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Photo: Andrew Alexander.

High schoolers use theatre to keep the stories of Bell HS alive

When I walked into the small, dark theatre in the belly of the Ottawa Art Gallery, there was band music playing overhead. The imperfect crackling and squeaking of woodwinds and audible applause between scores were the telltale signs of an amateur recital.

I would later confirm what I then suspected—that I was listening to a recording of a band from Bell High School.

Last Saturday saw the premiere of No More Secrets, a documentary theatre piece by Spare Change Theatre. Performing in LabO, a University of Ottawa space at the Ottawa Fringe Festival, this company of five local high school students told a heart-wrenching story of abuse, coverup, and coming forward which, until recently, lived only in the domain of secrets and those who bore them.

The saga of Bell High School reached the public’s ear most prominently in November 2018, when Julie Ireton, senior reporter at the CBC, published a groundbreaking investigative piece. Having worked closely with victims who opened up about their experiences, she revealed dozens of allegations of students being sexually exploited and abused at the west-end school at the hands of three teachers. In most cases, the alleged crimes took place behind closed doors, without repercussion, and from one decade to the next.

The fallout has been rocking parts of the Ottawa community ever since. One of the three teachers, a music teacher in the 1970s and ’80s, is serving jail time for his crimes. The other two — the music teacher who succeeded him from 1986 to 2016, and a basketball coach from the same era — are dead.

Victims continue to share what happened to them, and alumni continue to reflect on the new light cast on their time at Bell. Now the story is being carried forward in new ways, not the least of which is on stage, under bright lights and with purpose.

The show

No matter the story being told, a cast and crew of 17 and 18 year olds already stands out. Led by Jake Hamilton, who wrote, produced, and acted in the play, Spare Change Theatre also includes Caitlin Feeley, Scott McKinnon, Sophie Panton, and Bella Szpala as co-producers and actors.

All five are senior students at Ottawa’s Canterbury High School, known for its specialized arts programs. Although they are quick to remind us that their work is not associated with their school, which is operated by the same school board as Bell, there is no denying the position they are in.

“Being high school students, this play definitely has an impact on us,” said one cast member in a post-show Q&A session. “You never know if it’s going to be you. It’s awful to think about that, but it happened, and it needs to be talked about.”

The show they put on was a fast-paced, iterative experience that engages you from the very start. The action rotates through the host of real-world characters that have disclosed their experiences over the years. The setting is a classroom, now a living room, now a courtroom… now a music room where dozens of students were abused.

They work creatively with time, with some scenes depicting Ireton, the reporter, bringing victims back to key places at the school. At certain moments it is reminiscent of A Christmas Carol, travelling with the Ghost of Christmas Past to places and times you could never be.

And yet there is a poignant minimalism to it all. The cast is dressed in plain white t-shirts, with no masks or costumes, and the stage never really changes face.

“Our set is two metal poles, two sheets, and two stools,” explained Hamilton in a sit-down interview with the Fulcrum. “Our budget was the $25 in my (bank) account. You don’t need something to create theatre.”

What they did need — and have — was intense, real-world material. As one cast member put it, “the story really carries the show… and it’s a 35-minute show of people talking, but their words are very important.”

Those words and the bigger story they form touched the consciences of everyone in that theatre.

Compiled, not written

“It was uncanny, actually, hearing my words not even interpreted, but being told back to me.”

That was Peter Hamer, a victim of his music teacher in the 80s and now one of the most vocal advocates in the Bell High School legacy. He attended the premiere and participated in the Q&A afterwards. Here he was referring to what is probably the show’s most significant feature: almost every word spoken by the cast was taken directly from real interviews and conversations.

“I keep saying I didn’t really write this play, I just compiled it,” said Hamilton, reflecting on his work. “I took the quotes from transcripts, from audio, from all this kind of stuff… I’ve had people say it’s so well-written, it’s riveting. And I’m thinking, well, the things that are so riveting, I didn’t write. People said them.”

Hamer was one of those people.

“It was incredible,” he said. “It was full of emotion, brilliantly acted. It was absolutely accurate, and I was so, so impressed by it.”

Hamilton explained that the accuracy of his script was critical to what he and his colleagues wanted to accomplish and the message they wanted to send.

