The New Brunswick Arts Board is an arm’s length arts funding agency with a legislated mandate to facilitate and promote the creation of art as well as administering funding programs for professional artists in the province.
“Site specific performance describes a way of being in place and has the capacity to reshape locales that are considered fixed and immutable.” – Melanie Bennet, Sighting, Citing, Siting: Crossfiring/Mama Wetotan: Theorizing Practice
Growing up, I always lived next to cemeteries. My dad liked to say “The neighbours aren’t friendly but at least they’re quiet!” burying grounds became familiar spaces for me; I left desire paths from our yard to the houses on the far side. I played games amongst the graves. But they were never so familiar and comfortable that I could walk the whole way across. Invariably, part-way, the hairs on my neck would stand up, and I would run. I never once looked behind me.
Not much has changed in the interim. In Fredericton, I’m no longer neighbours with the dead, but at the centre of my city looms the Old Burial Ground, est. 1787, criss-crossed with two hundred and thirty years of desire paths. Layered with two hundred and thirty years of stories. Haunted by two hundred and thirty years of ghosts. This was the inspiration for my Creation project in the winter and spring of 2018/2019. I wanted to learn about other people’s relationship with cemeteries, and how they experienced the Old Burial Ground. I wanted to discover the paths, exhume the stories, and conjure the ghosts.
From inception, I knew the project would be a site-specific play; ghosts are inextricably linked with notions of place. And rather than try to translate the meaning and presence of the Old Burial Ground to an audience in a theatre, I wanted to foster an earnest engagement with the subject at hand. More than that, I wanted to ask questions about the way the space is conceptualized, used, and valued. How does the city navigate the tension between the Old Burial Ground’s life as a public space and the need to preserve a heritage site? What about the tension between public and sacred?
The research and writing of the play was guided by three narrative arcs: the story of the land itself, the stories of the people laid to rest there, and the people who come into contact with the Burial Ground today. Through those arcs, broad themes developed, and one of the most compelling was the theme of erasure: the erasure of the Wolastoqiyik and the Acadians, the marginalization of women in history, and the erosion of the stones themselves all seemed bound together through the metaphors of death and burial that are intrinsic to the site. And precisely because of the intrinsic nature of this lens through which I was approaching the material, the most important component of the project was time spent at the Burial Ground; developing my own relationship with the site informed the way I sought to nurture that relationship in others.
In terms of process, the project was pretty intuitive. I wandered through the site, took reference photos, and then focused on the places that felt interesting or important. In a similar way, I cast a broad net for research and then narrowed in on the things I found interesting. One of the landmark discoveries during the research phase involved the first interment at the Burial Ground; according to most sources, including historian Isabel Louise Hill, the first person to be buried there was Colonel Anthony Foster, an officer in the British Army who died of illness following an accident. However, in trying to learn more about Colonel Foster with the help of the NB Provincial Archives, I discovered that this man was actually Major Anthony Forster, Baronet. The details of his life, including his name and rank, had been abstracted to the point of erasure by the historical record. There was no stone to mark his grave for nearly a hundred years, and the one that came to stand there was marked with the wrong name. If there is even one ghost haunting the Old Burial Ground, it’s him.
As it stands, the play exists only on paper, and has been presented to the public through a reading. It is, however, currently being edited with the goal of a summer 2020 production.
Greg Everett is a Fredericton based playwright and performer. His plays CARRION BIRDS (2018) and GULLYWHUMP (2019) were winners in the one-act category of the NB Acts festival. Entwined in the supernatural, his works underpin a world of ghosts and monsters with a surreal framework of history and lived experience.