Even though she’s performed Jake’s Gift countless times over the course of its 10 year run, it’s not hard for the show’s writer and solo actor Julia Mackey to pinpoint a show that stood out among the rest.
The story centres around Jake, a Canadian war veteran who returns to Normandy 60 years after the D-Day landings, and Isabelle, a young, inquisitive French girl who breaks down some of the emotional barriers Jake has held since the war.
In 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the allied invasion of German-occupied France, Mackey had the opportunity to perform her show at the site of one of the most significant military operations of the Second World War.
“It was kind of like a pipe dream to be able to perform it in Normandy,” Mackey said.
“You could hear the waves crashing up on Juno Beach because it was high tide. So it was this amazing added soundscape that we didn’t anticipate that was such a beautiful addition to the play. It was a pretty emotional experience.”
Mackey, who grew up in Montreal, performed those shows in French, but she’ll perform in English on Oct. 6 at the Teechamitsa Theatre at Royal Bay secondary as part of drama teacher Melissa Young’s initiative to bring professional theatre to the school’s impressive facility.
Originally the character of Jake was a part of a different production, but Mackey felt the character had a bigger story to tell and sought to find another avenue with which to tell it.
After watching the news and hearing Peter Mansbridge discuss the upcoming 60th anniversary ceremonies in Normandy, Mackey realized that was where the rest of Jake’s story would take her.
Mackey spent four days in the French coastal region in June of 2004, interviewing as many veterans as she could, walking the beaches, visiting landing areas and attending commemorative ceremonies.
“What you hear in the play is a combination of real quotes from veterans that I interviewed as well as my own experiences being there and … my own imagination with how all of those things would all meld together,” she said.
Mackey decided to make it a solo performance, and says that initially the biggest challenge for her was ensuring that her transitions between characters were as smooth as possible.
“We wanted to make sure … there would never be any question for the audience who was speaking,” Mackey said.
Mackey and director Dirk Van Stralen accomplished this through vocal changes and physical changes.
“So far this has worked, where the audience just comes along for the ride and believes whoever is talking to them,” she noted.
Jake’s Gift has received a lot of accolades over the course of its run, earning awards for Best Drama, Best Solo Show and Best New Play at the Victoria Fringe Festival and Best of the Fest nods at the Edmonton and Winnipeg Fringe Festivals, among other awards since its debut. Still, the most significant praise Mackey has received for her work has come from D-Day veterans, who have credited Jake’s Gift for its accuracy.
“I think one of the scariest things about writing a story like that, because it’s not my own experience … I wanted to get that story right,” she said. “I just made sure that I never strayed from the truth of the interviews that I did … It’s been a real blessing to both me and Dirk that so many of the veterans that have come have given me a thumbs up for it.”
Tickets for the Oct. 6 show at Royal Bay are available at the Royal Bay Bakery or by calling the school at 250-474-2377 (press 7 for the theatre office).