One of the great indie theatre fairy tales of the last few years was Kabin/Storefront Arts Initiative’s Chasse-Galerie, a collaboratively created feminist folklore musical that soared from its rough and tumble roots to win a Dora and eventually land on the Soulpepper stage in a remount that earned the show three MyTheatre Award nominations this year, including Outstanding Production, Outstanding Ensemble and Outstanding Performance in a Musical for Shaina Silver-Baird whose beautiful voice and fancy fiddling stood out in one of the best casts of the year. She stopped by the interview series to take us inside the creation process of a true indie success story.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
My first experience performing, which was kind of like theatre in a way, was my bat mitzvah. I had never performed before that. I’d never really sung before that. I sang in choir when I was a kid, and I was apparently tone-deaf. I was horrible, but I was very loud. Then my bat mitzvah when I was 12, my coach was a singer, so I’m coaching with her every week to learn the Torah and I would imitate how she sang, so I kind of intrinsically picked up some technique and tone. By the end of that experience, it went really well at my bat mitzvah, because most people are really tone-deaf so if you can carry a tune, they’re like, “Oh my god, you’re so amazing!”. [My coach] encouraged me to do singing lessons, and that was how it started. So that was my first experience performing, and it is kind of like theatre because it was an hour-long thing that I ended up doing most of in front of an audience of people, it just happened to have religious content. Then I started doing the musicals at my high school.
When did you pick up other performance skills like dance and playing the violin?
Dancing was earlier, but it wasn’t the standard “I went to ballet”. Never did ballet. But my parents taught folk dance. They ran a performance group and taught classes for people who just wanted to come and have fun. Traditional Romanian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Greek, basically Balkan dance- it’s like a communal thing, so people dance in a circle, sometimes in couples. But it’s a different methodology- you just watch and do, there isn’t a lot of teaching. So I just kind of grew up watching and dancing and that was where my dance started, at like 6 or 7. Then, when I was a teenager, I started doing jazz and hip-hop. But I never got super into technical [styles] like ballet or contemporary, I just danced.
Then violin I started, I guess, grade 5. We had to do strings so I decided to do violin, and the teacher was like, “That’s good, because you’re too small for anything else. You can’t play cello or bass.” I was like, “Excuse me?!” So I started there, but I didn’t really take it all that seriously. I did it through high school but stopped practicing; it was a school thing. I stopped in university. Then I started my folk band Crooked House Road, and I was like, “Wouldn’t it be great if I played a little violin?” So I picked it up again for that. But I controlled that, so I could make it super simple, and I only play in a few songs. Then when we did Chasse, Tyrone [Savage] called me and he was like, “So, you’re going to have to play the fiddle battle.” That was the thing that stressed me out the most. I practiced that a whole bunch.
How did you get involved with Chasse-Galerie?
I did the general auditions for Storefront. I knew some people who worked there and just thought it was a great company, and they were doing some interesting stuff. Tyrone called me back for an audition specifically for Chasse, and then I didn’t hear for a long time, and I was just like, “I guess I didn’t get it.” I think he had cast someone else, and that person dropped out. Then he called me like a month before it started and was like, “Hey, do you want to come be one of our leads and create this thing?” And I didn’t have anything going on at the time, so I was like, “Sure, why not?” So it just kind of happened. I kind of accidentally fell into it.
Tell us about that development process. It was collectively created, right?
