This summer I'm embarking on a three month tour of Grade 8, a show about my experiences at thirteen. I will be taking the show to Regina, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver Fringe Festivals, with more cities to be scheduled along the way. I thought it might be interesting to look back at how I arrived here and what my creative process has been over the last six years.
I started putting together one person shows in early 2014. The impulse actually started as a way to "walk the walk". I had many voice students, having opened a private music studio the year before, and I was teaching them how to interpret and perform songs. The thing is, I had been only singing my own music for the previous ten years so I felt really rusty in the realm of covering songs. I started with a type of tribute show. Lara Loves Leonard was designed with the songs and poems of Leonard Cohen structured in a way that I hoped would tell a story. The show was an hour. I had decided that I ideally wanted two musicians to accompany the show. One who played guitar and cello and another who would handle the drum kit and percussion. I was fortunate to secure Kevin Fox and Roger Travassos (who had played drums on both of my original CDs).
A new independent theatre festival, SpringWorks, had started a couple of years earlier in Stratford, Ontario where I was living. Lara Loves Leonard had its debut there . I took the show to London and Ottawa, Ontario Fringe Festivals the following year. It was a success. Great feedback from audiences and critics alike. I went back to the drawing board to create a new show. Lara Loves Lennon, for the SpringWorks 2015 season. Lara Loves Lennon, again, was a tribute show. I included songs from John Lennon's time with The Beatles and from his solo career. I wanted a full band sound and was joined on stage by talented Stratford musicians Earl Filsinger on guitars, Laurence Gauci on the bass and Chris Adair on drums. I had arranged the show as I had the Leonard Show going back and forth between Lennon's writing and songs.
In a lot of ways it was more fun to put together this show. Lennon's music was a big part of my coming-of-age. and though I wanted the show to be about John Lennon and not Lara MacMillan, I couldn't help myself from interjecting some personal connection stories here and there during the performance. Interestingly, after the show, my friend Stacy told me that those personal interjections were her favourite parts. She thought there should be more of them. I had to agree that the audience had really responded to the stories. It had created a space in the show for a direct audience performer connection which I crave.
So, I started to rethink. And to tinker with the formula.
What I came up with was I wanted to script music shows with stories. It didn't seem right to call it cabaret. I needed to think about it in a different way.
I soon started work on my third show, Lara Loves Lightfoot. But what stories was I going to tell? I tried random stories from my background as lead ins to my favourite Lightfoot songs but the only story pairing that really seemed to work was my departure to Banff, Alberta at 19 and Lightfoot's Alberta Bound. I was a little disheartened. I couldn't see how to make the other song/story connections as strong and worse, I wasn't sure how to connect each vignette to the whole.
And then I thought, Why not make it a year in the life? Tell the story of the year I was in Banff (1996-97). A year I navigated my independence and survived many a misadventure. A year chock full of interesting characters and set against the backdrop of the beautiful Rocky Mountains and nestled in the picturesque Bow Valley.
I started building Lara Loves Lightfoot from there. I decided to abandon the model I had used in the previous two shows of choosing the songs first and matching the stories to the songs and instead start with the stories first. In preparing a show for Theatre Fringe Festivals timing is the only real constraint. I was working on a 60 minute model. Once I had eight stories, I started looking to find their partner songs. I let go of the idea of using only my tried and true favourites and chose to listen to as much of the Lightfoot catalogue as I could. I'm so glad I did because I made discoveries of songs I didn't know. In fact, "Baby, It's Alright" is a new favourite and comes at a pivotal time in the show.
I was very excited by this new model. The sharing possibilities and longer form storytelling than mere pre-song illustrative patter. In working through how to describe the show, I mulled over what terms were out there: cabaret, one person show, juke-box musical, etc.. What I was trying to create had a direct relationship to plenty of show types but I wanted something more descriptive of where I thought I was going with this show and future shows. I settled on "storied concert". It checks all the boxes and puts the stories first.
As with the other shows, Lara Loves Lightfoot had its debut at the Stratford SpringWorks Festival and was warmly received. I had decided to do the show solo - accompanying myself on piano and guitar. I made this change largely because I was taking many new risks and wasn't confident I would be able to drive audiences to the show. I took it to the London and Ottawa Fringe Festivals in the summer of 2016. There were moments that really gelled but the show didn't meet my hopes. It was clumsy, suffering from among other things trying to be two things: a tribute show and autobiographic year-in-the-life. When I reviewed the experience doing a personal "de-brief" after the festivals one of my criticisms was that there weren't enough seamless connections between the songs and stories and I knew why. As much as I loved the music, I just wasn't listening to Gordon Lightfoot that year. It wasn't the soundtrack for the story.
It was then I decided to change the format again.
I liked the year-in-the-life conceit. For my next show, I chose to focus on my last year in elementary school at Victoria Public School in Windsor, Ontario. This time choosing songs that matched the stories because they were actually the soundtrack of that time. What happened at the drawing board was magic to me. I had so much material and so many songs and so many great characters, an embarrassment of riches. But, the real magic was the healing that happened.
Unfortunately, in the few years leading up to the creation of Grade 8, I had come to really dislike myself. I was angry with choices I had made that left me feeling bereft. Spending time unearthing the memories of my thirteenth year was the medicine I didn't know I needed. I fell in love with that girl, Lara at thirteen was a love. She had anxieties and weaknesses but she met those challenges with courage and a big heart. I had to concede that I was proud of her. Proud of me.
Once I heard I was programmed for the SpringWorks Festival in 2017, I thought I had better get in touch with Sean. You see, as much as the story was about my life at thirteen, it was also Sean's story. Our friendship was at the centre of the story, and I had been fairly revealing about his life at school and at home as part of the backdrop of our friendship. The thing is I hadn't spoken to Sean since I was a kid. We had become Facebook friends a few years before so I contacted him there and let him know what I was proposing to do with the show. I sent him a synopsis and held my breath. He hadn't been a perfect kid, he'd gotten in some trouble along the way and I wasn't sure if he'd just like that to remain in the past. I had no reason to worry. He was flattered, and all in. He was tickled at what he had forgotten himself and we had the best conversations through text. Catching up on what had happened in the last 34 years (crazy!).
And then, he surprised me by coming to one of each of the SpringWorks and Toronto Fringe productions of the show. His presence at those performances was like the cherry on top, providing Epilogue to the experience. The audience was thrilled when at the end of the show in Toronto I called him up to take a bow. After all, the way our friendship changed and shaped me in that important year is what the show is all about.
Ultimately, it's a tribute show, the best kind.