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the Gauntlet

What's the Spanish flu?

ATP's first production of the season examines a plague forgotten in the midst of war

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World War I killed 20 million people from 1914-1918. The Spanish Flu, killed anywhere from 20 to 100 million in half the time from 1918-1920. Of those who fell victim to the fatal flu, 50,000 were Canadians. Alberta Theatre Projects' production of Canadian Kevin Kerr's play, Unity (1918), explores the impact of both tragedies on the town of Unity, Saskatchewan and the ways in which struggle can both bring communities together and tear people apart.

"When [someone is] killed in your hometown, when they die of a disease [rather than a war], instead of gathering people together, I think it separates people," says Julie Mortensen, who plays Mary, the pining fiancee of an overseas soldier. "It pulls people apart. There's not that coming together to mourn. Fear overrides that. When it's someone that you love, you have this deep desire to honour them, and mourn them, and give them the kind of funeral or burial that you would [like to] have for them, but everybody just wants you to get rid of the body as quickly as possible."

Jamie Konchak, who plays the Icelandic immigrant Sunna, elaborates on the portrayal of fear in the production and how similar it is today.

"The overarching message is just about this tiny little farming community, people who've known each other their whole lives, how all of that external threat affects [them]," she says. "[The way] these messages came through the media and the way that those messages create panic is very similar to the way modern media has an effect on our society. How romanticized this war is and these tales of Canadian bravery they're reading that are total garbage."

University of Calgary theatre lovers will find more than just moving issues, dark humour and the lure of a Governor General's Award for Drama-winning script intriguing about this run of Unity. Both Mortensen and Konchak are alumni of the U of C theatre program and both of them credit the school with part of their present success.

"Acting in theatre is so much about understanding the community you're working in," Mortensen says. "It can be difficult to break into a community if you just move to and want to act there. It definitely helps to have connections and know people. So by studying in the same city, you can begin to create those bridges before you've left school. I think the drama department is doing a really good job of helping students in their last years build bridges into a professional community and understand what comes next."

Konchak agrees, citing the amazing feeling she gets from performing on a stage she once watched as an audience member.

"ATP has always been a company that I've wanted to work for, and it's a real honour for me to be working here," she says. "They do Canadian stories by Canadian writers and that's valued in the U of C program, too. They're really supportive of people creating their own work and putting on Canadian stories and making it relevant to here and now."