404 diary

404 rock opera posterNovember 2005. Late in 2002 Olin abandoned his attempt to walk from Oregon to the southern tip of Chile, and returned to Saskatoon to attend university and play guitar with the band. Shortly afterward we began discussing the possibility of reviving our rock opera Room to Breathe.

The rock opera had been performed at the Mendel Art Gallery the previous summer, but Andrew and I were dissatisfied with the way the show had turned out and thought we could improve it if we had full creative control. At the very least we could come up with a better title…

What follows are excerpts from my emails to friends and band members, as we slowly pieced the show together.

January 22 2003
Message to friends

We haven’t entirely discarded the possibility of reviving the rock opera for the Fringe Festival. We have another week to decide. The main reason to do it is to keep our profile high, and because I think with Olin schmoozing on our behalf, we might be able to get a better calibre of singers to take on roles. The main reason not to do it is that we’d be repeating ourselves. Really, I should write something entirely new, but I’m so fucking lazy. That’s the disadvantage of having a rock opera already written – there’s no incentive to ever write another one.

We approached Jay Arnold, a local theatre director and a friend of ours, to direct the show.

January 31 2003
Message to Jay Arnold

Just so you know where things are at: I’m submitting our application to the Fringe today. After a lengthy band meeting at Humpty’s, we decided that it was worthwhile to invest some time in attempting to pull the show together. Basically here’s what we need to have in place before [the deadline for withdrawing and getting your application fee back] April 1st:

A SOLID SCRIPT. I’ll have to work hard on this in the next month or so.

A DRUMMER. Preferably we need a drummer to join our band permanently. If we have to hire someone just for the Fringe show, it cuts into our margins considerably.

GREAT PERFORMERS. If we don’t have people lined up that we know can handle the job – which means really good singers, ideally with acting chops as well – then forget it. Why waste anybody’s time?

And of course, a director. I want us to get together – all of us, including Andrew – in the next few days and bat around our vision for the show. To some extent, if you come onboard for this, you’ll have a much tougher job than [director Warren Cowell] had, when he mounted the first performance. First off, he had more money to work with. But more importantly, he was totally in charge – he answered to no-one except the producers – i.e., his overseers at the Mendel. He outranked me and Andrew. By comparison, you’d be coming into a situation where the producers and the writers were the same people. Which means that if Andrew & Olin & I spazz out on you, and accuse you of corrupting our precious artistic integrity, there’s nothing for you to do except swallow it or quit. I don’t expect this would happen – but if there’s any chance of it happening, let’s make sure it happens well before April 1st, when the financial stakes become much higher. Therefore let’s get together soon and get our arguments out of the way as soon as possible.

Whatever happens, the process should be interesting. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the script.

Our first major creative discussion was centered on what we should call the show. Andrew and I had always been dissatisfied with the title Room to Breathe, which the Mendel had imposed. Olin and Jay, however, preferred it to my alternative title, Echo Lake.

February 5 2003
Message to Andrew, Olin, and director Jay Arnold

Okay. I think a few days back I said I was gonna send a message explaining my preference for the title “Echo Lake” over “Room to Breathe”. I kind of outlined my reasoning to Jay last night, after Andrew left, but I’d like to go over it again, and discuss other possibilities.

For starters, I should explain that the story originated as a spin on Pauline Johnson’s poem The Legend of Qu’Appelle Valley. This is the legend that is related in the song Who’s calling? In brief, it’s about a young native guy who’s paddling his canoe across Echo Lake one night, returning after a long absence to his village, where he expects to see the girl he loves. Just as the moon rises over the valley, he hears someone call his name. He stops paddling. “Who’s calling?” he cries out, first in Cree, then in French: “Qu’appelle?” But all he hears is the echo of his own words.

So he paddles home as fast as he can, and when he gets there he leaps out of his canoe and runs to the teepee where his True Love resides. When he pokes his head in, he sees her lying there on her mattress, white-faced and dead. Her mother tells him that she fell ill while he was gone, and died during the night, just as the autumn moon rose above the hills; and that with her dying words, she spoke his name.

Pauline Johnson’s “legend” was a romanticised version of the vague rumours, related by natives and trappers, that said the Qu’Appelle Valley was haunted by a disembodied voice that sometimes called people’s names at night. I thought this story was kind of cool, and creepy, and it happened to tie in with the history of hauntings at Fort San. (Another connection: though she doesn’t specify, I like to imagine that the native girl in Johnson’s poem died of tuberculosis.) In the very early stages of the rock opera – when I first pitched it to the Mendel – the working title was “Who’s calling?” – which I eventually ditched, because it sounds like some bad British sitcom set at the phone company. I settled on “Echo Lake” because I wanted to make it clear that the setting – the Valley – was important to the story – that the “ghost story” I’m telling is of a kind with the history of hauntings around Echo Lake and the San.

The title “Room to Breathe”, by contrast, was intended to convey the idea that tuberculosis was a significant theme of the story; but it’s really not. The disease is never named in the script, and there’s no reason, storywise, that the Patient couldn’t be suffering from polio or AIDS or Ebola. Warren and the folks at the Mendel fixated on the idea that breathing was central to the show – and Warren had a neat idea, eventually abandoned, that the first thing the audience would hear, when they walked into the theatre, would be the amplified sound of raspy breathing. (Which I still think is a neat idea.)

The problem with “Room to Breathe” is that, even if you accept that “breathing” is an important theme, the title carries the wrong emotional timbre; it implies that breathing is easy, comfortable, and free, rather than difficult and constricted. My initial suggestion, when Warren broached the subject of a name change, was “A Little Room to Breathe”, which at least makes the irony a bit more explicit; the word “little” conveys a sense of tightness or smallness which can be extended, metaphorically, to the lungs and windpipe. But I hate metaphors.

Another name we toyed with was “Room 404”, or maybe just “404” – but I thought that gave away the ending a little too early – people would know something was fishy the moment they heard Hallie’s room number. Plus, “Room 404” could be anywhere, and as I’ve said, I prefer to connect the story to a particular spooky place – the Qu’Appelle.

The revival of the rock opera was officially a “co-production” with the Mendel Art Gallery. Early on I met with representatives from the Mendel to try and figure out exactly what that would mean.

February 5 2003
Message to friends

I met with Troy and his boss Alex at the Mendel this afternoon. My plan was to get down on my knees and beg them to allow us to use their name in advertising materials for the rock opera:

The band known as Sea Water Bliss
In association with
The Mendel Art Gallery
An original rock opera

…or words to that effect. I also wanted to be able to work the Mendel’s name into our spiel when we were seeking out sponsors and applying for grants. I figured people might take us more seriously if we created the illusion we were important, serious members of the artistic community, rather than a bunch of slobs who can barely remember the chords to “You Shook Me All Night Long”.

So I met with Troy and he took me up into Alex’s office, which is fabulous and overlooks the riverbank, and the three of us chatted for a few minutes. Meanwhile I was looking nervously at my little notebook, which contained the entry, “How prominently can we use the Mendel’s name &/or logo??” – and wondering how I could delicately broach the subject.

Before I could get to it, Alex said, “One possibility we should consider is whether the Mendel could co-sponsor your grant applications. It might allow you to apply for grants that can only be given to non-profit organisations.”

This was something that had been in the back of my mind, Olin having brought it up the night before, but it was so far beyond anything I expected they’d be willing to do for us, I was reluctant to even raise it. “Uh, that would be awesome,” I said.

As the meeting went along, Troy and Alex consistently went further in their offers of assistance than what I’d been prepared to request. When I mentioned we needed to find a projector, Troy said we might be able to borrow the Mendel’s. When I brought up the possibility of a trip down to Fort San to do some filming, Alex said we might be able to coordinate our trip to coincide with one the Mendel is taking in April.

Troy cautiously raised the subject of how the eventual division of profits might impact on grant applications. “Well,” I defensively interjected, “we’re not expecting profits. We’re doing this on the assumption that, if we’re careful in our math, we’ll break even. Any profits would be divided up between the actors and the director and, if we’re lucky, the band.”

“No, no,” Alex said, understanding my nervousness. “Obviously the Mendel isn’t expecting a share of the revenues.”

