Spirit of the times

The German term zeitgeist is generally rendered in English as the spirit of a given time, as shown in prevailing thought or customs. (Think, perhaps, how Carnaby Street reflected the social values of mid-1960s Britain.) In 2019, are Yukon audiences ready for an evening of music and comedy that offers a glimpse at the zeitgeist of contemporary life North of 60?

British Columbia theatre-makers Britt Small and Jacob Richmond think they are. So does Australian ex-pat Katherine McCallum. Small and Richmond are the co-founders of Victoria’s Atomic Vaudeville company, which has been staging popular cabaret shows on an ongoing basis for the past 15 years. They also put on such stage hits as Ride the Cyclone and Legoland. McCallum is artistic executive producer of Larrikin Theatre, a professional Whitehorse company she founded in 2015 after leaving the artistic director’s chair at the Guild Theatre.

Last year, after attending an Atomic Vaudeville cabaret in Victoria, McCallum approached the company’s artistic producer (Small) and artistic director (Richmond) with the idea of collaborating on a similar project in Whitehorse.

“We came up in September for three days and did kind of a ‘comedy creation’ workshop with a group of people. This was sort of a dream idea, but we didn’t know if people would support it financially,” Small explained. Once McCallum secured the necessary funding, the pair returned with a couple of Victoria-based actors in tow, to audition potential local performers. In January, they came to Whitehorse looking for local writers to provide insights into Yukon life.

“That was really great, to get a sense of what the feeling was from people, of where they live and who the people were and what were the big issues, all kinds of stuff like that,” Small said. “I think that’s when the cabaret works best, when it grows out of the community that it’s performing for.”

Small had recently completed a master’s degree in theatre and was trying to eke out a living as a performer when she met Richmond, who had worked in cabaret shows in Montreal before moving west.

“And I was noticing a shift in how people were viewing live performances. There was more and more burlesque happening at that time. Standup was starting to come back in a different way, even drag at that time. So there was a lot more diversity in that field,” she said.

“He (Richmond) went away on a writing retreat and while he was away I rented a venue and made a poster. When he came back, I said, ‘we’re doing a cabaret,’” Small said, laughing. “That’s kind of how we started. Originally, we would do them almost once a month, which was insane.”

As the format evolved, it adopted satirical conventions such as those used in the South Park animated TV series. 

“To take issues that were happening, either in our community, or in our world, and kind of find a parallel to that, essentially.”

Sometimes, Small explained, they might reuse an established character or update a certain ‘bit’ because it has a good story structure, but past storylines don’t matter at all. Each one is very much its own unique show. It becomes a little bit like a study of the moment, of what’s going on, so that way it always feels contemporary and fresh. It will feel like it was written yesterday.

That’s the vibe the collaborating companies hope to achieve with North of the Sixtieth Parallel: A Zeitgeist Cabaret, which will run later this month as part of the Yukon Arts Centre’s residency program. Although the title calls it a cabaret, Small admits the show falls somewhere along the revue/vaudeville/burlesque/cabaret spectrum.

“I think we’re going to have to invent a new name, kind of like rhapsody, only for theatre. In some ways, it has the most in common with the musical. A musical rhapsody. A theatrical musical rhapsody, maybe,” she said.

Small feels it’s an appropriate form to capture the current zeitgeist.

“It’s very much dealing with what people are thinking about and including as many people as possible in that conversation and distilling it from there so you get a sense of ‘we the people,’ which I think is a really good way to think right now,” she said.

Beside Richmond and Small as principal writers, the show includes contributions from McCallum, Angela Drainville, Jenny Hamilton, Claire Ness and Rex Ternalcom. The opening premise finds “outsider” Sarah Murphy sharing her first impressions of Whitehorse with McCallum, the transplanted Australian, who quickly presents a different perspective.

Others in the core cast of 12 include Drainville, Jane Gaudet, Chris Hine, Jeremiah Kitchen, Chris Lovatt, Jim McGeragle, Kelly Scott, Kaori Torigai, Grant Waters and Brandon Wicke. They will be joined on various nights by special “celebrity” Yukon guests such as Claire Ness and Brenda Barnes.

Some of the sketches include an attempt to establish a boy band, a Robin Hood-style riff on Bernie Sanders and contemporary capitalism, and a look at who gets targeted for tourism marketing, and how. Small said new material might get added right until opening night.

“A lot of it will be set, but we always like to keep pieces a little bit floating.”

North of the Sixtieth Parallel: A Zeitgeist Cabaret runs Tuesdays to Saturdays from April 16 to April 27 at the Old Fire Hall. Show time is 8 p.m., with no late admissions.

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