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Life in the Theatre

Profile: Marlane O’Brien

by Jane Ledwell

Marlane O’Brien (photo: Buzz)When the universe nudges me, I have to pay attention, because I don’t get nudged that often,” says Marlane O’Brien, with a wink. A professional actor in classical theatre, musical theatre, voiceover, television, film, and radio for 35 years, Marlane came to the Island for A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline and kept walking the red roads here. She says that a “nudge” doesn’t come with clear signs and signals: “I can’t say there was a specific thing—suddenly, I realized I was already on the path…”

The path she is on today is bordered with possibility. She can barely contain excitement for a new co-creation: “We’re in the process of establishing a professional winter theatre company for the Island.” The company, named Athena (for the “Greek goddess of both culture and business”) plans to commence its first season in September 2015. The company’s four women creators, from varied fields, have complementary skill sets, Marlane says, but all share a “tremendous passion for the creation of great art, in the performing arts.”

“We want a winter company that’s very intimate, very connected to the Island,” she enthuses. “We want the theatre to be respectful of up-and-coming theatre-goers. We want it to be—and I hate this word—but we want it to be ‘edgier’ theatre. We don’t want to push away established theatre-goers, but we’re ready for more controversial topics.”

Marlane says, “The Island has grown up—and grown up in such a hurry. Since the (Confederation) Bridge, the influences the Strait was keeping at bay have all arrived.” She reflects that as an Island culture, “We know what we want to keep from the ‘old’ Island, but we haven’t quite come to understand what we want from the new Island.”

Meanwhile, “there are company members (from the Confederation Centre summer company) who’ve bought a house here. We want to give them something to live here for, so they don’t have to go away six to ten months a year.”

Of those rare nudges like the nudge to create Athena, Marlane says, “I’ve reached a point like this maybe three times in my life.” The first time, she says was “when we decided we would produce (the original musical) The Maritime Star, at the Jubilee.”

“The second was producing Menopositive: The Musical,” she says—and which she “counts as a great success”—although “the pinnacle of the run through the Maritimes landed in Halifax the same day as Hurricane Juan,” she grimaces.

The third came in the form of new opportunities with the Charlottetown Festival. First, the chance “to play Marilla, a part I have coveted a long time,” in Anne. “My third year in the role, I am still finding new things about the part.” Marilla takes what Marlane describes as “a glorious journey—that the audience shares.”

To the thrill of playing Marilla, Marlane adds “to be so privileged to be part of the first production of Evangeline… Every single person in it—and I only had a small role—took part in that terrible story with our own hearts, our own passions, our own losses, so the audience cared about every character on that stage. This is what I became an actor to do.”

Beyond acting, Marlane is challenging herself to write for Athena’s upcoming first season, adapting short stories from Margie Carmichael’s book Stories from the Quilt: “The best way to leap in is to adapt something already written. The story and the language are already there.”

Marlane says of Athena, “I want to make sure the Island doesn’t get shortchanged. I sometimes think Islanders aren’t given enough credit for thinking for ourselves. We need to see things and make up our own minds… There’s an untapped audience out there that’s just waiting.”

Life in the theatre must be fed by life outside it. She says, “I am a woman who loves to get outside and smell the roses. To me, life is getting shorter all the time…” Marlane O’Brien says with conviction and a smile, “I have a reputation I should use for some good before I die.”

Working for Answers

Profile: Jan Rudd
by Jane Ledwell

Jan RuddJan Rudd has been renovating her Charlottetown house and reluctantly getting ready to sell her New York City apartment off Central Park. There, she spent much of 13 years, nine of them teaching in Harlem. A storyteller, writer, actor, comedian, and teacher, every act is a story. She is telling me – acting out, really – a DIY horror story about getting pinned alone at 3:00 a.m. under a heavy piece of cementboard in a bathroom, using all her might to escape.