Well, that’s good, because there probably won’t be any. I’m a little baffled that Alex is so eager to associate with a fly-by-night rock-n-roll outfit like ours, but what the hell. Now all we gotta do is write a whole lot of grant applications and hope one or two of them pay off. Also, find some good singers. And a drummer. And tidy up the script. Teach Olin the songs. Film some good video footage. Make posters. Have a lot of meetings. Sacrifice a ram, an ox, and a cow, and boil their flesh together in a cauldron of bronze. And get a projector. And we’ll be in business.

February 6 2003
Message to a friend

As I’ve been patiently explaining to Olin and Jay over the last few days, the reason I like the title “Echo Lake” is that the story is inspired by geography – not by physiology or psychology, as “Room to Breathe” might suggest. The rock opera was inspired by a ghost story, and it still is a ghost story, in a way – and the Qu’Appelle is a haunted valley. Or so the Indians say, and who’s gonna argue with the Indians?

As for the title “Room 404”, the problem is that it gives away the ending too soon. A lot of people, when they hear the number 404, immediately think of the File Not Found error; and when Room 404 comes up in the story, they’ll immediately crack open the story’s big mystery. Not that it’s much of a mystery, but hell, it’s all we’ve got.

You might be right that there will be marketing difficulties associated with “Echo Lake”. I figure the trick is to come up with a good, edgy, “Fringey” poster design, and to emphasise the words “rock opera” in the title.

But we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. There’s still only a fifty-fifty chance we’re gonna do this thing. If we don’t find a good cast, then fuck it, there’s no point. And if our drummer search is anything to go by, finding a cast might not be the easiest thing in the world. But Jay knows a few people, and Olin continues to network, so maybe we’ll get lucky.

In Andrew’s and my very earliest conception of the rock opera, the Patient’s only companion in his hospital room was going to be a mannequin with a television for a head. The other characters’ faces would appear on the television screen as they interacted with the Patient. When we did the show at the Mendel, this concept was abandoned. But we discussed bringing the idea back.

February 8 2003
Message to Andrew, Olin, and director Jay Arnold

Jay, we’ll have to meet soon and talk some more. When’s your next day off? Meanwhile, keep thinking about things like set design, and video that you’d like to incorporate. PS, I’d really like to return to the TV-headed mannequin concept, if it’s practical. I have to call an old friend to see if she still has a mannequin. If not, we’ll have to make do with the TV set we designed for the Mendel show.

Olin, keep networking. Having a great cast takes priority over every other thing, including these grants. If we have a great cast and no money, we can still put on a decent show; but if we have a lousy cast, the show will suck, no matter how much money we throw at it. I think I might send Carrie “the cute girl from Leonard” Horachek an email brazenly inviting her to sing for us.

Andrew, maybe you could team up with [our friend Warren, an engineer] to design and build a UFO for the “Dream of the descending satellite” scene? One that flies. And, ideally, shoots laserbeams.

February 8 2003
Message to Andrew, Olin, and director Jay Arnold

Jay wrote:

I like the idea of using a mannequin head except for the fact that it is too small. If we get the Broadway Theatre, nobody will be able to see what is on the screen.

I’ve thought of this before, and I’m not sure it matters too much. After all, the only things that will be appearing on the TV screen are close-ups of people’s faces; so as long as the television is at least as large as a person’s head, the audience will have no more trouble reading the expressions on the TV actors’ faces than they would reading the expressions on the live actors’ faces. Another option, though it complicates things, is to have two screens – one on the mannequin, another larger one off to one side of the stage to serve as a ‘monitor’ for the audience to watch. Hell, three screens would be even better. It would emphasise the patient’s isolation more effectively – one lonely flesh & blood guy, surrounded by all these cold, impersonal TV monitors.

February 19 2003
Message to Andrew, Olin, and director Jay Arnold

Some thoughts about the Prince of Wales’ scene.

First, I should probably spell out the history behind the scene, for those of you (Jay, Olin) who might not be familiar with it.

In 1919, while on a cross-Canada tour, the Prince of Wales stopped at Fort San to visit tubercular soldiers who’d fought in the Great War.

Years later, the Prince met and fell in love with a divorced American socialite named Wallis Simpson. When his father, King George V, died in 1936, the Prince ascended to the throne as King Edward VIII. His intention was to marry Mrs. Simpson, but while the Church of England and the British Parliament were prepared to put up with her as the King’s mistress, they weren’t going to allow him to actually marry this divorced American woman. Unable to reconcile his duty as monarch with his relationship with Mrs. Simpson, Edward VIII abdicated the throne. His younger brother became George VI, and Edward was shipped off to the Bahamas, where he and Mrs. Simpson lived out their lives under the titles Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

So, like the Singin’ Cowboy, the Prince of Wales’ visit is based loosely on the actual history of the San.

Now, more importantly, how does his presence advance the story thematically?

As I said last night, the story is about making a choice between a fantasy you can live with and a reality you can’t live with. Or, in broader terms, between the fanciful and the practical. King Edward’s story is the story of this conundrum in miniature.

The Prince’s song is all about Doing Your Duty for King and Country and suchlike. When the Patient sings to the young Prince, “Duty’s nice, but other things are nicer / You would shirk your duty, you would shrug it off / You’d shrug it off for love,” he’s foreshadowing the choice that the Prince eventually will make. It’s also the choice that the Patient himself will make, when he is unable to tear himself away from the video image of the girl he loves.

When Troy and Warren and I were batting around story ideas last year, we briefly discussed the possibility of using Edward’s abdication as the trigger for the riot sequence. I think we abandoned the idea cos it didn’t really make sense – why would his abdication trigger a riot if the patients were being pacified by the Hallie computer program? And if the Hallie program has already malfunctioned, why would the additional impetus of the abdication be necessary for them to riot? Still, it would be nice to tie the Prince back into the story somehow. It would also help to clarify things for the audience, who might be familiar with Edward’s story, but might not associate Edward with the Prince of Wales.

February 28 2003
Message to friends

Meetings, meetings, meetings.

Well, more like “meetings, meetings”. One on Thursday, another one today. For a normal person, this might not seem like a lot of meetings, but I’m not much of a talker, so it’s kind of stressful.

These meetings have been mostly about practical matters, like writing a realistic budget, so it’s been alright. I’ve been having more trouble writing the “project overview” which will accompany our Canada Council grant application, and which is supposed to describe our “artistic vision” for the show. It’s easy to compose a rock opera and let it moulder in your imagination, unseen by the world. It’s rather difficult to sit down at your computer and attempt to explain why the hell you chose to write a rock opera in the first place. Why does the mannequin have a television for a head? Uh… “The mannequin stands for the representational mutability of interactive automata in the impending post-biological age.” Or maybe I just thought a mannequin with a television for a head would look cool.

I have a real aversion to explaining myself. My explanations always sound feeble because I’m not sophisticated enough to invest any symbol with more than one meaning. The concept of “TV-headed mannequin”, to me, just means a mannequin with a TV for a head, nothing more. The Palace of Justice, in my mind, is a literal brick-and-mortar building, not a stand-in for the tyranny of global capitalism. The Americans is a song about messy neighbours who own a suspicious-looking dog. If I ever did write a song about politics, it would be the most embarrassingly symbol-free song ever written:

“Here’s to free-market capitalism!
Which, despite waste and pollution,
Organises the distribution
Of goods and services more efficiently
Than any central planning committee!
PS, well-meaning UN inspections teams
Will never overthrow dangerous and despotic regimes.
Everyone sing: La-de-da-da…”

We were lucky to get the cooperation of the management of the Echo Valley Conference Centre, which is what Fort San turned into after it closed down as a tuberculosis treatment facility. (The conference centre has since closed down entirely.) We were allowed considerable access to the old hospital and its surrounding buildings. Our original plan was to bring the rock opera down to Fort San after the Fringe was over; in fact, Fort San was more central to reviving the rock opera than the Fringe, as we figured we might be able to get grant money from the Canada Council and Saskatchewan Arts Board to put on the show at the San, enabling us to mount a far more elaborate production.

March 3 2003
Message to friends

Well, after staying up all night to put the package together, our Canada Council grant application is making its way to Ottawa right now. In the end, we wound up asking for 8500 of your taxpayer dollars to finance two shows at Fort San this fall. (The Fringe budget will be coming out of our own pockets.) Alex at the Mendel assured us that, if we were lucky, we might get a portion of what we asked for – say, $5000 – which, in my view, is more than enough to put together a decent show, albeit with fewer bells & whistles & laserbeams, if we’re willing to forego paying ourselves. Which I am. I’m not in this for the money, I’m in it for the rock-n-roll, and for the slight chance of meeting promiscuous girls.

