To write scripts or not to write scripts?
At a time when most of Nanaimo's coal mining history was buried and forgotten, along came Kevin Roberts with a fictionalized account of the coal mining safety and union disputes that took place in the late 1800's. The drama, Black Apples: a Play in Two Acts, was printed in 1983 by the West Coast Review Society in Vancouver and is Roberts' first and only published script.
Roberts noticed that very little was written about the historical coalmines in Nanaimo and surrounding areas, and sought to change that. In doing so, he switched from writing straight poetry to combining poetic monologues and dialogues in order to give weight to a story based on historical local events. Roberts had always found Nanaimo's history fascinating and decided to write Black Apples out of personal interest. "You have to have that feeling," says Roberts, who believes that weak emotions will equal weak writing every time.
His grandfather operated Broken Hill Mine in Australia, so Roberts already knew about the dangers involved with the trade. Roberts was a scholar, not a tradesman, and rather than work in the Australian mines himself, he used his role as an established author to explore the history of Nanaimo's coal industry that residents are currently sitting on. "The evidence of a mining history is all covered up here," says Roberts, who had to dig deep in order to research the "many strikes, many disasters, and hundreds of deaths" that occurred during Nanaimo's coal mining history.
Some of his research took place in a graveyard, where he noted the names of men who had died too young due to their dangerous trade. Johnny Mairs was a real Nanaimo citizen who was a "faithful union lad," as inscribed on his tombstone. Mairs' death is dramatized in Black Apples -- killed by police after being locked up for a crime his father has committed. His father, John Mairs, stood up for what he believed in: a union that would protect the rights and safety of miners, and, in self-defence, accidentally shot a man who opposed the formation of a worker's union. The son was falsely accused of murder and his father buried his personal guilt and "suffered a great deal for trying to do the right thing," says Roberts. The full story unfolds when the father, John Mairs, now an elderly man, bitterly exposes his secret to a young woman, whom he later discovers is his granddaughter.
Black Apples is one of Roberts' earlier works, and underwent many revisions before it was published. The script was read by actors on Granville Island at the New Play Centre. Roberts says he squirmed throughout the performance. The public reading showed him he wasn't happy with the script, and it needed more direction. For future pieces, Roberts, who says he often felt like he was an Australian poet writing in Canada, mostly abandoned the art of script-writing in favour of his love for poetry and experimental interest in short stories and the novel form. However, it should be noted that two other theatrical works of his have been staged: Dust on the Moon (about Tommy Douglas), produced at Malaspina, and Opening Day (about commercial fishing), produced by the Naniamo Festival Theatre in the summer of 1998.
Although Black Apples is now 25 years old, Roberts still smiles as he recalls his experimental mesh of poetry and dialogue, and the amount of research that went into the play. Unlike other works based on his own journeys and personal encounters, Roberts in Black Apples finds inspiration in sketchy historical figures. The play-script is an engaging read for anybody interested in learning more about mining on Vancouver Island. And Roberts' research and dramatic exploration of the history of his surroundings is an invaluable model for all aspiring writers.