Yeah. It was scary shit. But it was awesome. We did maybe two weeks of just learning some music that James [Smith] had already written, and improvising. And some of the improvs were horrible. Then, the second week, the guy initially supposed to play opposite me dropped out, and you can’t really tell them “No” because we weren’t really being paid; it was a collective. So I definitely had moments of “What am I doing?” But everyone was great because no one brought any of that fear into the room. Like, once we were in the room, we all just created. And then two weeks in, we all realized, “Okay, we need some semblance of a script. Even if some of these lines are improv’d, we need some semblance of a script.” So we spent, like, four days cycling through Tyrone’s apartment, and we would just, based on the improvs we’d done, write a scene. So the four girls would get together, and we’d write the scenes that we were in. Tyrone and I actually wrote the one for François and Toba, because the guy had dropped out and we hadn’t found someone else yet. So we just spent a few days writing it all down, and then we went back into the rehearsal room and kind of played with those [scenes]. That script changed up until the day we opened, but at least we had something to work with. We didn’t get the final song from James until four days before tech; we didn’t know how we were going to end the play. Then he came in one day and was like, “I didn’t sleep last night. Here’s ‘Let’s Go to Hell’.” And it was amazing. So it was pretty all over the place, but it was kind of magical because it did encompass that sense of, like, falling down a cliff and flying by the seat of your pants, that kind of is infused in the whole play.
Where did Toba come from in terms of character development?
Well, we started off with the four women kind of being archetypes. Tyrone gave us all a reference to a Ghostbusters character- I don’t remember who I was supposed to be, to be honest with you; I let it go by the wayside. But, when we first went in, I was supposed to be almost the more mothering character, the one who tried to keep everyone together, level the playing field. And Dana Puddicombe, who was in the original [production], was supposed to be more what Toba became, which was the one who got into fights with Michelle, Kat Lewin’s character, and was stoic and strong. Then, naturally in improvs, we just kind of switched characters. Because, as an actor, I started picking that up, and she started doing the opposite. So we just let that happen naturally. Then it just kind of snowballed, and Toba was based on who I became in the improvs. Toba became the leader and became the one who was always trying to move forward and get people on track. I think to a certain degree, I’m a bit like that, not necessarily very outwardly, but on the inside. I think I’ve just always wanted to play a character like that, so the opportunity to create one, I was like, “Yes! I get to be like Mulan. I get to be the hero. I get to be the one who wants to do right by her friends.” Because I often get to play, like, the love interest, you know? And I naturally gravitate sometimes towards the male characters who get to do what Toba gets to do.
Speaking of love interests, at what point did James [Smith, the composer] take the role of Francois?
The second incarnation of it. The first time, it was a great guy named Chris Murray who played fiddle, because we knew we wanted that. So, in the initial version, I didn’t actually play the fiddle battle. Chris played it behind me and I shadowed it, and the joke was that we were ghost fiddling. So he was fiddling for me. But, in this version, James was cast as my love interest. Brilliant composer, brilliant piano player, and he learned violin for this version. But he was like, “I’m not going to play that. You have to learn that part.” I think that was a decision made partly to bring the cast down [in size], and partly because James is such a fantastic performer as well and I think that they wanted to integrate it as much as possible, have less [separation between] band and performers. Everyone did everything, and I think it was great. His François was totally different than Chris’, and it brought a new layer to the whole relationship, it was pretty amazing. It was funny, though, because there would be days where he’d be like, “Oh, I forgot I was acting in this. Okay. Okay, let’s run our lines. I’m in it! I’m in it!” [laughs]. It was awesome. It was great to see everyone’s multiple talents.
How else did the production change when transferring to a much bigger house?
There were parts that were definitely rewritten, for sure. And it was a little bit scarier. The initial [run] was very scary, because we had no idea whether it would go over. But it was scary to adapt it to a new space because, in the Storefront, it’s so small that you’re on top of people. So, if you’re throwing out energy, they’re going to feel it. And when we walked into the new space- I was so excited and it was amazing, but I was worried “are we going to hit the back row? Is it going to have the same party feeling? Are people going to feel ensconced in this?” Because they’re further away. But somehow we managed to make it work anyway. The space change was the big thing. We had to treat it slightly differently, but in other ways not. Just keep that essence of open-heartedness and fun and party, and people seem to still engage with that.
You’re nominated for Outstanding Ensemble along with the rest of the crew. Tell us about working with them.