We’ll find out how our application was received in June. I figure there’s a better than even chance that I’ll be killed by a speeding snowmobile before then, so I’m going to put the question out of my mind for now.

March 4 2003
Message to friends

I don’t understand why so many people seem to have a problem with characters in musicals who break out into song. Folks who’ll happily suspend disbelief while watching a Wookie shoot a droid with a laserbeam will mock the idea of some guy singing and dancing to show that he’s happy and in love. Why do people find old-style musicals so unnatural nowadays?

One of the bogus arguments we used in our grant application was that the band known as Sea Water Bliss is working to revive the popularity of musical theatre in our culture – to get people used to the idea of characters who sing and dance again. (Alhough one of the things we learned from the last production is that People Should Never Dance In Rock Operas.) Truthfully, the popularity of musical theatre never crossed our minds when we were creating the show – but maybe someone should be out there trying to revive the genre. I’d do it myself – I’ve always wanted to write a musical comedy, complete with a stuffy English butler and a hilarious misunderstanding involving a misplaced brooch – but it’s too much work.

March 6 2003
Message to actor Damien Bartlett

Hey, Damien. This is Mike Charles, of rock opera fame.

I wanted to write and apologise for blowing off that get-together on Monday. By “blowing off” I mean to say “snoring through”. I’d been up all night finishing up our Canada Council grant application, and I made the mistake of thinking I could close my eyes for a few minutes and rest before the meeting.

Jay tells me that, despite my flakiness, you still expressed an interest in being in our little show. He also tells me that you’re gonna be going away for the better part of this month. I was wondering if it would be possible for me to drop off a CD of rock opera songs before you leave, so that you could get a sense of whether the music is something you’d be comfortable singing.

If you’re interested, it would be great if we could get you together with the band sometime in the next couple weeks to play a few tunes, hear what we all sound like together. The reason I say “the next couple weeks” is because we were hoping to have a cast solidified by April 1. That might seem a little early for an August show, but last time we did this, we put things off till the very last minute, and it hurt us; so this time we’re gonna try and go the other way.

March 10 2003
Message to Sea Water Bliss mailing list

Welcome, old friends and newcomers. For those of you who took the bold step of adding your names to our email sign-up sheet at the Amigo’s benefit concert on Saturday the 22nd, this will be your first update on the enchanted rock-n-roll career of the band known as Sea Water Bliss. We send these messages out every once in a while when something interesting happens, like when Andrew changes his bass strings, or when one of us loses his arm in a tragic bus accident. I should start by saying that we have no plans to play in public anytime soon. We haven’t even been rehearsing. I’ve been sidelined by the world’s most tenacious cold – I’m sipping a Neo Citran as I type this – while Andrew has been busy rewiring his bass, and Olin has been working overtime to make the world safe for bicycles. But we’ll be climbing back on the rehearsal wagon starting tomorrow, and then we’ll start planning our next assault on your delicate eardrums. Watch for it.

But I didn’t write to brag about my clogged sinuses. The big news is, we’re gonna be putting on our rock opera again. As most of you know, Andrew and I were commissioned by the Mendel Art Gallery last year to compose an original rock opera set in the Qu’Appelle Valley. The rock opera, which wound up being called “Room to Breathe”, was performed in the Mendel’s auditorium last June to smallish but moderately enthusiastic crowds.

Well, we’re tired of sitting around waiting for the Mendel to invite us to write another show. We’ve decided to revive the rock opera for this summer’s Saskatoon International Fringe Festival (Aug 1-10 2003). We’re also hoping to take it on the road in early fall to Fort Qu’Appelle, where we expect to be embraced by the valley’s large community of rock opera aficionados.

For the newcomers – the rock opera is about a young tuberculosis patient in quarantine who falls in love with a girl he can only communicate with by videophone. Also, there’s a spaceman. And the Prince of Wales. It’s set in the past, but also sort of in the future. If it all sounds kind of ridiculous, that’s okay. Rock operas are supposed to be ridiculous.

For those of you who saw the show last year – don’t worry, we’re gonna take steps to make it better this time round. For starters, there will be no dancing. No dancing! And we’re gonna try to work in a little nudity. It’s the Fringe, after all.

What we need is performers:

A young male and a young female lead. The only requirement is that they be able to sing really well, act a little, and be able to pass for seventeen years old.

Also, we’re looking for Native or Metis performers, any age, who can sing really well and act a little.

But if you’re not Native, Metis, or able to pass for seventeen years old, don’t worry – there are other parts we need to fill, including the Spaceman, the Prince of Wales, a Nurse, and a Singin’ Cowboy. All but the Nurse are singing parts.

March 11 2003
Message to Andrew, Olin, and director Jay Arnold

Jay wrote:

Anyway, we only have 15 minutes to set up before each show so whatever we do has to be very simple.

I think simplicity works in our favour. We’ve got a lot of business happening onstage already – video, projection, and a live band – and if we add a complicated lighting scheme, with actors moving all over the place, it will only look chaotic. (I think this is what happened with the last show.) We don’t want to overload anybody’s synapses. If people are willing to sit quietly for an hour and watch a one-man show, or listen to a guy play a classical guitar, then surely they can sit still for our rock opera, even if the main character spends the first half of the show in a near-coma.

One of the concepts I used pitching the show to the Mendel in the first place was that it was less a play than a musical tableau vivant – that the Patient, at least for the first half of the show, was nothing but a living prop, and that the only “action” would take place either in the band or on the videoscreen.

Warren was constantly pressuring to turn the show into a “play” – to bring live actors onstage, and have them interact with the Patient. But all that live interaction didn’t add much, and it took away a great deal from the atmosphere we were trying to establish. The Patient is isolated, after all – cut off from other people, connected to the world only through cold, untrustworthy technology – and his isolation should be represented literally onstage, by cutting him off from the other actors.

I’m wondering if I made a mistake having even the Singin’ Cowboy and the Prince of Wales enter the Patient’s room. Maybe everybody – Hallie, Joe Hump, the Nurse – should appear only on the videophone. How’s this:

WE DO IT WITH FOUR LIVE ACTORS: the Patient, Hallie, Joe Hump, and the Nurse. I play the Cowboy and the Prince. There is no Narrator.

EVERYBODY SINGS. Even the Nurse. We could give her “Try to close your eyes” and maybe even “Dream of the descending satellite”, and possibly bring back her original song, “Attitude is everything”.

THERE IS NO PRE-RECORDED DIALOGUE. Everything on the videophone is done through live video feed. This means we can do away with one of our computers, which saves a great deal of complication. It also means we can film everything more easily, because there will be no sound to deal with.

NO-ONE GOES ONSTAGE except Hallie – in the Patient’s fantasies – and she only sparingly.

What would we lose if we did it this way? We’d lose my favourite gag in the show, when the Patient breathes on the Cowboy. Oh, well. We’d lose the flexibility of being able to pre-record dialogue scenes. We’d have to pay four live actors a cut of the door for every performance.

Okay, so what if we do away with Joe Hump? Give “Who’s calling?” to the Nurse or the Cowboy, and rewrite the lyrics to Teepee pole so that Hallie or the Patient could sing it. Put the story-advancing requirements of Joe Hump’s character onto the Cowboy. Then we’d be down to three live actors. Of course, that would require me, as the Cowboy, to do some actual acting. Iffy.

Still, I’m going to do some thinkin’ along these lines today.

April 12 2003
Message to Andrew, Olin, and director Jay Arnold

How about this for the title of the rock opera:


Concise, elegant, and catchy, nyet? Plus, it sounds more rockin’ than “Room to Breathe”. And there’s no danger that people will mistake it for some kind of sandal-wearin’ hippie show, as they might if we called it “Echo Lake”.

May 1 2003
Message to friends

Had a rehearsal with our male lead Damien last night. He’s pretty good – he learns songs quickly, he’s got a strong voice, and he’s easy to work with. His singing style is more Broadway than rock-n-roll, though. We might have to make him sing with a fake British accent or something, just to get a bit of a punkish snarl into his voice.

