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Growing up in a theatre full of ghosts

When Arizona Charlie Meadows came to Dawson City in 1898, he wanted to build "the prettiest little theatre north of San Francisco," and back when Dawson was the Paris of the North, that's just what his Palace Grand theatre was.

When Arizona Charlie Meadows came to Dawson City in 1898, he wanted to build “the prettiest little theatre north of San Francisco,” and back when Dawson was the Paris of the North, that’s just what his Palace Grand theatre was.

Over a century later, local playwright Bronwyn Jones has brought the story of the Palace Grand back to the Yukon stage - and the old cast has come along with it.

The Prettiest Little Theatre North of San Francisco makes its Yukon debut this week at the Guild Hall. It’s a one-woman show, written and performed by Jones, and directed by her husband, Alyx Jones. It’s based on their experiences as the stage managers at the Palace Grand from 2002 to 2004. “When you write, you have to write about what you know,” she says. “You can’t be too clever, don’t start researching things too much.”

It’s a young woman’s account of growing up in the theatre, loosely based on the life of the Jones’ teenage daughter, with a liberal dose of mystery and vaudeville. “In my daughter’s world, she’d hear actors talking, ropes coming down, conspiracies and arguments, human relationships playing out and you couldn’t see her because she was so small,” she says. “If she came across something that was ephemeral, she would take it at face value, even if she were sitting beside something that only she saw.”

Though the modern Palace Grand is, essentially, a replica of its gold rush predecessor, Jones believes it has held on to a spiritual energy - an energy that inspires the often-dark tone of her performance. “The timeframe of the Klondike Gold Rush is such a small, saturated history, the amount that happened in such a short time is incredible,” she says. “The amount of young people who came up, and lost their lives, sometimes very quickly and in horrifying ways ... you can still feel the residual human energy there.”

Throughout the play the young girl “channels” the spirits of Klondike luminaries like Charlie Meadows, a theatre impresario and sharpshooter with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, as well as Klondike Kate Rockwell and former stage manager and theatre magnate Alexander Pantages. For Jones, it was important to re-imagine these characters as both complex and multi-dimensional, beyond the caricatures painted by the tourist brochures. “These characters have all been Disneyfied, and you think, ‘How would I feel if that happened to me?’” she says. “These guys were real wheelers and dealers, sometimes they were bad and sometimes good and I wanted to do them some justice.”

Of course, there’s a strong element of fantasy as well. At one point there is a brief appearance by a dog with the face of a man. “I saw it on Princess St., in Dawson City in the summer of 1987,” she says. “It was one of the strangest dogs I’ve come across.”

The play explores the notion that history not only lives on, but continues to influence our lives today, and Jones uses the Palace Grand as a living example of that. The theatre was inspired by the Folies Bergere, a Gilded Age Parisian cabaret hall, re-imagined in the Yukon by the entrepreneurial young minds of the era. “You couldn’t have travelled with Buffalo Bill and not gone to Paris,” she says. “(Meadows) was probably just like me in 1984. He said to himself, ‘Wow, I wish I could run a place like this.’”

Prettiest Little Theatre debuted this summer at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Fittingly, it premiered at the Annex Theatre in Mirvish Village, named for businessman and philanthropist Ed Mirvish, for whom Toronto’s Pantages Theatre was later renamed. “There are these waves throughout our lives, our history, and sometimes they are just ripples, and sometimes they are tsunamis,” says Jones.

After taking her show on the road, Jones says she’s ready for a hometown crowd. “We should tell our own stories,” she says. “And it’s nerve-wracking to come home and tell mine. This is for all the people who have watched me over the years. This is my imagination. This is how I write. This is me.”

The Prettiest Little Theatre North of San Francisco opens at the Guild Hall on Thursday the 17th, with nightly performances until Saturday, Oct.19. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and are on sale at Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters. All proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Whitehorse Food Bank. Food donations are also encouraged. There will be a deep freeze, for frozen food and wild game donations.