The Tom and Gertie Letters Project
by Donna Penrose
Poignant letters tell the tale of small town sweethearts
separated by an ocean and a world at war.
The Tom and Gertie Letters Project began with a small box of letters in the attic of a home in Hamilton, Ontario. They were discovered by a young woman not long after she moved into the house in the 1990s, and she saw they were written during World War I by the young soldier Tom Penrose to his girlfriend Gertie Middleton, both of whom lived in the village of Whitechurch in Huron County, Ontario.
After years of searching, the young woman discovered some of Tom's relatives were living near her in Ontario. I am one of those relatives, Donna Penrose, a granddaughter of Tom and Gertie.
I was smitten by the stories the letters told, and was frequently asked the question, "What are you going to do with the letters - are you going to write a book?" to which I would always reply, "I don't know". I'm not a writer. I come to this project from a career in science ⎯ with an interest in history, but my daughter, an actor and theatre-maker, suggested we try doing a staged reading using some of the letters.
Last year a selection of letters and diary entries were read by professional actors in our home in Stratford for a small audience. I had no idea how deeply others would be affected by hearing them. After the show, actor Rylan Wilkie wrote, “It was such a pleasure to hear those words read out loud. I had a lump in my throat the whole time. Such a powerful thing to put those words out into the air”.
The letters span the time between Tom's enlistment in 1916 and his return home in 1919. His partner Gertie was a faithful correspondent but sadly none of Gertie's letters have survived.
The Tom and Gertie Letters Project reveals the stories of their lives, and of their burgeoning love during the war. This piece raises questions about how we remember war, why we make assumptions about history, and whether the teenage experience ever really changes. Rob Donelson, a member of the audience at last year's reading, commented, “Such stories reflect the reality of war in hundreds of towns and communities across Canada. It is a side of the war we haven't often heard and for this reason is of great value.” — Donna Penrose
All photos by Laura Rose,
Creator & Co-producer
The long-lost letters of Tom Penrose, written during WWI to his girlfriend, found their way to his granddaughter Donna, and then changed her life — they turned her into a theatre-maker. Before this, Donna raised two great kids, worked as a molecular biologist and indulged her passions for jam-making and gardening. She is excited to be sharing Tom’s letters for the first time at the SpringWorks Festival in her newly adopted city of Stratford Ontario where she lives with her husband Ted McGee and Lily the cat.
Kate is grateful to explore the life and love of Tom and Gertie through these miraculously preserved letters. She is constantly searching for growth as an artist, and is dedicated to producing professional, exciting work. Selected Acting Credits: Twelfth Night, As You Like It (a Company of Fools); Gorboduc, The Changeling (Shakespeare BASH'd); Laughing Wild, Coriolanus, Moral Deficit, 4.48 Psychosis (Skipping Stones Theatre); Room For Failure, Richard III (Wolf Manor Theatre Collective); 'Shakespeare in Hospitals' (Spur-of-the-Moment Shakespeare Collective). Upcoming: Skipping Stones Theatre's adaptation of Hamlet focusing on the text through a lens of mental health.
Haley is a solo performer, theatre-maker, actor, writer and voiceover artist currently based in London, UK. Her solo shows have toured to over 35 venues in 11 countries around the world, received 4 & 5-star reviews, enjoyed sold out performances and won awards. As an actor she’s worked with The National Theatre Studio, BBC Radio 4 (UK), Canadian Stage and Off-Mirvish among many others. As a writer, she’s developed projects with The Stratford Festival, Playwrights Workshop Montreal and the Banff Centre. Haley is thrilled to be working with her Mum to bring these letters to you.
Thom Nyhuus is an actor and writer from Ottawa, currently living in Toronto. He is a graduate of George Brown Theatre School and Canterbury High School’s Performing Arts program. Recent theatre credits include: Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing (Secret Shakespeare Series), Chiron in Titus Andronicus (Hart House), Jay in Lost In Yonkers (Ottawa Little Theatre), Dr. Finache in A Flea In Her Ear, Edward Marryot in Cavalcade, and Touchstone in As You Like It (George Brown Theatre School). His first play, Cannibal, will be premiering at the Factory Theatre in January 2019 as part of the Next Stage Festival. —Thom
James is the Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of Shakespeare BASH’d. For Shakespeare BASH’d: (actor) Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (2012, 2015), Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (2013), Hamlet in Hamlet (2016), and Richard III in Richard III (2018); (director) A Midsummer Night’s Dream - a staged reading (2011), Romeo and Juliet (2012), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2014), Macbeth (2014), The Merry Wives of Windsor (2015 Co-Director), Edward II - a staged reading (2015) King John (2015), The Changeling - a staged reading (2016), Volpone – a staged reading (2017)
James other credits as a director include: reasons to be pretty (The Labute Cycle), As You Like It (Theatre by the Bay), Shakespeare in Hospitals (Spur of the Moment), Titus Andronicus (Hart House Theatre), Antony & Cleopatra (Secret Shakespeare Project), Scenes from The Tempest (Playing for Free – Ryerson University) and Henry IV Part 1 and 2 (upcoming – Theatre Erindale)
James was part of Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction in 2016/2017. He was the assistant director on Macbeth, the world premiere of Bunny by Hannah Moscovitch, and Romeo and Juliet. He’s currently in his third season at the Stratford Festival, assistant directing Julius Caesar.
Associate director/ stage manager
Julia is an actor, director, and producer, as well as a Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of Shakespeare BASH'd, where she has produced all of the company's sold-out productions. She has worked as the Managing Director of Common Boots Theatre and as part of the team at The Theatre Centre. For Shakespeare BASH'd, Julia has directed Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, The Duchess of Malfi, and assistant directed The Changeling. She has also performed in many BASH'd productions, including The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Volpone (staged reading).
Selected Additional Credits: Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen and This Property is Condemned (Director, The Playwright Project), Modern Love (Co-Creator, Next Stage), As You Like It (Text Coach, Theatre By the Bay), Titus Andronicus (Text Coach, Hart House), and as an actor OVER, See Bob Run (Theatre Caravel), reasons to the pretty (The Labute Cycle), The Forest (Red One Theatre Collective), Dublin Carol (Fly on the Wall). Julia is a member of the Advisory Board for the Canadian Stage GYM program and a graduate of the joint acting program at UofT and Sheridan College.