Stage Door Review

So, how’s it been?

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

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Co-created by Liza Balkan & Paul Shilton, directed by Liza Balkan

Here For Now Theatre, The Bruce Hotel Back Lawn, 89 Parkview Drive, Stratford

August 17-September 5, 2021

“Something between prison and retirement”

The third duo of plays to premiere in Stratford’s independent Here For Now Theatre’s 2021 New Works Festival is the song-cycle So, how’s it been? and the comedy The Wonder of it All. It’s remarkable that a small company’s festival should include two musicals (The Tracks and So, how’s it been?) in only its second theatre festival, but given all the musical talent available in Stratford that should, perhaps, be no surprise.

The concept behind So, how’s it been? (subtitled “Songs and Stories from our town”) was that of Liza Balkan, theatre artist and Stratford resident, who in 2020 began interviewing people of the town in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic about how it had affected them. Then, when pandemic did not abate, about how its persistence was affecting them. She interviewed theatre people and farmers, business owners, the employed and unemployed, the old and young.

Then Balkan turned her interviews into song lyrics trying as much as possible to use the very words that her interviewees had used. The majority of the lyrics were set by composer Paul Shilton. One song is by Bruce Horak and two by Katherine Wheatley. Balkan and Shilton call So, how’s it been? a song-cycle but the work has many features not found in a traditional song-cycle or even a modern song-cycle like Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World (1995). Some songs are introduced by excerpts from Balkan’s actual recordings. Most are introduced with words from the singers, who all have acted at the Stratford Festival. Some will set up another’s song or they will set up their own song, often with a personal anecdote or other statement of how the song relates to them. Some songs serve as introductions to other songs. The result is a form that is very fluid between speech and singing and for that reason feels much more personal than a formal song-cycle ever does. More than once the performers will ask the audience directly if they have had the same feelings. None of the singing is amplified which gives the work an immediacy amplified music never has.

Balkan’s goal may have been to capture, as the show description states, “a reflection of this highly particular time in this highly particular town”. In fact, the sentiments that Balkan captures of anger, frustration, impatience, isolation, surprising calm and increased appreciation of nature are sentiments that she could have found anywhere and that have been written about at length in the past several months. Several songs may have started out as specific comments on life in Stratford, but by the time they have become songs they have lost that specificity. One is an exhilarating song about how everyone is suddenly riding bikes. Another is a very funny song with no relevance to Covid at all of the annoying habits of Canada geese.

Ultimately, what gives the show its specificity is the presentation of the performers themselves. The show starts out with a great example in the form of Trevor Patt’s song about his own experience losing his job for the 2020 season at the Stratford Festival and taking on a wide range of odd jobs and alternate employment such as working as a bartender at The Bruce Hotel itself. Having worked in theatre all over Canada, the conclusion to his lively country-western-style song is “I guess I’m a local now”.

Sweet-voiced Barb Fulton has an amusing song as a mother who is struggling to take care of two children (Patt and Evangelia Kambites) who enjoy having screaming contests. Fulton also has a song, loudly applauded by the opening matinee audience, about how a baker requires her customers to wear masks not just to protect each other but to protect her family.

Kambites moving tells us in speech, not in song, the story of a female Syrian immigrant and how grateful she is to be in a safe place like Stratford and in a safe country like Canada. Yet, Balkan and Shilton do have a song for the whole group in which they sing that they know that other people have it worse but it’s still a lousy time to live through.

Perhaps the most moving song is one sung by Marcus Nance with his velvety bass about a couple both in their 90s – the man living in Stratford, his wife in long-term care facility in Mitchell – who are still at one in love even though they are forced to be separated in distance.

Nance quotes his husband’s remark that life in the pandemic was like “something between prison and retirement”. Indeed, the songs by Shilton and the others bring out this wide range of feelings through a wide range of musical styles from country and blues to rap and Gilbert and Sullivan. Shilton’s final song for the whole group with its chorus concerning “being … seeing ... hearing”, sung in a strange but beautiful harmony, seems to encapsulate the multifaceted nature of this time. The pandemic has caused disruption, isolation and sadness, but it has also forced people to pause, to reflect and to focus on aspects the world – like race, like the environment – in ways that the rush of everyday life never permitted.

So, how’s it been? is a highly entertaining show. It is not a musical for the ages and is not meant to be one. Rather it is like a musical scrapbook of snapshots taken at a particular time and place that people not just in Stratford but all over Canada will be able to relate to. It is a work for the here and now and it is more than appropriate that Here For Now Theatre has included it in their 2021 Festival.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Barbara Fulton, Evangelia Kambites, Paul Shelton, Trevor Patt and Marcus Nance. © 2021 Here For Now Theatre.

For tickets visit www.herefornowtheatre.com.