Some of Calgary’s creative elites craft a gothic musical

The hive mentality is fascinating. Ants working together sacrificing their bodies for the greater good. Bees serving their queen. The sum is greater than the parts.

Too often the creative process is a top-down experience. The playwright dictates your moves your voice your personality. The musical director guides your pitch and rhythm. So what happens when creative geniuses are freed of such constraints? What happens when you lockdown talent in a wintry camp and give them free rein to create?

Peter Balkwill of Old Trout Puppet Workshop and Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir fame and Eric Rose co-artistic director of Ghost River Theatre and a former playwright-in-residence at Alberta Theatre Projects are about to find out.

The two have gathered some of Calgary’s finest along with a couple out-of-province ringers at the Rocky Mountain YMCA for two weeks of creative brainstorming and collaboration. The project is a gothic musical set in a depression-era hobo camp. That’s the meta idea anyway. The structure the sounds and the story are a work-in-progress.

After breakfast the group gathers to discuss assignments for the day. Rose gives the basic directions for each assignment.

David Reimer and Bob Keelaghan are paired up to work on a lullaby — a haunting melody that should have a somewhat creepy sensibility violent imagery and “one image of drowning.”

Bessie Wapp from Nelson and Kris Demeanor are assigned to craft a mournful song for the husband performed as a waltz and described by Rose as the lowest point in the play.

Jolene Higgins a.k.a. Little Miss Higgins from Saskatchewan and Balkwill are tasked with tweaking an uplifting tune tentatively titled “Nature is Violent.” This song needs some biblical punch and focuses on the anger of one of the characters Fitz.

The groups go separately to their assigned cabins with their broad directions for individual collaborations.

“The quick history arc of the project is that it initially was an opportunity to do a co-pro with somebody creating a gothic macabre musical — something involving cannibalism was what I put on the stipulation like Sweeney Todd ” says Balkwill sitting in the cozy Eagle Lodge surrounded by instruments.

“I started crafting a story that takes place in an old hobo camp in the 1930s Depression-era because I was interested in that kind of music” he says. “Playing in the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir we draw a lot of our influences on roots blues and old blues of that era. So I thought ‘Wow it would be hilarious to create a musical like that.’ I was reading Grapes of Wrath at the time so an old Depression-era hobo camp seemed like a neat setting.”

The result was a vague storyline about a pregnant couple that emerges from a desert storm into the camp where they take shelter.

As Reimer and Keelaghan begin to work on their lullaby the sound is full and melodic engulfed in rich piano. It’s not quite right though. Rose sitting on the sidelines sketching in a notepad asks if they can make it uglier.

“Let’s see what’s the ugliest chord I can play” says Keelghan before producing the appropriate noise.

Within minutes the song is transformed into a melody that would feel comfortable in a Tim Burton movie — dystopic dreamy creepy and damaged.

Walking across a snow-covered field surrounded by the Rockies leads to Demeanor and Wapp. The two musicians Demeanor with a guitar and Wapp with an accordion sit in a large hall surrounded by the trappings of summer camp — banners with mottos hang from the centre of the room.

They are working on the lamentations of a tired and frustrated man. “I’m getting tired I’m getting tired.” The two voices rise and echo in a mournful wail. The husband’s decency is being worn down by the society around him.

Across the squeaky floor of the great hall through kitchen doors and into the back office Balkwill and Higgins try to flesh out the lyrics.

“As rage began…. As rage began…. As rage began….”

The two are stuck on how to make this song of natural destruction flow. “Nature came down to this communion and his rage began to burn. Nature is violent.”

Piecing together the various bits of music and lyrics spread out across the camp putting the puzzle pieces together mimics the creation of this ongoing project. Rose and Balkwill don’t know where this grand idea which started three years ago and lingered in the back of Balkwill’s mind will lead.

“So Eric and I continued to gestate over it and meet and talk and it wouldn’t die — the idea wouldn’t die. Eventually you have to serve these ideas. When they don’t go away the only way to make them go away is to serve them” says Balkwill.

Serving this idea in such a loosely scripted fashion is not something new for either man. Rose regularly creates work along with David van Belle at Ghost River that involves bringing the cast and others into the creative process. Balkwill says the Old Trouts and the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir thrive in this kind of creative commons.

“That is so empowering and unique and enlightening as artists” says Rose. “Because too often we’re put in a little box. ‘You do this kind of thing and I’m going to go off and do that.’ We don’t get enough of this ability to get in a room and think ‘What’s going to happen?’”

So. What’s going to happen? Well who knows? This week’s presentation at the Ironwood will be more of a concert with minimal dialogue and description. The future however is wide open. This could be a full-blown musical production. There could be an album. It might be more of a radio play. There is even talk of getting into the folk fest.

So is this a musical?

“Right now it’s sitting in that realm but who knows after these two weeks” says Balkwill.