Frontlines

Culture on the rock

Robert Plaskin January 1 1979
Frontlines

Culture on the rock

Robert Plaskin January 1 1979

Culture on the rock

Frontlines

When the four members of The Wonderful Grand Band recorded their first album this year—a mix of traditional Newfoundland jigs and reels and their own songs—they worked at Clode Sound Studios in Stephenville, Newfoundland. The facilities were basic (“Do another take, boys, there’s a plane landing in the driveway”) but the choice of an eight-track local studio over a 24-track Toronto outfit was typical of many other high-calibre Newfoundland performers. It used to be that talented people left; now, more and more, local performers with the talent and opportunity to build a wider audience prefer to stay based in Newfoundland. The new genre includes other bands such as the long-established Ryan’s Fancy and Figgy Duff as well as “alternate” theatre groups such as CODCO (now dispersed and working on individual projects, but one of the pioneers of the new mood), the Mummers Troupe of Newfoundland and the Rising Tide Theatre.

There is some analogy here with the surge of creativity in Quebec during the ’60s. “It’s funny, but I’ve always felt most comfortable outside Newfoundland in Quebec,” says Donna Butt, one of the stars of Daddy, What ’s a Train? a Rising Tide production set to tour the province (Maclean’s, Nov. 27). “There’s an energy and a spirit, a love of people there that is very much like what we have in Newfoundland.”

Over the past six years, Butt has worked on and off with the Mummers and elsewhere in Canada. She won wide acclaim in Teresa’s Creed, a one-woman show at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, and spent a summer starring in Shakespeare for Fun and Profit at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto. But moving is out of the question. “If I can’t make a living in the theatre in Newfoundland I’ll leave the theatre,” she says. “I’m not opposed to working off the island, it’s healthy and can be very important. But one of the ways we’re trying to deal with the isolation factor is by bringing people in to work with us, as well as working outside the province our-

selves.” The move toward importing instead of exporting talent is related to a change in the audience at home. “The difference I see in terms of our audiences in the last two or three years is phenomenal,” says Butt. “We used to have academics and people who were visiting or who had moved here from away. Now you’re getting Newfoundlanders coming to see Newfoundlanders.”

Chris Brookes, who runs the Mummers Troupe, has been involved in devising shows around local issues, often for outport audiences. Two Mummer shows— What’s That Got to Do With the Price of Fish? and They Club Seals, Don’t They?—went on successful national tours. And early in December, as

a sign that the new cultural identity is not defensive but expansive, Brookes organized a symposium to bring people from small theatres across the country together—“People who are trying to use the medium to effect or reflect political, social and economic changes.” Funded by a measly $4,000 federal grant, it onV amounted to a dozen people who met in an office at a union hall down by the waterfront, but it made the point that “independents” found themselves suitably convened in St. John’s, dreaming up new avenues of co-operation. Thunder Bay, Ontario’s KamLab, for instance, wants to organize an alternatetheatre festival for 1981.

The first Newfoundland new-theatre group to turn mainland heads was the satirical group CODCO (several former members are now laboring on a feature film, called The Adventures of Faustus Bidyood; they hope to finish it by 1980). Then the five-piece folk-rock band Figgy Duff went west and found fans

quickly. Last spring they opened the Chieftains’ concert at Massey Hall in Toronto and they have played the big clubs there as well as international folk festivals. Their manager, John Parsons, says Figgy Duff doesn’t have to leave Newfoundland to make it. “They’ve 5 spent three years collecting their mu| sic—traditional Newfoundland music, y With this kind of music, and this kind of £ commitment to it, if you stay away from 1 here too long, you lose something. The £ band gets re-energized here when it I comes back off a tour.” During the first ° half of December, Figgy Duff toured fe B.C. with a Christmas show, then came m home to tour its own version of what the § Mummers have been doing every I Christmas—roaming the city at night

0 in the company bus, looking for homes with Christmas parties going on, where the Mummers will enter to perform.

It’s the Newfoundland energy that seems to be the key, however hard it is to define. Denis Ryan, of the band Ryan’s Fancy, describes the effects: “We used to live in Toronto. Then we moved to this beautiful land. We haven’t felt the need to move back.” With six albums behind them, a new one due in March and a CBC special in the works, Ryan’s Fancy remains homebased but well-connected to the rest of the country. Not everyone, of course, feels there is enough scope in the province. Beth Harrington has left the province because “I wanted to consider myself a songwriter and a composer, and you really have to be more in the stream. In St. John’s, there’s only so much you can do. You outgrow it, or it outgrows you.”

Ron Hynes, a songwriter for the Wonderful Grand Band (Valdy does one of his songs, Sonny’s Dream) lived in Toronto for seven years, came back and plans to stay. “Newfoundland has always been subjected to Canadianism and Americanism, in terms of culture

1 and music. But we’re starting to develop I our own styles. The rest of the provinces Z don’t have as much to draw on, which is I one of the reasons we want to base our| selves in Newfoundland. I think Neww foundlanders have a stronger sense of g who they are, and where they come Z from.”

1 “The circuit has always been con£ trolled from Toronto,” says Parsons. □ “Well, we’re trying to start our own cir£ cuit, and there’s no reason other people æ can’t follow.” Robert Plaskin