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Posted November 12, 2021

The Interview – Julia Mackey

Julia Mackey

Julia Mackey was born in Birmingham, England. When she was three years old her family moved to Canada. She grew up in Beaconsfield, Quebec. After graduating with a B.Ed from McGill University, Julia moved to Victoria, BC, to pursue a more creative life. It was there she met and trained with artist Robert Osborne, who introduced her to the world of theatre. Soon after, she started writing and performing with the acclaimed theatre troupe Theatre SKAM. In 2007, Julia and her partner and director, Dirk Van Stralen, created Juno Productions. To date, they have toured Jake’s Gift to over 185 communities across Canada. When not on the road, Julia splits her time between Vancouver and Wells, B.C

Jake’s Gift is a multi-award-winning Canadian play about a World War II veteran’s reluctant return to Normandy, France, for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. While revisiting the shores of Juno beach, Jake encounters Isabelle, a precocious ten-year-old from the local village. Isabelle’s inquisitive nature and charm challenge the old soldier to confront some long-ignored ghosts — most notably the wartime death of his eldest brother, Chester, a once-promising young musician. At its heart, Jake’s Gift is about the legacy of remembrance and makes personal the story behind one soldier’s grave. 

Julia, Jake’s Gift is a remarkable play that has been touring Canada and the world since you first wrote and performed it in 2007. You’ve toured to more than 250 cities, and you’ve performed in many of those places more than once! Why do you think that this story of a World War II veteran and a young girl has such resonance for audiences everywhere?

My partner Dirk and I are so lucky to have been touring Jake’s Gift pretty steadily since 2007—until COVID arrived. Those touring experiences have been a magical way to see the country and beyond. We are amazed at the number of audience members who come back to see Jake’s Gift multiple times bringing friends and/or family members. When I get a chance to speak to those people afterwards or via email they tell me how much the story resonates for them because Jake reminds them of their own dad or grandad or uncle or husband, and Isabelle of their granddaughter, daughter or niece. I remember meeting a charming war bride after one performance who said, “Where did you get my husband’s pants?” We had a good laugh about that. I think Jake and Isabelle’s friendship is reminiscent of a lot of grandparent/child relationships and perhaps when a story resonates for us personally it stays with us longer than we expect. Many patrons have also told me how much they want to share the story with other people, which is so heartwarming to me. I never imagined this play would still be a big part of our lives fifteen years after I wrote it. I’m closer to Jake’s age now than Isabelle’s! It is a joy to still have people asking us to bring the show to their community.

Jake’s Gift brings history to life for its audiences and readers. Why do you feel that this is important, particularly for young people, who may not know any WWII veterans personally?

I think sharing history through theatre is a magical and lasting way to connect us to our past, and to experience history that way is far more interesting than a classroom lecture or text book. I certainly never imagined that Jake’s Gift would or could be a teaching tool. I just wanted to share a profoundly moving experience I had all those years ago in Normandy. I am always so moved by the number of young people I meet who say how much they loved the story and that they never knew about D-Day or about how many young Canadians (many their own age or not much older) were buried overseas and whose service played a part in the freedoms they are experiencing today living in Canada. I’ll never forget one young man I spoke to after a show one day. He was 21 years old and had never been to a Remembrance Day ceremony and never really thought much about taking time to reflect on the loss of war or sacrifice. On November 11th that year, he wrote to me and told me he had attended his very first Remembrance Day ceremony, and that he was thinking about Jake and all the young men and women his own age who never got to come home. I still think of that young man every year, and I don’t think anyone could have a more satisfying experience as an artist to know that something you wrote compelled someone to action and that the story has stayed with them.

Who or what do you count among your playwriting inspirations?

The playwrights who first got me interested in playwriting were Daniel MacIvor and Michael Healey. I remember being profoundly moved by Here Lies Henry and Kicked when I saw them back in Victoria in the 1990s when I first started playwriting and performing with Theatre SKAM. The plays and playwrights whose stories take their audience on an emotional rollercoaster inspire me the most. That mix of emotions for an audience is so true to our daily lives and being in a room full of people to go on that journey together is inspiring to me as an audience member and as a writer.

What is also inspiring to me is building a play around a real-life experience or moment. I think the honesty that comes from tapping into those moments we’ve already lived—or that someone else has—helps create a story that people will connect to.

