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Document Theatre Collective - The Barbershops of St. John's

Location: St. John's, NL
NLAC Program Funded Under: Professional Project Grants Program
Amount Funded: $1,800


Actors taking part in the reading, left to right: Chris Brookes, Andy Jones, David Fox, and Brad Bonnell.

Dates: June 1, 2015 to September 30, 2015
Artist Contact:
Charlie Tomlinson (with Joan Sullivan
and Mike Heffernan)
Artist E-mail:

The paths of Joan Sullivan, Charlie Tomlinson, and Mike Heffernan crossed over the stage adaptation of Heffernan’s 2009 book published by Creative Books, Rig. Sullivan penned the stage script and Tomlinson stepped in to direct the February 2012 production that was co-produced by the Arts and Culture Centre along with Rising Tide Theatre. The production was a success, selling out its multi-show run at the Barbara Barrett Basement Theatre, and the three were inspired by the documentary or verbatim approach to theatre.

So, to continue in that direction, Sullivan and Tomlinson banded together under the artist-driven Document Theatre Collective that had formed initially in 2010. The collective’s focus is on the conception, script development, workshop, and staging development of documentary theatre.  It has, to date, been involved with Words in Edgewise at Eastern Edge four times presenting Science, Technology and Pontious Pilate, and People Lose Their Ways and Their Belongings both by Joan Sullivan, a stage reading of Robin Soans Talking to Terrorists, and presentations of two one-act plays by Vaclav Havel, Audience and The Unveiling. The collective has additionally produced Blinking Leaves in the Cox & Palmer Second Space at the LSPU Hall, and a couple of short pieces at the Delta Hotel in 2011.


Heffernan was recruited to conduct a series of interviews to inform a new original script that would set out to capture the history and culture contained in the old barbershops of St. John’s.  Tomlinson’s initial inspiration came from his consideration that there are people who would have come to the same individual in the same barbershop for decades, and as such those people all age together and share a variety of life milestones as a result. Interviews are still continuing, but the group has a drafted script prepared, which will be publically workshopped Sunday, May 24 in Irwin’s Court at the Arts and Culture Centre from 3:30pm to 5pm.

At that reading Brad Bonnell, Chris Brookes, David Fox, and Andy Jones will take on the roles within the play. Others involved include dramaturg Beth Graham, Crystal Parsons as stage manager, Renate Pohl doing design consultation, and associate director Courtney Brown.  For our latest feature, we caught up with those behind the project to learn a little more about it.

Q and A with Charlie Tomlinson, Joan Sullivan, and Mike Heffernan...

NLAC: When, when, and how were you initially hit with the idea to develop this script/play?


Charlie: I have a strong feeling about the place I live in and want to create a show that deals with the changes in it. Big Oil trumps everything we have discovered. So where had the old St. John’s retreated to? One day I rediscovered it while getting a haircut and shave at Joe’s on Merrymeeting Road; the faces, people, conversations and overwhelming sense of community. All there in a crowded room on a Saturday morning. And, then I started thinking about how, in the past, there had been literally dozens of these tiny, one or two chair shops dotted throughout the town and I started wondering about the men who had run them, and I was doing a lot of thinking about the relationships between sons and fathers. So, I called Joan and Mike and asked them if we could start the process of talking to The Barbershops of St. John’s. Mike went to work and spoke to Mr. Harris and the thing took off.  I was and am excited by the potential of the research, and so we applied to the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council for funding, and to the City of St. John’s, and were successful. The work and interviews have kept going to a point where we need to start making a play.

NLAC: So how will those interviews inform the creation of a stage show?

Charlie: One of the first things that came to me when starting to imagine this show was the potential for the creation of characters- from those interviews and, moving forward, from situations and story created. I imagine when one actor gets into the barber’s chair and the cape is placed around them that they can transform, become someone else, that the barber will interact with each customer/character differently. As indeed they do. The cutting of the hair, the shaving of the face- these incredibly intimate interactions between people seem to me to have great potential in the making of theatre.

There’s also the simple fact that in this public space people come, without appointment, to wait their turn. There are those that come every few weeks, for literally decades, to the same person. They have aged together. Then there’s the fact we tend to go to the barber on special days, benchmark moments in our lives. Deaths and funerals, weddings and baptisms, confirmations and first dates, graduation and job interviews. Alas (or perhaps not) one can imagine a day when there is only one or two of them left and they would be somehow touristy and make believe, or museum/faux imitations of the past, but these places have history in the dirt on the floor, on the walls in cluttered photographs, and that the faces of the customers awaiting their turn and talking to each other are authentic and grounded in a place and time.

NLAC: How is the design consultation of the script development working?


Charlie: I really think that bringing in a designer at this stage makes a difference, Renate has a way of seeing things that cannot help but inform the way we go with the material. It’s also important to have someone like Beth with us in that (workshop) room. I cannot stress enough how important it will be, and, I think the fact she is not from here, and will literally only have the merits of the “story” to worry about, will go far to helping Joan and I refine the essence of the material and enable us to point Mike to follow up interviews and questions to ask.

Besides the artistic value of the project, which is immeasurable in so many ways, having Xavier there to help us with our fluency was wonderful! We had a lot to learn before we began, learning about who did what job and what that meant, which types of shots existed and why we use them, how we write a script, how we create storyboards; the amount of planning required to film was surprising even to me!

NLAC: What are some of the interesting stories you have heard so far in the interview stages?

Mike: Historically speaking, barbershops were hubs for working class men and served the same kind of cultural purpose as a neighborhood pub. The information I’ve gathered, the anecdotal stuff drawn from interviews, reflects that. Before electronic media, namely television, and even before centralized heating and electricity, men spent a considerable amount of time in barbershops. Chess, cards and drinking were important activities that helped facilitate the exchange of goods and serves as well as news and information.

NLAC: Why do you think it’s important to capture the history, culture, and stories from these places? Why is this an important story to capture now?

Mike-HeffernanMike Heffernan

Mike: Barbershops have traditionally been inter-generational businesses. Typically, a son inherited the shop from his father. Over the last few decades, many barbershops in the St. John’s area have closed. The Family Barbershop on Duckworth Street, which was located across from the War Memorial, is a good example. Most second and third generation barbers have already or are reaching retirement. Their thoughts and memories offer a unique opportunity at getting a glimpse into the social and cultural fabric of the communities in which they exist and represent an accurate representation of the city’s demographics. They’re a microcosm of St. John’s life. For instance, think about the more recent barbershops which have opened in the downtown area. Their clientele, which includes women, reflect evolving attitudes towards gender roles as well as the economic revitalization of downtown.

Joan: I've been thinking about this, and I keep coming back to Studs Terkel's oral histories. Here are two quotes from him: “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” And, “People are hungry for stories. It's part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, of immortality too. It goes from one generation to another.”

NLAC: What can people expect to see and hear at the upcoming workshop? Beyond the workshop, what is your timeline – when might the play be ready for a debut full production?

Charlie: On Sunday we will read a selection of the interviews put together to give a sense of what it might be when further developed.

NLAC: If people wanted to get involved in your project, share stories, photos, etc. is there a way for them to do that?

Charlie: Absolutely, please send along any photos, stories or possible people to interview to

NLAC: How does the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council (NLAC) funding from the Professional Project Grants Program help?

Joan: Funding from the NLAC is vital for a project like this – for arts creation throughout the province. Because of the generous grant from the NLAC we, as a team, were able to embark on the first, essential trek of interviewing, scriptwriting, and dramaturgy. Their support was fundamental in telling this (so far) overlooked (and perhaps soon no longer encountered) St. John's (hi)story.