Creating an original show is no easy task: there is so much work that goes into preparing a script, rehearsing, editing, rehearsing, performing, editing, rehearsing, and on and on. It is even more difficult when the show that you are creating is based on the life and work of a real person, especially one as revered and honoured as the great American folk singer, Pete Seeger.
This was the unenviable task that was put before Mark Hellman and Ross & Mary Desprez in 2014: how to create a show out of a vast amount of material, that honoured Pete’s memory and captured some of the magic that his live performances were famous for.
In order to understand the process of creating the show, we asked Mark, the co-writer (with Ross Desprez) and performer of The Incompleat Folksinger, to tell us a little bit more about himself, Pete Seeger and the creation of the show.
- Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, etc.
I have worked professionally in performing arts, education, and community development since 1981, starting in Victoria, BC (1981-85), followed by Montreal (1986-91), Winnipeg (1991-96), Armstrong (1997-98), and ending up back in Victoria (1998 – 2015).
I have had the pleasure of working with professional theatre and dance companies across the country, and have also produced and directed independent theatre productions incorporating a variety of disciplines including modern dance, acrobatics, music, puppetry and Shakespeare. I’ve toured from coast to coast, as far north as Old Crow, Yukon, and throughout the eastern United States as far south as Orlando, Fl.
I’m a proud and devoted dad of 2 daughters, the older of which will be getting married in 2016, while the younger has decided to follow in her parents’ footsteps, and recently appeared in her first professional theatre production in Montreal. More career details (with photos, video and sound samples) can be found on my web site: markhellman.ca.
- When did you first hear the music of Pete Seeger? How did it affect you?
Somewhere in our family archives is a recording of me–about age 3—singing Pete Seeger’s version of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” in full voice; Pete’s music and recordings were in regular rotation while my mum worked (and sang along) around the house and at her craft table.
When I turned 16, my older sister, Sue, bought me my first guitar and made sure the book I started with was Pete’s “Folksinger’s Guitar Guide”, which in turn introduced me to Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Elizabeth Cotten, Mississippi John Hurt, and a host of others.
Fast forward about 40 years, and I’m now learning banjo from Pete’s “How to Play the 5-String Banjo” (as have so many others, including Bella Fleck). I have continued to aspire to the artistry and community engagement that Pete demonstrated in his life and career.
- How did you first come up with the idea of creating a show about and out of Pete Seeger’s music?
When dear friends and colleagues Ross & Mary Desprez of the Other Guys Theatre Co. approached me in 2014 about co-creating a solo show about Pete Seeger, I was in equal measure honoured and daunted at the prospect of bringing this truly larger-than-life character to the stage.
As we started exploring ways and means, an old copy of the book THE INCOMPLEAT FOLKSINGER–written by Pete about the age I am now—appeared; call it what you will: serendiptity, synchronicity, or just plain good fortune. It suddenly felt not only possible, but the very best way to proceed: to tell the story of Pete’s ‘formative years’ (all 35 of them) in his own words, to honour his desire to shine light on others wherever possible, and to trace his journey starting with his advocacy for workers rights, through the folk music revival mid-Century, the struggle for universal human rights, the global peace movement and the beginnings of the environmental movement, all powered by his discovery of the most ‘political’ act of all: bringing people together to sing.
- Describe the process of creating the show. How did you decide the order of songs, the story, etc? What was the biggest challenge in creating the show?
What became apparent reading THE INCOMPLEAT FOLKSINGER was that Pete Seeger was as much a writer as a folksinger, the book being his first attempt at telling his own story, compiling writings previously published elsewhere, paying tribute to his early influences, providing a ‘how-to guide’ for others interested in making music, and taking a closer look at the ‘world music lives in’. The book chronicles his first 35 years as a folksinger, writer and activist, including his testimony at the McCarthy hearings and his trial for contempt of Congress, his travels to ‘hot spots’ around the world (including extensive travels behind the Iron Curtain, and a trip to Israel and Lebanon in 1967 just before the start of the 6-Day War), his deep involvement in the front lines of the civil rights movement, as well as personal recollections of concerts all around the world.
