Hawksley Workman says making albums was beginning to feel like factory work.
THE GOD THAT COMES by Hawksley Workman and Christian Barry, directed by Barry, with Workman. Presented by 2b theatre company and the Tarragon (30 Bridgman). Opens Tuesday (June 3) and runs to June 29, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $40. 416-531-1827, tarragontheatre.comtarragontheatre.com.
After a string of successful stops out west, Hawksley Workman's rocked-out riff on the Bacchus myth finally hits Toronto.
"I was experiencing some career malaise," admits the Juno Award-winning singer, songwriter and producer about his dip into theatre.
"The idea to do something different started in Montreal when Christian Barry, then a student at the National Theatre School, found me after I played a show at Club Soda and suggested we work together. Later, he came to me with the idea of doing a rock version of Euripides' The Bacchae. It was a perfect match, because I've always had a little glam and cabaret in my back pocket."
The solo show, which debuted in Calgary in 2013, finds Workman covering all aspects of the performance: he swaps characters, playing an evil ruler, hedonistic townspeople and of course Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, and creates a full band effect with a range of instruments and loop pedals.
For Workman, who's known as a speedy and prolific operator after releasing 14 solo records in about as many years, the change of pace in developing this show was a relief.
"Making albums almost felt like factory work: write, record, promo, tour, come home, try to drink less, repeat," he says. "Working with Christian, we'd just show up each morning and have these in-depth discussions, and the songs emerged naturally from that. We had a piano and a little stage there, so when inspiration struck we could hop up and act it out. A lot of the show came out of those improvised nuggets."
But there were some challenges involved in the slower pace of this new artistic medium.
"For so long we were performing this show as a work-in-progress, which had its benefits, but for me it was always a little frustrating. I got impatient. It felt kinda silly, like what if I played a concert and was like, ‘Okay, check out these three chorus ideas'?"
The plot delves into the psyche of the evil monarch bent on banning the bacchanalia, but Workman says his approach to unsavoury characters comes from a place of empathy.
"We've seen a lot of rancid rulers lately - there seems to be no shortage of them - but I didn't want to recreate the hate that they use to wield power. So much of our current politics is about stifling difference through the promotion of hate, so here I want to model an approach to this bad character from a place of love. Hate is so petty and constricting; it's love that makes people burst with possibilities and potential, and that's what Bacchus was all about."
After a month-long run at the Tarragon, the show will continue to tour with stops at the Edinburgh Fringe in August and Stratford in September. When he's not doing the show, Workman has other tour dates with his new band, Mounties, a rock trio that also includes Steve Bays of Hot Hot Heat and Ryan Dahle of Limblifter.
"I feel very blessed to have a medium-sized career," he laughs.
"Not being too big or too small means I get to try out all these different projects, and a bunch of the seeds I planted years back are starting to grow."