So I didn’t get home till one AM, and then I had to stay up a bit later to send in our promotional blurb, logo, and bios for the Fringe programme. So it was about three before I got to bed. As a consequence, I slept right through my alarm and showed up for work forty-five minutes late. My first display of outright irresponsibility since this new job began. I hope it doesn’t mark the beginning of my descent – or should I say my return – to slackerdom. (Although those extra forty-five minutes of sleep were well worth it.)

Jay and Olin and I are taking a road trip down to Fort Qu’Appelle this Saturday to take some photos, wander around the San, and prepare for our three-day filming expedition over the Victoria Day long weekend. It should be fun. Then I have to finish assembling the script, which should be less fun. But things are going pretty well, considering. All we need is a nurse’s uniform. Carolyn, do you think you could set us up with a nurse’s uniform? Bonus points if you model it for us.

By the way, for those who don’t know, Olin heard back from the Ness Creek organisers. We’ve been invited to play the festival this summer. They’re even paying us four hundred bucks. That’s like a hundred bucks for every song we actually know how to play.

May 4 2003
Message to friends

When we were in Regina yesterday we dropped in on this girl Sarah’s house – she’s gonna be the female lead in our rock opera – and she had two dogs and a cat, and I thought I was gonna die. We couldn’t have been there longer than a half-hour, and my nose was running, and I had trouble breathing. I think it was the hairiest house I’ve ever been in.

Sarah seems all right. She’s Jay’s roommate’s sister. She’s just finishing high school, so she’s about the right age, and she’s pretty cute. (Although she made fun of me for listening to old-time country music on the radio when we came to pick her up for dinner.) Also, as it happens, she’s the great-granddaughter of the doctor who was in charge of the San when it opened. Which we intend to exploit in our promotional efforts. When her classes end in June she’s gonna move up to Saskatoon and stay in Jay & Steve’s place and be a rock-n-roller full-time.

Aside from the part where my allergies nearly killed me, yesterday’s trip was really good. Olin had been up all night engaging in some unspeakable debauchery, so he was kind of smelly and disheveled and babbling incoherently. But Jay and I let him sleep in the backseat for most of the drive (I even had the foresight to bring pillows) while we talked about the rock opera up front. We got a lot of good thinking done.

May 5 2003
Message to friends

The Fort Qu’Appelle trip was pretty good. We were given full access to whatever building we wanted to see, so we wandered freely around the innards of the San and its outlying buildings. We toured the power house. We hunched around in the crawlspace next to the old morgue. We took some video in the root cellar they formerly used to keep the corpses cool. We wandered around an abandoned house, where we played with a smashed-up x-ray machine from the mid-1900s. We skipped stones off the dock and mused aloud about staging pyrotechnic effects on the beach; and, as if on cue, an employee of the San drove up in his pickup truck to tell us, “Sure, there won’t be any managers around on Victoria Day, so you can blow stuff up, no problem.” Olin flirted hard with the fifteen-year-old girl who served us ice cream cones in the town’s general store. The day was relentlessly fun.

May 12 2003
Message to director Jay Arnold

Looks like there might be a new song. Needs a bit more work. It’s a final song for Hallie, called “Melt in the sun”. It would go right between the riot and “Not exactly here”. Hope it doesn’t overly prolong the climax, but it’s the only logical place for Hallie to sing another song. Which I think she needs. Also allows me to cut away most of the remaining dialogue in the show.

Started stitching together the script last night. Got as far as the Prince of Wales scene. A thought, which you may feel free to shoot down:

At the end of the Prince’s song, the Patient rises from his bed. The Nurse yells at him: “What do you think you’re–” But the Patient cuts her off mid-sentence by switching off the videophone. He advances on the Prince. “You’ve given me a lot of good advice, sir…” etc. At the end of his verse – “You’d shrug it off for love” – he makes a grab for the Prince, who ducks away. The Patient succeeds in grabbing hold of a medallion that’s hanging around his neck. The ribbon tears, and the Prince flees, and the Patient is left holding the medallion. He climbs into bed.

Fast forward to the hobbit-door scene. The Patient receives the key from the Cowboy/Spaceman, and approaches the door. On it are two signs. The camera reads the first sign:

Absolutely no admittance!

The camera pans down to a smaller sign below:

(unless you have the key)

The Patient holds out the key and opens the padlock. He enters the hobbit-hole. He proceeds down a corridor, and arrives at another door. (Maybe the big metal door in the morgue. Or maybe the elevator door from the Mendel warehouse.) It’s got another sign:

Turn back now! You cannot go any further!

Once again, we pan down to a smaller sign:

(unless you have the medallion)

The Patient looks down at his chest, and he’s wearing the medallion he took from the Prince. He shrugs and opens the door, and finds himself in the boiler room. Or in an elevator. Whatever.

Fast forward to the scene on the open prairie. Off in the distance is a television with Hallie’s face on it. (I still think it should have a little sign saying “Hallie 9000”.) He looks down in his hands and he’s got an axe. He smashes the television. After a bit of smashing, he notices that there’s blood dripping off the axe. He looks down and the television is gone – instead the Nurse is lying dead on the ground. That’s when he wakes up to the sound of alarms, calls the Nurse, and we see the riot.

My only other thought is that the crazy patient that kills the Nurse should use the same axe that the Patient used to smash the television.

Still no line on a nurse’s uniform. Maybe we’ll have to rent one for the weekend.

May 13 2003
Message to a friend

I really wish I had this week off. I’ve got a big long list of little things that need to be gathered or assembled before I leave for Fort Qu’Appelle on Friday. I need to borrow a cooler and fill it with hot dogs and other barbecue supplies. I need to get my hands on a portable generator. I need a stethoscope. I don’t suppose you have a stethoscope? Jay and Charlotte are making a trip to Value Village today to buy pyjamas and a nightgown, and to look for a dress that might be improvised into a nurse’s outfit. Wish I could go along. Plus, I need to finish assembling the script. People are getting understandably antsy to see it, but I just don’t have time, between my silly job and the planning and my six meagre hours of nightly sleep, to sit down and write.

I’m a little freaked out cos I’m going to be going to Fort Qu’Appelle alone Friday and I don’t have any place to stay until Saturday morning, when everyone else arrives. I could sleep in the car, which doesn’t sound too enticing. Alternatively, I might be able to get the San to put me up for a night. But I’m not sure how eager I am to spend the night alone in a haunted hospital, either.

May 16 2003
Message to friends

So I’m off to Fort Qu’Appelle in nine hours or so. Right now I’m waiting for a load of laundry to finish drying. Jay and I bought institutional green bedsheets and a blanket at Value Village tonight – how would people put on rock operas if Value Village didn’t exist? – but we soon discovered that the bedsheet reeked of bug repellent. Now the interior of my car reeks of bug repellent. I threw the sheet into the washing machine believing that a little soap and water would soon solve the problem, but I only managed to infect the washer with the smell. The sheet smells just as bad as it did before.

So, Fort Qu’Appelle. We’re gonna smash a TV and start some fires, and we’re gonna try and convince the lead actress to take her shirt off. [That was a joke – M.] That’s about all the cool stuff we have planned. The rest is gonna be a lot of standing around, trying to ignore the ghosts as they drift down the corridors.

May 20 2003
Message to friends

Friday. Get up semi-early, eat, load car. Drive out of town on Highway 16, listening to Def Leppard. “Pour Some Sugar On Me” comes on. It suddenly dawns on me: I, Michael A. Charles, young rock-n-roll musician, am going on a business trip. Rock-n-roll is my business. That’s pretty cool. Way frickin’ cooler than creating spreadsheets in the IT department at Corrections Canada.

Arrive ahead of schedule. Am greeted at Fort San by Gus, the General Manager. He seems pleased to see me. I’ve arranged for the San to provide one night’s accommodation, to tide me over until everyone else arrives Saturday, after which we’ll be staying in Steve’s cabin. Gus shows me my room. It’s actually a whole house: “Creekside Lodge”. Three bedrooms, a living room, a hot shower, a kitchen – no fridge or stove, though. I follow Gus as he guides me through the lodge. “It should do just fine,” I say.

Gus and I sit and talk in the lobby of the San. Around four o’clock, he says he’s leaving. “Oh,” I say. “I was hoping for a chance to do some more scouting on the upper levels.”

“That’s alright,” Gus says. “I’ll just lock you into the building and leave one door open for you to get out. You’re alone here, no-one will bother you.”

