Finding your own story: Dana Wylie’s Makings of a Voice at SkirtsAfire

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

By Liz Nicholls,

“I’m right here with you right now,” says Dana Wylie, looking intently right into our eyes at the outset of Makings of a Voice. Against the probabilities and across the screen (the defining demarcation of the times), damned if that isn’t how it feels.

Curious and rather wonderful, since Wylie’s solo “theatrical song cycle” comes at us (online) in the middle of a pandemic from the middle of a mysteriously vast, expansible, dark space that isn’t a stage, or maybe even a place. There Wylie is, gazing at us and holding our gaze, from a sort of arena circumscribed by lights, like a landing pad in the mind (designer: Elise CM Jason).

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There are domestic touches, a lamp and painting; there are cosmic touches — a suspended slatted wooden orb that might be the moon or a rustic rendering of the moon (lighting by T. Erin Gruber). And there is a guitar.

If the world had been a different place, this unusual piece, which gets its premiere on this year’s SkirtsAfire Festival digital mainstage, would have been in a theatre (the Westbury at the Fringe). And Wylie would have been there onstage accompanied by three live musicians. But Vanessa Sabourin’s production, filmed in the empty, echoey old Army & Navy in Strathcona, has a kind of between-worlds dislocation that isn’t misplaced in a memoir from an artist making a return to a realm, the theatre, she left a decade ago to be in another, as a singer-songwriter.

And one of Wylie’s fortes as a performer, as you’ll experience in this odd and lovely show, is her conversational, direct-in-your-ear intimacy, backed up visually by Andrea Beça’s film-making, with its artful array of angled close-ups.

“We need to know we have a story,” Wylie tells us, from personal experience. “We need to know we are a story.” The term “narratable” doesn’t exactly shimmer (it’s new to me, and I probably won’t be using it any time soon), but, hey, it’s the only show in town where it comes into its own. The enigmatic title Makings of a Voice (lifted from a Wylie lyric) actually fashions a shape and a structure — which calls out for music, and gets it, original songs woven with spoken text. “I have the makings of a voice; I need a song, a source, a well.”

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

The dramatic proposition of Makings of a Voice is that Wylie the artist and mother feels in need of a story, one that will weave the intergenerational strands of the maternal line (every daughter has a mother who has a mother who has a mother) together into a compelling inheritance:  “access to a cosmic source of creativity.”

As Wylie puts it, memorably, “I careened into my 30s as if I’d been flung from a faulty carnival ride….” And the impending birth of Wylie’s second child seems to make her quest  for a family story urgent. She’s sure she has one when she discovers, by chance a heroic anecdote about her great-grandmother Millie. And she, as the inheritor, will be empowered to have it all — baby, PhD, globe-trotting career.

Then there’s a crash: it’s a story about abandoning one affirming story and scrambling to find yourself another. I leave you to the pleasures of discovering the narrative route, where poetry meets drama. It doesn’t place Wylie’s songs the way musical theatre would. They do come at critical moments, yes, but they’re for second thoughts and reflections. And there’s this: music fans know know this already, I’m sure, but Wylie’s voice is luminous, clear with warm depths. Somehow she has the actor’s ability to make poetic lyrics seem possible as conversations with you.

There are lessons to be learned, including an appreciation for a heroism that’s quieter, more quotidian, more mundane than the borrowed narrative arcs of “the patriarchy culture” might invite. This will sound off-putting, and more abstract than it is, not least because the word “patriarchy” isn’t exactly lyrical. But the show is carefully, gracefully constructed; it’s built on birth — as both the most visceral and metaphorically powerful of experiences — and self-discovery. They are, after all, the exit from one world and the entrance into another.

“I will rhyme, I will chime, I will vibrate like a bell,” Wylie sings at one point. In Makings of a Voice, she does all three. interviews Dana Wylie here.


Makings of a Voice

SkirtsAfire Festival 2021

Written and performed by: Dana Wylie

Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin

Where: streaming on Fringe TV

Running: through March 14



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