The Postman > From Page to Porch
The Postman project was inspired by an article in the Toronto Star in 2012.
The Postman director, producer, co-writer David Ferry came across the article by Isabel Teotonio, which concerned the naming of a lane in the Harbord Village area after Toronto’s first Black postman, Albert Jackson. The article included a photo of a house that Albert Jackson owned on Brunswick Avenue, now owned by publisher Patrick Crean, who had started the campaign to name the nearby lane honouring Mr. Jackson. In the photo, posing with Mr. Crean on the front porch, were two relations of Albert Jackson’s grandson, who had lived in the house as girls.
As soon as Ferry read the article he was convinced that there was a theatrical treatment of the Jacksons’ story (Albert and his mother Ann Maria) to be created. Furthermore, he immediately thought that it would be an awesome site-specific piece told from the porches of houses Jackson delivered mail to.
At the time Ferry was working with colleague Laurence Dean Ifill, directing him in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie at Toronto’s Theatre Centre. He immediately thought Dean would be an interesting casting choice as Albert Jackson. So he brought the idea to him at work that night.
Ifill was immediately attracted to the idea, not just because of the chance to portray Albert, but because he had been educated in a Toronto school system that had never taught him any Black history stories outside of a brief mention of The Underground Railroad. Dean suggested that a theatre project such as Ferry envisioned could also be a published piece that could be adopted by the school system as an educational tool.
Ferry began to do research on the story and soon found a related Toronto Star story about an initiative of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW.) CUPW had commissioned a poster of Albert Jackson for Black History Month.
Ferry decided to go to the CUPW launch of the poster. There he met with various descendants of Albert (about 110 were present) and union reps who had created the poster project. This led to introductions to Jay Jackson, eldest male descendant Lawrence Jackson, and other family members, as well as to historian Karolyn Smardz Frost, who had written the Governor General Award winning history I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad. In the midst of Smardz Frost’s fantastic tale of Thorton and Lucie Blackburn and their struggle to get to Canada, the story of Albert and his mother Ann Maria really came to light.
At this point the Jackson family gave Ferry permission to create a theatre piece using the story of their ancestors. This is a connection that has been strengthened increasingly as we have grown The Postman. Also an essential connection was made between CUPW and Ferry, and they have become one of our most vocal supporters. At this point a relationship was established with Ms. Smardz Frost who agreed to come on as our historical advisor.
Learning to Crawl
The summer of 2013 found both Ferry and Ifill working together again in a production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at Blue Bridge Theatre in Victoria. This summer ‘gig’ away from Toronto provided Ferry and Ifill an ideal opportunity during their day times before performing at night to throw ideas around, immerse themselves in the research notes Ferry had compiled, and to start talking outline and approach to a potential production.
Now Ferry, working as dramaturge, started to think of working with not just one, but with a variety of writers. The image for this stemmed from the strong oral history tradition from the Underground Railroad travellers and the tradition of folk art in quilting. Each square on a quilt tells a separate story but the unified whole is one. (For more, see Slave and Abolitionist Quilts from QuiltersBee.)
By the end of the summer Ferry and Ifill had a story outline drafted and a prologue written which gave them an idea of the structure.
Now they needed contributors. Ferry reached out to a variety of authors, including primarily prose authors such as Lawrence Hill and Austin Clark, along with playwrights Andrew Moodie, Djanet Sears, Lisa Codrington, Joseph ‘Jomo’ Pierre and d’bi young. As well he sought the historical guidance of Karolyn Smarz Frost. Ferry and Ifill also started seeking funds to develop the piece.
In the fall of 2013, Ferry met with Don Shipley, who was running the Culture programming arm of PANAMANIA presented by CIBC, which was preparing for the 2015 PanAm/ParaPanAm Games in Toronto. Don loved the idea of The Postman and asked Ferry to submit a commissioning proposal. This proposal was successful and in February 2014, after a series of meetings with the above authors as well as Leah-Simone Bowen and Sugith Varughese, The Postman started its next stage of realization: a two week workshop development (with funding from Ontario Arts Council as well as PANAMANIA).
This process started with authors Moodie, Codrington, Clark, Bowen, Varughese, Pierre, and Ferry. Lawrence Hill, Djanet Sears, and d’bi young, though interested in the project, all had conflicting writing schedules. Frost was on board as historical consultant. Mr. Clark had to leave the project due to health issues and Roy Lewis came on board mid workshop. A who’s who of actors and musicians also participated: Andrew Moodie, Saida Baba Talibah, Maurice Dean Wint, Layne Coleman, Karen Glave, Dean Ifill, Brooke Blackburn, Roy Lewis, Claire Armstrong, Sugith Varughese, Leah-Simone Bowen, Joseph Pierre, Karen Robinson, Kevin Hanshard, Philip Akin, Michael Sinclair, Lisa Codrington, Dion Johnson, Chris Blades, David Ferry, Ryan Field, Derrick P. Miller, and Shawn Byfield.
The workshop ended with a two-and-a-half-hour script and seven songs. The company hosted a staged reading of the piece for about 50 people at the end of the two weeks. They filmed and recorded the reading for archival purposes. The audience included 10 Jackson descendants, theatre professionals, representatives from CUPW and PANAMANIA, as well as other guests. The performance received a standing ovation. This workshop gave all concerned great faith that they had a really interesting project.