“Once I get that bee in my bonnet that I think I can make something happen… Once I get going, I don’t sleep. Then, as you crawl out nine years later…” she laughs. “I’m not a very balanced person. I’m almost afraid of getting into something... I’m on high-speed or off.”

Leaving her post at Pedro Albizu Campos Public School 161, “PS 161,” in Harlem was another case of out-from-under the cementboard. She says, “I felt like I was on all fours getting away from this school” – and yet, she emphasizes (perhaps to herself), “Lots of good things had happened.”

That’s quite an understatement. Jan began as sole music and drama teacher for a school of 950 kids in K–8 “Actually,” she says, “the first year was hell. But I’m of that Protestant background raised to believe that if things are horrible, they are probably good for you; you’re probably learning something important!” The school was another culture, another world. Observing her fellow teachers, she says, “A lot of classes, the teacher’s role would be to stand at the door to keep students from getting out.” Teaching in the school, she says, “took every bit of my performing abilities and storytelling.”

Fortunately, Jan Rudd’s abilities are substantial. She finished her time at PS161 in a department that had two full-time music teachers and one full-time drama teacher. The school had started band and strings programs, hustling up dozens of musical instruments. Students had participated in projects with Rosie O’Donnell’s foundation for musical theatre, with Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble (“Yo-Yo Ma is an amazing person,” she says “He even came to committee meetings”), and with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The Berlin Philharmonic performed “with 25 kids from my school and 75 kids from other schools dancing to ‘The Rite of Spring,’ with choreography by an amazing choreographer from Berlin.” The students from Jan’s school worked with two dance teachers. “The project was crazy,” she says, not least of all because it included students from two violently duelling high schools. “We couldn’t even rehearse where we were supposed to… we needed a neutral space.” Jan says, “I love teenagers. I tried everything, but they were just awful, awful, awful. And it was so beautiful when they actually came together. But,” she admits, “it was the beginning of the end for me.”

She says with remembered exhaustion, “The last two years were almost funny.” She recalls her last day at PS 161: “My last day was 104 degrees (Fahrenheit), and I knew I was finished. Everything was good, our school had become a model school for music, but my last day, there was a memorial service for a student. A student from our school went to Columbia on scholarship, and she went on a school trip – and she drowned. It was awful.”

Jan was coordinating the memorial service in the heat, trying to make it meaningful. “The family came and the kids had poems…” Emotions were running high. “I was setting out the sound system and couldn’t get anyone to help me. In the heat, I almost had a stroke. Finally, I had it all set up, and the service started, and someone tripped on the thing and unplugged it. I went to play the piano and … nothing.”

Jan had seen students who would never otherwise have had opportunities get scholarships, go to college, or travel the world with choirs. Today, through a partnership with Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute, PS 161 is, literally, a “model school” for comprehensive music instruction, music curriculum, and incorporating music into all aspects of teachers’ professional development and students’ learning.

Jan says, “We had top musicians from Carnegie coming, doing master classes with the band and the strings program. We had students in the Young People’s Choir of New York that toured the world. We had students getting scholarships.”

Being a Carnegie Hall model music school for K-8 music meant a program with “comprehensive music education for all classes from K-8, professional development for all the teachers to the eight grade on how to incorporate music into other subjects – math, social studies…” Jan says, “The repercussions of it are huge – the students making friends with students they would not have met. The students are in another world.”

Being a model school also means “bringing in other schools, to show how they make it happen: How to get it so every single class has music.” Even though some of the other programs Jan was involved in ended before or after she left New York, Carnegie is still there.

As Jan says with conviction, “Even if you get music and nothing else, it forges really important connections in the brain.”

Years she wasn’t teaching in NYC, Jan’s one-woman play, Safety in Numbers, played off-Broadway and ran at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2004 – until, Jan says, “I had a health scare. I thought I had ovarian cancer. I played Safety in Numbers for a week knowing I had to have surgery at the end of the week.”

