Mark Claxton is known as an actor.
The former Yorkton This Week staffer has been in various stage shows in Regina including A Christmas Carol last year, as well as appearances on television with spots on Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairies.
But, Claxton also spends time in the wings taking on the role of director, as he will be doing with an upcoming presentation of Lords of Sceptre.
Claxton said he was actually fortunate to have the opportunity to direct the new production.
“Maureen, (Ulrich), the playwright, had recently written and produced Diamond Girls, about the Saskatchewan women who had played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League,” he recounted. “That show toured around Saskatchewan and even went to Australia for the fringe festival in Adelaide. When the director of that production wasn’t available to take on Lords of Sceptre, Maureen got in touch with me. I’d directed a play of hers a few years ago for the Saskatoon Fringe Festival, and that collaboration had gone really well.”
It was easy to say yes to the opportunity for Claxton who was already a baseball fan.
“The baseball theme was very definitely part of the appeal for me,” he said. “I love everything about the game, still play ball every summer and geek out over my fantasy league, and indulging that in a work of theatre sounded like a lot of fun.”
Claxton said the script captures the game as it once was.
“I love how it takes us into that old-school world when a pitcher would stay on the mound for 18 innings, or a team would play two games in two different towns on one day, not even having time to clean up or get changed before they’re hopping on the bus,” he said.
The play follows the exploits of a real-life ball team from small-town Saskatchewan that dominated the prairie baseball circuit in the late forties and into the 1950s, travelling all over Western Canada and into the States, and competing for national glory.
“A small handful of actors will be playing several characters each, telling us this story and switching rapid-fire between characters while also enacting the baseball action,” explained Claxton.
“Maureen could tell you more about her sources, but all the players and surrounding characters are based on or inspired by real people. There are people in Saskatchewan still who remember watching their home teams take on the Sceptre squad, who remember what a big deal the game was in those days.
“The play is also about how the game fit -- or was made to fit -- into a world in which the summer was short and harvest was everything.
“We’re hoping to create a fast-paced, engaging and even interactive show that anyone would enjoy but that baseball fans, especially, will get a big kick out of.”
The playwright said Diamond Girls has a connection to her family at its roots.
“I always knew there was a competitive baseball team from my father’s home town, and that he had played on it for a few years. I’d seen pictures of the team in a book called Prairie Diamonds,” said Ulrich who grew up in Edmonton and Calgary but now lives near Lampman, SK.
“My dad suffered from dementia for the last few years before he passed away last May, and I called his cousin George in Medicine Hat periodically to keep him updated. Our conversations turned to baseball and the years that George played (1948-51) — the team’s semi-pro years. I thought there was an amazing story here. It was a unique time — with both NHL and Negro League stars fleshing out teams from Saskatchewan towns. I used George’s recollections, Jay Mah’s website At the Plate, the Sceptre history book, and newspaper articles that George’s wife Bebe saved for research.”
With historic information in hand, the idea for a play percolated.
But, how difficult was it to make a play fun and interesting yet stay true to the base story?
“I suppose I will let the audience be the judge of that,” said Ulrich who has also written a Young Adult female hockey trilogy, published by Coteau Books. “I have tried hard to stay true to the facts of the story and the personalities of the players, as George remembers them.
“The play is designed as a series of two-person dialogues, monologues, baseball plays, and announcer’s commentary. Hopefully the audience is able to follow the storyline through the quick character changes. Lords of Sceptre isn’t just about baseball however. It’s about the relationships between players, the community they were from, and a way of life that essentially no longer exists.”
Like Claxton, Ulrich too is a baseball fan, and that helped in writing both plays on the sport.
“I have loved baseball since I was a teenager watching the Montreal Expos,” she said. “I fell in love with small town baseball when I started dating my husband, who played with the Lampman A’s — a team that won six provincial championships in nine years.
“It certainly does help to love the game and understand the dynamics of a small town team.
“What likely helped more, however, was my personal connection to the story — writing about my dad’s family and peers. My grandfather Harry Mahaffy is also a character in the play — largely due to George’s insistence. While I was growing up, I had no idea he was such a big supporter of the team, even after his son no longer played.”
Directing, while not exactly new to Claxton, is still a relatively recent direction in terms of his involvement with theatre.
“I first directed a production for Regina Little Theatre back in the fall of 2007: we took it to a provincial drama festival, hosted in Kamsack that year, and the response to the show was overwhelmingly positive,” said Claxton. “That was a shot of confidence for me, that maybe I had the ability to direct, but beyond that, I was surprised myself at how much I loved doing it -- how much the work obsessed me, absorbed my attention, and how satisfying it was to see what our little team had put together.
“Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to direct several other productions, here in Regina, and also at Souris Valley Theatre in Estevan.
“I’ve also worked as an assistant director for a couple of Globe Theatre productions, which gave me the opportunity to work with and learn from a couple of nationally respected, profoundly gifted theatre directors.”
But, how is directing different than acting?
“The scope of responsibility feels much broader, deeper, and more complex as a director,” said Claxton. “As an actor, I’m only responsible for my character or characters. Depending on the role, that alone can be enormously challenging, of course, but it’s the only aspect of the production that I need to concern myself with.
“As a director, the constant decision-making, problem-solving, and creative exertion can be relentless. Although you’re surrounded by wonderfully gifted people who are doing much of the heavy lifting, most of the creative and even technical decisions are ultimately the director’s call.
“So you’re constantly thinking about the show, agonizing over the things you feel aren’t where they need to be -- and all this while also trying to encourage and facilitate everybody’s best work in rehearsal and on stage.”
The pressure can be extreme, said Claxton.
“It can be daunting and anxiety-inducing,” he said.
“In compensation, though, the payoff is huge. There’s no greater team sport than theatre, and when you and the team are clicking or working together through the tough patches, it’s profoundly rewarding. And when my job is done and I get to just sit and experience what we’ve built together, and experience the audience’s response to it, that’s an amazing feeling.”
Ulrich said she has worked closely with Claxton on the upcoming show.
“From the beginning, Mark and I were determined to make this show look and feel different from Diamond Girls,” she said. “Telling the story inside an imaginary baseball diamond and using two actors instead of one actress will certainly help.
“But I hope it will evoke the same emotional reactions from viewers and elicit their laughter, empathy, appreciation for a time long past, and the desire to know more about it.”