Spoken from the grave

The dead give lessons – and sing and play instruments – in Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River

SPOON RIVER adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, composed by Ross, directed by Schultz, with Frank Cox-O’Connell, Oliver Dennis, Peter Fernandes, Hailey Gillis, Stuart Hughes, Oyin Oladejo, Nancy Palk and Brendan Wall. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre (50 Tank House). Now in previews, opens Tuesday (November 4) and runs to November 15 see soulpepper.ca for schedule. $23-$89. 416-866-8666.

In Spoon River, the dead teach the living a few lessons about life.

Adapted by composer Mike Ross and director Albert Schultz from Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems by American writer Edgar Lee Masters in which the residents of a small-town graveyard recount their lives and passions, the Soulpepper show blends poetry and music.

The cast is a combination of Soulpepper senior artists and members of the current Academy, young theatre practitioners thrilled to be sharing the stage with people they’ve admired for years. The Academy people were part of a workshop version of Spoon River at the Global Cabaret a year ago and have been involved in creating as well as performing the current script.

“We first tackled it about four months into our Academy training,” says Hailey Gillis, “and since then we’ve done lots of devised work with Leah Cherniak, which has given us a sense of power in the rehearsal hall. We believe in and argue the ideas we put forward, and it’s wonderful when actors like Diego Matamoros and Nancy Palk listen to us.”

“We were encouraged to look at all the poems in the anthology,” continues Peter Fernandes, “to bring in the poems and find the themes that interested us and then convince others of what we find valuable in the material.”

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Once the material was chosen, the 19 actors started working with Schultz and assistant director Erin Brandenburg (another Academy member), shaping the speakers of the short poems and finding through-lines for sections of the production.

Fernandes plays several characters, including the man who carves the gravestone epitaphs and a widow who urges the living not to assume that they can change their time here. Gillis’s single role provides a framework for the narrative.

“What holds it all together is the idea that those who are no longer here have a different insight into the world,” she offers. “They want to be remembered, but it’s necessary to remember not just the best parts of these characters but also the rough edges of their lives. Albert is rigorous about the fact that we can’t be precious with these stories.”

The idea for the show began when Schultz threw composer Ross a copy of Masters’s poems, suggesting they might be a fruitful source for a production. The composer was apparently so inspired that he had a chunk of it written the next day.

“Mike, who’s performing with us, says he could hear the songs the first time he read the text,” smiles Fernandes. “What we’re presenting gives audiences the poems as well as his interpretations of the verse. He’s tapped into the original so well that I can’t imagine presenting the poetry without the music.”

Most of the performers also play instruments during the show Gillis, for instance, tackles ukulele, guitar, tambourine and drum.

“Mike’s an amazing leader,” agrees Gillis. “Some of us told him we didn’t know, despite a musical background, how to play this or that instrument. He encouraged everyone, told us we’d figure it out, and we did.

“That’s the kind of positive attitude everyone has around here. We can’t help but be inspired and grow.”

Additional Interview Clips

How the company keeps the 70+ characters straight for themselves and the audience

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The importance of the Soulpepper team for Academy members

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