All alone in the haunted hospital. The wind is gusting outside. Windows bang and whistle. The sun is going down. I creep from level to level in Pasqua Hall, the most ghost-infested of the San’s many buildings, searching for a good bedroom to shoot tomorrow. I turn on every light I pass. Around six, on level two of Pasqua Hall, I emerge from the stairwell to a darkened corridor and an especially noisy banging. I’m getting paranoid. “Alright,” I call out, to reassure myself and any nearby spirits. “You can have this floor. I’m getting out of here.” I proceed swiftly to my designated point of egress, and emerge into the dying sunlight.

With nothing to do Friday night, I drive into Regina and decide to catch the new “Matrix” at the drive-in. I and my carload of miscellaneous props pull up at the gate. “One adult for ‘The Matrix’,” I tell the guy.

“Gonna watch it on TV?” he says, jokingly. I have no idea what he’s talking about. I nod and smile and pay my seven dollars, and drive on in. About halfway through the movie I remember that there is a television set sitting in the passenger seat. This is the television we’re going to be smashing with an axe on Monday.

The movie’s pretty good, by the way.

Saturday. Around noon, the cast arrives: Jay, the director; Steve, Jay’s roommate and the owner of the cabin; Sarah, Steve’s sister and our leading lady; Damien, our Patient; and Charlotte, our Nurse.

We begin filming in Room 212 in Pasqua Hall. We empty the room of all evidence of modernity, tuck Damien under green institutional sheets, and film Charlotte opening the curtains and checking his heartrate about a hundred times. Then it’s outside to film Damien opening an ancient wooden door. (This is the door that leads to the root cellar they once used to keep the corpses cool.) Then into the boiler room to film Damien walking up some metal stairs. We break for hot dogs at Steve’s cabin. Then back to the San. Down in the old morgue, Damien lies on an ancient corpse-gurney and we film him being operated on by a sinister spaceman. Steve is the spaceman.

Upstairs again. Long past midnight. While standing outside Room 212, where Jay is filming Damien, I catch some movement from the corner of my eye. The whole cast is accounted for, and I know that the staff has gone home for the night. I grab Steve. “Come with me,” I say, leading him down the dimly-lit corridor.

“What did you see?” he says.

“Not sure,” I say. We peer in every room.

Some distance down the hall, Steve stops abruptly and peers into a darkened hospital room. I can’t see anybody there. “Who are you?” he says.

Four scruffy teenagers file out of the room. Two boys and two girls. “We were trying to scare you,” says one of the boys.

“Get the fuck out of here,” Steve barks, looking very commanding in his spaceman outfit. The teenagers trudge down the hallway to the exit. As they push open the door, one of the boys turns around.

“Nice costume,” he sneers. Then they’re gone.

Four AM. We’re trying to get the riot sequence. Damien has a plastic trash can overturned on his head. He’s running back and forth, caroming off the walls of the corridor. Sarah and I are pursuing each other from room to room, throwing toilet paper, barefoot and wearing badly-fitting pyjamas. Steve is also in pyjamas, dragging an axe down the corridor toward the camera. Charlotte is sprawled on the floor. We’re all tired and silly. “Riot, riot, riot!” we shout, whenever Jay calls “action”. “Riot, riot, riot!” And we run back and forth, bouncing off each other and laughing. It feels ridiculous. We’re surprised to discover, when we retire to Creekside Lodge to watch the tape, that our riot actually looks pretty menacing. Steve drags the axe up to Charlotte’s head, and drops it inches from the camera. Garbage-can-head is still lurching about in the top right corner; the rest of the frame is filled with axe. Not a bad riot.

Sunday. We wake up around noon. Spend the afternoon setting up the dump for our big spaceman sequence. We artfully arrange twisted bits of metal trash. Metal rods poke out of the ground like satellite antennae. We make piles of wood with lots of green leaves for smoky fires. We set up two 500-watt worklights and aim them at the sky. Night falls. We light the fires. We haul the generator up the road and plug in the lights. Glowing, smoking spaceship wreckage. Not bad for a budget of approximately nothing.

Steve can’t fit his feet into the spaceman boots. Up to now, we’ve been shooting him from the waist up. But we want shots of the boots stomping through the wreckage. So I’m the spaceman. Rubber gasmask, hockey pads, bulky gloves. A flashlight strapped to my chest, shining up at my face – the oldest spooky trick in the book. Jay calls “action” and I rise from behind some twisted metal. Walk among the wreckage and the fires. Again and again, from different angles. Then the other direction. We’ve got all we need. Time to put out the fires. Wearing my gasmask, I can walk right through the fires and stomp them out. Jay says, “That looks cool,” and shoots me stomping among the fires. Then I pick up some pieces of metal and throw them around. I beat on my chest like a gorilla. All in the name of art.

Monday. I’ve scouted out a farmer’s field where we can smash a television. Unfortunately, when we visit it again, we find that some damn farmer has parked his big yellow combine there. After some discussion, we decide to shoot there anyway. We set up our television, VCR, and generator.

The sun is up, but it’s cold and windy. It’s been cold and windy all weekend. We wait till around five, when the shadows are getting long. Damien is wearing pyjamas. Sarah is wearing a long white nightgown, with only her underwear underneath. We duct-tape the bottom of their feet, so they can walk through the stubbly field. We film Damien approaching the television. He’s supposed to see Sarah’s face on the TV, but the sun is so bright, the screen just looks like a big mirror. What a waste. We should have filmed the sequence at night.

After a few shots of Damien and Sarah walking through the field, we bring over Steve, our stuntman, to smash the television. He’s wearing the spaceman costume for protection. Everyone else stands back. He sets up and swings his axe. The television shatters. Glass flies. It looks pretty good. The TV falls off its tripod and lands on the ground. Cut. We bring Damien over to hack at the television with the axe.

Night is falling as we pack up the cars. I load the generator into my trunk. It doesn’t fit – I have to duct-tape the trunk closed. Everyone else leaves, and I stay behind to clean up Creekside Lodge. I was supposed to stay there for just one night, but we wound up using it as our headquarters for the whole weekend. No-one from the San was around, so I don’t think they’d mind.

I drive home. Get back at one AM. Sleep until ten. Call in to work: “I just got into town,” I lie. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Whatever. This job is just a sideline. Rock-n-roll is my business. That or maybe guerilla filmmaking.

With just over two months till opening night, the script was still in flux, and we still hadn’t cast two major roles. I entertained the idea of taking on an acting role myself.

May 23 2003
Message to Andrew, Olin, and director Jay Arnold

I was thinking about the Singin’ Cowboy today. Maybe I could play the Cowboy, and then I could give the first song (“Try to close your eyes”) to Charlotte. With a couple little changes to the lyrics, it should make sense.

The Singin’ Cowboy scene would be basically as I described it in my last email – it would start with me on the screen, then I would change guitars and join the band onstage. That would be my first appearance. Then I would leave again, reappear for “Dream of the descending satellite”, leave again, and show up as the Spaceman for the Room 404 sequence. Then I could join the band and play out the rest of the show. This scenario wouldn’t allow me to appear onstage with the band during the other songs, however. We’d have to situate the band with a curtain nearby, so that I could play guitar and exchange signals with the band without being visible to the audience.

And we’d still need another singer to play the Prince of Wales.

Eventually we would find Scott Kuemper to play the Singin’ Cowboy. And, less felicitously, I would have the brainstorm of replacing the Prince of Wales with a mannequin.

May 28 2003
Message to friends

Rehearsals have been pretty smooth. Jay keeps griping cos I haven’t given him a script yet. I guess it must be irritating to him. I’m sure it’s even harder for the actors, who have no real sense of the overall flow of the play – all they know is what we filmed in Fort Qu’Appelle and the scenes revolving around their few songs. But I’m reluctant to piece together the script until I know how all the songs are going to fit together. The story is going to be constantly mutating until almost the day the show opens, so there seems to be little point going to the effort of committing everything to paper at this stage. I guess I’ll have to give Jay & the cast something soon, though, or else they’ll fire me from my own rock opera.

Actually, except for Jay, everyone’s been pretty laid-back about it. It’s weird. If I were the one who’d been suckered into appearing in this ridiculous show, I’d be in a state of non-stop worry. “Hey, Michael,” I’d say, “when am I gonna see that script you promised? When are you gonna find a permanent drummer? When are you gonna sit down and explain to me how all this nonsense with the dancing spaceman actually makes a lick of sense?” Luckily, I’m not one of the actors, and therefore don’t have to worry about such things.

