The Klondike Institute of Art & Culture is checking in with a few of the inspiring, creative, and unique individuals who make up the colourful mosaic of Dawson City’s artistic and creative community. The pandemic has affected everyone in different ways and we are continually amazed by the resilience, strength, and innovation in our midst.
Stephen Gallant is a classically trained, multi-instrumentalist director and performer who has held the role of Musical Director at Diamond Tooth Gerties in Dawson City, Yukon, for 7 consecutive seasons. In the winter months he teaches piano, guitar, drums, and vocal lessons at the Klondike Institute of Art & Culture (KIAC). Stephen is originally from Cape Breton, NS and has divided his time between Dawson City and the east coast for several years.
DB: As a musical director who has worked on productions across Canada and the USA, what drew your eye to the north?
SG: In all honesty, my arrival in the north was happenstance. In 2013, I was invited to do a video audition for both piano and drums at a “cool-looking Can-Can show” in Dawson City, at Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall. How could I resist?! I was freshly out of Acadia University in Wolfville NS, where I received a Bachelor of Music in Education with a focus on percussion and drumming, and I was eager to start a new adventure.
That first summer I was quite out of my element and truthfully, lagging behind in piano skill. It had been a long time since I had taken piano that seriously, and the Gerties show pushed me quite hard with my playing. The following year, I began musically directing the show under the wonderful producer and choreographer Terrie Turai, owner of Dynamite Stage Productions. I’m truly lucky that she entrusted me with that role so early in my career, and I owe a lot to her. As much as that first summer was a stressful time for me, I quickly fell in love with Dawson and knew I had to come back. Even though I hadn’t sought out a life in the North, I was completely drawn in.
DB: Can you tell me a little bit about the productions you were involved with before you began at Diamond Tooth Gerties?
SG: Because I essentially arrived right out of school, most of my previous “career” experience had been school-based. In those first few years after university, I took part in other endeavours during the off-season at Gerties. There is a wonderful Dinner Theatre in Halifax, NS – Grafton Street Dinner Theatre. I was fortunate enough to work as a performer/multi-instrumentalist and musical director/arranger for several shows there. The performers were all multi-faceted: they played multiple instruments each, sang, acted, and improvised in character, all while serving the patrons their meals. It was a crazy, wonderful place to work.
I also had the opportunity to perform in beautiful Canyonville, Oregon, USA. The lead vocalist at Gerties who plays Diamond Tooth Gertie herself, Amy Soloway, produced a show called “Divas! A One Woman Show” at Seven Feathers Casino & Resort. I played piano and guitar and sang background vocals. Diamond Tooth Gerties, Grafton Street Dinner Theatre, and (briefly) Seven Feathers have been the staples of my career in performance so far, other than occasional one-off gigs.
DB: I was about to say that it must be difficult living so far “from home”, but you’ve spent two winters in Dawson already – is it be starting to feel like home as well?
SG: As much as I wish I was closer to my family in Nova Scotia, Dawson City has truly become my home. The people in this town are incredibly supportive. The summer weather is fantastic and the winters are beautiful. My partner, Lindsay, is amazing. The arts scene is vibrant. Really, there is no better place for me to be.
The decision to spend a winter in Dawson came as a “test-run” so to speak, in 2018. There were many changes in my life that year, and I no longer had a reason to be living in Halifax. As much as I wish I could be around my family in Cape Breton, I felt as though I did not have the same professional opportunities there. Terrie, the Gerties show producer, suggested I take the leap and see if I liked the winters in Dawson. Guess what – I did, and still do! Obviously Cape Breton and Halifax will always have a place in my heart though. I go back to spend Christmas with my family each year, and those are very special times, but Dawson City is my chosen home and I am proud of that.
DB: The Diamond Tooth Gerties season runs approximately from May to September, including pre-season rehearsals. What keeps you busy in the off-season now that you are a year-round resident?
SG: My winters consist of a few different jobs and gigs. I have been teaching private music lessons (piano, guitar, drums, and voice) regularly at KIAC, the Klondike Institute of Art & Culture. I thoroughly love working there, although things have been a bit different throughout the COVID pandemic. I am hoping to start teaching online lessons depending on how social distance restrictions go in the future.
I have also been lucky enough to perform with some local pub-bands over the last couple winters, such as The Executives and the River Bends, which was a real treat for me. I had never been in a gigging bar-band before so I learned a LOT of new tunes for those two projects. In addition to music, I deal blackjack during the winter weekends at Gerties, something I’ve been doing part time since 2019.
DB: I see that just a few days ago, you recorded and published a Youtube video of a piece titled “Over the Fundy”, an instrumental piano composition you had originally written in 2012. Can you tell me a little bit about it and what led you to recently revisit the piece?
