From storyteller to story keeper, Wendy Hamilton has taken inspiration and motivation from the way her work takes on a life of its own through the people who bring it to life.
She is a prolific writer, producer, director and event manager. Hamilton has brought a significant share of stories of her hometown, Sault Ste. Marie, to life through her work.
Chief among her projects is Theatre in Motion, a theatre production company, among other things, and many significant works have been brought to fruition under that banner. A banner she has since passed to a new artistic director.
She has also been a significant contributor to the Living History Algoma project, projects with Family Life Theatre and Michael Hennessy and with the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site as well as many others.
Since her stage debut at the age of eight, Hamilton has been immersed in theatre and the arts where ever life has taken her.
MindLands is a play Hamilton wrote about the local economic downturn of 1990 and it's focused on the family of a steelworker who loses his job at Algoma Steel.
It was first staged in Ottawa in 1997 by the Great Canadian Theatre Company. In Sault St. Marie, Hamilton directed a production of it in 1998 and it was also staged at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton in 2000.
"MindLands was about trying to come to terms with the people I'd grown up with that never seemed to want any more than what life had to offer in the Sault," she said. "I had gone through the whole arch of desperately wanting to leave, desperately wanting to do all these wild things with my life."
Hamilton had returned to the Sault and taken a job as a communications person for Algoma District School Board at an auspicious time for a writer.
As she tried to understand and come to terms with the friends she had returned to and how they and their lives had essentially changed very little in the years that she was gone, things took a terrible downturn at the Sault's primary employer, Algoma Steel.
In August of 1990, United Steelworkers of America went on strike idling a dozen steel mills in North America, including Algoma Steel which was then owned by Dofasco.
As a result, thousands of the highly-paid workers in the city were off the job without pay for four months and Dofasco walked away from the mill.
"They were on strike but then the doors were locked and it was chaos. They were moving out the templates they used to make steel," Hamilton said. "It became the perfect backdrop to looking at a guy who liked his life just fine. He was perfectly happy with a wife, three kids and a job at Algoma Steel and everything was fine. Then the job was gone."
Hamilton says the impact these events had on the Sault was devastating but that times have definitely changed.
"People don't look at it the same, anymore," she said.
Where young men in 1990 had already begun to tread the same paths as their fathers before them, happily thinking they would see their lives unfold much like their parents' lives had gone, now they don't seem to believe that would happen to them.
They seem to want different things, Hamilton said.
The protagonist in MindLands, Tom Woolrich, had clear and blissfully innocent expectations of how his life was going to go.
"It (the play) was really looking at somebody who had never really had to think about what he was going to do with his life."
The play explores the bleak realities of what can happen when those expectations are crushed, a man's life grinds to a halt and he arrives at that dead stop without ever having learned to think about what he wants from life or who he is other than a steelworker, a husband and a father.
The play has been staged as a multi-character production and as a one-man mixed-media production. It has received workshops and public readings in association with Theatre New Brunswick, Playwrights Workshop Montreal, Atlantic Playwrights Resource Centre (now PARC), Alberta Theatre Projects and the Great Canadian Theatre Company.
It was also published in the Canadian Theatre Review.
Theatre in Motion
Hamilton founded Theatre in Motion in 1990 after deciding to take a leap of faith from her job as a communications officer for the board of education to return to her passion - theatre and the stories she could share through it.
In the 30 years since it was founded, the group has coalesced to include a diverse group of artists with a multitude of specialties. It's become a vehicle for the expression of creative ideas in theatre, film, acting, broadcasting and other media for artists in the Sault and for collaborations that grow to eclipse the sum of the collaborators' individual contributions.
Theatre in Motion has "created new theatre for conferences and events; researched and written educational plays and videos; scripted tourism and investment videos for the municipality of Sault Ste. Marie; produced three summers of one act theatre; produced two live-to-air telethons for the local CTV station and even coordinated a video training program for employees of a steel mill," says its website.
The Summer Playhouse
Under the auspices of Theatre in Motion, Hamilton founded and became the artistic director of The Summer Playhouse which was housed in the Grand Ballroom in the Algonquin Hotel for three summers from 2002 to 2004.
Each of those summers, 48 productions were staged over eight weeks. These productions ranged from the wildly popular soap opera, At Rubies written by former Saultite Lance Trudeau to children's plays, dramas and comedies.
