By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“If you worked at a nuclear bomb factory,” Clinton Carew asks pleasantly, by way of conversation opener, “how would you feel?”
This is the kind of question that could lead to “I’m just doing my job; get off my back!” as Carew puts it. Or years of expensive therapy.
Sometimes, though, it leads to soul/rock/funk albums with bona fide original lyrics. And sometimes — OK, rarely — soul/rock/funk albums with bona fide original lyrics lead to “poignant musical comedies about the end of the world,” like Star Killing Machine. premiering Thursday in a Broken Toys Theatre production (in association with Fringe Theatre Adventures, in Azimuth Theatre’s “emerging company” lineup).
So: what we are (or profess, or believe) vs. what we do for a living. “We are all compromised,” says playwright/director/actor Carew, who created Star Killing Machine with composer/musician Kris Schindell. Who among us can argue? The applications are endless, even if you’re not Albertan.
What characters are going for in Star Killing Machine is an equivocal goal, if ever there was one. In a research facility “just south of the Arctic Circle,” scientists are working to develop a machine that will destroy the world. And they’ve just had a break-through.
Carew, who’s the possessor of a classic skeptical shrug, does one now; you’ll have to imagine. We’re in the Backstage Theatre, as designer Kevin Smith is tinkering with a glass-ball contraption that lights up and revolves, in a ‘70s sci-fi way. And Carew is describing the point of origin of the new musical in the early 2000s (this is a project that goes back). “I was writing infomercials for a living,” says Carew. “The money was good, but I was having huge philosophical difficulties with what I was doing.”
Inner conflict isn’t just for theatre, my friends. It fuels music too. The immediate result was the song Star Killing Machine — music by Schindell, lyrics by Carew — that became the title track of a rock album from the pair’s “barely post-millennial band” Mr. Relaxer.
Carew’s actor wife Elena Porter, who’s part of the 10-member cast of the Broken Toys production and the company’s artistic producer, was “just a groupie at this point,” as they laugh. “In a very exclusive audience.”
“The album never really got released properly,” sighs Carew, who still plays with a hockey-team band (“we only do non-metaphorical songs about hockey”). “For life reasons. For timing reasons. And that bugged me at some level. Thirty people in the world heard it, and 26 people really liked it.”
Two years ago, Kristi Hansen, one of Azimuth’s triumvirate of artistic directors and an actor/musician herself, sought Broken Toys out to be part of the company’s “emerging company showcase. And a musical, two years in the development, was born in that invitation.
The album-to-musical transition, though unusual, is by no means unheard of in musical theatre world. The album that led to Star Killing Machine the musical is one, as Carew describes it, had a certain thematic continuity: “searching for meaning in a hostile universe.”
Still, Carew regarded it as a theatrical experiment. “I didn’t know it’d be a good idea. It was just my latest project. It was the same why-not? spirit that inspired his new translation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters for Broken Toys in 2013.
The idea wasn’t just a song cycle, like, say, The Last Five Years. No, Carew wanted to know “can these songs be put into a musical musical?”
Porter, a Grant MacEwan musical theatre grad who’s been in the cast of such Plain Janes’ productions as It’s A Bird! It’s A Plane! in 2014 (she played Lois Lane), enlarges the thought. “A musical musical, with characters who are motivated, who are going for something, who are moved to sing at peak emotional moments.” At the first workshop, with its 35-page script, they had numbers, not names.
Four pages of that script remain, along with Carew’s lyrics, and 90 per cent of the music, along with a new song or two, all shaped into reprises, recurring character motifs, and the other architectural spaces and arches of a musical comedy about the end of the world. Says Carew, “the plot ended up growing and flexing in a way to accommodate the songs.”
“The title song happens eight minutes into the show,” says Carew, of lyrics devoted to “that’s how we make our living.” He grins. “This is an Alberta play written about Albertans.”
Carew was inspired partly by his own experience working up north in the oil industry, albeit in an office job. Partly, it was the experience of his physicist brother, working with a Harvard team in a high-level nuclear research facility of the CERN persuasion. “Imagine if CERN was in northern Alberta!”
There’s an amusingly reductive side to rarefied science on this level of meritocracy, he reports. “The scientists have to do all the support services,” Carew says. “After all, who can you trust to work with plutonium?…. The job is 80 per cent cleaning, 20 per cent science.”
Porter smiles. “They can make anti-matter. But they can’t wash a dish.”
The Star Killing Machine forces are unusually large for an indie production (actually, for any theatre in town, times being what they are): 10 actor musicians, including an onstage band led by Scott Shpeley, who’s also a character, and a mysterious “special guest appearance” from Ryan Parker. “We could never have done anything on this scale without Azimuth and Fringe Theatre Adventures,” says Porter of the three-(short) act two-intermission musical.
“I’ll be fascinated to find out how people respond to it,” says Carew, who repairs happily to the wardrobe room with Porter every rehearsal break to play with their 10-month-old daughter Penelope. “The apocalypse is exhausting.”
Star Killing Machine
Theatre: Broken Toys in association with Fringe Theatre Adventures, as part of Azimuth Theatre’s “emerging company” 2016-2017 lineup
Created by: Clinton Carew (book and lyrics) and Kris Schindell (music)
Directed by: Clinton Carew
Starring: Elena Porter, Chantal Perron, Tatyana Rac, Luc Tellier, Scott Schpeley, Kristi Hansen, Cody Porter, Garett Ross, Rebecca Merkley, Ryan Parker
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Thursday through Jan. 29