The new musical drama Stonecliff, which opens at the Yukon Arts Centre stage on Friday, November 17 (for four performances only!) tells the story of Michael J. Heney, the son of poor Irish immigrants in the Ottawa Valley who went on to build one of the world’s most spectacular railways – the White Pass and Yukon Route – to serve the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898.
I wear a few hats for this show. And as the project’s playwright, producer and director, I have the good fortune to work with some marvellous creative minds. The first and most vital one to come on board was Yukon composer Matthew Lien, with whom I’d collaborated back in the 1990s.
“I grew up in the company of three distinct influences: Irish folk music, the Yukon, and trains,” Matthew said. “From the age of seven, nearly half of each childhood year was spent at Dezadeash Lodge with my father. Every spring, I’d travel by ferry from Seattle through the Inside Passage, to Haines, Alaska, and drive across the mountain pass into the Yukon with my father. That rugged annual pilgrimage through the mystical Inside Passage and over the haunting Chilkat Pass left a deep and lasting mark.
“Much of the time spent with my mother was immersed in Irish folk music and travel by train, be it Amtrak or the Deutsche Bundesbahn – and for her, the older, creaky and clunkier the train, the better.
“I was spellbound by those iron beasts and by the men that ran them. I was just as mesmerised by the countless Irish folk musicians we billeted, who played songs of rambling rovers and long ago trains.
“So when I received the call from Conrad, asking if I’d create music about one of the most remarkable historic railroads – accomplished by an Irishman, reaching from the Inside Passage over those same mystical mountains, into the Yukon – how could I refuse?”
As many readers will know, Matthew’s music has taken off in Asia, and he makes his winter home in Taiwan, so our partnership was very long distance: Ottawa to Taipei. But it wasn’t the only long distance partnership I had for this project. There are few men living who know more about the history of the White Pass and Yukon Route than Skagway’s Steve Hites. I needed him to ensure my dialogue was authentic to the period, and he currently spends a lot of his winters developing a tourist railroad on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Thank goodness for long distance phone plans!
The play had its genesis near Heney’s hometown of Stonecliff, and two Ottawa Valley artists also joined the project nearly a year ago; their skills will play a large part in the show’s visual appeal. Costume designer Ingrid Harris works regularly in Stratford and New York, and is the resident costumer for Canada’s National Gallery. Award-winning projection designer Graham Price taught technical theatre in England for many years, and is currently production manager of one of Canada’s oldest stage companies, Ottawa Little Theatre.
My other national collaborator, playing a lead role who is almost never off-stage, is Shaw Festival veteran Billy Lake, who’s flying north from Toronto for the experience.
“You don’t often get an opportunity to create the lead role in an epic show like this,” Billy said. “Michael Heney was a fascinating man, and I’m thrilled to be making my first trip to the Yukon to bring him to life.”
By far the majority of the team members who are working hard to make Stonecliff live and breathe, are from right here in the Yukon. There’s my right hand in staging the show: choreographer Kate Fitzgerald, who is one of the staff members at Leaping Feats Dance in Riverdale.
There’s sculptor Lea-Ann McNally, who’s building a lot of the props in her workshop in Hillcrest.
And Tlingit expert Bess Cooley of Teslin, who wrote lyrics in that language for one of our songs, and who is advising one of my actors in how a Carcross man would have moved and spoken more than a 100 years ago.
It’s been more than two decades since I directed a show in Whitehorse. So when I flew up in May to conduct auditions, I had no idea what to expect, especially since the play requires so many men, and men are usually scarce in community theatre. Imagine my delight when my local collaborators, Mary Sloan and Rachel Grantham, gave me an abundance of excellent actors to choose from, led by a veteran, Bruce Barrett, who was with me in the cast of Man of la Mancha at FH Collins some 37 years ago, and will be shouldering a heavy theatrical burden as the narrator for Stonecliff.
Joining Bruce is a sterling group of performers young and old, who among them take on more than 40 speaking roles, changing personas as often as they do costumes: Cohen Ashick, Brett Chandler, James McCullough, Graham Rudge, Doug Rutherford, R. P. Singh, Adrian Woodhouse and our solitary actress, Angela Drainville.
Aiding them in key backstage roles are stage manager Odile Nelson and sound technician Wayne Rochon. And a special treat for our audiences is fiddler and actress Katie Avery, who will pop up in the most unexpected places.
Supporting all of these talented people are another special group: our corporate partners, who you will see featured on our full-page ad elsewhere in this issue of What’s Up Yukon. Without them, Stonecliff would not be happening.
It has been a joy to develop this story with all these wonderful people. But the best thing about live theatre is that we require one more set of collaborators to complete the experience: you, the audience. We invite you to join us in building our magical, musical “iron road.”
The new musical Stonecliff opens at the Yukon Arts Centre on Friday, November 17 at 7:30 p.m. There are three other showings: Saturday, November 18 at
2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m.
For more information go to www.YukonArtsCentre.com.