Makings of a Voice: the SkirtsAfire premiere brings Dana Wylie back to the theatre

Dana Wylie in Makings of a Voice, SkirtsAfire Festival. Photo by April MacDonald-Killins.

By Liz Nicholls,

“I don’t know who I am and where I fit into this world….”   

It’s one of those thoughts that touches down universally, and comes with its own personal question mark. And for a creative artist like singer-songwriter Dana Wylie, a questing traveller of an artist if there ever was one, it was a provocation.

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It happened when Wylie was seven months pregnant with her second child in 2019, prompted by the companion thought that “in order to bring this child into the world I need to know….” And it’s the seed of Makings of a Voice, a solo “theatrical song cycle” that premieres Monday on the SkirtsAfire digital “mainstage.”

It marks the return of Wylie to theatre and acting, the world she left a decade ago to forge a career in music. It’s not exactly a play, as she describes, though there are characters (and an alter-ego protagonist named Dana). And it’s not exactly a musical revue or a cabaret, though it’s a memoir of sorts, and full of her original music. Part of her unusual creation is a story about storytelling: “The story I’m telling — it’s quite non-linear — is me trying to find my story and trying to tell that story.”

The setbacks and careening turns in that process are part of the story. “Just before I started writing it, I was told a story I’d never been told before…” says Wylie, who’s impressively insightful about artistic creation. “My great grandmother had marched in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, had been arrested for hitting a cop over the head with something, and had spent the night in jail.” A mystery: why was this not something the Wylies tell and re-tell, she wondered, a highlight of every Christmas dinner?

So Wylie felt empowered. “For the first time the character senses a point of connection with (her) maternal line … with a lefty, a socialist, a bad-ass rabble-rouser,” as Wylie puts it. I can feel like I come from somebody awesome…. Great Baba Millie becomes a real protagonist!”

“And because I was trying to engage with her past,” Wylie consulted Google. And there it was, in a junior edition of the Winnipeg Tribune in 1920, a picture of Great Baba Millie as a 12-year-old, part of a group of kids who’d won a Christmas writing competition.” And Wylie did the math, and knew the Strike story couldn’t be true. “It pulled the rug out from the writing process.”

“It had to go into the show,” says Wylie, of this deflating news. The story gods giveth and they taketh away. She found that revelation to be “personally as well as dramatically rich.” As the show took shape, it dislodged a narrative with a hero, “a bad-ass super-hero,” into a zone that’s “much more culturally complex than … the narratives that belong to our contemporary Western patriarchal culture.”

Dana Wylie, creator and star of Makings of a Voice. Photo by April MacDonald Killins.

“Then I’m just left with myself, and ultimately I have to be OK with that, with knowing, from my family history, that people have lived complicated lives and haven’t done heroic things. I can’t continue to insist to myself I be defined  by a story based on a hero’s journey.” Identity, lineage, and more specifically motherhood, make other kinds of demands than owning a heroic backstory. “It requires so much more than individual anything!”

There’s nothing predictable about the Wylie story, with its unplanned route from theatre into the world of music (and critically acclaimed albums). Not long after she graduated from MacEwan, and was out in the world working in musical theatre, “I just started writing songs; I’d never written songs before and I don’t exactly remember why.…” And not long after that came the realization that “this is what I want to do, I’m a musician in my heart more than I’m an actor. As I met more and more musicians I knew ‘this actually is my tribe’.”

Makings of a Voice, by and starring Dana Wylie. Photo by April MacDonald Killins.

At first her songs were of the musical theatre ilk, she laughs. “That was the world I was coming from; they all had a dramatic arc and went somewhere and someone learned something. I wasn’t well-versed in folk music, and certainly not pop, where you can be overcome by a feeling and just ruminate, where you can be in a place, and just be….”

Then Wylie up and moved to Taiwan, in search of a job teaching English and a cheaper way to live.

“Unbeknownst to me there was a rich scene of ex-pat artists of all kinds and music in particular that I fell into,” says Wylie. “And I ended up cutting my teeth (as a musician) there. I played in so many different kinds of bands, blues, bluegrass…. I really learned how to be a musician there, how to do gigs, how to do the equipment.”

Though big-cast musicals at the big regional theatres, the Citadel, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Theatre Calgary and others, occasionally came her way (Camelot, Evita…) a singer-songwriter had been born. “I didn’t know myself well but I had a sense that I wasn’t driven enough” to be in the high-stress world of auditioning actors, “living in a big city, being hungry and hustling for jobs…. I came into theatre working with (the late Edmonton musical theatre indie) Leave It To Jane. And I loved its smallness, the inventiveness of having four boxes instead of a set. There’s something that fires my imagination about that.”

Says Wylie, “I’m the same in the recording studio. I don’t mind having limits, budget or technical. That’s when my imagination comes alive…. Here’s what we can do!”

Maybe that’s why she hasn’t been entirely flummoxed by the serial pandemical limitations that have seen Makings of a Voice re-thought from a cancelled Fringe premiere last summer to a cancelled live premiere for a live SkirtsAfire audience, to the digital solo production shot at the old Army & Navy in Strathcona, minus the three musicians who were to have been onstage with her. “It’s a team of amazing creative people, really up for it!” she says feelingly of SkirtsAfire. “People who just take on the limitations, happily, and say ‘let’s come up with cool ideas….’.”

It was during three years in England, living in a little village north of London, that Wylie took a deep dive into the great “folk tradition,” and began to explore the sacred canon, Dylan and Mitchell and the rest. She and her English musician boyfriend constantly jammed in folk clubs and pubs. “It sounded very foreign to me at first; my ears didn’t quite get it. But once I got into it, the whole idea of a roots, of a deep cultural tradition, was very appealing to me, especially as a western Canadian.”

Just back from England in 2008, Wylie got a gig at the Mayfield, in the musical The Full Monty. And she actually lived at that hotel for a while. But musical theatre couldn’t woo her back. Wylie thinks of Makings of a Voice as “a way of integrating my background in music (which includes a U of A degree in musicology) with my background in theatre.”

After 10 years (her last theatre appearance was Kenneth Brown’s Cowboy Poetry), Wylie says “I don’t really consider myself an actor any more…. I feel more comfortable with storytelling; that’s what I love to do onstage, between songs. I’m a performer; that’s who I am. That’s what I do.”

But, under the direction of Vanessa Sabourin, a fine actor herself, Wylie has been nudged towards embodying the characters she’s written into the script. “And I’ve been looking forward to finding out what it feels like to be an actor as the person I am now, a 41-year-old instead of a 31-year-old.”

“It’s been a personal process,” says Wylie of creating Makings of a Voice. “And at points I’ve thought ‘who cares? does the world really need this story right now? is it just my story?’. And that’s all part of the narrative…. We don’t know how much we share; that’s the beautiful thing about sharing stories.”

In a world steeped in not-knowing, “I feel more seen, and I hope other people watching feel more seen too…. What I’d like to put out into the world, is whoever you are, wherever you are, however messy this all feels, you’re good!.”


Makings of a Voice

SkirtsAfire Festival 2021

Created by and starring: Dana Wylie

Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin

Where: streaming on Fringe TV

Running: March 8 to 14



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