You interviewed many WWII veterans while you were writing the play, but I know that you have made many more connections with veterans during the years that you’ve been performing it. Can you tell us a little about how getting to know veterans and hearing their stories has impacted your own life?

I was inspired to write Jake’s Gift after I travelled to Normandy, France, in 2004 for the 60th Anniversary of D-Day. I interviewed as many veterans as I could in hopes of learning what it was like to be part of the landings and what it was like to be back all those years later. Many of the veterans I met were incredibly open and shared so much with me, and others were understandably a bit more reserved about what they wanted to share. I’m forever grateful to each of them for sharing their experiences with me. Quite a few of Jake’s lines were taken directly from those interviews. I think the many veterans we’ve befriended over the years, old and young, has been the greatest gift I’ve received out of writing and performing this little play. I never imagined we would have made so many great friendships that have lasted for years and continue to this day. Usually, history is something we just read about in books or a classroom setting. Learning from the very people who experienced war first-hand has been the best teacher I ever could have asked for. I can’t fully explain how much those friendships have impacted my life. Each veteran I have met sees something of themselves in Jake, either someone they will become, or for the WWII veterans, many of them were Jake.

I was very lucky that a few of the veterans I met in Normandy, and many we met after performances of Jake’s Gift, became very close friends, and we are still in touch with their families to this day. There are so many stories I could share. Here are a few snippets of meeting some of my 90-year-old boyfriends:

Jack Hadley was a WWII vet we met in 2012 after a performance in Toronto. Jack landed on D-Day with the Queen’s Own Rifles in Bernières sur Mer, which is the exact location and regiment I talk about in Jake’s Gift. Jack’s own brother is buried at the Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery — just as Jake’s brother Chester is in the play. Jack couldn’t believe how his own story paralleled Jake’s. So much so that he said to me after the show, “Have you been followin’ me around or somethin’?” Jack became a dear friend of ours, and we cherished visiting him for many years until his death in March of 2018. I’ll never forget when Jack saw the play in November 2017 a few months before he died, and he said to me, “You know you’re not as spry as you used to be when you jump up on that bench.”

The first veteran I met on Juno Beach at the 60th Anniversary was named Fred Rogers. I saw Fred sitting alone on one of the bleachers following the main ceremony on June 6, 2004. I approached him and introduced myself and thanked him for his service, and we spoke for over an hour. I was so moved by how much he shared with me about his experience of the D-Day landing and the experiences he had in the many times he had returned to Normandy. The story I created for Jake is very much inspired by Fred’s own story. As the day was wrapping, Fred had to board one of the veterans’ buses to get back to his hotel. Before leaving he said to me, “You give me your address and one of these days you might find something in the mail for you, from me, at no expense to you.” Three weeks later I received a box full of photos, poems written by Fred, maps of his wartime experiences across Europe, and a VHS recording of an interview Fred did with Library & Archives Canada about his experience of the war from first joining up to returning home. The “You give me your address” line made its way into the play, and Fred’s gift to me inspired the gifts that Jake and Isabelle exchange at the end of the play. Fred never saw Jake’s Gift. He knew I was writing it, but he passed away in 2006 just as I was working on the first draft. I wish so much he could have seen it. I’m grateful to him for how much he inspired Jake’s story.

Art Heximer was another veteran I met on Juno Beach in 2004. I first saw Art standing alone next to one of the memorials on Juno Beach. I went up to him and thanked him for his service and we chatted for a long time. Initially he thought I was French as I was quite emotional when I started speaking to him, but as I had done with Fred, I explained to Art that I was Canadian and had travelled to Normandy to experience the 60th Anniversary and to meet and thank veterans like him for their service and hopefully learn about their experiences. Art shared with me that this visit for the 60th Anniversary had been his first time back to Normandy since the war. His children confided in me that Art had never spoken about the war when they were growing up, and at Thanksgiving dinner in 2003 he simply announced he wanted to go to Normandy for the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, and that he wanted them all to come with him. They were stunned but thrilled their dad wanted them to be part of that pilgrimage. Art’s daughter, June, took a photograph of me and Art on Juno Beach after meeting, and to this day it is one of my favourites from my trip. When I returned to Canada I regretted not getting Art’s address. I did however remember that his first name was Arthur and that he lived in Mississauga, Ontario. iPhoto enabled me to blow up the photo June had taken, and I was thrilled that I could clearly read Art’s name tag, which displayed the last name Heximer. I looked up all the A. Heximers in Mississauga, Ontario. I found three listings and I wrote to all three. I sent a copy of the photo June had taken with a letter addressed to Mr. A. Heximer. On the back of the envelope I wrote, “This letter is intended for Arthur Heximer, who I met on Juno Beach, June 6th, 2004 at the 60th Anniversary of D-Day.” All three A. Heximers responded. The first response was from a young woman who had heard of Art but was not related to him. The second was from an elderly woman whose husband, Arnold Heximer, had been a WWII veteran and had passed away ten years earlier. The last response was an email from Art confirming that he was indeed the Arthur I had met on Juno Beach. Dirk and I have since become great friends with the Heximer family. We have met up many times over the last 16 years, and we still keep in touch with Art’s children and grandchildren to this day. Sadly, Art passed away in 2018. I have that photo of us on Juno Beach in my office, and another that his daughters gave me of Art in his uniform accompanies me to every performance of Jake’s Gift.

