Donna Butt, 65, is a founder, executive and artistic director of Rising Tide Theatre in Trinity, Nfld. Besides portraying the culture of Newfoundland and Labrador, the theatre has been a major economic generator since 1978.
I grew up mostly in St. John's, with a strong sense of what being a Newfoundlander meant. My father was a railway dispatcher, very involved in politics and history. Our first Rising Tide show was Daddy, What's a Train? My father was involved in the battle to save the railway, outraged by the behind-the-scenes trade of rails for roads and way [workers] were treated. I saw the impact and got involved in all things Newfoundland.
I was political science student. I went with my friend auditioning for The Mummers Troupe, spring of 1973. I got the part. The politics drew me, trying to define our place and culture, art reflecting that. There was great loss – culture, identity and economics – because outports were resettled and the inshore fishery downgraded. We were passionately driven by our love of where we came from, part of the movement to reclaim the province. The place we came from mattered, was something to honour and be proud of – humour and tragedy.
Basically, we lived in an old bus and toured the province. My parents were horrified. We were the first generation to be able to go to university. I'd always done well in school; they had high hopes and expectations. Despite that, they never missed a show, ever. I have an honorary degree now; I told the students, "Your parents only had to wait four years, mine had to wait 30 years."
They Club Seals, Don't They? played across Canada, a delicate time in 1978 due to worldwide protest of the hunt, garnering massive media attention for the tour. I left in 1979 to form Rising Tide in St. John's with David Ross [who died in 2009]. Trinity had an active historical society starting restoration, so we developed an outdoor historical play. Moving there, people were horrified and skeptical, had no idea what in the name of God we were going to try make happen. That summer, 1993, everybody we hired for our New Founde Lande Trinity Pageant had been working in fish plants and so on.
We were early pioneers of cultural tourism. About 40 work in a population of 169; we rent houses and the parish hall. We have a significant economic impact, built a permanent home and have 20,000 visitors annually. We're trying to walk that line recognizing the value and importance to the community and region – to have voices ring out on the landscape and seascape and contribute economically to the province. Luckily, I'm interested in those things. I've been involved in a lot of regional economic development organizations because they genuinely interest me.
All kinds of business grew alongside us. Now, this whole region is a major tourist destination. There are amazing things happening, amazing accommodations and restaurants, a new brewery, some of the best hiking trails and historic sites. Trinity was a large mercantile centre in its day, so a lot of buildings restored were remains from merchants and the money taken out of Newfoundland. Our story – and pageant – is exactly the opposite, about those who stayed.
I tell the young people I hire, when we were their age, we were really interested in talking to older people with different experiences; we went into communities, talked to miners, people who fished and lost everything.
The model we developed could be used anywhere. That sense of wanting to belong to something is universal and you can make that work if you have a strong concept. [A visitor] told me our story of inshore fishing was like what happened with farms in Saskatchewan. Business and non-profits need to be in the same room figuring out how to make both work. Sometimes non-profits are taken for granted; it's going to be harder to dedicate a lifetime to them. I ran a non-profit company so I own nothing. I can't retire. If someone really dislikes me, I say, "Give me a pension, get rid of me."
My life, in a strange way, has been to bring elements together. I felt there was a way culture, history and economics could matter. When I look to the future, and in my stage of life, about what I can do to ensure this [the theatre] survives, what's been created can continue. It will ultimately change, but I want to make it as strong and stable as it can be when it passes into other hands.