Last night, driving home down highway 4, I reveled in the darkness and the stars. Away for eight days, performing in “The Cypress Hills Would Never Be the Same”; I was headed back home to Val Marie. Settling into the silence, save for the sound of my the tires on new pavement, I recalled the conversation with Stew, Cindy and Stefan, major forces behind the musical drama about a seminal moment in Canadian-American history.
“I like that the story-tellers were not the major players, but the supporting cast.” I said. “These were the witnesses of the time, and our monologues were witness impact statements”.
“I know these stories” Stew replied. “I know them like the back of my hand. I read all the history. I talked to the people. As a kid spent all my summers in the Cypress Hills. Cindy jokes about the Sunday night I came up from the basement with a stack of papers in my hand saying: I’ve written a musical and we’re going to put it on this fall! But the truth is: I’ve been writing this story all my life.”
I was reminded of a saying of Einstein’s that explains how seemingly out-of-nowhere creations are actually slowly brewing or smoldering entities just waiting for the moment, the tipping point, to pull the play or song or painting or equation to the surface. “A work of genius is an inspiration meeting a prepared mind,” he said. Part of being prepared is being open and ready to act. Stew prepared for this play all his life, and for some reason, that particular weekend, the genius inhabiting the story, came alive, dragged him into the basement, and dictated the entire play to him, including songs.
As my car leaves Cadillac and the filigree fades into the snow-crusted land, I fumble for the shows impressive soundtrack. I can’t help it. I’m not ready to say goodbye to the Cypress Hills just yet. One of the first songs is “Look to the Horizon” . At curtain call we all sing the refrain: “Rise up to highest hill and look to the horizon….Gaze in all directions as far as you can see, there’s nothing quite so pretty, as the hills that shouldn’t be.”
Some things just shouldn’t be. And yet they are. A story out of the hills, written and performed by people who chose to live on farms and in villages, in places where life has a shot at making sense, because you live where the blood-red sunset, and a rising full moon are still the greatest show on earth. And the dominant sounds inspiring you are not man made, but from birds, wind, grass, insects, and thunder.
As the play’s newest member, I felt supported, buoyed up by a cast of musicians who also work as auctioneers, farmers, mechanics, teachers, and an emerging elder who helped us keep a healthy sense of perspective. Actors can be egomaniacs with inferiority complexes, but Joseph kept us right-sized, with his trickster humour and his blood-curdling warrior cry that constantly reminded us upon whose territory we stood. He gave us a talk on treaties and smudged us with sage, cedar and prayer, every night, on Swift Currents Central Avenue sidewalk. He made sure we followed protocol.
Those nights, in the blistering cold, we stood between two worlds, dressed in half-costume, half-street clothes, we waited for our friends before the ceremony started. “Where’s Paula? Does Mark know we’re out here? Someone get Cindy.” And sometimes, after Joseph’s prayer, I would say ‘Amen’, out of habit, but also because, in the fraught history of my own childhood tradition, it was the spoken spiritual equivalent of a handshake, a solid and solemn ratification.
A lacuna is an underwater cave. Barbara Kingsolver, in her book The Lacuna, also uses the word to describe that place in the world where and when “everything changes and you stand shivering in the corridor waiting to slip through one world into the next.” My character, Crow Mary was in a lacuna. But ‘lacuna’ is also a word used by archivists to describe gaps in historical research. In his play Stew tries to fill gaps. There will always be questions, people on either sides of borders will contest versions of a shared history. As well there should be. Bring it on. To paraphrase one of The Lacuna’s supporting but most important characters: once we stop asking questions about history we might as well auction off the question mark.
“In this book the major characters are the minor ones,”I wrote in my review of Kingsolver’s book. “You don’t have to be larger than life to effect change; actual size will do.” In Stew’s play actual size is big enough to effect change, in any direction. The gaps in the history can often be best filled by the people on the ground. Through script and lyrics we heard from history’s supporting cast: civil war soldiers turned wolfers, whiskey traders, starving tribes, native women, NWMP recruits, all headed west, north, east, south to the Cypress Hills where fates were sealed in a matter of days. A complicated history was made. Our history. A history about which so few of us – neither Canada nor the States- know about. By keeping ourselves actual-sized, we stayed true to our characters, to the fact that most people live and die and are not written about in history books.
The setting of the play reflected the script- with hand painted murals, re-purposed clothing, rescued crates and boxes. By keeping it ‘old school’ we kept ourselves loyal to the land and the territory. Technically, all a great play needs is superb lighting and sound. And the Lyric Theatre has that. When I worked for Radio 2 in Toronto I ran across the street to Roy Thompson Hall to interview performers and conductors. But everyone was so far away from everyone else and getting from backstage to green room to tech booth required sprints and security passes.
The venerable old Lyric is a human-sized space, where the players can sit on the steps behind the set and help their buddies out of the spot lights back into the backstage darkness, hug them, slap them on the back, or rib them about a heckler, like the guy who just may have taken one of Skip’s line a little too personally.
Skip played a civil war soldier-turned wolfer Silas Hawkins. Every night he prowled the front of house, giving the audience the stink eye as he slunk through the room until eventually he steps up onto the stage, where he points to a man in the audience and erupts: “You, shut-up!” Usually this elicits a nervous laugh. One night, a guy yelled back: “You shut up!” It threw Skip off for a second, but as his irascible character slid into the sad soul who had “seen his fair share of death”, Silas’ story pierced hearts. And if you weren’t convinced by the end of the monologue, once he started singing, you were sunk.
My first night exiting stage left, Gord, another wolfer, was ready with a drink. And thus began a tradition. Another night I managed to forget my revolver and made do with my fingers and thumbs. The fourth night I was greeted with: “You nailed it….But it’s ‘revolver’, not ‘rifle’.” People around here know the difference.
Rehearsing the following night in the green room, where Keegan, who plays the naive, sweet sixteen year old who, as Fred, runs off to join the new force and whose is either stupid or just green, messes with me.
I recite, pacing up and down in front of the couch.“So, I grabbed Abe’s re-”
“ Rifle?” he pipes up, looking up from his cell phone.
“No! Stop that! “
“Volvo? You grab Abe’s Volvo? And drive off into the blood red sunset?”
“No. I grab Abe’s revolver and shoot Keegan between the eyes!”
On my last night I sang my heart out. I lifted my shawl and watched its shadow rise and become wings flying over the Cypress Hills. I loved being a Crow. I was Crow Mary, caught between different worlds. Then came the line: “Give me six robes for one red blanket.”A simple line really. No tongue-twisting alliteration there. I managed to sing: “…for one wet blanket.” Stepping off-stage, into the helping hands of my waiting friends, I laugh and laugh at the “wet blanket” line. Skip assures me I didn’t actually say that.
“No, are you sure?”
“Yep. You said: Wed Bwanket.”
Sometimes, when I mention the places and people with whom I’ve worked, I get a look from them that says, “Hmmm. If that’s true, then why are you here?” Either they’ve never been painfully seduced, like my ego so often is, by the mad pace of the big cities, full of distractions and diversions, where, as the poet David Whyte says: “velocity becomes the answer to complexity and everything moving slower than you just disappears,” or they’ve forgotten where they live: in the grasslands, on the buttes and in the coulées, amid the creatures and under the sky. A place that inspires an inner place of calm and peacefulness. And there’s nothing quite so pretty as that place we all need be.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.