by Leo Blaise Doyle from Ottawa, ON
Twenty-five years have passed since I, too, performed in Mabou, Cape Breton. It was in August of 1985. High school drama students from across Cape Breton, such as myself, Heather and Nancy Rankin, were invited to take part in a two-week theatre program being run by the visiting Highland Youth Theatre of Inverness, Scotland. Along with their instructors and technician, 6 students from Scotland, 4 girls and 2 boys, attended the summer theatre school in Sydney.
For 1 intense week in early August, our combined group of 12 teenaged boys and girls lived together in close quarters at Cape Breton University.
The young Scotts and Cape Bretoners got to know one another quickly; and well. We took part in daylong workshops, learning the theatre arts. We were taught to act and to react, and to use our voices to maximum effect. On stage, we learned to collaborate and to trust one another.
We boys were thrilled to get professional instruction on the proper techniques of stage combat and fencing. They taught us to punch, slap and pull hair in ways that entertained, but didn't hurt! A highlight was learning to sword fight…safely. We clashed and clanged our steel weapons in choreographed moves that would terrify our moms, but not cut or blind anyone.
We ate all of our meals together in the cafeteria. At night, we slept in rows on the carpeted floor of a university classroom, where I’d later take English 100.
During our first week together, we wrote, work-shopped and built sets for a play about the adventures of Palnatoki. As I learned from the Scotts, Palnatoki was a legendary Viking Chieftain from the Danish Isle of Fyn. And his adventures were whatever we could come up with.
As a local boy, I was only 30 kilometers away from my home in Sydney Mines. But I couldn’t have been further removed from my familiar culture and surroundings. For an 18 year old, it was truly awesome!
With two, liberal-minded Scotts as our chaperons, we had the run of the place. At night, we wandered the empty halls and buildings of Cape Breton U as we got to know the place and each another. I even got to snog with Fiona, a raven-haired beauty from Fife. It didn’t get any better than this.
During the second week of the program, we took our play called “Vineland” on the road, performing in communities through out Cape Breton. On Tuesday, August 13, 1985, we came to Mabou to perform at Holy Name Hall.
The Mabou show was a home coming of sorts for the Rankin girls; so too for 18 year old Blaise Coady MacNeil, a strapping, brown haired, blued eyed young lad from the nearby community of Blackstone. Blaise was a quiet, but friendly guy, who loved the music of Jim Morrison and the Doors. As someone who had grown up in rural Cape Breton, Blaise wasn’t exactly the “type” you’d imagine voluntarily spending two weeks of the summer at drama camp. But that’s exactly why I liked him. He was his own man, too hell with what others thought.
August 13, 1985, was a pleasant summer day in Mabou. The Rankins hosted a barbeque prior our show; everyone enjoyed the hospitality and chance to meet more members of the family and folks from the community. It was a post card day.
Having been away from his friends for well over a week, Blaise MacNeil took the opportunity to reconnect with them. He skipped the barbecue and took-off in a pick-up truck with his buddies to hang out.
As show time approached, we departed the Rankins and headed off to Holy Name Hall. With the 7pm start nearing, the director noted that Blaise still hadn’t arrived. We assumed he’d get here soon, having lost track of the time with his friends.
Just minutes before we were to go on stage, someone arrived with news that Blaise had been in an accident. The vehicle he and his friends were driving went off the road on sharp curve at Glenora Falls. Blaise and the others had gone to the hospital. We didn’t get any details; always the optimist, I just assumed it was a fairly minor accident, and that all would be fine. The director subbed in to play Blaise’s part and the show went on.
Much later that night, and back at the Rankins, we got word from the hospital that Blaise had died. To lose a friend that I had just made was shocking and inexplicable. I never got the chance to attend Blaise’s funeral. In this respect, it has always bothered me that I didn’t get a chance to say a proper good-bye.
Stuart, would you dedicate a song to Blaise for me? I hardly knew him, and yet I can never forget him.
And here now, for Blaise Coady MacNeil is Madison Violet with Small Of My Heart.