Dallen Brodowski, the Pemberton local starring as Second World War veteran John Weir Foote in the immersive, one-man stage show, Padre X, is no stranger to portraying war heroes.
For his final production at Capilano University, the 22-year-old actor starred as a First World War veteran in Unity (1918), and he still remembers the note his director kept drilling into him throughout rehearsals, a lesson he not only applied to his latest production, but life in general.
“He had lived through the hell of World War I, but my director pounded into me everyday that I could never be down. He was always up,” Brodowski recalls. “That’s the way I’m trying to approach life as well and that’s the way John had to look at it … he was the men’s morality boost, so if he went down, they went down with him.”
Padre X tells the amazing true story of Foote’s selflessness and bravery in the face of unimaginable horror. An honourary captain and chaplain, Foote went against orders to accompany the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry regiment during the raid of Dieppe on Aug. 19, 1942. During hours of intense combat, Foote, who only had limited training as a field medic, showed great poise in coolly and calmly collecting the wounded and bringing them to safety. As the fighting wound down, he declined a ride in a landing craft that would have ushered him to safety. Instead, he walked deliberately into a German position, where he was captured alongside several of his regiment, volunteering himself as a prisoner of war so he could be of service to his troops in captivity. He remained in the prison camp for nearly three years. He also assumed, rightly so, that the presence of a man of God would spare the soldiers from execution. The only Canadian chaplain to this day to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Foote was directly responsible for saving dozens of lives.
And yet, for all his heroism, Foote’s story is mostly unknown in wider Canadian society.
“I think it’s exactly because [of] who Canadians are and who John was,” explains director Renata Zablotney. “John is a quintessential Canadian in the sense he was very humble. He comes back from war and he mentions that he hopes to forget the war. I think he himself wouldn’t have talked about it so much if it weren’t for the men that kept his story alive.”
Zablotney actually got to speak firsthand with some of those men in the lead-up to the production. Zablotney, who was inspired by a staging of Padre X she saw years ago by its original writer and star, Marc Moir, got in touch with International Movie Services in Langley to source some wardrobe. Run by veterans, the shop typically costumes for blockbuster military and historical movies, not indie theatre shows in the Sea to Sky. But, keen to share Foote’s story, the shop’s staff were eager to help and connected the director with a few of Foote’s old army buddies.
“They took me into their warehouse and showed me all of their amazing war regalia and they began to tell me how appreciative they were that I was doing this story,” Zablotney says. “They were just so excited to tell me their personal stories and how they were happy that people were going to know his name and what he did. He had an impact on all of those veterans’ lives and the people they knew, so it was really cool to see his direct impact.”
This only added to the deep sense of responsibility Brodowski already felt in inhabiting the role of a man who had touched so many lives.
“You always want to do it honestly and you don’t want to make a caricature out of someone who is real. You want it to be genuine and honest. If they’re charismatic, you’ve got to be charismatic,” he says.
Padre X is a tour de force for the burgeoning film and stage actor, who is onstage for virtually every moment of the show’s 75-minute run time. Brodowski met Zablotney when he was in Grade 10, her first year as drama teacher at Pemberton Secondary. In the intervening years, the pair has developed a close bond, both professionally and personally, and Zablotney knew her former star pupil would be the perfect fit for the intensive role.
“Dallen was one of my OG original drama students. I right away saw his potential in acting. I think he just takes it to the next level. I’ve never been worried about his performances. He goes that extra mile in doing the research,” she notes. “Especially now that he’s graduated and is a professional actor, I’ve learned so much more from him than I could ever hope to learn in any other forum. If I’m doing a big project and something I feel kind of daunted by, I would only ever turn to Dallen.”
Between school plays and her self-financed independent productions, Padre X marks Zablotney’s 24th stage show since 2015, and represents something of a departure for the director mostly known for her zany, off-the-wall productions that tend to buck the stuffy traditions of classic theatre.
“If you go to the show, I think there’s going to be nothing like it that you’ve seen before,” she promises. “It will simulate [the experience of] talking to a grandparent. It gets ethereal at times. The soundscape is intense. The lighting is an experience. It just really takes the audience places, especially considering it’s just one guy on the stage.”
Padre X plays the Pemberton Community Church on April 8, 9, 15 and 16, before heading to Whistler’s Maury Young Arts Centre on April 22. Tickets for the Pemberton shows can be found on eventbrite.ca, and at showpass.com/padrex for the Whistler premiere.