"That was three years of mad excitement," Hamilton said. "(It was) three crazy summers of doing theatre on the ground floor (of the Algonquin)."
Hamilton said she wanted to offer artists in the Sault a venue and support for their productions and to give people something to enjoy during the off-season when other theatre companies were not staging shows.
I have never believed that ‘It’ must come out of Toronto or New York or some other ‘great beyond’ to be of merit and warrant our respect.
If there is, and I believe there is, such as thing as a Canadian cultural identity, it is right here under our noses. All it requires is the sweat and fortitude to dig it out.
The work I do, and my fellow artists do here in Sault Ste. Marie, we are the cultural pioneers.
-- Steve Ballantine, founder, Sault Youth Theatre
Hamilton wears her passion for her hometown on her sleeve. She has spent the bulk of her writing time on Sault Ste. Marie - its characters, its history and its stories. They are also the stories she has shared as a director and producer.
"It's the stories I really loved," she said of her start in theatre. "I quickly realized I couldn't act but I kept coming back for the stories."
By the age of 10, she penned her first live theatre production and her passion for the stories of her hometown has only grown over the years.
In 1976, Hamilton started work as an advertising copywriter at CJIC/CHBX TV in the Sault and moved on to similar jobs at CFYN radio, also in Sault Ste. Marie, and CKSO TV in Sudbury followed by CKCO TV in Kitchener.
She made the jump to communications work for Interact Communications in Ottawa in 1984 before returning to the Sault in 1987 as a communications officer for what was then called the Sault Ste. Marie Board of Education.
In 1990, still in the Sault, she returned to television as a production coordinator for a children's show, Hands Up! Hands On! which aired on MCTV and YTV.
She took what she learned there and dove into the creation of a 13-episode series, Our Little House, that won her a CANPRO Silver for excellence in children's programming and aired on the MCTV Network throughout 1996 and 1997.
Ermatinger and the War of 1812
Hamilton's relationship with Charles Oak Ermatinger began in 2012 when Who Was Charles Oakes Ermatinger? a play she wrote and produced under Theatre in Motion hit the stage at the Ermatinger/Clergue National Historic Site.
Directed by Sandra Forsell, the play represented a deeper dive into the history of Sault Ste. Marie and the beginning of a drive to commit this and other stories to paper, film, audio and stage productions, preserving them for future generations.
From there, Hamilton followed the stories into the War of 1912 with This I Shall Defend and The Taking! from 2012 to 2014. These were written and produced by Hamilton for Algoma 1812 and Theatre in Motion. Audiences saw This I Shall Defend at Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site and at Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site under the direction of Theodore Syrette and Sandra Forsell. And again at the Tall Ships event in the Delta Hotel in 2013 under the direction of Sandra Forsell.
The Taking! was staged at Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site in 2014 and also directed by Sandra Forsell.
Stories Steeped in Stone
One of her most recent projects is a series of presentations at the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site. The venue is small and intimate but many more had opportunities to enjoy the 12 evenings presented so far. They were livestreamed on Facebook while a small audience partook in person when COVID restrictions allowed.
The productions began in March 2022 and Hamilton is currently editing the script for the 13th installment of the performance series. This one will be documentary style.
"What a wonderful journey this series has been," she said. "Hanging out for a few days of rehearsal and live show with such a diverse and interesting group of artists keeps the learning curve curving for sure."
The Oral History of Sault Ste. Marie
Together with Joanne Farkas, Cathy Shunock, Madge Sanderson and Karen Montgomery-Jones, Hamilton founded the Oral History of Sault Ste. Marie which aims to document and share historical stories of the Algoma area through engaging cultural activities. It was a natural evolution of the Algoma 1812 initiative and continues today and is the expression of Hamilton's role as a story keeper.
The project founders as well as local media personalities like Russ Hilderley, Art Osborne and Jim Cronin have been interviewing Saultites with stories to tell about their hometown and bringing those stories together like pieces of a giant, living jigsaw puzzle documenting life in the city over the decades. The project continues and the stories collected so far can be found on the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library website as well as the Living History Algoma website.
Hamilton continues work on this project and helps out where she can with Theatre in Motion while also working on other projects.
She's currently working on the beginning of A Moment in Algoma, a public service series that has been in the works for a few years. The first one, on J.W. LeBreton Ross, is in post-production. John Dedes portrays LeBreton Ross.