By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Have you ever tried something new, and instantly thought ‘O! I feel like I’ve been doing this my whole life?’”
That’s how Darrin Hagen remembers the exact day when everything changed for the small-town Alberta trailer park kid that he was, at seven. “Grandma had a little chord organ in her dining room” is his once-upon-a-time. And from that all else follows — Hagen the composer, the sound designer, the author, the playwright, the actor, the director, the drag queen — as we find out in Metronome, the new Hagen solo memoir that launches the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre season Nov. 12.
“I was always fascinated by piano keys,” declares the ebullient Hagen, “the way they’re laid out, the way they play.” While Grandma was cooking on the fateful day, the junior Hagen, completely untrained in matters musical, sat down at the keyboard and “figured it out…. I’d never had a lesson, but somehow it made perfect sense to me.”
That day ended with “a little concert” for Grandma and her three sisters, featuring On Top of Old Smokey, to general amazement. And the capper was that Great Aunt Ruby, a music teacher, said “you need to get that kid some music lessons….”
“Everything else comes from that moment, the moment you suddenly realize O, this is something I’m good at. And everyone around you goes, O, this is something he’s good at.”
His mom and dad found him a teacher and a $50 used entry-level accordion with 12 bass buttons “to see what would happen when I’d played it for a year.” And Hagen’s progress was exponential as he cut a swath through the Palmer Hughes accordion course. A particular fave was Two Guitars, mainly because “it had that middle-European sound, it got faster and faster, it was in a minor key, and it had a big loud finish.”
After three months Hagen advanced to a 48-bass accordion, then within a year a 120-bass instrument. After three years, he’d surpassed the skills of his teacher Mrs. Bonde, who suggested a change in instrument: the piano. And so it came to pass that Hagen’s parents raced to Sylvan Lake to trade an old lady $700 for her “big old upright mahogany grand,” an Ennis & Sons his mom had heard about on CKRD’s Swap Shop.
“It took four or five men, including my dad, to move it into the trailer,” says Hagen. His mom and her friends were the inspiration for his solo show Tornado Magnet. Metronome is his dad’s first appearance in a Hagen play: he does the heavy lifting throughout. The first big question on moving day: “will this fall through the floor?”
“It was the biggest piece of furniture we owned; it occupied as much space as the couch. And there was only one place it could go. In the front room against an interior wall so the weather wouldn’t throw the tuning off.”
The piano was a life-changer for a kid growing up gay in Rocky Mountain House. “It was my soul-mate; this was a love affair,” declares Hagen, who was teaching piano by age 12 (“before my job at the IGA, before the Dairy Queen”). And he ascribes magical powers to its 88-key allure. “It’s a character with huge significance in my life; it’s the reason I’m in the arts…. Without music lessons I’d like to think I’d have ended up somehow in theatre, but I’m not sure I would ever have figured out how.”
For some people, the route to their inner creativity is dance, for others painting. Hagen’s way in was music. “I’m a big believer that once you tap into your creative reserve, that river that’s inside you, it’s a matter of learning different skills. Music taught me to access it. And once I did I felt like I could do anything … write, act, do drag.”
Metronome didn’t start out to be a play. What Hagen had in mind was “a little anthology of piano-themed stories,” including one he’d written 30 years ago about him and his Grandma, and another from 2009. “I still think there’s a book down the road.” Hagen’s The Edmonton Queen, he points out, was like that too, finding its form as a solo play and a book.
It was Workshop West artist director Heather Inglis who’d called him on a hunch: “I have a feeling you might be working on something.” When she read the stories, she was sure they could be a play. “A solo show! It terrifies me, are you kidding!” he declares. “After the last one (Tornado Magnet at Theatre Network in 2014) I vowed I’d never do another one!”
“We talked long and hard about whether there should be a piano onstage, and if it was there whether I should play it — and if I didn’t, would that just piss people off?” In the end, Hagen won’t be sharing the stage. “It’s not a show about me playing the piano. It’s about how the piano changed my life….”
And there’s this: he doesn’t actually have the magical piano any more. He still has nine accordions, of various sizes and showbiz embellishments. But for 22 years he’s been piano-less. In 1999 he gave his piano away, “to my cousin’s blind daughter. Because it had another life to save. And I’ve never regretted it. It changed her life; the magic went to her. It was the right thing to do.”
With music, says Hagen, “you learn to access the truth inside you.” Somehow, he thinks, “music has a magical effect on us emotionally,” an effect beyond language, beyond cultures and borders. Why do minor chords make you feel sad? “It’s a great mystery…. You let your emotions pour through the piano and into the air. And after you learn how to do that, all other art forms follow.”
“Mom never had to tell me to practice. Never. Not once! I loved every second, I’d have practised 12 hours a day if I could’ve,” says Hagen. “The only reason I ever stopped playing was that the piano was in the same room as the TV,” he laughs. “My mom loved to hear me play; she loved the World Series even more.”
Hagen “started to play weddings, trade fairs, old folks’ homes, contests; I was the go-to kid for school assemblies.” He wrote the song for his high school graduation ceremony (he remembers being too afraid to go to the party). He and his friend Shanann (“we were the Rocky version of Buckingham-Nicks”) won an ACT Search For Talent competition.
Growing up gay in small-town Alberta is no picnic. “You want to be invisible, but you’ve chosen a path that makes you SO visible…. When the bullying started, it was music that saved me,” Hagen says. “The piano is the reason I’m alive; I say that without hesitation…. My piano was my rock.”
For a kid “who was gay, had bad glasses and played the accordion,” the piano was also “a step toward non-nerdism,” Hagen laughs. When he left Rocky and moved to Edmonton and his new drag queen life, “it went from being covered with trophies to being covered with crowns, ashtrays, feather boas. It has a story to tell….”
In Metronome, Hagen “skips over the drag years,” as he says. “They’re a hiccup in a much longer plan. And I’ve told that story in many ways before…. This is about the stuff that got me to Edmonton. It really is an origin story, about my piano and me. It’s a miracle it happened at all; something, music I think, was looking out for me!”
There’s always a sound track playing in Hagen’s head, he says. “Millions of tunes in my head always, at the same time. Ready to pulled forward.” The piano, he says, is “a conduit to songs that are attached to memories.” Donna Summer figures prominently (her 17-minute disco version of MacArthur Park “was my go-to piece for competitions).” Heart, Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell … they tap into moments in Hagen’s story. Workshop West’s outreach coordinator Liam Salmon, a playwright himself, has compiled a Spotify playlist of references.
It’s all got Hagen thinking about having a piano again after two decades. “It’s time.” He’s been eying kijiji. “It’s sad,” he says. “The piano used to be the most valuable thing in any room; now they’re giving them away.” He’s auditioned a few, but hasn’t found his perfect mate yet. “It’s got to be love at first sight….” He doesn’t want “too bright, too brassy. I need something a little darker, smokier, fuller. The keys have to fight back a bit.”
“Music arrived in my life for a reason,” he says. “That’s what Metronome is about.”
Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Written and performed by: Darrin Hagen
Directed by: Heather Inglis
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Nov. 12 to 21
Tickets and mask/vaccination requirements: workshop west.org