She recalls, “I had some really cool things happen. I met Sidney Poitier’s daughter, and she wanted to talk – but I was going in for surgery, so I couldn’t. There are things I wonder about myself. Things I have not followed up on… I wonder about myself, if I’m being afraid to succeed,” she muses. Thinking about the dynamic Safety in Numbers, she says, “It’s not like a normal first-person show, because I am talking to myself all the time. That was really difficult. I don’t think I could do it anymore.”

Through the summers, Jan was returning home to Charlottetown to teach the Confederation Centre Young Company, and through that came her most recent gig at the School of Performing Arts, where she’ll return next semester to teach. She teaches the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique that is her specialty as well as other acting styles and improv. After New York, she “almost thought of an adventure for a year, then I met the kids at SOPA, and I could almost look down and see myself outside of my body,” clapping delightedly, “saying, I can’t wait to have you in class.”

When her students last year proved marvelous improvisers, she worked with a group to create a sketch comedy show, “Ladies and GentlemAn,” to run late-nights at The Guild. “I really enjoyed helping with the kids – doing some writing, getting those chops back, finding gems in improv, seeing them shining. I love that,” she says.

“I love comedy. I love that place where tears and laughter are right there. Life is wonderfully, hilariously absurd. I can’t take it all too seriously. It just doesn’t seem right to,” Jan says.

“My background is so much about helping other people… I love teaching what I teach because I love the kids – I’m much more interested in the person, that expansion (of their lives), how they touch all those things…

“I was a minister, and now I am still not in any way an orthodox anything, but I’m still really interested in philosophy and theology and how we create meaning.”

Jan Rudd concludes, “Art is where the rubber of the soul hits the road. Touching something bigger than ourselves: it’s a need. It’s a human need. It has to be answered.”

Stories to Tell

Profile: Richard Lemm

by Jane Ledwell

Richard Lemm (photo: Buzz)Like a superstitious ball player getting ready for a new season, Dr. Richard Lemm may be ritually dusting and lining up his office knick-knacks in the UPEI English Department where he has been teaching since 1986, full-time since 1988. At the beginning of the school year, he smiles, “I’m always nervous – which is good.” In his dreaming life, teaching nightmares are now joined sometimes by happy teaching dreams, full of pleasant surprises.

“I get more relaxed year after year. I’m finally learning how to teach, finally learning to be myself,” he says. “I have the spontaneity I would have with friends I really relax with. In the past, I think I was more inhibited because I didn’t want to make students uncomfortable. But, of course, the more relaxed I am in myself, the more relaxed they are.”

In his years at UPEI, he has also seen his students transformed. Island students now, he says, are “more worldly. More cosmopolitan. More tolerant. More liberal.”

Remembering the 1988 plebiscite on the “Fixed Link,” and the debate about maintaining the “Island way of life,” Richard remembers Islanders who wanted a Link so they could shop in Moncton. “The Island way of life was already changing because of Champlain Place… Travel was a thing you did now as an Islander.” At the time of the plebiscite, he recalls, “baseball caps were in,” but the students were wearing the logos of American teams. The music they were listening to was overwhelmingly American. And now, he says, “with 200 channels and video games – what really is an ‘Islander’? How is an Islander different from someone who lives in The Beaches in Toronto or in Moosejaw or a white person in the Yukon?”

He notes other changes, “The Island accent has largely vanished. I have classes where no one comes from a farming or fishing family, and where most are urban or suburban.”

He continues, “On the other hand, the base of knowledge has diminished. I can only speak from the perspective of the Arts faculty, but gone is biblical knowledge or knowledge of Greek and Roman myth. Gone is knowledge of Elizabethan history.  Some people have said that the knowledge is much less deep but much wider, but even popular culture knowledge is fragmented.” This is a challenge, he adds, because, “especially in the Arts, we look for drawing on comparison for poetry and fiction.” Allusion and common references are important.

Unchanged in Island students, he says, is “the respect for generational knowledge is still strong, and that may or may not be as strong in other regions.”

