By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“A sort of musical” set at “a sort of funeral”: that’s the intriguing double-billing of ren & the wake, premiering Thursday at the Backstage Theatre.
The workshop production by the off-centre indie experimenters Catch The Keys marks the musical theatre debut of Lindsey Walker, an award-winning artist of the alt-folk/ rock/ singer-songwriter stripe.
The starting point was her grandmother’s story, says Walker. An eastern European immigrant from the ever-shifting German/Czech border land who’d lived through the terrible, traumatic displacements of World War II, Granny had arrived in Canada in the early 1950s. Old age brought out the storyteller in her. “She was a very private person … but in her last few years, she began to tell stories no one in my family really knew,” Walker says. “And they were intense. I got in the habit of recording her.”
There was something about the matter-of-fact way she told her story, “just another day for her, pretty astounding,” that especially struck Walker. And, long before COVID, she happened to tell it to the Catch The Keys sisters, Megan and Beth Dart, theatrical provocateurs who have a long, bright history of excavating real-life stories for theatre, as their annual Dead Centre of Town excursions into Edmonton’s past attest. “I’m a huge fan of those shows!” declares Walker.
This should be theatre, thought the sisters Dart, as they are wont to do. The result is ren & the wake, an unusual five-actor many-character musical with a script written by Megan Dart, music by Walker, directed by Beth Dart.
In the story that unspools onstage, Ren’s mother has passed away. In the midst of her grief, Ren discovers boxes of her mother’s stuff — books, journals, photos, assorted objects. And, magically, they are the keys to a whole world of shared stories and interconnected characters. And for Walker, the career musician, it has unlocked the world of musical theatre that returns her to her pre-Edmonton roots, at the University of Winnipeg, as an actor.
By the time she arrived in Edmonton, for the jazz program at Grant MacEwan College, Walker had changed dreams — for the life of a musician who writes, records, performs. “I love musical theatre! I always have…. But I found my soul needed to be creating more directly from me, as myself, not through a character.”
Jazz wasn’t a perfect fit, she thinks. “I’ wasn’t really a jazz singer, more a classic rocker…. In college I started with a rock band, and we started writing songs together. And gradually, my own solo projects took over.” (If they seem to have a lingering jazz flavour, Walker won’t argue with you).
Ren isn’t her own stage alter-ego, Walker explains. “The character (played in the musical by Marguerite Lawler) “isn’t based on anyone in real life,” except that grief, the experience of losing a loved one, is universal. The other characters who inspire a story about storytelling and its connective power are rooted in history, “Canadian women from the past, badass but pretty much unknown, whose stories range from from the late 1800s to the mid-1950s.” And, as Walker and Dart discovered in their deep dive into the Alberta Archives, they were by no means household names.
“So many women in history are overshadowed by who they were married to, or who their father was.” The new musical pulls them out of the shadows of time into the limelight. “It’s been a collaborative process,” says Walker, who does her composing at the piano. “I’d listen to the script or read it out loud, and let the energy of the scene dictate the music.”
The sound isn’t “musical theatre” per se (hence “a sort of musical” in the subtitle). “More of a house concert,” Walker thinks. The styles “respond to the energy and emotion of scenes. But genre-wise they bounce around.” And the instrumentation taps the diverse talents in the cast. Larissa Pohoreski, for example, is a gifted violinist. “But the meat and potatoes of the score is folk, roots, blues even….”
Lawler as Ren is the sole member of the cast with one character to play. The others take on multiple characters,” explains Walker of a project that began with a bright idea in late 2018, was birthed in 2019, and then got thwarted by all the pandemical delays.
Meanwhile, Walker has been innovating in other ways too. She’s working on the studio recording of an album that will have a visual release, too, “as a small film” instead of a music video. “Fall maybe? Next year maybe?”
ren & the wake
Composer and lyricist: Lindsey Walker
Playwright: Megan Dart
Directed by: Beth Dart
Performer collaborators: Helen Belay, Candace Berlinguette, Marguerite Lawler, Larissa Pohoreski, Laura Raboud
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn
Running: Thursday through May 7