Joni Mitchell: Songs of a Prairie Girl, a ‘theatrical collage’ of a legendary artist, at Theatre Network

Chariz Faulmino (left), Cathy Derkach, Cayley Thomas, Kristi Hansen, Alison Wells (front) in Joni Mitchel: Songs of a Prairie Girl. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

“We’re captive on the carousel of time/ We can’t return, we can only look/ Behind,  from where we came….” The Circle Game, Joni Mitchell, 1966

The show that opens Thursday on the Theatre Network mainstage is a  multi-dimensional portrait, in music, of a multi-dimensional artist whose creative muse is rooted in the prairies.

Joni Mitchell: Songs Of A Prairie Girl, named after her 2005 compilation album in honour of Saskatchewan’s centenary, is a non-linear telling of the story of the legendary Fort Macleod-born/ Saskatoon-raised singer-songwriter — in her own music, her own visual imagery, her own words. And, like Mitchell herself, Jim Guedo’s theatrical creation has evolved in the decade and a half since. 

First, it was for a revival of the piece at the National Arts Centre’s Prairie Scene in 2011. And more recently — Guedo’s “pandemic project”as he’s said — a “complete rewrite” because of more recent dramatic turns in Mitchell’s story, the devastating brain aneurism that felled her in 2015, and her surprise return in 2022 to the Newport Folk Festival.   

In the course of Guedo’s two-act music-filled production, five different singer-actors (and a three-piece band) capture the creative powerhouse from five angles, in different phases of her life: the Ingenue (Chariz Faulmino), the Free Spirit (Cayley Thomas), the Explorer (Kristi Hansen), the Critic (Cathy Derkach), and the Sage (Alison Wells).

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12thnight caught up with Guedo, a multi-faceted artist himself — he writes, he directs, he designs, he’s the head of theatre at MacEwan University — to find out more about his inspiration for Joni Mitchell: Songs of a Prairie Girl. 

Why Joni Mitchell? Is your long-standing attraction to the artist traceable to your Saskatchewan DNA? The lyrics of a certain song?  A sensibility?

Joni Mitchell once said that there’s a style, a rhythm, an energy to a ‘flatlander’. She observed that Neil Young had that same artistic ‘gait’. I’m originally from Battleford Sask., and I spent my youth in and around many of the places of her youth. And I connected especially to her drive to express herself through words, art, and music.   

Joni Mitchell gave the project her blessing for its 2005 debut. How did that connection come about?  

It was a matter of going through all the standard labyrinth of agents, assistants, and go-betweens to get my ‘pitch’ to her.  In a sense I storyboarded a proposal, with the hook that it would be a theatrical collage, like beads on a necklace. Showcasing her words, her art, and her music. When we spoke, she made a few requests for additional material put into the show, as she’d hoped the compilation album of Songs of a Prairie Girl would’ve been a double album.  I obviously agreed…

Could you expand on your theatrical idea of five actors to capture different aspects of the artist?  

Like a haphazard photo album, Songs of a Prairie Girl now travels back and forth in a on-linear chronology to illustrate moments from Joni’s life – so we experience the friction of the mundane and the transformative moments abutted up against each other. By telling a life story out of order, like flipping through random photographs, the audience assembles the chronology. But eventually, in performance, we experience it surreally, without the traditional touchstone of one actor playing a titular role but many Joni’s.

The play is non-linear; is the song list non-linear too?  

Yes. It’s more of a fluid, stream-of-consciousness through-line that flits emotionally from point to point, song to song.

Do the ‘characters’ interact onstage?   

Yes, the conceit is what it would be like if you could interact, spar, or commune with all the younger versions of yourself?  While dealing with an audience?

Can we call it a musical?   

That’s a good question.  It’s not a traditional musical in any sense.  It’s not a ‘bio-pic’. It’s a musical collage.

Since Joni’s life has changed radically, health crisis and all, and then changed again, including a recent return to performing (with more to come), what have you changed/expanded in your show?   

The project has been constantly updating over time, but especially in the last two or three years. Especially after her appearance at Newport. The hook into the show had to adjust since just a year before her re-emergence she told Cameron Crowe that she’d never sing or perform again. Then she does a set and plays a guitar solo!

This experience starts before that, but on the cusp of a transitional moment in her journey when she inches back into life.

Speaking of both sides now, Joni Mitchell has famously said that her life as a visual artist is as important as her musical life. Is that provocative view taken up in the production?  

She constantly champions her role as an artist first, a singer second.  And how the vagaries of fate led her to become ‘Joni Mitchell’ the musical icon as opposed to the art school student bent on planting her flag as a visual artist.

She’s an artist of major international stature, and her lyrics and imagery have tangible, powerful Canadian connections….Thoughts about Joni Mitchell’s impact on the world of music?  

I’m biased, but she has been the most important, influential artist that has touched me.

Side question if you’re in the mood: do you have a favourite Joni Mitchell song, one speaks to you louder than the rest?    

Too many to choose from:  I’d say Court and Spark as an entire, unified album.


Joni Mitchell: Songs Of A Prairie Girl

Theatre: Theatre Network in association with Wild Side Productions

Created, directed, and designed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Cathy Derkach, Chariz Faulmino, Kristi Hansen, Cayley Thomas, Alison Wells

Running: at the Roxy March 7 to 26


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