An award-winning writer of four books of poetry, a collection of short stories, and a biography of poet Milton Acorn, Richard’s teaching life is integrated with his life as a writer. He says, “I am so blessed to be able to teach creative writing, especially the advanced creative writing. The level of ‘student’ is high, including people with books out and undergraduates who are so talented. It’s like being part of a great writing workshop every week.”

These days, he also teaches courses in life writing for varied groups of students, and, he adds, “I am very privileged to read very moving, very good writing about lives. There are happy stories you could tell anyone but also stories that are tragic, that other ‘Island-way-of-life’ of hard things that go on.”

With a full day of teaching and marking, Richard used to write at night; now, he writes in the mornings, practising what he preaches to his students by committing to write just ten minutes. “So often, ten minutes turns into thirty, or turns into two to three hours.” (Though, he admits laughingly, “I’m a dead duck if I turn on email.”)

“The greatest ad campaign of the past 30 years is Nike: ‘Just do it,’” he says, and his commitment means he has “well over 100 poems since the last book came out. I’ve selected about 90 pages and some writer friends are looking at them. I continue to write new poems.”

He is also working on a memoir, though he hesitates to describe it that way. “I’m still nervous about that word,” he confesses. “The form of this is a collection of personal essays. The initial purpose was to explore the lives of my male relatives, all of whom fought for America in wars. Then my own life as an American male who grew up as an all-American boy in the fifties, then was a conscientious objector in the sixties, a draft dodger, and, finally, a new Canadian.” Raised by his grandmother in Seattle, the “powerful influences” of his women relatives are also an essential part of the story.

“With a memoir you have to know what to leave out as much as what to leave in. It’s about ‘my experience,’ but the largest part is other people,” he reflects. As he writes, Richard is continuing to ask himself questions: “What was it to be an American male at this time? What was it to be lower-middle class in the most affluent society on earth?” and more questions. He is coming to terms with his identity he is increasingly comfortable labelling as “an American-Canadian.”

The pervasiveness of American stories in North American culture continues to concern him as he sees his own and his students’ writing risk being swamped. “If we don’t tell our own stories, our stories will be told for us, and there is a great chance they won’t be our own stories, or they won’t be the stories we want to be told. Many won’t be told at all,” he worries.

“Our stories now are mostly told by America,” he says. There are many Island stories being told and written, he says, and “this is so very important, but it is a very small percentage of the stories Islanders are being told compared to time on the Internet watching viral videos or news from CNN. It really is like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dam,” though, he adds, “It would be a lot worse without funding and support for arts programs.”

“In my sixty-some years, I have seen cultures get overwhelmed,” he says. It is something he hopes not to see here in Maritime Canada. “The stories have to be told, and a lot of different stories. Some will be tragic. Some will be embarrassing. Some will be hard to swallow. That’s what makes a great culture,” Richard says.

“You can’t just take the happy endings of Shakespeare’s comedies. You need the calamities of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And you need the tragedies, too. “We need PEI’s Hamlet, our Macbeth.” He raises his eyebrows, “Our King Lear! Who will write these stories? It will be a surprise.” It’s a surprise he hopes to receive as a professor with the privilege of many stories.

On the Way Up

Profile: Colin Buchanan

by Jane Ledwell

Colin Buchanan (photo: Buzz)Sometimes people want stories like a warm cup of tea—and that is powerful in the right dosage,” says musician Colin Buchanan, who is now a newly minted theatre co-writer and director with the production of Story at The Guild. He adds a “however…”: “Storytelling is often a lament for the past, or we’ve looked at the past with rose-coloured glasses… We wanted something with more mystery, more mystique.

“When I started creating the concept of what would become Story, combining storytelling and songs is not a new concept, especially around here—marrying that charming emcee-like character with a musician.” He smiles warmly. “But we delved deeper into the idea of why people like that. Why people are drawn to that storyteller character. Who is defined as a storyteller? What is a storyteller? And it’s not just stories or music. Storytellers are all around us,” Colin says.