The next stage of development required time, patience, and money to strategize how the company could actually mount a production on porches as part of PANAMANIA and the PanAm Games in 2015.
Standing On Their Own Two Feet
So, raise a budget of $125,000? No big deal? No not for profit incorporation? No charitable status? Just a small company with an ad-hoc group of committed artists? Trying to raise money for a production that sounds wacky? Performing a history piece with music outdoors on a series of peoples’ porches in the Harbord Village/Palmerston/Annex section of Toronto? Easy…right?
Fresh off out workshop success, the company needed to regroup and decide how they would actually present the piece: How long it should be? Who would fund it? Who would partner with them?
Right after the workshop, Ifill and Ferry started planning for a production. The process of grant writing and promoting the project began. Early on, CUPW said they would be offering support. To fund further script development, Ferry drafted grant applications to Ontario Arts Council (OAC), Canada Council (CC), Toronto Arts Council (TAC), Heritage Canada, and the City of Toronto. Ifill, who was taking a program in web development and social media platform development set out to build web and social media platforms as well as Gofundme.com.
Gradually some funding pieces started to come into play. CUPW’s national office contributed $10,000 thanks to the commitment of the vice president who had pushed for the CUPW Albert Jackson poster (Mark Brown) and CUPW locals also contributed. PANAMANIA also made an additional financial commitment. OAC came on board with a second workshop grant (as well as a significant production grant in May 2015). TAC came on with a special fund for PanAm/ParaPanAm projects. Ferry managed to get meetings with acting Mayor Norm Kelly and Councillor Michael Thompson, who were both very supportive and who helped facilitate meetings with city staff in various departments who offered support and assistance. City of Toronto Arts and Culture Services agreed to support a grant proposal to help fund a youth mentoring program called Able to Deliver, which was being developed through Ifill’s connections with St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club. Toronto’s First Post Office executive director Janet Walters put the support of her museum behind the project and arranged a reading to follow a second workshop at St. Lawrence Hall to celebrate Toronto’s birthday. Individual donors came on board as well.
In February 2015 a second workshop occurred. The focus this time was to streamline the piece down to a 60-70 minute production, which would make it accessible to a broad audience walking and standing outdoors in the summer heat.
For the second workshop the participants were Andrew Moodie, Saida Baba Talibah, Maurice Dean Wint, Layne Coleman, Karen Glave, Dean Ifill, Brooke Blackburn, Roy Lewis, Sugith Varughese, Leah-Simone Bowen, Joseph Pierre, Matthew Brown, Paul Bates, Michael Sinclair, Lisa Codrington, Natasha Mumba, Christo Graham, Chris Blades, Raha Javanfar, David Ferry, and Ryan Field.
After the workshop received a standing ovation from 120 people at St. Lawrence Hall in March 2015, Ferry and Ifill started making connections with four neighbourhood associations: Bloor Annex BIA (BABIA), Harbord Street BIA (HSBIA), Harbord Village Residents Association (HVRA), and Palmerston Area Residents Association (PARA). Excited by the prospect of our project in their neighbourhoods, all four associations committed to finding some financial support, but more importantly community support —especially sourcing porches that residents would let us use — and getting community buy-in.
As the project started to stand on its own two feet, it received important support from colleagues in the theatre community, online, some foundation support, an investment (in the form of an option on future development) by Mirvish Productions, and our crowd-funding campaign leapt to life.
As March 2015 arrived with a June 22 rehearsal start and a June 15 Able to Deliver youth training start, the project reached out to find colleagues to take on the important design, associate producer, production manager, and public relations functions.
The Postman Walks
Joining the team in March were Marcie Januska, Paula Forst, Kei Yano, and Annemarie Brissenden as associate producer, production manager, costume designer, and public relations, respectively. Christian Mueller from HVRA was hugely helpful in taking on the challenging task of convincing residents on Brunswick Ave and Major Street to lend us their porches. Kei Yano set out to do the same on Palmerston Blvd.
Ferry had put St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club partners into a potential sponsor connection via CIBC, which came through in May, so there was funding for the St. Alban’s end of Able to Deliver.
Casting and contracting was completed in early June with the majority of the workshop artists able to participate in the production: Workshop veterans Maurice Dean Wint, Layne Coleman, Karen Glave, Dean Ifill, Roy Lewis, Sugith Varughese, Matthew Brown, Virgilia Griffiths, Aisha Jarvis, Raha Javanfar, Christo Graham, Chris Blades, and Claire Armstrong were joined by newcomers Ngabo Nabea, Nicky Lawrence, Donovan Locke, and Naomi Bariffe. David Ferry continued as director, Michael Sinclair became the stage manager and was joined by assistant stage manager Georgia Priestly-Brown. Andrew Moodie, Leah-Simone Bowen, Joseph Pierre, Lisa Codrington, David Ferry, Roy Lewis and Sugith Varughese continued as writers, as did Saida Baba Talibah, and Brooke Blackburn as composers and musical direction.
Running Towards the Future
Ferry and Ifill hope that this summer’s porch performances will lead to a bigger and longer production. As mentioned, Mirvish Productions have contributed to this production with a fee to guarantee them first refusal rights on a future bigger stage production. The company also hopes to produce a DVD/text edition of the show — including historical research, music, and video content — to be made available to the Toronto school system for students to use as a learning tool. A film treatment is also forthcoming.