Fringe Fest tale breathes life into local history

New play looks at the fascinating life of local settler Jack Irvine

Oak Bay’s Ben Clinton-Baker

Jacob Zinn

Black Press

If you’re a local history buff, you’ve likely heard of Jack Irvine, but if you haven’t, an Oak Bay historian can tell you all about him through a new production at the Victoria Fringe Festival.

Ben Clinton-Baker is starring in Tongues in Trees: The Reminiscences of Long Gun Jack Irvine, chronicling the early Vancouver Island settler and the mark he left in nearby Saanich. It’s almost a one-man show, with Clinton-Baker portraying Irvine and several real-life characters he met in the area, based on Irvine’s lengthy memoir.

“Right from the start, there was something about this memoir that really struck me,” said Clinton-Baker. “It was like he was narrating it – he’s very present in this memoir. He conjures these very vivid scenes and it’s very rich with material of different characters he met.

“I spoke with Caroline Duncan at the Saanich Archives and she said, ‘You should try doing some historical theatre.’ I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a shot.’”

Irvine’s family immigrated to the Island in 1851, arriving on a ship from the Hudson Bay Company. His father bought a 100-acre parcel of land called Rosebank Farm in Gordon Head, and later expanded to own 300 acres around where Shelbourne Street and McKenzie Avenue are today.

“Jack grew up in this area,” said Clinton-Baker. “He worked on the farm in his very earlier years, doing various chores and taking shipments to town and bringing provisions from town.”

While this is Clinton-Baker’s first time putting together a stage production, he said Irvine gave him a lot to work with through his written accounts of life in the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s.

“He was very down-to-earth and kind of a simple guy, but he loved to spin a good yarn,” he said. “I think that’s one of the real treasures of his legacy, these stories that he wrote down in his memoir.

“This was something new for me. I’ve never really been involved in theatre, but I do love storytelling – sharing the story and trying to make history more accessible and interesting and fun.”

The characters in Clinton-Baker’s production are pulled directly from the page, including a man who paddled around the Inner Harbour looking for scraps of metal and bottles, and a bushman who lived in the forests of Mount Douglas, trying to escape his stifling, aristocratic background.

“I focused in on a few stories from his memoir,” said Clinton-Baker. “There are three different people I’m (portraying) in addition to Jack, and they’re mostly people who had an impression of him.”

Joining him onstage is Vanya Verenitch, 12, who plays a younger version of Irvine, with the play running as a series of vignettes alternating between Irvine’s childhood and adult life.

“It’s been fun working on it and reading about the history of Victoria,” Verenitch said of his role. “He’s a very interesting character. He seems very adventurous and out in nature, down-to-earth. It seems like he really enjoys life.”

Through his performance, Clinton-Baker hopes to share his fascination with people who might not otherwise have heard of Jack Irvine, and to get them thinking about how Irvine’s work impacted Greater Victoria as we currently see it.

“To me, history is something that’s very much alive, and if you scratch the surface a little bit, that can be a portal into the past within the present,” he said. “I hope people will really think about the history of our area as something that’s very much alive and present with us today.”

Catch Tongues in Trees at the Metro Studio Theatre, 1411 Quadra St., tonight, Aug. 31 at 7:45 p.m., Sept. 1 at 10 p.m., Sept. 3 at 5 p.m. and Sept. 4 at 2 p.m.

Tickets are available through the Intrepid Theatre box office, #2 – 1609 Blanshard St., by phone at 250-590-6291 or online at ticketrocket.co. For information, visit intrepidtheatre.com/festivals/fringe-festival.