June 2 2003
Message to friends

Had our first proper rehearsal with Sarah this weekend. She drove up after work Friday night and had to leave first thing Saturday morning to work that afternoon. In between we drilled her on her four songs. It went pretty well. Dispelled a lot of my worries. She still tends to enunciate like an opera singer, but at least I’m confident that she’ll be loud enough. And it’s nice to work with someone who picks up the melodies immediately, and always nails her notes. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her sing a sour note.

I still haven’t finished assembling the script. The structure of the climax continues to elude me. With Sarah’s new song in there, it seems to drag on too long. But everyone seems to like the song, and Sarah sings it well. Plus, I don’t know exactly how to fit the riot music around the TV-smashing and nurse-dying scenes we filmed down at the San. Except for those two bits (vitally important bits, I should say), the script looks okay.

One benefit of filming those scenes ahead of time is that at least we’ve got most of our costumes and some of our props together already. We still need a bed and a window and a costume for the Prince of Wales – but that’s about it. Still, we need to get on those things right away. Oh, and a satellite.

I wish Dean & Anne were still in town and unemployed, because I’ll bet they’d have an awesome satellite built by now. They basically made our filming trip possible – they provided the signs for the hobbit door, the tripod for our TV-smashing scene, and picked up and returned the generator. If we can get a satellite built, I think we can film some cheesy-but-cool satellite footage out at Jaime’s acreage. I also want to do some filming in the Mendel warehouse. I guess I’ll have to call in sick one day soon.

June 4 2003
Message to friends

I guess this is going to be an important month, rock-opera-wise. We’ll be finding out soon which venue the Fringe is going to be sticking us into. So we could luck out and get a fairly roomy and well-equipped stage, like the Refinery or (you never know) even the Broadway; or we could be crammed into the attic of a church somewhere, and have to put the drummer outside and down the hall if we want to be able to hear anything. Also, this is sure to be the month where I finally finish the script. I’m over a month late already, and our employees are getting restless. I keep telling them, Don’t worry, it’s all up here (tapping my forehead), it’s just a matter of putting it down on paper. I don’t think they believe me. It doesn’t help when I try to explain what the story is about, because I’m not really sure myself. What if the Spaceman was, like, actually the Cowboy? And what if the Nurse was, like, actually the Patient? Cos, like, every person in a dream actually represents a different aspect of the person having the dream, right? Wait – what if the dream is just a dream inside a dream!

Jay’s been editing together some of the footage we shot down at Fort San, and it’s looking pretty good. He acquiesced to Andrew’s and my demand that there be at least one scene where the Spaceman dances. However, we couldn’t convince him to include a scene where the Spaceman goes to Tim Horton’s and eats a doughnut.

June 5 2003
Message to friends

Back in the early ’90s, not long after I’d dropped out of high school, I was living in Vancouver, working part-time doing phone interviews for a market research company, and spending the rest of my time lounging around my father’s apartment, playing guitar. With nothing better to do, I started flipping around in the Gideon Bible I’d appropriated some years earlier from a hotel room in Etobicoke. I was fascinated by the Book of Revelation, cos it was full of crazy imagery. Horses with serpents for tails, and Jesus with a sword coming out of his mouth, weird shit like that.

This was around the time I was doing some theatre in Vancouver, and writing lots of plays. Revelation seemed like an interesting subject for a drama. Alas, I soon realised that the story doesn’t contain any narrative. Ignore the evangelists who propound on the End Times as if they’re spelled out in the Bible as clearly as the Gospels. The only way to turn Revelation into a coherent story is by importing bits and pieces from other prophetic texts, throwing out whole passages of demented fantasia that don’t conform to your preconceptions, and then using your imagination to fill the gaps. The book is chronologically inconsistent – deliberately so; it’s stuffed with numerological symbolism that has significance only to those intimately familiar with the history of the church in 1st century Asia Minor. How, then, to manufacture drama from a story that makes no sense? Simple – stick some power chords behind it and turn it into a rock opera.

So I started work on my very first rock opera, which, for want of anything better, I called “Revelation”. It was supposed to tell the story of a rock star who discovers that his agent is the Antichrist, and gets caught up in the Apocalypse. Naturally, my intention was to make Jesus – storming around with his army of angels, gorily striking down the nine-tenths of humanity he deems to be insufficiently godly – the villain of the story, and the Antichrist the romantic leader of a doomed revolution. In the end the rock star has to choose sides, knowing full well that the outcome is preordained by God; and like all good rock stars, he chooses the futile but glorious path of rebellion.

I never got very far. I finished two songs, and started on a couple others. I did a fair bit of reading on Revelation, but didn’t have the forbearance to follow up on the Old Testament books (Ezekiel, Daniel) which would have enabled me to present my vision with any kind of theological authority. Ultimately, I was defeated by the weirdness of the text. I was trying to do the same thing literal-minded evangelists have been doing for centuries – rewrite Revelation to conform to their agenda – and the result would have been just as feeble-minded and boring as any Billy Graham sermon. More rockin’, though.

Anyway, eventually the Mendel came along and I found a slightly less ambitious outlet for my rock opera aspirations. I took the two songs I’d written for “Revelation” years before as my starting point. One of them was eventually thrown out, but the other one became “Try to close your eyes”, which remains the first song in the show. So in a sense, “404” (which is what we’re currently calling the rock opera, in case I hadn’t mentioned it) is built from the recycled remains of “Revelation”.

…Okay. Check this out. Andrew and I come upstairs after rehearsing yesterday, and Ralanda is sitting in the living room with her sister Jamie. So Jamie starts asking Andrew how the rock opera is coming along. “Do you know what venue you’re in yet?” she asks.

“No,” we say.

“We’re in the Refinery,” she tells us.

“Oh, I didn’t realise you were doing a show for the Fringe,” I say.

Andrew says, “Yeah, she’s in some churchy show.”

“It’s not churchy,” says Jamie. “It’s just based on the Book of Revelation.”

…A little later, Jamie says, “Yeah, I wrote my first song, it’s gonna be in the show.”

“Oh, it’s a musical?” I say.

“Sort of. Some guys from our church put together a band that’s gonna be doing the music. It’s kind of a rock sound.”

…And we talk some more about the show. Jamie says, “Yeah, it’s really cool, one of the actors doesn’t even appear on stage, he’s just on film the whole time.”

Andrew and I look at each other.

So basically, for the Fringe this summer, Jamie is doing a multimedia rock opera based on the Book of Revelation – which will be competing directly with our multimedia rock opera, which was originally going to be based on the Book of Revelation.

The one bright side of this is, unless the creators of Jamie’s show are a hell of a lot cleverer than I am, they will come up against the same difficulties I encountered trying to adapt Revelation; and their show will, therefore, suck as much as mine probably would have.

Anyway, it’s a weird coincidence. Sign of the End Times?

June 6 2003.
Message to lead actor Damien Bartlett and director Jay Arnold

Hey, Damien. Jay tells me you’re getting pretty antsy for a script, which is understandable. I thought I’d send both of you what I have so far. Basically there’s one “major” scene missing – major in the sense of importance, not of duration. It’s the final dialogue between the Patient and Hallie, after the Nurse gets whacked, just before Hallie’s big freeze-up song. Once written, this dialogue should take up about a page. So far every version I’ve come up with has been awful – “You’re a computer? But…but…how can that be!?” I need to find a way to reach the same point in a more roundabout fashion, while still keeping the dialogue under a minute.

It would help if I had a better sense of how the music is going to flow from the Nurse-whacking scene into the riot into “Melt in the sun”. Most of the time I spend “writing” is actually spent with guitar on knee, trying different musical ideas. This is why, much as I appreciate the offers of assistance I’ve received from both of you, I can’t really take you up on it. I’m not great at collaborating to begin with. But more than that, the process I’m following is essentially musical, not dramatic. That’s why Andrew gets co-writer status without having penned a single line.

By the way. “It helps to talk” – Damien’s rockin’ song – has been renamed Needles in the chest. Better, I hope. Andrew and I did some work on this song tonight. I think it’ll be pretty cool. Got some nifty bass stuff going.

