Billy Bishop Goes to War for more than thirty years

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Think about what it means to be a stereotypical Canadian: humble, peaceful, polite and deferential. We are renowned internationally not for our ability to wage war, but our prowess as global peace keepers.

Billy Bishop Goes to War is a slice of real-life comedy based on the life of a man who embodies the opposite of these qualities.

Though he was kicked out of the Royal Military College of Canada for cheating, William Avery Bishop became famous after making his way into the Royal Canadian Air Force during the First World War and he had 72 air victiories. Only 10 years after the Wright Brothers documented their first flight, Bishop's achievements were to become an astounding part of Canadian history captured in the two-and-a-half hour satirical musical featuring strong nationalistic undertones.

The play, written by Eric Peterson and John Gray, premiered in 1978 at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre and has been performed many times throughout Canada and around the world.

"The play has been around for more than 30 years," says Donna Coates, English professor at the University of Calgary. "It was one of the first popular plays in the emerging days of Canadian theatre."

The Soul Company Theatre presents the High Performance Rodeo and Theatre Calgary production which has Peterson and Gray back together on stage. The pair, directed by Ted Dykstra, put on a show hailed as one of the top 10 performances of Canadian theatre by the Globe and Mail. Despite having to bear the cold for 10 more days, Coates delaying a trip to Australia because she didn't want to miss the show.

January marks the 25th anniversary of the annual High Performance Rodeo, which has over the years been transformed into a month-long cultural celebration that Rodeo manager Brad Walker says shows how Calgary has grown. Walker is excited that Billy Bishop Goes to War has been added to the festival.

"It gives the festival a real element of the past," he says. "Peterson and Gray combined play 17 roles and, after 30 years, it is exceptional how well the two work together. Reviving the play is giving everyone a chance to see a Canadian classic in its true form performed by the guys who know it best. It's a real treat for theatre-goers."

Though the play has always focused on the past, Coates says that the script has changed slightly over the years to incorporate the age of the two actors.

"It had to be tweaked a bit to make this more evident, they are older, even then, than any soldier would have been at that time."

Billy Bishop Goes to War has always been heralded as a mainstay of modern Canadian theatre. It ushered in an era of similar performances a decidely Canadian focus. It has had a remarkable succesful run, appearing Off Broadway and even winning the 1981 Los Angeles Drama Critic's Award.

"It was the turning point of Canadian theatre," says Coates. "It was when we really started to look at ourselves as Canadians and playwrights. Canadians really identify with the small town boy. It gets so much across, it's a tour de force of acting. It questions what it means to be a Canadian hero and keeps history alive."

Also, if you like the popular sitcom Corner Gas, Eric Peterson will be a familiar face.