Locally grown playwright Onalea Gilbertson understands if you don’t want to come see her critically-acclaimed work. “It’s a piece about my grandmother and, sometimes, it’s an interesting thing to try and sell because I cannot imagine people that might think, ‘Great, I’m going to hear some songs about someone’s grandma.’ It is what the piece is about. I can totally see it. Like, ‘Why should I care about that?’”
The story is Gilbertson’s own, gathered from her experiences visiting her grandmother, Blanche, who was 93 at the time. After having her attention sparked by an old photo album, full of shots of Blanche as a young woman, around Gilbertson’s age, she embarked on a journey to tell a tale about a “wild prairie dame.”
“She’s a fucking amazing character. It’s everyone`s grandmother. These prairie people who had fucking nothing and who made it happen. These are the personal stories: the blood, sweat, and tears of what all of us come from,” says Gilbertson of the beloved matriarch, adding, “It’s not like this is ‘Sound of Music.’ It’s about memory.”
Commissioned by the Banff Centre and workshopped at Wells, B.C.’s vaudevillian Sunset Theatre, Gilbertson, along with musicians Jonathan Lewis and Morag Northey created an eclectic collection of songs with influences of torch music, folk music, chamber music, and also includes a haunted-feeling soundscape.
After years of interpreting other people’s work, Gilbertson finally had a chance to make something of her own creation. Of this genre-busting piece, Gilbertson says, “It’s presented in an avant-garde style. It’s theatrical concert, there’s no speaking. It’s all music,” before adding, “And I interviewed her, so there are excerpts of her voice all the way through her show.”
Gilbertson`s epic journey was not an easy one. As she would soon find out, this business of art is not without its politics. “I grew up here and, for a long time, when I started out in the acting community, it was only Toronto actors,” says Gilbertson. “Only actors from the East were getting the lead roles on stages. And then I saw that gradually change as I started to grow up in the community and, being here, that really shifted to so much independent work. Like, almost every single theatre company has a program that’s supporting new artists making new work.”
Working with One Yellow Rabbit for seven years, Gilbertson tells the stories about how they had encouraged her as a writer, giving the young artist opportunities to write with them. Of her time, Gilbertson reflects, “It was like this voice was encouraged. It totally changed my life.”
Exceeding even her own expectations, she was invited to take part in the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where Blanche was called “one of the 20 best shows of 2011,” as hailed by The Huffington Post’s Michael Glitz. Of the New York festival, Gilbertson remarks, “I guess it was just really life changing. It was an opportunity that really allowed me to think of myself as an artist in a whole new way. And a dream come true.” From dream, to reality, our homegrown chanteuse has brought the show back to her hometown. You can catch Onalea Gilbertson and her award-winning poetic song cycle at the Lunch Box Theatre from January 14th to 26th.
Blanche will be performed as part of the 2013 High Performance Rodeo and is a co-production of the High Performance Rodeo and Lunchbox Theatre. It runs from January 14 to the 26th.
By Max Maxwell