I’m thinking of excising “Who’s calling?” altogether. Before I make that decision, I’d like to have some sense of the running time of the show. It would be great if we could do a complete sing/read-through in the next couple weeks. Maybe it’s only thirty-five minutes long. Last time the show ran an hour ten, and we’ve added two songs since then, but we’ve taken out at least two other songs, and we’ve chucked out all the endless talking. Not that it’s a bad thing if we wind up too short. That just means more time for drum breakdowns and guitar solos.

June 8 2003
Message to lead actor Damien Bartlett and director Jay Arnold

In the original version of the script – the “Mendel version” – my intention was that Hallie be a computer program, plain & simple, and that the connection to the Qu’Appelle ghost story be strictly figurative. Somehow in this version I’ve been leaning toward the idea that she is literally a spirit that has “possessed” this computer program. The original concept, I think, was more sophisticated, but less emotionally engaging. As you say, I don’t think it needs to be spelled out explicitly that a) she’s a computer program, b) she’s a spirit, or c) she’s kinda both. What matters is that I provide one final dramatically & poetically satisfying interaction between Hallie and the Patient.

You suggest tying in the myth, and I think this is the right idea. I don’t mind the bit in “The dream is just a dream” where she rambles on about her dream, the one about flying to the moon. I’m aiming for something with a similar feel. But I don’t want you guys to get your hopes too high, here. I’m no Shakespeare, and if I can merely provide some dialogue that effectively transports us from the riot scene to Hallie’s final song, I’ll feel I’ve done my job.

June 9 2003
Message to cast members

Well, gents and ladies, the Saskatchewan Arts Board has seen what we’ve got to offer, and they are not buying. They shot down our grant proposal like Gary Cooper shot down the Huns in “Sergeant York”. I’m depressed, so you’ll pardon me if I indulge myself in archaic cinematic allusions.

Well, nuts to the Saskatchewan Arts Board. We’ll mount our rock opera the way our granddaddies mounted their rock operas – loud, slightly incoherent, and without the taint of government charity. Here’s to self-reliance and the free market! If nothing else, we’ll have [Saskatoon radio personality] John Gormley on our side.

In other, more positive news: everybody, meet Jenn. (Jenn waves shyly.) Jenn is our new part-time producer. She’s gonna try like heck to drum up free stuff for the show. Because who cares about self-reliance and the free market? We want free stuff!

June 11 2003
Message to a friend

Nothing’s happening with the rock opera right now. We’re at a standstill. I went over to Jay’s place last night with the intention of trying to get some posters done, but we didn’t accomplish anything. I didn’t like his designs and he didn’t like my designs, and we had no luck devising a compromise design, so I just went home. The other bad news is we didn’t get our grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board. This wasn’t really a big surprise, but’s it’s still a bummer.

Anyway. Andrew and his father are going to try and put together a satellite we can blow up on Jaime’s acreage. That could still be fun. And I’m still writing music. I imagine I’ll be writing new music right up to the day of the performance.

June 17 2003
Message to cast members

Our hard-working producer paid a visit to the Sony Store, and she reports that they’re interested in sponsoring our show. Of course, they have to check with head office, so we’ll have to hold off on the chicken-counting. But – they may be able to provide a television, LCD projector, and even wireless headset microphones. Right on, Jenn.

Last night we had another big ol’ rehearsal with Damien & Charlotte. It’s going pretty well. I even added another song for Damien (well, expanded a half-song into a full-song) and he picked it up right away. Our cast is enthusiastic, our guitarist is coming back on the 28th, and our producer is both lovely and talented – how can this not be the best multimedia rock opera about the Qu’Appelle Valley ever performed?

June 20 2003
Message to producer Jenn Pereira

I never got through to Alex, but last night Troy mentioned that he’d talked to her and she’d expressed some doubt that we’d be able to give out Mendel tax receipts. Basically, the argument is that we’re a for-profit show, and therefore shouldn’t be giving out receipts for “charitable” donations.

“But we’re not going to make a profit,” I said to Troy. “Every penny goes back into production costs and paying the actors.”

“But if you’re selling tickets at the door, you can’t claim to be a non-profit,” he said.

“But we sold tickets at the door last time!”

“…But we didn’t hand out tax receipts for that, either. We just sold advertising space in the programmes.”

It seems to me that it’s mostly a matter of definition. Although we didn’t give out tax receipts for the ad space we sold, rock opera #1 did receive several thousand dollars worth of funding from the general Mendel budget – which is funded, in part, by charitable donations, for which they do give out tax receipts. Why couldn’t the Mendel accept “charitable” donations from our sponsors, and hand out tax receipts, and then turn around and give that same amount of money to us for the rock opera?

Troy said he’d talk to Richard, the accounting guy at the Mendel, but he won’t be able to do that till Monday. Anyway, right now it doesn’t look good. So for the weekend, you might want to hold off on mentioning tax receipts when you pitch the rock opera to businesses.

Although our drummer Dean was living in Saskatoon in early 2003, he was unable to participate in the rock opera because he was in the process of moving to Calgary. We brought in a friend of Jay’s, Trevor Miller, to drum for the show, while Dean visited on the weekends to prepare for our upcoming performance at the Ness Creek Festival.

June 25 2003
Message to a friend

I’m really not sure what will happen to the band after the rock opera finishes up. Trevor seems pretty cool, but I doubt he’ll be our long-term drummer. Andrew seems less than enthusiastic about continuing as a three-piece. So maybe “404” will be our swan song. And then what will I do? …I have no idea.

Yesterday was such a frustrating day. Both Warren and Olin were arriving at the airport, at 9:30 and 10:20 respectively, and my plan was to leave rock opera rehearsals early enough to go with Kurt & Jenn to meet Warren, and then hang out at the airport for an hour to welcome Olin back to town. But when Jay and Damien and I went out to the university for rehearsal, we discovered we’d been locked out of the drama building and couldn’t get into our new rehearsal space. Damien scuttled up a tree and tried to get in through an open window on the second floor, but he couldn’t squeeze through. So we went back to Jay’s house and did a quick run-through of Damien’s songs, and that was it. Even so, I didn’t make it out to the airport till ten, by which time Kurt & Jenn & Warren had all left; and Olin’s plane was delayed till 11:45, so I couldn’t wait around to meet him. I went home and got to bed early, but I’m still tired this morning.

I suppose I should be more cheerful right now. The rock opera is going fairly smoothly, and the band is about to play Ness Creek, the biggest (and best-paying) gig we’ve ever had. But I’m just sleepy and irritable. The pointlessness of my job is getting to me. And also the fact that my social life has vanished. Maybe I’ll be re-energised by my upcoming weekend of rock-n-roll.

June 26 2003
Message to a friend

I took a two-and-a-half-hour-long lunch break today so that Jay and I could go down to the Saskatchewan Lung Association and get access to their archival photos from Fort San. Jay filmed all sorts of images of diseased lungs and creepy sick children and other weird stuff. It went pretty well, but I got in trouble when I got back. My boss said that, although she preferred to be flexible with her staff, she was concerned that I not convey the appearance of not taking my job seriously. So I’m staying late today to make up the time. I have no work to do, and everyone’s gone already, so no-one’s going to know whether I stayed late or not. It’s pretty ridiculous. But if I go home, I’ll just fall asleep, and I need to stay awake for still more rock-n-roll labour tonight. So I guess I’ll stick around until the janitor turns off the lights and starts giving me dirty looks.

July 8 2003
Message to friends

I guess Olin’s getting grief from his hippie friends over the rock opera sponsorships. I told him that Jenn was getting us two hundred dollars from [Saskatchewan Liberal Party leader] David Karwacki, and his face fell. “We won’t have to put a Liberal logo on the posters, will we? Cos I’m already having a tough time explaining the Sony thing. If we put the Liberal logo on there, we’ll lose half our audience.”

I told him that the Karwacki money would be camouflaged behind an innocent corporate logo, which seemed to appease him somewhat. Later on I made the mistake of asking what the hippies had against our sponsors. Was Sony manufacturing widescreen TVs for the military-industrial complex?

“Every big corporation gets big by exploiting someone,” he explained. “Even if they’re not exploiting someone directly, they’re investing in some other company that is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against being sponsored by Sony. I’m just saying there are legitimate reasons for being concerned about where the money is coming from.”

