Mucking in the Drift runs from Oct. 31 to Nov.10 at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. Matthew Heiti is the writer in residence at the theatre He recently directed The Monument at Encore Theatre
Matthew Heiti shares this thoughts on Mucking in the Drift.
I’m banging this out on my laptop, while lurking in a desktop window just underneath is the script for Mucking in the Drift. I’m working on rewrites. Still.
The life of a play is a long process. For me, it never feels finished, but at some point you’ve got to let it go. With a little wincing. The actors, the designers and David Savoy, the director, will make it better on stage than it is on the page. That’s the joy of letting go. I will most likely be rewriting and tweaking up until opening night. But don’t tell David that.
There’s always a story behind a story. The story of this play began when I moved back to Sudbury in 2010, after a couple of years out East. I came home looking for roots.
I’d been fascinated by baseball for 20 years, had long-ago daydreams of playing in the majors. It’s a sport built on myths of colossal characters who did unbelievable things. Sure, there are some lazy middle innings, but that’s just an empty space to fill. With talk of the past. Maybe a tall tale or two. It’s a sport built for the imagination.
Research can take me months or years. It’s addictive digging and digging for that one chunk of treasure. In the library I stumbled across a book Home Grown Heroes by Frank Pagnucco. That’s where I first read about Bert Flynn, the “most famous figure in Nickel Belt baseball.” Five-foot-five, a small man, and one that history—even local history—has forgotten. But he was a giant here for a short time. He brought Sudbury two provincial championships, defeating bigger, louder, more famous teams from down south. He was a fascinating character and his story was the first thread for this script.
An article by Ray Stevenson gave me the play’s title, describing the backbreaking practice of workers underground, shovelling rock, as “mucking in the drift.”
We put a call out in the newspaper for people to share their tales of the bygone days of the Nickel Belt Baseball League, defunct since 1959. I didn’t know what to expect. Then my phone started to ring. Doors were thrown open and I was invited into homes to listen to stories, dig through scrapbooks, boxes and memorabilia.
I talked to former players in their 70s, spouses of players, sons and daughters, and spectators who remembered the crack of a bat, the ring of the streetcars, the smell of malt vinegar and fries. Their stories filled my nose with that same smell, my ears with the noise of the crowd. The past came alive to me, through them.
It’s very important to me that this play not be “quaint.” It is not a pat on the back or a history lesson. While accuracy is important to me, and I want to honour the stories given to me by others, I still needed to be free to play.
This is a story about time travel, Kurt Vonnegut-style. A man, unstuck in time, goes pinwheeling through the years, trying to find that one perfect moment, before everything fell apart. It’s a play about the significance of one small life. Something I keep on thinking about as I fumble my way through my 30s.
We took a rough draft of the script into a workshop for a week in May 2012. A theatre workshop allows us to sit around a table and hear the piece read aloud for the first time with an actor. It provides new insights and fuel for rewrites. We flew Sudbury-born actor Rick Duthie in from Calgary.
At the end of the week, we had an informal reading in front of a live audience. This is a very vital part of the process: a chance to test the work and discuss it with a group. I’ve continued work on it over the last year and I still get the occasional, welcome phone call from somebody willing to share a baseball story. I can’t really express what it means to have this play staged at STC. Coming into this theatre as a boy, and coming back over and over again as I’ve grown, moved away and come back, it feels like the end of some long voyage. Or maybe the beginning.
This play is as much about my fascination with where this city’s going, as where it’s been. When I walk up and down the city streets now, I see the past laid over the present. A clock tower superimposed on a parking lot. The sad reality is that much of our past is lost to us. Over and over again, historic buildings and sites have been torn down and paved over. What we’ve lost is immeasurable. But the past can be a guidewire to hold onto. We can dig it up, preserve it, carry it with us. It keeps us anchored in the “now.”
Mucking in the Drift is my small chunk of the past. And we’re almost ready to share it with you.
Bert Pilgrim has come unstuck in time, aging back and forth between the young baseball star who won it all in one perfect summer, and an old man, strapped into a wheelchair, slowly losing his mind. Inspired by the legends of Sudbury’s Nickel Belt Baseball League, Mucking in the Drift is a dark Vaudevillian comedy about a man searching for relevance in the chaos of a changing city.