Chester Hebner is a soldier I never met, but whose grave I came across when I was visiting the Beny Sur Mer Canadian Military Cemetery for one of the many memorial ceremonies in 2004. I was walking along a row of graves, and I was drawn to one grave in particular because of a red maple leaf card leaning up against it, which I discovered had been made by a young Canadian student named Danny Brown. It had a picture of Danny on the maple leaf, and he had written, “I think you’re great for helping make Canada a peaceful country. Je me souviens.” I was so moved by this gesture. When I got back to Canada, I contacted the school and discovered that a Grade 3 teacher named Susan had been the person who had her students create maple leaf thank-you cards, which she took with her to Normandy for the 60th anniversary. I was thrilled when Susan wrote back to me. She told me that some of her students’ cards she gave directly to veterans she met that day at Beny-Sur-Mer, and some she simply placed on the graves. I took a photo of Danny’s maple leaf leaning up against C. Hebner’s grave and sent that photo to Danny care of Susan. I have never met Susan or Danny in person, but I really hope they can see Jake’s Gift one day, as they both play a part in the play.

Of course, the next thing was to research who C. Hebner was. I discovered on The Virtual War Memorial that C. Hebner was Chester Hebner from Grandview, Manitoba. Through much research with Library and Archives Canada I found out a bit more about Chester and another brother Clifford who had also been killed in 1944. I inputted the family information I had on in hopes of one day finding the family. In the play, I made Chester Hebner Jake’s brother. It took about four years, but in Spring 2010 I got a message from the Ancestry website connecting me to another member of the Hebner family tree. That person was named Cindy, and she was Chester and Clifford’s niece. She replied quickly to my email, in which I explained why I was looking for the family. At the time we were performing at the Arden Theatre in St. Albert, Alberta, and I invited Cindy to attend one of the performances if she happened to be anywhere nearby. I explained that coming upon Chester’s grave inspired a big part of the play. Miraculously, Cindy lived in Calgary, and she drove three hours the next day to come and see the show. Her dad was Chester’s youngest brother, and she even brought a photograph of who she thought was Chester. She wasn’t sure if the photo was Chester or Clifford, but she told me her Aunt Alice, who was Chester’s only living sibling, would know for sure. The next day Dirk and I were so thrilled to meet Alice and her husband George in Calgary. They welcomed us into their home and were so kind. Alice confirmed that the photo Cindy had showed us was indeed Chester. I was so happy. I never imagined I would ever get to see a photo of the soldier whose grave inspired so much of the play—let alone meet his family. The story got more amazing when Alice started telling us about her brother, “Chet, the musician.” Dirk and I froze in our spots and then looked at each other wide-eyed. I turned back to Alice and said, “Sorry, Alice did you just say that Chester was a musician?” She answered, “Yes, he was a fiddler, and he used to play in the dance halls.” I replied, “Alice that is amazing to me because in my play I make Chester a trumpet player, but I had no idea he actually was a musician!” Alice looked at us with a smile and deadpanned, “Well, isn’t that curious?” In 2011, when we performed in Calgary at the Lunchbox Theatre, Alice, George, Cindy and 20 other members of the Hebner family came to the opening night of Jake’s Gift. It was one of the most moving experiences we could ever have imagined. We’ve visited Alice and George many times over the years. They and their whole family became dear friends to us. They were married for 71 years before Alice passed away in December of 2016. George followed her in August 2020. We miss them every day and are so grateful for their friendship.