(Early on we also contacted the Seeger family, and one of his daughters ended up calling our producer, mainly to ask for more information about the company. They have been kept informed about our process to date, but haven’t yet been able to attend a performance–something we trust will eventually happen as we begin touring.)
As we began the process of adapting the book into a script, the first step was to reduce an 800-page book down to about 80 transcribed pages, and to note the various concert moments as potential song moments in the show. During that time, we also listened extensively to live recordings from the early 1950’s through to the early 1970’s, cross-referencing the songs and commentary with songs and comments mentioned in the book. From there we went into a workshop period, during which Ross was tasked with reducing the text down to the approximately 30 pages we have now, while I started memorizing various sections and practicing a potential song list.
Three big challenges stand out: 1) how to bring the complete show in under 2 hours (including an intermission). Early on, we realized there would just be too much great material for one show—so many wonderful stories, commentaries and songs which we had to leave ‘on the cutting room floor’, more than enough to create another show at some time in the future; 2) how to incorporate the sing-along elements into the performance, as Pete was renowned for his ability to get audiences to sing with him, and even to teach them harmony along the way! This challenge had to be met in our early performances, adapting to the various audiences (and their collective desire—or lack thereof—to sing) as we went along; and 3) to learn to play the banjo in a little over six months, which was the greatest personal challenge. Pete had played banjo for 35 years by the time the book was written, so I could not hope to achieve that level of mastery. I have adopted and practiced certain aspects of his style to highlight in different songs, my way of paying homage to the many different styles he invented to play different types of music.
- What can people expect to experience when they come to see The Incompleat Folksinger?
Whether they have any previous knowledge about Pete Seeger or not, people will experience a whirlwind evening of theatre, story telling, music, and audience participation, and a deeply personal journey into the heart and soul of the man himself, in his own words.
Rather than rely on ‘impersonation’ to create the character (as with the multitude of revue musicals out there these days which focus on various musical ‘celebrities’ of the past), I feel blessed to have an opportunity each night to ‘inhabit’ the character, to let Pete do the talking, to walk a few miles in his very big shoes, to share some of his favourite songs, and to invite the audience to in turn become characters in the larger story, as we all arrive at our own experience of ‘the incompleat folksinger’.
- Have there been any special moments or comments from patrons who saw a performance? If so, could you describe one?
I have to talk to describe two, as special moments and comments have come from two distinct points of view: from those who knew nothing about Pete Seeger prior to the performance; and from those who have had personal experiences of Pete through the years. I have been particularly delighted to hear young people (who have learned about him for the first time) express their intention to go away and learn more about him, and what he accomplished in the 40 years that follow the end of The Incompleat Folksinger.
One standout encounter with a long time Seeger fan: in Act 2, Pete tells the story of a massive anti-Vietnam rally in 1969 at which he played a significant part.
An audience member came up to me after a performance because she wanted me to know that she had actually attended that rally as a teenager. She was astonished to find herself ‘back there’ after so many years, and I was completely blown away!
- What do you think the legacy of the show will be? Is there anything you hope people will come away with at the end of a performance?
As an independent artist in Canada, the desired legacy for any production, in practical terms, is long term, sustainable employment for artists, support for small scale producers, and the continued growth of the arts in Canada as a viable sector in which to make a living. We hope to tour The Incompleat Folksinger far and wide, as we believe it to be timely and engaging, and we’re in it for the long haul.
I’ll let Pete’s last words in The Incompleat Folksinger express what we hope people will take away at the end of the performance:
In each of my concerts there are some old songs which you and I have sung together many times before, but which can always stand another singing. Like another sunrise, or another kiss, this also is an act of reaffirmation. Our songs are, like you and me, the product of a long, long human chain, and even the strangest ones are distantly related to each other, as are we all.
Each of us can be proud to be a link in this chain. Let’s hope there are many more links to come.
No: Let’s make damn sure there are more links to come.“
The Incompleat Folksinger plays September 22 – 26, 2015 at Evergreen Cultural Centre. Click here for tickets.