Anna Atkinson is a singer, multi-instrumentalist, composer and actor. She’s also a solo performer, bandleader, collaborator, sideman, session musician, and educator. For the past six years she has worked as an onstage musician in theatre, both in Toronto and at the Stratford Festival. For the Soulpepper Blog she talks about the thrills and challenges of performing live music while acting as part of an ensemble.
Probably the most exciting part of working for a theatre company is working with amazing artists. I find that the intersection of different artistic media is one of the most inspiring and challenging places to be – so many people with different areas of expertise working together towards a common goal. It is both humbling and thrilling.
I’ve worked with Erin Brandenburg and Andrew Penner, Blood Wedding’s director and music director/composer, on a few different projects, including Boblo (2013), which they wrote together. Andrew’s music for this Blood Wedding is simple, effective, and very evocative. The concept and design for the show are really beautiful and dark. I find it easy to sink into the world that has been created.
Performing live music as part of a stage production comes with a host of unique challenges, like, where to put my instruments, moving around in the dark, or trying to perform in a restrictive costume.
Designers are usually really helpful on that front, making sure that there aren’t any sharp or rattly bits on my costume that could affect my playing. But I’ve had to play violin while wearing a beard and that is surprisingly difficult because then the instrument is anchored so differently. I had a hard time not dropping it at first. Moving around in the dark or in strange places while holding an expensive or heavy instrument can be tricky also, so I’ve had to learn to move very slowly and mindfully at first, especially when working in a new space, or when we’re doing technical rehearsals.
There’s also a sense of switching mental gears that needs to be constantly taking place, where I navigate playing sometimes tricky passages on an instrument, singing, movement, delivering text and also thinking about how I am involved in the story telling in any given moment. I’ve had lots of chats with other actor/musicians, and it seems that acting and playing music come from very different impulses even though they are also connected. Getting both of those things going at once can be a mental and physical challenge, but so rewarding when it works.
Playing music onstage has made me think a lot more about the physicality of what my whole body is doing, not just my fingers or my arms. One of my favourite things about Blood Wedding rehearsal was movement coaching from Andrea Nann. Learning how to really ground ourselves within our own bodies and move and interact with our fellow performers is a wonderful gift. It’s given me a new awareness of how I can channel that connectedness into my playing.
It’s been really rewarding to work with the whole team on this show. It’s such a supportive and inspiring group of people.
Catch Anna and her instruments on stage in Blood Wedding from March 2 to April 9.
Photo: Anna Atkinson, supplied. Illustration: Gracia Lam.
Soulpepper Academy Grad & Alligator Pie Ensemble Member Qasim Khan gives us the inside scoop on Alligator Pie at the Family Festival:
This remount has an entirely new cast, and the cast and the directors are all Soulpepper Academy graduates. Tell us what rehearsals have been like, and what it’s like working with other Academy peers.
You know that feeling of going to a family dinner after not seeing the entire clan for a while? For me it’s a combination of excitement, nerves, and a bit of giddiness, and that’s what returning to Soulpepper to work on Alligator Pie feels like. This is my first show back with the company since graduating from the Academy in 2012, and I am having a blast.
This version of the show is the ultimate Academy experience because it was created and performed originally by five Academy graduates, and now those same five are teaching it to another group of Academy graduates. Working with four generations of Academy peers feels like I am working with the coolest, most talented members of a kind of family, even if most of us have never actually worked together. There’s a creative language, sense of humor, and an ability to play that ties all of us together, even though we are all so different. We all learned the same kind of storytelling skills at the Academy, so it’s way easier to trust each other in rehearsal right off the bat.
Tell us about your character, and the things you have to do, or have had to learn for this production.
Alligator Pie is centered on five people who arrive at the ultimate playroom – a theatre – and who happen to all love playing with each other, almost like kids with their best friends. I play the role of *drumroll please* Qasim Khan…. In past productions, that character was called Gregory Prest, and I would argue that this is the most challenging, complicated, and intelligent character in the piece – think Hamlet crossed with a Muppet.
