We have been thrilled to collaborate with beloved author Ami McKay on The Hours Turn to Nothing. Together, we developed the concept for the show, and Ami wrote all the text in the production, as well as took the lead in developing a series of evocative soundscapes that mimic the sounds of Halifax around the time of the Explosion. Ami took some time to go a little more in depth about her process for us on today's blog!
You grew up in the United States. Did you know much about the Halifax Explosion before you moved to Nova Scotia?
I was born and raised in the Midwest and regrettably the explosion was never mentioned in any of my history lessons in school. I hadn’t even heard of it until I moved to Nova Scotia in 2000. Once I began the research to write The Birth House, I knew I wanted to include some of the circumstances surrounding that tragic event within the narrative of the novel. I’ve been in awe of the resilience of those who lived through it, ever since.
What draws you to write stories about women from this era?
They were on the cusp of tremendous change—not only because of The Great War but also because of the strides women were making to gain more personal freedoms in their lives. It was the era of the “New Woman.” So many of them shunned traditional roles to become trailblazers who fought for women’s rights, social justice, higher education, a place in the work force and, of course, the vote.
Are there particular stories that you uncovered in your research that stuck with you as you wrote the text for this show?
It’s so difficult to choose individual accounts from the whole. I was incredibly moved by the “matter-of-fact” attitude of the women who assisted in the relief efforts after the explosion. They didn’t waste any time. They saw a need and went to work. The personal accounts I’ve read all share one thing: a strong, unified voice that carries an unshakable spirit of compassion and determination. The things that have stayed with me the longest are the simple, personal recollections of the survivors—the mother who dressed her daughter in a pink dress before sending her child off to school; the sixteen-year-old girl who assisted nurses, midwives and doctors by carrying buckets of water through Camp Hill Hospital until she was too emotionally bereft to go on—they were true heroines, all.
You’ve written play scripts before. How was the experience of writing text for Xara different?
Although I’ve written plays and incidental music for the theatre, creating a narrative arc for this show required quite a different process. It was an exciting challenge to write with so many voices in mind at once! Because of the musical expertise and creativity that defines what Xara does, I felt I could push the limits of traditional storytelling by incorporating poetic techniques and vocal soundscapes alongside more traditional elements of the narrative, such as text from newspaper headlines, and excerpts from letters and diaries. I loved having the chance to dive back into the world of choral music. I grew up singing in choruses and studied choral conducting in university, so it was lovely to have my musical background and writing life intersect in such a meaningful way.
How much of this story is inspired by your character Dora Rare from The Birth House?
A few of the lines in the narrative of The Hours Turn to Nothing are direct passages from The Birth House, but I knew early on that the world we were creating with this show would encompass far more than just Dora’s point of view. My goal was to honour the whole of women’s work after the explosion and the many different walks of life those women came from. Because the event is so well placed in history and in the minds and hearts of Nova Scotians, I wanted to play with larger concepts and work with a larger narrative canvas. The women’s voices move in and out of the text as individuals, but also resound as a whole. They represent a chorus of nurses, midwives, farmer’s daughters, mothers, survivors, and perhaps even ghosts. To me, every hospital acts as a repository of memory—a vessel for emotions, trauma and death, but also life, birth and hope. Camp Hill Hospital on the day of the Halifax Explosion was no exception. Among the injured and dying that day there were babies coming into the world. The women who walked the hallways were witness to that, and would later be tasked to reshape the city as well as their own lives.
How do you think the meaning of your words will shift or become enriched by the musical pieces in the show?
I don’t want to give too much away, but the choral pieces that grace this show are some of the most powerful I’ve ever heard. There’s something quite magical about the way the text and music have come together over the past year. I’m moved every time I listen to them. Fingers crossed, the textural landscape I’ve created is one where the singers and the audience can dwell with music, memory and hope all at once.
PS - Ami will be with us at our performances in Halifax on April 28 & 29. Join us for a live Q&A and talkback session as part of the show! Tickets are available now!