BWW Interview: A Conversation with the Creators and Cast of The Musical Stage Company's ONEGIN
A new Canadian musical is about to grace the stage in Toronto. The Musical Stage Company (formerly Acting Up Stage Company) is bringing their new work, ONEGIN to the Berkeley Street Theatre. Written by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, the musical explores themes of young love, rejection and regret - a story made famous by Pushkin's poetry and Tchaikovsky's opera.
I had a chance to chat with ONEGIN's creators, Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille as well as two of the performers, Daren A. Herbert (Onegin) and Hailey Gillis (Tatyana) about the experience of bringing this story to life.
CREATORS - VEDA HILLE & AMIEL GLADSTONE
TL: Tell me about your experience in the musical theatre world - how did you start writing? What do you love about it?
VH: I was slowly lured into theatre through a bunch of excellent devised theatre experimenters: Leaky Heaven, Theatre Replacement, Neworld. Then Ami (Amiel) got me further in to "proper" musical theatre when we worked on Craigslist Cantata together. I love the puzzle of writing these works, and the possibility for great feeling in the long form. I always marvel at novelists, and how they work for so long on things. And lo and behold, here we are making these elaborate living novels.
AG: For me, it started with trying to put live music into the plays I was creating. I love hearing actors sing. The openheartedness that is required to sing can be wonderful. Then I started seeing musicals that hit me in a special place - like 'Rent' and 'Passing Strange', and it felt like there was a place in musical theatre for some new sounds.
TL: What are some of the challenges in creating a new musical - other than the tremendous amount of creation work involved?
VH: Choosing the right story to attempt is a huge moment, especially because you know it's going to be years of thought and labour. And then finding the right collaborators all along the way.
TL: What inspired you to choose this story?
VH: Onegin was Ami's idea and I trusted his instinct. I was less sure until we got about 5 or 6 songs in. Then I was caught, especially since I had to inhabit Tatyana while writing. She's a very compelling character.
AG: I was assistant directing the opera a few years ago, so I was immersed in the opera, but in such a way that I could watch it over and over and see how compelling its stories and characters are. It was about finding a match for our aesthetic and how I believe theatre should feel like theatre and nothing else.
TL: How have you made this interpretation unique?
VH: I don't know if that's for us to say. I suppose that the music is very removed from the traditional Tchaikovsky. But being unique is not always the goal either; we just want it to be good.
TL: I've read that it's an adaption of the poem by Pushkin and the opera by Tchaikovsky - can we expect to hear any musical themes borrowed from the opera?
VH: We were clear from the beginning that we wanted to lightly quote the opera; it's beautiful work, and we leaned on Tchaikovsky's structure so we wanted to acknowledge that. Plus, it's fun for the opera fans to have these references.
TL: How would you describe the musical genre of the show?
AG: Rousing Cabaret
TL: How has the production changed since The Arts Club version, presented in Vancouver in 2016?
VH: I always want the show to be "finished", and then Ami always reminds me that theatre is a living form. So, we have to work more. We're working on deepening Tatyana's part of the story, and clarifying some of the plot points that are foreign to a contemporary audience. And of course, being a new production we have a new set, new costumes, many new and exciting people.
AG: As well, the staging has been reconfigured from a thrust stage to a proscenium, while trying to maintain the close connection to the audience. Different choreography, props, and working to make John's lighting work with an entirely different rig.
TL: Describe the show in one word
TL: Do you have any advice for new or young writers and creators out there?
VH: Write about what amazes you. Try not to think about the audience, at least at the beginning. Work with people you love.
AG: Find a collaborator who you love working with, shares an aesthetic, and you both like to work hard.
PERFORMERS - Daren A. Herbert AND HAILEY GILLIS
TL: Tell me a bit about yourself
DH: Well, last Thursday I became a father for the first time! Ori Haelan is our newest family member and May the 4th be with us all! Mom and baby are doing well and we've all been navigating tech week right alongside new "familyhood". It has been an incredible challenge in so many ways, and every morning and evening I feel like celebrating some small victory or other. Both at home and here on stage, we are doing it!
HG: Myself... I love to cook, I love road trips, I think I'm an introvert in life and an extrovert in my career. I write music, I grew up in the little town of Grimsby, Ontario and now I live in The Beaches with my partner and my cat named Moe.
I started out as a singer. My parents said I had a very high pitched scream and so they put me into singing lessons. Later, I entered a performance program at Theatre Aquarius and sort of lived there throughout middle school and high school. Then I went to university for theatre and drama studies in a joint program between University of Toronto and Sheridan College. When I graduated, I was accepted into the Soulpepper Academy and have been working professionally ever since.
I feel so crazy lucky to be able to do what I love for a living. To be a part of something meaningful and work in this family of artists. The Canadian theatre scene is incredible and immense. Every day I try to work really hard, play, and pinch myself.
