Playwright Susan Freedman’s latest one-woman show is rooted in her late parents’ love story – one that was documented in hundreds of pages of hand-written love letters dating back to 1927.
The story behind Spilling Family Secrets, a 40-minute show Freedman wrote, produced and stars in, began when she was a little girl who sneaked into her mother’s closet with a girlfriend.
“I found the letters, read a few, got caught, and never laid eyes on them for 55 years. Then my mother, shortly before she died, had them mailed to me,” Freedman recalled.
“I couldn’t even open the box for two-and-a-half years, and then I did. There were 150 letters. I took a long time to transcribe them because they were delicate. They were 80 years old and I wanted to transcribe them for the family… but I knew that I wanted to do a show about it.”
This is Freedman’s fourth one-woman show, which debuted in 2014 and was presented at Toronto, Winnipeg and Victoria fringe festivals.
This year, the show – directed by Dora-winning writer/performer Rondel Reynoldson – will be on stage in Saskatoon until Aug. 8, in Edmonton later this month, and in Vancouver in September.
Freedman, a native of Winnipeg, who lived in Calgary, Edmonton and London, England, before settling in Vancouver, said she didn’t immerse herself in the world of theatre until 1999, following a successful career in radio. She spent 16 years working for CBC Radio in Edmonton and Calgary.
“When I was with CBC in Edmonton, they were a big sponsor of the Fringe,” she said.
“Edmonton’s is the biggest and best of the Fringes in Canada. It was and still is, so when I moved to Vancouver, the Fringe was not as big and I got myself a job as their marketing director. I did that for four years, and as a result I attended a lot of shows. Some were wonderful, some were medium and some were disgusting.
“At one show I was at, the guy – it was a one-man show – was naked the entire show. He shouldn’t have been. And he had no script. And I thought, you know what? I can do this [better].”
After a four-year stint as the Vancouver Fringe marketing director, she and her husband founded GoodSide Productions in 1999, and produced and starred in her first show, a comedy titled Fifty Seven and Still Lying About My Weight.
Two more Fringe Festival shows followed – Sixty with More Lies About My Weight, and Sixty Four and No More Lies – before she wrote her latest play, a show that celebrates her parents’ love story.
“I wanted people to get a sense of the love story. It was a terrific love story and they had a very happy marriage and the letters were really a document that kind of set up the beginnings of their relationship,” Freedman said.
She explained that both her parents’ families came from Russia.
“My father was born in Russia, and came here when he was three. He was the fifth of seven children and he grew up in Winnipeg and became chief justice of the Manitoba Court of Appeal. He did well,” she said.
“It was an immigrant success story. He was a hard-working guy. My mother’s family came from Russia. She was born in Canada, the third of four girls. She was a nurse. She had her children and grandchildren… they lived a very happy life in Winnipeg.”
Despite their involvement with Jewish life in Canada, their story, as told through the play, is not necessarily a Jewish story.
“It’s a story about people who were definitely Jewish, definitely involved in a very big way with their community and to whom Jewishness was absolutely germane to their existence… but I think it is a show that is broad,” she explained.
“There are a lot of little secrets in there but I think it’s the juxtaposition of my parents’ marriage and relationship to my own checkered marital career that is really the basis of the show. It’s about them, but it’s about me too.”
She said when it came to feedback from her siblings after touring the show last year, she was a little nervous, especially for the reaction from her sister, who is “the most protective of the pristine memories.”
“She came, I was a little nervous, but she loved it. She came five times,” Freedman said, adding that her brother, who lives in Winnipeg, also enjoyed it.
“In Winnipeg last year, it was amazing because there were so many people who knew my parents who were still very much around. My friends, of course, knew my parents and people much younger than me knew my parents and that was pretty nice.”
Spilling Family Secrets runs at the Saskatoon Fringe Aug. 1-8; Edmonton Fringe Aug. 15-23 and Vancouver Fringe Sept. 11-20. For more information about the show and how to obtain tickets, visit www.susanfreedman.ca.