“When (co-creator) David Weale first approached me with the idea of a new storytelling show, I immediately had a much larger vision of what the show could be,” Colin says. David got some funding, and they decided, “Let’s make something special, that can last.” They settled on a show that would tell stories, but also “define why it’s important for Islanders to tell stories about ourselves.”

Colin says, “Technology has changed, and it empowers us to be storytellers—whether it’s the beautiful camera you carry on your phone, or whether you produce an album in your bedroom with songs from your own point of view. It is inherent, that want for storytelling.

“How I go about presenting it is exemplary of elements of oral storytelling, musical storytelling, animation, photography, film,” Colin says, adding that Story is stories “with an Island lens,” exploring also “what that means for new generations.”

He enthuses, “One thing that’s fun for me about the production is exemplifying the different media. They are literally all the things I love to do. Photography, film, video, animation—all the things I’m into.”

Colin certainly is into a lot of things. Best-known as a members of Paper Lions, his band is writing music and preparing for a fall tour, and Colin still has lots of music going on. “I’ve been a professional musician ten years, since I was 17 years old. It’s a true love, a passion. It still surprises and excites me… One of the greatest joys of my life is to make music and travel the world with childhood friends—and to grow together and still be friends.”

Colin has also branched out into producing albums for other bands. With evident joy in the odd juxtapositions, he says this summer he’s been “working on a heavy metal album, electronic mixes, and Story… I’d be at David Weale’s place and he would be asking deep questions—‘What is a story,’—and I would have to go cut guitars for Death Valley Driver. And they would bizarrely feed into each other.”

His philosophy as a producer is, “Whether it’s on stage or in studio, you have to coax a performance out of someone. No amount of gear or tricks can replace human performance.” He muses, “A producer takes someone else’s idea and runs with it, so there’s a lot of trust involved,” but, he says, “There’s always something great that comes out of it.”

He says, “I see band dynamics all the time as a producer,” and he is grateful for the positive and supportive dynamic of Paper Lions. “The band members are the first to believe in me and encourage me. They don’t care it’s ‘spreading myself thin.’ There’s no fear of the well running dry.”

Colin Buchanan says, “I feel like Charlottetown is really killing it these days. You follow your passions, and the community will support you. The film industry has swelled, even in the past two years. We’re outputting beautiful sounding albums, and the songs are better, better stage performances. Charlottetown is on the up, culturally speaking.” It’s a success story Colin Buchanan is proud to be part of.

History Plays

The Lion in Winter

Review by Jane Ledwell

John Dartt and Gracie Finley, as King Henry and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine  (photo: Mike Needham)What shall we hang? The holly or each other?” asks Eleanor of Aquitaine coldly in The Lion in Winter.

The summer of 2014 brings to life the winter of 1183 and a fictional Christmas court of the leonine King Henry II (John Dartt); his mistress Alais, who is beginning to assert her place (Leah Pritchard); his three sons, the youthful and weak John (Alex Furber), the lionhearted warrior Richard (Robert Tsonos), and the shrewd Geoffrey (Jonathan Widdifield); along with the diffident Phillip, the King of France (Brian Bisson); and, most pot-stirringly of all, the formidable, scheming wife Henry has imprisoned for a decade for fomenting his overthrow, the intelligent and manipulative Eleanor of Aquitaine (Gracie Finley). Here, “power is the only fact.”

Mordantly, wickedly funny without being a comedy, The Lion in Winter purrs and roars. The Watermark Theatre is foremost an actor’s theatre, a theatre for artisans and audiences who love what theatre can do with a few planks, some lights, a script, and a cast and crew who are willing to eat, breathe, and sleep theatre. Unsurprisingly, the Watermark continues to select actors’ plays, inviting casts to provide the performance of a lifetime.