TL: How did you get involved with this production?
DH: I've worked with Musical Stage Co. many times, including Ami and Veda's previous work A Craigslist Cantata, so we all knew each other well. Somehow, all the stars aligned and we managed to be doing this piece together.
HG: I remember having coffee with Mitchell Marcus and he said "there's a project coming up with us I think would really excite you". I have always been and will always be a cheerleader for The Musical Stage Company, I think they are bold in fighting for interesting Canadian work. So, if Mitchell would have said, "we need you to come in to play the tree," I would have said, "OK! Any way I can help!" When I did audition for the show I was met with the warmest room. Amiel and Veda had actually seen me in Romeo and Juliet the summer before at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver, and I had been to the Jessie's (where ONEGIN had won its many awards), so luckily we were all acquainted with each other's work. When I got the call that I was going to be playing Tatyana, I was overjoyed. I listened to the original cast recording on repeat for the next two months straight.
TL: What is your favourite part about creating a role in a new musical?
DH: That's great wording because I really do bring myself to each role as if it has never been done before, not by me at least. I love being swallowed up by the musical soundscape and researching the hell out of the material. On this one, I have been feeling out Pushkin's African heritage and the way he, as a Russian aristocrat, never tried to hide it. I think that this, along with his literary lampooning of the powers of his day, probably saved his life at one stage. I found him, and the pride of place that Onegin holds in Russian literature, fascinating.
HG: I've been lucky that the creators of the new musicals I've been a part of have been interested in collaboration. It's that partnership of ideas that I find the most satisfying. I think every artist and in particular (for this question) every singer has their own unique voice. Often we are taught and told to change this voice to "fit" a character, or a style, or a popular sound. I think this can be problematic. A new musical, for me, intersects the artist's unique voice and the transformative nature of theatre. I've been able to explore choices that are my own and the creative teams all at once. There is room for individuality and there is care taken to achieve that.
TL: What kind of research or preparation went into developing a character that's been revived across so many different art forms - opera, ballet, theatre, film?
HG: Well, I consumed the original Pushkin novel/poem. I had never read it before this project and what a shame! It's so special, and rich, and exciting. Most of my clues into the character came from the original book. Pushkin writes so beautifully about Tatyana and gives a really in-depth look into her psyche and her heart. I also spent a lot of time with the Tchaikovsky opera, allowing the musical movement to inform my character emotionally. I remember seeing the ballet at The National Ballet Of Canada a few years ago and thought it was stunning, the beauty of the ballet inspired me. Other than those three main sources, I try to ask myself a lot of questions about my character and find answers in time with the creative team. This production has contemporary inspiration, so I'm immersing myself in some punk rock history, and beautiful bad ass women of today.
I also make myself a playlist for each and every show I do. Right now, my Tatyana playlist includes a lot of Timbre Tamber and Lhasa de Sela.
TL: What has this experience taught you - about yourself as a performer, about the production process?
DH: I've learned, through this period, that I do have very real limitations and to respect them! I've learned to appreciate the spaces in between the notes and the words and lights like never before. I've re-learned that no world art is ever truly finished or completely mastered. And I've learned to approach life and work with an open a heart...doing anything else will always be a source of frustration.
HG: (I've learned) That the team is everything. Anything is possible with really hardworking artists, who open their hearts and minds all at once. There isn't a day where we don't laugh, where we aren't excited for each other, where we don't check in with one another. This is such a beautiful group of people, from the actors, to the director, to the composer, to our stage management, to our designers, and then back to our producer. It was a fast rehearsal process but I never once felt rushed. We were given focus and time in the room to ask questions and find answers. Mindful space makes a difference.
TL: What do you love the most about performing?
DH: I love investigating the human condition. I love digging way down to find the deepest secrets, the closely guarded aches and pains of the heart and laying them out there for others to see, recognize and embrace in themselves. This piece is a wonderful exploration of all that and I'm grateful the team invited me to come and play.
HG: WOW. Hard question. Good question.
I love that a group of people gather in a room and decide to all have a part in the telling of a story. I think that's pretty beautiful. My absolute favourite thing about performing is when the whole room seems to be holding its breath, waiting for a certain moment, and we as the performers get to lead the room in and out of that state. It doesn't always happen, it can't always happen, but when it does I hold on and remember the feeling.
The Musical Stage Company presents ONEGIN at the Berkeley Street Theatre from May 13 - June 4, 2017.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.musicalstagecompany.com
ONEGIN by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille
Directed by Amiel Gladstone | Choregraphed by Linda Garneau | Music directed by Chris Tsujiuchi | Musical supervision by Veda Hille
Set design Denyse Karn | Lighting design John Webber | Costume Design Alex Amini |Sound design Michael Laird | Production manager Peter Eaton | Stage manager AJ Laflamme | Apprentice stage manager Michaela Steven
(photo credit: Matt Barnes)