“I personally don’t think we really had a narrative take on the performance,” he said. “We use exact quotes, the exact way they were said. These people aren’t liars. These aren’t people that are making things up, because there’s nothing they stand to gain from it. It’s taking everything in them to come forward.”

To make all this happen, not just any kind of theatre piece would do. Hamilton shared how the storytelling capacity of their chosen style, known as documentary (or docu-) theatre, made all the difference.

“If you see a story that wants to be told, docu-theatre specifically as a genre is great, because it relies mostly on monologues, and if you have a great story, the story is what shines through,” he said.

However, with documentary-level accuracy comes a lot of work. Hamilton said he had begun crafting the play as early as December 2018, working through the process of contacting Ireton, victims, and others for the necessary permissions. Then it was time to start digging, researching, piecing things together. He mentioned how he was writing all through March break. He and his cast are in school, after all.

“I started writing the play in February, finished the play around the beginning of April, started rehearsing beginning of May, and then we premiered today, June 15,” he outlined.

Of course, their performance was also dependent on their securing a place at the Ottawa Fringe Festival, the 11-day-long series of 54 shows, many by locals, held throughout the downtown core.

“We are infinitely grateful to Ottawa Fringe,” said Hamilton. “Fringe festivals all across the country, all across the world, give little guys like us a platform to tell the stories we want to tell.”

The festival’s funding model also allowed the young artists to make their mark beyond the stage. By collecting a one-time fee from performers, the festival sees all revenues from ticket sales go to the performers themselves. While this usually means a paycheque, not so for Hamilton and company.

“I really felt uncomfortable with profiting from this show, and that’s why 100 per cent of our profits are going to charity,” he said. “We’re splitting them 50-50… The Canadian Centre for Child Protection, that’s help for people who are currently being abused… The Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness helps us stop this from happening again.”

In so many ways, the play is more than a play.

“We were big into the concept of helping… That’s the driving thing for us.”

Branching out

From the beginning, the students behind No More Secrets have been aware of the bigger picture, the wider set of issues into which their theatrical work falls.

Hamilton remembers when, in 2016, he came across the allegations against the most recent music teacher to have taught at Bell, a man with whom he and many in the Ottawa arts community were familiar. What pushed him over the line was the discovery two years later that it had happened before, at the hands of other teachers.

“The ‘No More Secrets’ article by Julie Ireton pops up on my Facebook feed, and I click on it and read it and it’s just awful,” he reflected. “But learning that… this was almost an epidemic at Bell High School for so many years really shook me to my core… I said this is something worth pursuing.”

On the day of their first performance, so many months later, he is brought back to that moment.

“It hit me again today, seeing our audience and seeing all these people hearing the story for the first time, how deeply human it is. How real this story is,” he shared. “The experiences I’ve had with some of my very best teachers, [others] had with these men who have been accused of vile sexual abuse crimes.”

As another cast member expressed after the show, these kinds of stories need to fight for survival.

“This is a conversation that we cannot let die, for fear of future students who are being placed in this position not speaking up and not coming forward,” she said.

That very act of coming forward is one that took Peter Hamer a long, arduous journey to reach. Now, he spoke selflessly of making the journey easier for other victims to say that they were abused as children.

“If I can’t say it as a quintessentially privileged member of society, an adult White man, then how do young people, how do marginalized people… how do all of those people who get abused, how do they say something?”

He agrees that events like this performance are doing the right thing by shining the lights on his story.

“The idea that the story that came out in November then interested high school students, 17-year-old kids, who said ‘we need to talk about this shit’, I thought that’s huge, this is the biggest win.”

For Hamilton, to hear that from someone like Hamer, there was no greater reward.

“That meant so much to me, because it’s basically saying that the story has been told, and now it’s going to branch out, and we were kind of the first branch of the story expanding,” he shared. “I hate the fact that it’s a local story. When it’s three teachers and 44 victims, I think it’s no longer local.”

For anyone who may find themselves in his position last year, on the cusp of telling an important story, Hamilton has a clear message.

“Do it. Do as much as you can with the resources you have. There’s nothing stopping you.”

And for everyone else?

“Come see the show! We’re happy with the work we did, and we want as many people to see it as possible.”

No More Secrets will be performed for a second and final time on Saturday, June 22, at 1:00 p.m. The LabO theatre is located in the Ottawa Art Gallery at the corner of Mackenzie King Bridge and Waller Street. For more information and tickets, visit ottawafringe.com.