Inside Kitchener history

Kevin Delaney

The Lost and Found Theatre has always been a strong supporter of local talent in the Waterloo Region, so it seems only fitting that their latest production, On The Inside, not only takes place in Kitchener, but is also based on a piece of the city’s own history.

Written by University of Waterloo graduate, Dona Massel, On The Inside revolves around the first hanging in the city, then known as Berlin. Seventeen-year-old James Allison has been convicted of murder and is awaiting his execution in the county jail when the Governor’s wife, Olive, takes it upon herself to teach him to read and write. Inevitably, she grows attached to the young man and the story centers on the emotional strain that arises leading up to Allison’s hanging.
Set in late 1897 and early 1898, the action takes place in the Governor’s house, which is attached to the jail and still stands on Queen St. (a stone’s throw from the Registry Theatre where the production is being staged). In fact, it is this building that originally provided Massel with the spark for On The Inside.

“In 1999, Waterloo Regional Councillor Jean Haalboom, in her struggle to save the derelict Waterloo County Gaol from the wrecker’s ball, conducted tours through the historic buildings,” says Massell. “I went on one of those tours and when I arrived in the dining room of the Governor’s House, I heard voices. I went home and wrote a dinner party and, after much research, a whole play.”

While the portrayals of the characters are fictional, they are based on real people and real events. “The dates and time frame, the controversy within the town of Berlin and the fact that Allison learned to read and write while in Gaol are all true,” says Massel. While this makes for interesting subject matter, it also means the production may face scrutiny from those who are familiar with the history of the area, something the play’s director, Richard Quesnel, sees as an opportunity rather than a challenge.

“The reward of putting on such a play as this is the interest that it is sure to garner from the audience,” says Quesnel. “There are many poignant themes and universal issues in this production, ranging from capital punishment to the long-term effects of physical and emotional abuse that are as important and life-altering today as they were 116 years ago.”
Quesnel is artistic manager of Lost and Found Theatre and his career has encompassed stage, film and television work across North America. Massel has written five books of poetry and was the recipient of the 2004 Region of Waterloo’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Literature.

This production marks the fist time Massel and Quesnel have ever worked together, but they have known each other for many years through their involvement with Lost and Found Theatre, which prides itself on developing new work primarily with writers based in Waterloo Region.

On The Inside is being performed at The Registry Theatre in Kitchener and runs from March 14 to March 23. Find out more at