They are amazing. I was mind-blown by them every day. I think it’s special to have a show that really is an ensemble show. It lets everyone shine, but it can’t exist without any one person really. It’s not a star vehicle; it’s really everyone. Everyone is so integral. And the amazing thing about that is that there really weren’t egos. Like, there was no one who I kind of groaned about seeing every day. Everyone was really supportive and just focused on the work and making the story as good as it could be, as opposed to, like, “Look at me dance for Grandma!” And everyone is so talented in so many ways. I would not want to take on the job of ever trying to recast this. It would be so difficult. Because it’s written around everyone’s specific talents. So it would be difficult. I’m sure it would be possible, but it would be very difficult.
The show’s had an incredible trajectory so far- starting in a small indie house, winning the Dora, making it to Soulpepper. Where would you like to see it go from here?
I want to tour it across Canada. I think it’s such a great Canadian show and story. We had a bunch of people from the community, from across the country, who saw it, and they all really loved it, were engaged with it. I would love to bring it across the country. I would love to bring it to Vancouver and Edmonton and Calgary and out east. Quebec would be an interesting one. I think some people in Quebec would love it, and some people – I don’t know. That’d be difficult because it is in English. And it is a Québécois story. I’m part Québécois, but I didn’t grow up there, so I’m not really [French Canadian], by Québécois standards. It would be interesting to take it there, for sure. I would love to. I’d just be scared.
Do you have a favourite Chasse memory?
From this version, the first preview. I think we were all a little bit nervous about bringing it into a bigger space and bringing it to a new audience- the Soulpepper audience as opposed to the original kind of younger Storefront audience. So the first preview was magical. We had been doing it for each other so much, the laughs had kind of stopped because we knew what was coming. And I was scared it wasn’t funny, I was scared it wasn’t going to land. Then I remember standing backstage with James after our first scene and listening to the audience just roaring, and everybody started singing along with ‘I Love Whiskey’. And I was like, “Oh, we got it! It works! It works, it works, it works!” That was the biggest high, because it was the first audience, and they were so loud and amazing. That and opening. It was like, “Okay, this is special.”
You also worked on Turkey Shoot this year with Single Thread. Tell us about that experience.
That was very different. It was a very small show in a tiny room with max, like, 30 people. It also had canoes in it, and we had to do some fake canoeing, but I played a very different character in that one, a woman named Eliza Gibson who was very strong as well, but very religious and much more traditional. And that was a challenge for me because- I don’t know, I think I have this idea and I was brought up in a family where I’m a strong woman, and I identify very strongly with that. I’m a very modern image of what that is, and I had to kind of edit that image for Eliza because she’s strong and intelligent and independent, but has very different values from me. She’s very Christian, she’s very family-oriented, she ran a farm, she was a stay-at-home wife, all things that I as a person reject intrinsically, and that’s my own kind of bias or weakness. So I had to get over that in order to play her.
Tell us about what’s going on with Crooked House Road.
We’re just doing our thing. We’re gigging around. We released an album in 2015, that was amazing, CBC Radio played it a bunch. And we’re just keeping on going with that, just gigging around. That band is special because it’s kind of like a community builder. It’s folk music, so it’s very much, like theatre, about stories and about the simplicity of storytelling and the songs that go with it. I love my co-singer, Mirian Kay is an amazing singer, and just singing with her is a beautiful thing. It’s a lot to juggle, though, between that and acting, and I also have a new solo project that I’m focused on called Ghost Caravan that’s soul/pop, which is a bit more commercial. So again, it’s a different focus. But keep an eye out. I’ll be gigging around Toronto, so come on out.
What are you doing now/what’s your next project?
Right now, I’m focused on writing for Ghost Caravan and developing that, and gigging with Crooked House Road, and auditioning, as actors do. Then the next play I’m scheduled to do is called Bombers, it’s out at 4th Line Theatre directed by David Ferry, with Mike Cox playing opposite me- he played Michel-Paul, the red-headed guy [in Chasse-Galerie]. He plays a much nicer person in this play.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I just hope that Chasse has a future life and that I get to be part of it. Because I think it’s something unusual and special.