James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter is just such an invitation: an actors’ play. Known best through the 1968 film adaptation with indelible performances by Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, it was first produced on the stage in 1966. A script that loves language, Shakespeare’s history plays, classical Greek tragedies, and mid-20th century family dramas centred on the harmful effects of manipulative mothers, it provides scenes for actors to revel in.

Directed by artistic director Duncan MacIntosh, the fine acting company of The Watermark revels. In handsome, effective costumes and a spare set designed by Scott Penner, each actor turns in a nuanced performance.

As Eleanor, Gracie Finley gets the best lines. She demonstrates cold and calculating menace and obsessive self-regard, while still convincingly drawing out demonstrations of desire for her affection and love from her family. Described as “Medea to the teeth,” she makes it believable that she could slaughter her children. “I don’t much like our children,” she admits, and elicits laughter, but will the savvy queen metaphorically sacrifice so much? (Having read the history and seen the movie, I was still on the knife’s edge trying to remember or guess how the play would end.)

As the sons, John (goofy), Richard (staunch), and Geoffrey (sly), Alex Furber, Robert Tsonos, and Jonathan Widdifield portray them all betimes worthy of affection and betimes worthy of scorn, with Widdifield’s Geoffrey a particularly consistent and strong portrayal. As Alais, at first innocent, Leah Pritchard finds some icy resolve in the mistress as winter chills the family. Brian Bisson’s Phillip seems mostly an observer until his central, flawless scene with his old lover, Richard.

And the lion himself, Henry, a Lear in reverse who refuses to divide his kingdom for his children, nonetheless faces betrayal by his children. John Dartt closes the second act wrenchingly, affectingly, hauntingly. An actor’s moment, performed to perfection. As Eleanor has foreshadowed with scorn, “Oh, what a desolation. What a life’s work.”

Funny, tragic, and strong, The Lion in Winter’s political machinations as family drama are ideal for the small stage at The Watermark. The actors pitch us into the enclosed, cold space of Henry’s castle at Chinon, drawing a shiver out of a warm summer night. Merry Christmas.

Like a Hurricane

Canada Rocks!

Review by Jane Ledwell

Canada Rocks!During post-tropical storm Arthur, my daughter and I stepped out of the roar of wind and into the fancy new seats at the Confederation Centre for the roar of Canada Rocks! We half-expected Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” to be added to the playlist, but there wasn’t room for one more song in the fully loaded 74-song revue. The cross-country playlist of Canadian hits is back in a production that is stronger than the original production in script, musical selection, staging, timing, and performance. The show not only has a lot of heart, it’s the only show I know that has “Heart.”

Canada Rocks! benefits most from a terrific ensemble. When everyone is onstage, singing and dancing, it’s a blast, and when individuals step to the microphone, their individual voices soar. The songs work best when they go full-on diva or full-on chorus plus orchestra. Anything in the middle works less successfully—even though the smaller-group performances with less instrumentation are usually closer to the songs’ origins.

The songs and performances that go furthest into what musical theatre does best—from expressive singing and dancing to lively lighting and sets—these are the songs that turn out best. Where the video screens show Canada flashing past as though through a train window and where a song’s romance or raunch is brought out by dance.

One of the challenges of the Charlottetown Festival is that Anne of Green Gables—The Musical wags the tail of the casting dog, so the cast skews to those who can perform as children, matrons, Presbyterians, and agile egg-and-spoon racers. Canada Rocks! is designed to make the most of those cast members’ singing and dancing skills, a great strength.

The pleasure and surprise of Canada Rocks! is when someone steps out of the chorus into the spotlight—often a voice we haven’t heard featured yet—and the singer owns a song. While it’s hard to single out performances, it would be wrong not to mention the master-class in Broadway performance provided by Susan Hensley or the commanding charisma of Réjean Cournoyer.

