Pirate invades the Shuswap

This year's edition of the popular Villains and Vittles Dinner Theatre opens at Salmon Arm's R.J. Haney Heritage Village new amphitheatre.

Playwright-composer Peter Blacklock watches Hannah Gomme

Playwright-composer Peter Blacklock watches Hannah Gomme

Ahoy Mateys – there’s pirates among us!

Captain Billie Louie and the Pirate of the Shuswap sets sail July 1 at R.J. Haney Heritage Village.

As always, this year’s edition of the highly successful Villains and Vittles Dinner Theatre production, ties in with the current exhibition in the village museum.

The exhibit, “Billie Louie, the Last of the Shuswap Riverboat Captains” features a first-generation Canadian, born in the settlement of Shuswap, near Chase.

Given the name Wee Lee by his parents Ah Chew and Lau Sze, William, as he was known at school, left his studies to work for the Adams River Lumber Company when his father died in 1906.

In preparation for his adventures on Little Shuswap and the bigger Shuswap Lake, he earned his engineer’s and master’s papers, owned and operated his own boats, the Sea Tractor and Tillicum, and also took the helm of the Crombie, Andover, and CR Lamb for his employers.

The exhibit explores Louie’s life as a successful and respected businessman who served many communities as an entrepreneur, school board trustee, Rotarian, husband and father.

And it provided a wealth of information for playwright and songwriter Peter Blacklock, who has written Haney’s last two successful summer productions.

“He had quite a history, he got them to rebuild the bridge at Pritchard so he could get his boat through,” laughs Blacklock. “He was a very interesting character.”

Blacklock says he writes the dinner theatre productions by reading as much historical information on the subject as possible.

Then he turns to museum curator Deb Chapman, who delves even farther into the subject.

“I like to have enough sprinkling of information in each production so the audience knows a bit more when they leave –  a dozen things they didn’t know before,” he says. “Then we start inventing things because the story, while it is interesting, is not one that will keep audiences entertained for 45 minutes. We invent things that skirt around the truth to add some flavour.”

Blacklock, who also writes the music to accompany his plays, says Chapman and village manager Susan Mackie have been wonderful to work with because they allow him flexibility with the truth –  as long as he doesn’t tell an outright lie.

Based on the historical fact that the Women’s Catholic League used to hire a sternwheeler for moonlight cruises from Salmon Arm to Sicamous and back, Blacklock tops it up with romance.

“On this particular cruise is a young man and women; he has just come down from a work camp,” he says of the play set in 1933 in the middle of the Great Depression. “He’s up at Wa Wa working, he comes home and is out on a moonlight cruise with a girl he loves.”

The couple sing a love song about being on the bridge of a sternwheeler.

But romance is dampened when, at the conclusion of the song, Cinnemousin Sam, the nastiest pirate on the lake takes over the ship.

“It’s really quite silly,” laughs Blacklock, who is thoroughly enjoying working with the material, Haney staff and the talented students who bring the production to life – Alaura Bibby, Hannah Gomme, Caleb Makortoff and Aidan Sparks.

“They are so talented they give the creator so much room to move, knowing the actors will be able to work with whatever they get,” he says. “I always thought of myself as a high-energy person and they are three levels above me – they just go.”

New to Blacklock, as it will be to the audience, is the amphitheatre.

While the former small space beside the village school was limiting, people understood and accepted that.

“Now we have a big space, we’ve got to fill it,” he says.

A retired drama teacher, who worked in several areas of the province, Blacklock’s playwriting began when he couldn’t find plays suitable for the group of children he was working with.

“I started writing and I found it was actually more fun doing it that way than doing somebody else’s play,” he says. “I was never sure I could do a play that adults would enjoy, but when Emily (A Shuswap Theatre production based on the life of Emily Carr) went up, it was special.”

Blacklock’s association with Shuswap Theatre began when Shirley Tucker was producing the play Sowing Seeds in 1996.

“I saw an ad in the paper and I went down to audition,” he says. “They were all young people and I thought, ‘I don’t belong here,’ and Shirley said, ‘why don’t you direct it?’”

Blacklock continues his happy association with the theatre group in several ways, including a new program coming in the fall.

Senior theatre has been very successful in the Cedar Centre and Blacklock will introduce the two-hour fun workshops to Salmon Arm and Sorrento in the fall.

“Seniors theatre is one of the fastest growing programs in the U.S.,” he says. “It  allows people to be creative and is physically and cognitively creative and stimulating. And it opens social relationships with people they didn’t know before.”

Blacklock’s production of Captain Billie Louie and the Pirate of the Shuswap opens July 1 with dinner at 6 p.m. and dessert to follow the play.

Tickets are $24 for adults, $21 for seniors and $14 for children under the age of 13. Reservations are a must and they can be made by calling 250-832-5243.