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Chelsea Hotel Tributes Late Leonard Cohen, Celebrates Firehall Arts Centre’s 35th Anniversary

by Max Szentveri

Photo by David Cooper

VANCOUVER – Vancouver based playwright and director Tracey Power has always believed it vital to tell Canadian stories.

“We don’t need to see American and European stories all the time,” she says, “we need to see our stories, about us. I feel pretty passionate about that.”

Accordingly, her work has touched on such homegrown subjects as the life of Toronto actress Mary Pickford, the history of the Preston Rivulettes, a pioneering Depression-era women’s hockey team from southern Ontario, and most famously, the art of Leonard Cohen, in her 2012 play Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Now, on the occasion of the Vancouver Firehall Arts Centre’s 35th anniversary, Power is preparing to revive the cabaret on the stage where it originally debuted.

The play centres on a frustrated, Cohen-esque writer, who checks into New York’s Chelsea Hotel to write his next song, where he must contend with haunting memories from his tortured, amorous past. The story is told through Cohen’s songs, interpreted by six performers on 17 instruments. Part play, part musical, and part dance performance, the piece defies easy categorization.

“People really wanted to put a label on it at first,” Power says. “’Is it a musical? Is it a play? Is it a jukebox thing?’ But for us, it’s always been an experience. We want the audience to experience something different and go on a poetic journey with us.”

The reprisal, which debuts March 17, will mark the first performance of Chelsea Hotel since Cohen’s passing – something Power feels brings new significance to the production. Upon his death in 2016, the Firehall Arts Centre was flooded with calls asking if they planned to bring back the popular and award-winning show; artistic director Donna Spencer decided a revival would be the perfect way to celebrate the Centre’s 35th season. At a moment when a wave of development and gentrification casts a long shadow upon cultural spaces in the city, a place like the Firehall seems especially valuable – as a young artist, Power got her start at the venue, and credits Spencer with nurturing up-and-coming talent in the city.

“Donna’s supportive of so many artists,” says Power. “She’s such a believer in different voices – in women’s voices, and diverse voices, and she really wants to represent Vancouver as a city, and the cross-section of it.”

Even after hundreds of performances, Power believes the dark and dreamily romantic cabaret remains fresh: “Every time we do it, it grows,” she says, as new performers and modified arrangements tease out novel ways to probe the depths of Cohen’s music. “He’s a remarkable poet, and he gives you a lot to explore.”

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen runs from March 17-April 21 at Firehall Arts Centre.