The narrative is almost unnecessary. Playlists, mixtapes, musical revues—these already have a narrative: the listeners’ lives. The songs either reflect their experience authentically or they don’t. With four experienced and accomplished show co-creators—Doug Gallant, Terry Hatty, Wade Lynch, and Hank Stinson—Canada Rocks! successfully hits a wide variety of experiences and tastes. Even my seven-year-old was delighted to hear songs that speak to her memories, though we have tried to raise her on indie rock, bless her non-mainstream little heart.

A small audience on the afternoon of a tropical storm—that started out as quiet—was rocking the new red theatre seats by the end of the first half of Canada Rocks! By the finale, they were raucous.

My hope is that the audience will carry its obvious love of live performance to more live shows and take in the wide range of original music being performed across PEI. We’re creating future generations’ playlists.

Working in Concerts

Profile: Andrea Ellis

by Jane Ledwell

Andrea Ellis (photo: Buzz)When Andrea Ellis was a child, she didn’t tell her parents she wanted to be a firefighter or an astronaut. She said, “I want to work in concerts.”

She laughs, “I guess as a child I was always keen on music, and I was interested in concerts… The whole experience intrigued me, but I’m not sure what I imagined was entailed!” Whatever it entailed, the accomplished and focused young musician, singer, and teacher has managed to build a career “working in concerts.” As Executive Director of the Indian River Festival, this summer she’ll present internationally prestigious concerts.

By Grade 11, Andrea was already volunteering with the Indian River Festival and soon was concert staff. She says the Indian River Festival was “free PD for a student,” and she went on to work with the Atlantic Presenters Association and Contact East, “working in concerts” and other live performances, coordinating tour bookings and professional development for artists. “Having sat in a room and heard the best presenters in Canada talk shop is very valuable,” Andrea says.

“I love the idea of being able to work at concerts and perform a little myself and be a part of the musical community of PEI,” Andrea says. She does so in her work at Indian River Festival, as a Bachelor of Music–trained private piano teacher, and as a founding member of the “Sirens” choral ensemble, a group gaining a reputation for challenging and ambitious programs.

Sirens is a choir of overachievers, and Andrea says, “For us (as members of Sirens), it’s trying to create a group that is delivering the highest-level performance we can deliver with the time we do have… We push our personal performance in terms of each program and challenge ourselves.”

The graduate of the National Youth Choir says, “We want people to be mesmerized by sound. Voices that blend are amazing. (Singing in harmony) one of the coolest things we can do as people. Moments you know it really fits, you can be overwhelmed by it.”

The acoustics of the Indian River Church are often described as mesmerizing. Andrea says, “As soon as you open your mouth, you realize how special (the church) is. For a choral singer, it’s very immediate what you hear—but the sound also keeps moving. So you come to a cadence and perhaps stop, but the sound continues just a little bit.”

The Indian River Church, Andrea says, “is a real gem.” “There’s such a community that supports that building,” she enthuses, “and all with the same goal, to keep the venue present, to keep it part of the community, to see this landmark continue. To see the church rising up as you come up over the hill on the Clermont Road, it’s quite amazing.”

Andrea values the continuous relationship between the musical community surrounding the church and “the people who were married there, with family history in the community,” and the spirit and energy “keeping it alive.”

Indian River Festival’s artistic director, Robert Kortgaard, Andrea says, “is really connected with the Classical community of our country… He is able to choose artists who can deliver high-quality performances and also are able to talk about what they are doing: why they are performing a piece, or what the composer was going through when they wrote it.” Andrea continues, “Seeing artists, seeing how they are reacting to what they’re doing, hearing the story… It humanizes the music and humanizes the artists.”

This year, Andrea does not anticipate big changes in Indian River. “I am certainly in continuation mode. The past few seasons have been quite successful,” she says. “I always love the variety. That’s the best thing for me. To hear singer-songwriters, traditional music, and Classical music…”

At the Indian River Festival, Andrea observes, “There is a core Classical and a core contemporary audience, and others who like jazz or blues. My goal is to every now and then get the core audiences to cross-pollinate with each other.” Working and playing in Indian River and across PEI mean Andrea Ellis is fulfilling her childhood musical wish.

