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When the world came to Pugwash

Sixty years later, new Ship’s Company play more relevant than ever


Published on July 11, 2017

Gina Thornhill and Henricus Gielis star in Pugwash, the latest mainstage production at Ship’s Company Theatre in Parrsboro.

©Ship's Company Theatre photo

PARRSBORO, N.S. – A year ago, Vern Thiessen’s Cold War-era play about world scientists coming to Pugwash might not have resonated with its audience.

Today, however, the story could not be more relevant.

If the scientists had met anywhere else, it wouldn’t be the same story and the Pugwash movement wouldn’t have happened.

Vern Thiessen, playwright

“Last year at about this time, people were asking me why I was writing this story,” said Thiessen. “Now we have North Korea setting off missiles, we have an American president who is pretty blustery. Suddenly, people are talking about the Doomsday Clock.”

His play, Pugwash, is now playing at Ship’s Company Theatre in Parrsboro as its first mainstage production of the season.

It was 60 years ago that Cleveland industrialist Cyrus Eaton invited the world’s leading scientists to his home community of Pugwash to assess the dangers of nuclear weapons. That first conference, which attracted 22 scientists from around the world, led to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs that continue to this day.

The Edmonton-based playwright came across the Pugwash story when he was researching British scientist Joseph Rotblat, one of the founders of the Pugwash conference, but also known as the only scientist to leave the Manhattan Project on moral grounds.

Thiessen had been commissioned by the Ensemble Studio Theatre of New York City to write a science-related play, and they had initially wanted him to write a play about Rotblat, who shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize with the Pugwash conferences.

“Rotblat spent an enormous amount of time in Pugwash, and his Nobel Prize is sitting up there,” said Thiessen. “Once I learned more about what the real Pugwash story was, I shifted my focus to that, and it’s what I became obsessed with.”

Ultimately, it was the community and its relationship to the story that drew him in more and more. Pugwash welcomed these scientists and billeted them in their homes, like they were kids in town for a hockey tournament.

It was that kind of small-town charm that the world needed at the time, according to Thiessen.

“If the scientists had met anywhere else, it wouldn’t be the same story and the Pugwash movement wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “What is the connection between this small fishing village at the time, and scientists coming from away, that changed the world? That’s what I became obsessed with, and the story I started to mine more and more.”

Directed by Natasha MacLellan, Pugwash features a warm-hearted story of two young people, but with the overriding political element of the Cold War.

Thiessen and MacLellan have known each other for years, and having his play world premiere in Parrsboro has been a great fit, he said.

“I’m thrilled with this production at Ship’s Company… everything, the acting, the design, and the response so far from the first previews has been extremely warm and wonderful,” he said. “I’m deeply thankful and happy as to where it landed.”

Pugwash runs at Ship’s Company Theatre until July 30.