Theatre SKAM plays homage to ‘grandmother’ of local arts

The first couple of times Matthew Payne met Joan Mans, he labelled her the little old woman that he saw everywhere.

The first couple of times Matthew Payne met Joan Mans, he labelled her the little old woman that he saw everywhere.

Any art events Payne, a then University of Victoria student, attended in the city, from plays to after-parties, he noticed the petite woman with a British accent, often talking someone’s ear off.

Over the next few years, Payne continued to run into Mans at Swan’s Brewpub, where actors would meet after performances, where she would dance to the live music until the pub closed and solicited rides from other theatre lovers to her home at Fisgard and Quadra streets.

“She was always around. We would see her at the bar and be like ‘oh man, hide, oh god she’s going to talk our ear off’,” said Payne, artistic director of Victoria’s Theatre SKAM, who is paying homage to Mans in a new play. “She was just the little old lady that I saw all over the place . . . she was known as an eccentric character.”

While they were acquaintances, the duo hadn’t really spoken much about things other than arts. But it was a chance encounter on the street that changed their relationship from acquaintances to close friends.

Payne was in the midst of planning a trip to Prague for a friend’s wedding when he ran into Mans on the street, who told Payne she had worked in the city several years ago.

“I was like ‘What? We better get this straight’,” Payne said. “She told me about her life and our friendship blossomed from there.”

According to Payne, Mans was born in 1925 in West Hartlepool in north east England. She immigrated to Canada in the mid 1960s, where she worked in Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s government in Ottawa. In 1976 she moved to Victoria and began volunteering at the Oak Bay Lodge. She also volunteered with numerous arts companies, although they often had to find “strategic” ways for her to volunteer, as Mans would often get so distracted talking about the arts that she would forget to compete her duties, such as handing out flyers.

The duo quickly formed an inseparable bond.

Since Mans didn’t have any family in Victoria, Payne, along with two other artists, took on the responsibility of looking after her. When Payne moved to Toronto and Vancouver for a few years, he often kept in touch with Mans through weekly phone calls and during his visits home, often went to check up on her before his parents.

Mans was like family to Payne, somewhere between grandma and best friend.

In 2007, Mans fell and ended up at the Oak Bay Lodge, where Payne continued to visit her regularly, though he admitted it was difficult to see Mans’ social life suddenly come to an end. And in 2010, Payne got the call that she had passed away.

Now, Payne is paying tribute to Mans in a new play called Joan, which will premiere at the Belfry’s annual Spark Festival this month. It’s a play Payne wrote while Mans was still alive, but now the performance has become a way for Payne to spend more time with her.

“I hope that the people who know Joan will come and spend a little bit more time with her. At some point I realized I was writing this play so I could spend more time with her,” Payne said.

“I hope that the people who don’t know her will enjoy meeting this eccentric, unique, dynamic person.”

The Spark Festival, which kicks off March 9, features performances by more than 80 theatre artists from across Canada.

Joan will run at the Metro Studio Theatre from March 17 to 26. For more information