SG: When I was at Acadia University, I spent a lot of time looking at the Bay of Fundy. It’s a beautiful place in Wolfville, Nova Scotia with walking trails along the dikes. When I wrote the song eight years ago, it was untitled and had little meaning to me – it was just a tune that I would improvise with. Since graduating university, the song reminds me of Wolfville and always pops into my head if I’m feeling nostalgic or a bit somber. Dawson City reminds me of Wolfville in so many ways, the most obvious is that both Dawson and Wolfville have dikes with walking trails on top. I decided to record the tune (and finally give it a name) while I was walking along the Dawson dike because it always make me think of those old days.
DB: Like many other venues and theatres in Canada, the 2020 season is looking uncertain for Diamond Tooth Gerties due to COVID-19. Typically, on a night like tonight you would be gearing up for three back-to-back shows with a cast and crew of up to nearly twenty people, right?
SG: Yes, there are typically 11-12 performers total (8 on any given night), as well as a stage/production crew and a lights-&-sound team. This has been a difficult time for anybody in the entertainment industry, and the entire world, obviously. It’s been tough staying optimistic during the COVID-19 pandemic but I’ve been trying my best to keep my head on straight and remember that this is just one small period in my life. Some days are easier than others – and everybody is struggling with this in their own unique way. I think the most important thing you can do is to reach out and talk to your friends and family. It’s important for you, AND for them.
DB: I imagine playing music would be a natural coping mechanism for you. Are there any other rituals, routines, or projects that have been keeping you grounded since the social distancing measures began?
It’s true, music has always played a “coping” role in my life. I find myself playing tunes from the East Coast a lot more lately, going back to my roots, even though it’s something I resisted for years. There is a certain comfort in that for me. There are other grounding rituals that I TRY to make habits of throughout my life, with varying success. These rituals have become especially important during the social-distancing measures that we’re currently under…
First and foremost, I try to talk to somebody every day. It could be messaging, a phone call, a video call, or a socially-distant coffee outside. Humans need humans. End of story. Family, friends, your partner – whoever makes you feel comfortable. If you’re feeling down, you should tell someone about it. Likewise, if you’re feeling energized, tell someone about that as well! Secondly, I try my best to go for a brisk walk at least 5 times a week. I am TERRIBLE at making this a habit, and it takes very little to make my brain say “oh, (*insert excuse*), so I better not walk today.” But every time I make myself do it – low and behold – it lifts my mood.
Thirdly, I write in my journal. Just thoughts – anything, really. There is a powerful sense of control one can gain from writing or typing the things in your head… I recently started an online blog called “Gallant Thoughts”! (link available below) The purpose is two-fold: I get things off my chest in a very cathartic way, and I get a sense of community when I hear from others who can relate to my struggles.
On the blog I discuss the three things that I think about the most: music, mental health, and gaming. That last category is primarily for the enjoyment of a select group of nerds, like myself. I’m currently getting suuuuuper into a Sega Dreamcast game called “Skies Of Arcadia.” If you are an RPG person, like me, you HAVE to check out this game! The mental health category is where I discuss my battles with depression (and similar issues) and coping strategies that have helped me over the years. The music section will have a variety of topics, anything from “How To Properly Wrap A Cord” to “How To Build Musical Chords” to “Practice Techniques”, but I’m still organizing my thoughts in this category, so keep an eye out!
DB: Your most recent article, titled “Retro-Gaming With A Friend: How to play old video games together over the Internet”, is a step-by-step instructional on how to play classic 80’s and 90’s video games on modern devices, in multiplayer mode no less. How cool! On a more serious note, you mention that the blog explores your personal struggles with mental health, written in direct response to COVID-19 for those who may be experiencing depression for the first time. How has the response been?
SG: Writing a piece for people experiencing depression for the first time was extremely cathartic for me. I’ve been struggling with depression for years and I sometimes forget that I do have a fairly solid idea of of good and bad ways to cope with it. I’m certainly not perfect, but it felt really nice to share my perspective in the hopes that someone could benefit from reading about my battles with depression. I’ve had several people reach out to tell me that they feel exactly how I described (some for the first time, and others just finally expressing it for the first time). I’ve been able to start a back-and-forth dialogue with quite a few of these people and it’s becoming a two-way street of support with each of them. I feel quite lucky to have people trust me enough to tell me about their mental health. I plan on making mental health the primary focus of my blog, with music and gaming as the tension-relievers. So you can definitely expect more where that came from!
DB: Thank you for time Stephen, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Is there anything you’d like to add?
SG: Thank you so much for the interview! All I will add is that as soon as the entertainment industry opens up again, we will all be back stronger than ever! Things will get better. We just need to wait, and do our part.
Typically, Stephen can be found playing the piano or drums or singing onstage at Diamond Tooth Gerties in Dawson City, Yukon. Follow Stephen’s blog at www.stephengallant.wixsite.com/gallantthoughts. For enquiries about upcoming music lessons, please contact KIAC by calling 867-993-5005 or emailing [email protected]