Disaster Drama

“It’s about relatively average people who have to do extraordinary things”: Richard Merrill’s dramatization of the springhill mining disaster kicks off eastern front theatre’s 13th seasonwith a BUMP.

Photo Scott Munn

It began with a bump. A big bump.

On Thursday, October 23, 1958 at 8:06pm, a series of shock waves thundered through the Number 2 Colliery of the Springhill Coal Mine, creating an intense, localized earthquake that was felt 23 kilometres away. One hundred seventy-four miners were trapped or crushed as floors smashed into ceilings and walls came crashing down. It was the biggest bump in North American mining history.

A bump occurs when coal has been dug out of a layer of rock or earth and the surrounding bedrock is not able to withstand the resulting stresses, causing it to collapse. The Springhill mine, located just outside the town of Springhill in north central Nova Scotia, was known as a particularly bumpy mine, sustaining as many as 400 bumps in 50 years, but until that fateful night in 1958, a bump had never caused so much damage, or claimed so many lives.

The Number 2 colliery is one of the deepest pits in the world, extending 4,300 metres into the earth, with a tunneled root system of galleries branching off the main shafts. After the bump, those who weren’t instantly crushed found themselves trapped four kilometres underground in the pitch black, simmering heat of the Earth’s belly. And there they waited, for death or deliverance.

On October 27, Eastern Front Theatre invites you to watch them wait. The Dartmouth-based theatre company is opening its 13th season with the world professional premiere of Richard Merrill’s play BUMP. It chronicles eight days in the lives of three trapped Springhill miners, and the life of one of their wives as she waits on the surface for news of her husband. Through these four characters, BUMP mines the anatomy of hope and its kin, courage, love, desperation and despair.

“The play itself is such a human story,” says director Ron Kelly Spurles. “It’s about relatively average people who have to do extraordinary things because of the circumstances they’re put in. I think in that way everybody can relate to it because we’re all in situations in our lives where there’s the possibility something unexpected might happen to us and we always wonder how we’ll deal with it.”

The power of imagination was all that was left to many of the trapped miners after their lamps died and food ran out. And imagination is the tool Merrill, Spurles and all the actors use in presenting this disaster to theatre-goers. This weight of imagination goes beyond transforming clouds into castles and touches on what it means to be human and connected to every other human being on the planet.

“The world hung on whether or not these men would be found,” says Jack MacAndrew, a reporter for CBC at the time of the bump. “It was the first occasion when a disaster became a global event.”

The Springhill Mine Disaster was the world’s first televised disaster, and people around the world tuned into Springhill, Nova Scotia, to follow it. Captivated by the story, they prayed to boxes in their living rooms for the salvation of men they would never meet.

Last Friday, October 21, Eastern Front hosted a media panel on Disaster Coverage: Then and Now. MacAndrew, seated at the far left of the panelist table and resembling a Harley Davidson-riding Santa Claus, spent weeks reporting from Springhill after the bump. The emotional toll of such an investment was visible still, nearly 50 years later, as MacAndrew struggled to share his memories of the disaster with the audience.

“It was drama. An elemental drama. There were men down there, and there were men alive...” says MacAndrew, choking back tears. “It became a race: would the methane gas get them, would the lack of oxygen, the lack of food and water, before the rescuers could?”

Then came the story of “the chocolate bar man” who found a chocolate bar he remembered was in his lunch.

“He took it out and broke it into eight squares. He took one, and passed it on to the next man, and the next. And that, to me, tells the whole story. Nobody would have known if he’d eaten it all himself. That’s the bond those miners had, that he passed it on,” says MacAndrew, pausing to apologize for another wave of emotion. “Sorry. I’m really a tough old bastard.”

Rocking on the floor of Christ Church hall in Dartmouth, actor David Patrick Flemming sobs inconsolably. Flemming’s character Wilfred is trapped in a cramped pocket of the mine with fellow miners Clayton (Andrew Bigelow) and Joe (Rejean Cournoyer). Wilfred has just learned that the search for his brother Frank proved fruitless. Clayton and Joe attempt to reassure him with stories of rescue and promises of a joyful reunion.

The three try their best to make light of the situation and keep their minds occupied in the face, and encroaching stench, of death. Clayton resumes the search for Frank, while Wilfred keeps Joe (whose arm is stuck in the wall of the mine) company, and Joe leads him in a rousing rendition of “I stuck my finger in a woodpecker’s hole.”

Nearly three miles up, in a well-worn living room, Clayton’s wife Velda (Burgandy Code) struggles to stay in control as she appeals to the mine boss to find her husband, the father of her 11 children.

“I know my husband is alive,” she pleads, imploring the mine boss to continue the search and rescue effort. “This family can’t exist without him.”

Pausing between scenes, Code empathizes with her character. “I am naturally a very good worrier. I waste a lot of time worrying. But this is off the chart for me,” she says. “The idea of waiting for eight days—I can’t even imagine. Although, it is my job to imagine it.” She laughs. “There must be a kind of insanity that goes with it.”

“I like the idea of discovering it as we go,” volunteers Flemming. “I’d never done this, my character had never done this, so I get to discover with him. You get to maybe figure out how you’d act in that situation.”

Audience members will have the chance to discover for themselves, when BUMP opens at Alderney Landing Theatre this week. As the house lights go down, the spotlights will illuminate a stage divided in two, symbolically straddling the three vertical miles between Velda’s living room and the charred pocket of mine below.

The action alternates back and forth. Trapped in their separate prisons, the characters butt up against a wall of hopelessness and fear with the spirited abandon of those who have no choice but to wait and see. And hope for the best.

BUMP, October 27 to November 6 at Alderney Landing Theatre, 2 Ochterloney, Dartmouth, 8pm (3pm matinees on weekends), $12.50-$25,463-7529.

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