Rumour has it that there may be both a film of Jake’s Gift and an audiobook in the works. What can you tell us about these projects?

Yes! We actually just wrapped the filming of two performances of Jake’s Gift on November 6 and 7 at the Sunset Theatre in Wells, BC, which is the very place I did the first staged reading of the play back in August 2006. I was part of the Sunset Theatre’s inaugural Exploration Series created by Artistic Director, Karen Jeffery, to support new work by Canadian playwrights. We are very grateful to the Sunset Theatre Society and the BC Arts Council Digital Grant for their support of this project.

It was incredible to perform the show again for the first time in over a year, and a wonderful experience to share this story during Remembrance Week in our own community. We hope once the recording is put together we will be able to have the play accessible online via Vimeo and on DVD as well. It has been a very long time since we recorded the show in front of a live audience.

Regarding the audiobook, Karen and Glenda first approached us in Fall 2019 about doing an audio version of Jake’s Gift, and we loved the idea. In early 2020 — before the pandemic was declared — we started working with a fabulous local sound engineer, Jenn Lewis, to record the play. COVID put that project on hold, but we are slowly getting back to that, and hope very much that the audiobook version of Jake’s Gift will be available soon! Embarking on both of these projects has been a really wonderful experience and has opened up new ways to share the story.

You are the Director of Presentations at Sunset Theatre in beautiful Wells, BC. Can you tell us a little about the theatre, its history and its mandate?

The Sunset Theatre is a beautiful 110-seat historic theatre built in 1934, and it sits on the unceded shared ancestral territory of the Lhtako Dené, Xatśūll and Secwepemc First Nations. The Sunset really is the heart of the community of Wells. It was originally a movie house and over the years it has also been the town hall, a gambling hall, and even served as a temporary morgue after a tragic explosion in the 1940s at the local gold mine.

My partner Dirk and I have been fortunate to have been connected to the Sunset since it re-opened in 2006 as a live performance venue. The current owners, Dave and Karen Jeffery, bought the theatre in 1999 and spent seven years re-furbishing and renovating it, lovingly bringing it beyond its old glory.

In 2011, Karen asked Dirk and me to do the programming for the season, as she had two young children to raise and needed help. Having met so many incredibly talented theatre artists over the years of touring, we had a big pool of great shows and performers to connect with. That programming job was the first foray into what would later become my role as Director of Presentations in 2018. I get the joy of hiring Independent Canadian theatre artists and their shows to be part of our Presentation Series.

The Sunset Theatre Society was Founded in 2000, and the mandate of the theatre is to nurture the creation, development, production and presentation of professional theatre in the northern Cariboo community of Wells, BC. Supporting the development of new Canadian work through our annual Exploration Series is really the heart of the Sunset’s mandate, and that idea was developed by Karen back in 2006 to help give a space and place for Canadian playwrights to create new work. Karen asked me to be part of that inaugural series in 2006, and it was that deadline that compelled me to write Jake’s Gift.

What do you like most about playwriting?

As a child I always loved creating different characters and voices, and in my teens that led to starting to write sketches and performing with my friends. I loved and still love discovering characters and building a world for them. I love the format of playwriting as storytelling because it feels the closest to real life. We create and act out scenarios that are possibly the exact experiences we’ve all had in our own lives, and sharing them in real time with others connects us viscerally. There’s nothing I love more than sitting in a theatre with strangers to share the experience of a story. I love live performance as an actor and audience member, and giving voice to stories that way has been something I’ve loved since I was in my teens.

What is the best piece of playwriting advice you ever received?

I think the best writing advice I’ve been given was to not edit yourself for any first draft—just get it all out—and to simply listen to your own gut about where your characters and their story need to go. Dramaturges and other writers or mentors may have great advice and ask great questions, which can help a writer carve out their story’s path, but in the end, this is your story to tell—no one else’s. Also—I was told to always have a deadline. This is a big one for me because otherwise I will always find something else to do. I’m a lazy writer and without a deadline my label maker will take over my life and all of a sudden I’ve sorted, colour-coded and labelled everything in the linen closet into queen or king. It looks great, but that page is still blank! When that blank page I’m staring at is being rude and has nothing to say to me, and I stop staring at her and start staring out the window; for an entire COVID year I was reminded that walks in nature to think and breathe through ideas helps ground me and focus on the story and those voices wanting to be born.