Fuel for the Fire

Profile: Harmony Wagner

by Jane Ledwell

Harmony WagnerFilm-maker Harmony Wagner thought filming Victoria Park crows would be the easiest part of her short film, Queen of the Crows. “They’re so abundant down there, I didn’t think it would be a problem,” she says. But when the time came for writer/director Harmony and her partner, producer Jason Rogerson, to weave them into the narrative of a story about an Island family struggling with mental health problems, the crows were elusive. “We definitely had to chase them,” she laughs. “I didn’t realize how quickly they’d pick up on where we were and then move. We really had to rely on special effects.”

The efforts paid off with a short film that not only was selected for the Atlantic Film Festival but also was selected as part of Telefilm Canada’s contribution to the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival in France. “To be included in this group is very prestigious for Canada, as well as for PEI,” Harmony says.

Ironically, “I was very close to giving up,” Harmony admits. “It’s very hard making films. It’s hard to motivate enough money, to get enough cash to pay people well.”

At the same time, when there’s energy behind a project, Harmony believes in letting that energy happen and “getting out of the way of it.” Part of her world-view is shaped by her work as a practitioner of Chinese medicine and her long-time practice of martial arts.

“Chinese medicine is holistic,” she says, “It’s about taking in the whole story.” Doing acupuncture, she says, “I work on the front line of pain, and its solitary, and I’m holding onto people’s personal information. I need a creative outlet that’s expansive, and that’s collaborative… to keep myself in balance.”

While Harmony has experience as a performer, a musician, and a writer, film has been that expansive medium, and the inspiration for Queen of the Crows came with energy behind it. “It just falls through me,” she says of the story. “Something I noticed about society is that we speak more freely about addictions or cancer or other things than mental illness. We don’t let each other know.” Harmony comments, “As a society, it’s like we have a ‘stuck’ feeling. We don’t know what we can do. I wanted to create a window in on a family and their suffering, because every family has its own story.

Harmony says, “I put my feelers out for what thematically I want—a deeper underlying statement and a visual motif—and I ask for that, and the muse delivers the story.” Her laugh is self-deprecating, but she says, “I have abundant story ideas coming forward. That doesn’t stop, it just changes what form it comes in,” whether film, music, storytelling, or writing—and whether the creativity is for the audience of her almost-two-year-old or a film festival.

“I have a vision where I’d like to be an igniter and give fuel to positive change for myself and the world,” Harmony says. She has a humanitarian vision, yes, but also practical dreams for developing the film and television industry for PEI to be a creative outlet, a good employer, and an economic driver. “I would like to see more hopefulness for young people to stay,” she says. “I feel like we’re bleeding out.”

To do so, “We need to be more forward-thinking. We’re really good at looking at the past. We had some really good things happen in the past, and that’s hard to forget… And as an island, with that water lapping inwards, our geography contributes to looking in and looking back.”

But these traits don’t define our future. In Harmony’s view, “Sometimes, being at a disadvantage is an advantage.” Perhaps, she suggests, “Our storytelling is fresher without a deeply rooted TV or film industry, just as storytelling is transforming” with new, connected ways to reach audiences. “The creative impetus changes things.”

“We’re on the crest of a wave of a new way of being and thinking. We just need enough people thinking that way it becomes our collective pursuit.” If we can be as nimble as a flock of crows, we’ll always have a roost.

Events Calendar

January 2019
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Some Upcoming Events

The Shack Wacky Review

With Patrick Ledwell and Mark Haines  February 2
PEI Brewing Co Join comedian Patrick Ledwell  [ ... ]


Harbourfront Players March 1–2 & 8–10 
Harbourfront Theatre The Harbourfront Players p [ ... ]


January 25–28
City Cinema 14A, coarse language, nudity, mature subject matter
Dir: Alfonso Cuarón, [ ... ]

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