered with Canada Council to feature a selection of these projects. You can see more of these projects here.

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