Each character in the show was tailor-made by, and for, the original creators. Gregory is not only an amazing actor, but he’s a really gifted musician, which came in handy for pieces like “Penny In My Purse,” a number where he plays an accordion, or “The Cat and the Wizard,” where he accompanied the story on clarinet. I played the clarinet in high school, but never in my life have I touched an accordion. That is until two weeks ago! So far I’ve learned the accordion, and played more clarinet than I have since I was 14.
There are some similarities between each original creator and each new actor, but there’s a new energy that the five of us are bringing to this year’s show, and that has been fun to explore.
What is your favourite piece in the show and why?
Every time we rehearse the piece I get excited and fall in love with different parts. Today, my favorite piece in the show is called “I Remember” and I love it because it encompasses everything I felt about the show when I first saw it. It’s a beautiful song that recalls the simplicity of friendship, and it’s staged in the simplest way: using a few umbrellas. Children are mesmerized because of the staging and the action that they are seeing, and adults are moved because of the message of the song. The piece is powerful and resonates on some level with everyone in the audience, and it reflects the core of Alligator Pie.
Why should families come down to experience this show at the Young Centre?
Alligator Pie strikes a chord with everyone that watches it. Our younger audience members will sit in wonder at some of the magic that we create on stage, and adults will fall in love with the touching poems of Dennis Lee. It’s a celebration of friendship, play, and childhood, and that’s what makes it the perfect piece to bring your family to.
Images: Alligator Pie ensemble. Qasim Khan. Alligator Pie ensemble. Qasim Khan. Photos: Cylla von Tiedemann.
What is appealing to you about the musical format as a theatre artist?
Combining story with music is one of the oldest paths to the human heart, and it has been a major form of storytelling from the Greeks, through opera, and through the advent of musical theatre in the 20th-century. When words meet stories meet notes in that perfect way it can make people feel something profound. There’s great power in the form. But it takes a great amount of energy to create memorable moments. You have to build towards those moments. And it’s knowing how to build that momentum, that is the challenge. And it’s the exciting part of writing musicals. When you can create something meaningful, it feels like a service, not just something for your own success or ambition. You’re the creator of something that is bringing energy into people’s lives, and you can feel really good about what you do.
I’ve been at Soulpepper for 10 years studying words and storytelling, and that path has led me to bring music into the creative equation when I’m working on a new production.
What do you think contributes to the success of Spoon River, which is returning for its third run at Soulpepper, and touring out of province next summer?
The amazing thing about Soulpepper is that I know I have a chance of my work being heard and that fuels me: it’s motivating and inspiring. The landscape here gives artists lengthy meaningful employment – it inspires creation. You know you can dig into the work and not have to get distracted by outside concerns.
And you have access to people you know, and that will be around, and so you build things around certain people and their talents, which also inspires creation. The music for Spoon River I wrote partly on my own, and partly for specific people I knew would be in the show. And that affected the range, the energy, and the tone of the songs.
I’m really excited that Spoon River is going on the road next summer, and that it will be part of the Charlottetown Festival, my PEI hometown. My personal connection aside, there are universal themes in Spoon River that I think could resonate anywhere else in the world. People want stories about where they’re from. And small towns – they’re everywhere. And the themes in this show are universal, about living your life every day to its fullest, something everyone strives for. And there are songs about gossip and that’s everywhere. Death – everywhere. It’s about America also – it’s familiar, audiences get it, and the situations of the characters can be applied to personal situations.
I would love to see this show reach an audience as wide as it can, and for people to know that it can be performed by virtually any group of people willing to take on a whole bunch of characters and strum some guitars – it can play to 100 or 1,000 and ideally have the same impact. I would love to eventually see more companies perform it as well.
There are still moments that make me laugh. There’s a moment you can feel the audience understand what the show is about, from whose point of view – I never get over that moment. I never get over the musicianship present on stage. Or the journey that Albert Schultz and I created in terms of meeting characters in a certain order so the train of the show keeps carrying the story through the Spoon River community. And I love standing backstage with the ensemble before we go on – that feeling of anticipation.