I asked him whether there was any objection to the Echo Valley Conference Centre’s logo. “After all,” I said, “they get their money from the Saskatchewan government, which got its start exploiting the Native Canadians.” Luckily, we were just arriving at the drama department for rehearsal, where we were forced to argue about more important things, like how to play Bm7dim5.

I hope Olin’s objection to corporate sponsorship doesn’t harden into a doctrine, because my plan is to sell out to the first big corporation that wants to use “White man from Indian Head” in a pantyhose commercial.

But I suppose I shouldn’t mock Olin’s quaint principles. I’d be uncomfortable taking money from a cigarette company, or a big beer company; and a sponsorship by Burger King probably wouldn’t mesh well with my committed pisco-lacto-ovo-Jello-vegetarianism. And Olin’s right – even if I dissociate myself from Big Tobacco, there’s a good chance that American Pantyhose Corp., or one of its subsidiaries, owns stock in Philip Morris. I guess it depends how far you’re prepared to go to insulate yourself from what you see as corrupt. Some early Christians went out into the desert and spent their whole lives in caves. But back then the alternative was plague, malnutrition, and tyrannical rule. I bet those self-denying saints would have gladly left the desert for a penthouse apartment, a model girlfriend, and a seven-figure endorsement deal from Reebok.

July 9 2003
Message to friends

We ran through the rock opera from beginning to end last night, without stopping, albeit minus a couple songs. It came in at just under an hour. So it’ll probably wind up being about an hour and ten minutes, just as it says in the Fringe programme. I was worried that, after all the songs and dialogue we cut out of it, it would wind up being only thirty-five minutes long. The show looks alright. It requires a bit of imagination to picture it with cool lights and a giant television set and a projector. The fact that it almost works even without those things is probably a good sign.

July 14 2003
Message to friends

Well, here it is, the middle of July already. Saturday morning I’ll be heading up to Ness Creek. Just now I can’t summon much enthusiasm for the trip – I’m too tired and I’ve got a bit of a cold. The prospect of tenting in a muddy field among several thousand hippies isn’t all that appealing to me now. I just hope it’s warm and not rainy.

Speaking of tents, I just realised I don’t have one. Does anyone have a one-man tent they could loan me for the weekend? I promise not to have sex in it.

Hope everyone had a fine sunny weekend. I spent all day Sunday in bed. When I finally got up in the evening, my limbs were shaking violently. It was kind of cool. They seem to have stopped shaking, though.

July 15 2003
Message to friends

I’m healthier now, but I’ve entirely lost the ability to vocalise. This morning I opened my mouth and peered into my bathroom mirror, and I could see little red bumps on the dangly thing at the back of my throat. (My “uvula”, for you medical experts.) I think I scarred it attempting to sing last night. After one raspy run-through of the rock opera, Olin had the good sense to recommend that I hold off on all rock-n-roll for the rest of this week, to allow my throat to heal for Ness Creek. I suppose I should be lying in bed sipping chamomile tea, but I don’t think my supervisor has much patience for me taking time off. Yesterday when I told her I was going home early, she looked at me like I’d announced my intention to commit welfare fraud.

July 18 2003
Message to friends

Hey. So, yeah, it’s Ness Creek time all of a sudden. Twenty-five hours from now, Olin and I are scheduled to participate in a “songwriting workshop” with Carrie Horachek and a bunch of other musicians. I have no idea what we’re going to play for this. We haven’t had time to rehearse anything special, so we may just wind up doing the same songs we’re doing on Sunday for our actual performance. Or maybe we’ll chuck in some rock opera stuff. Or maybe my frog’s croak of a voice will give out on me completely and we’ll have to improvise some free jazz. My frog’s croak would probably work pretty well with lite-jazz accompaniment: “Groovy, baby. Bring it on.”

I’ve got a tent, but I still don’t have a sleeping bag or anything soft to sleep on, so if you’ve got something I could use, let me know. Olin and I will be leaving early, early tomorrow morning.

In case you all neglected to watch Global News Wednesday night, we got approximately five seconds of coverage at the beginning of a story on the Fringe Festival. “Local band Sea Water Bliss is one of many acts at this year’s Saskatoon Fringe Festival,” the story began, and we saw Olin strumming his guitar while Damien and Sarah stood nearby, preparing to sing. It would have been nice if we’d gotten the name of our show in there, but things were thrown together at the last second, so we did about as well as we could expect.

I took yesterday off work to recover from my sore throat, but then I spent the evening squawking into a microphone at rock opera rehearsal, and reversed any gains I’d made during the day. It’s nice to be caught up on my sleep, though. This weekend should be pretty relaxing – aside from our two brief performances, I’ll have nothing to do up there but lounge around and scowl at hacky-sack-playing hippies. Fun. We’ll let everybody know how the weekend goes.

July 21 2003
Message to friends

Ness Creek. Foul bathrooms. Air horns. Hot hippie girls in bikini tops. Backstage passes with our names on them. Rock-n-roll.

Olin thinks the cute emcee was flirting with me when, before our performance, she said Sea Water Bliss had the best write-up in the Ness Creek guide. More likely, even though she was talking to me, she was actually flirting with Olin.

After our show, Olin bought a Ness t-shirt from a couple of hot young girls in a merchandise booth. “Which one do you think I should get?” he asked the girls, holding up different shirts. “I think you should get the blue one,” said one of the girls, “because it matches the colour of your eyes.” Warren nearly choked.

We ran into Cecil, the sculptor from Blaine Lake who once told me I “command the stage”. He said he liked our songs – “Especially that one about justice. That one speaks to every old cowboy out there.” I’d be curious to live inside someone else’s head for a few minutes, and find out what they’re thinking when they hear “The Palace of Justice”. I picture a bunch of sinister children dancing around a flaming palace, just like the lyrics say. It’s possible that some members of our audience, for whatever reason, are choosing to identify with the sinister children.

We had a good time. It’s nice to be back on my comfy couch, though. Now I just have to get through one more week of work, and then I get a whole week off to concentrate full-time on the rock opera.

July 21 2003
Message to friends

Quite a weekend. The interior of my car smells like woodsmoke and sweat. Olin crashed in the backseat on Saturday night. (He neglected to bring a tent.) I don’t know how he managed to get any sleep. Warren and I were camped in a fairly quiet site off in the woods, and we were still awakened several times by drunken hooligans with air horns and foul mouths. Olin was parked right by the main thoroughfare, where reeling hippies must have been bouncing off the trunk all night long.

The band and our guests had backstage passes with our names on them. It was awesome. We had access to marginally cleaner toilet facilities, cheaper beer tickets, and free snacks and bottled water in the performers’ trailer. But next time we go, we need to bring more of an entourage. Olin ran into a number of hippies that he knew from home, but Warren and I didn’t really know anyone, so we spent a lot of time just sprawled in the sun, waiting for something to happen.

We put on a pretty energetic show, for a heatstroke-inducing Sunday afternoon, when our audience was just chilling out before the drive home. Hopefully if we do it again we’ll get to play in the evening, when we can get people up and dancing.

July 22 2003
Message to friends

Warren wrote:

During one song, “I’m a Teen Wolf Too”, Michael ripped his shirt off and played the rest of the set in his tank-top undershirt. The crowd went wild.

If by “went wild” you mean “leaned slightly back in their lawn chairs and raised their eyebrows”, then you’re correct.

I also hopped up on the drum riser, but I forgot to scissor-kick when I hopped off.

July 28 2003
Message to friends

Just got a copy of the Fringe guide. Opened it to page eight to find the blurb for the rock opera.

Our write-up is okay, but the graphic accompanying it is just plain ugly. We’ve got just about the least attractive image in the whole damn guide. It’s my fault. The Fringe organisers told me that a high-contrast black & white image would reproduce best, and I interpreted that to mean a two-colour graphic, black & white only, no greys. But many of the other acts sent in regular black & white publicity stills, and they turned out beautifully. Next to theirs, our graphic looks like what it is – something I threw together using Paint Shop Pro the night before the deadline. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how good our show is – the majority of festival-goers are now going to associate us solely with the cheap-looking graphic in the Fringe guide.

Lesson: next time, have a graphic designer right from the start. None of this half-assed do-it-yourself crap. Also, next time have someone dedicated solely to taking care of publicity from a very early stage. We’re getting our asses kicked on publicity. We have these beautiful posters, and Ralanda’s getting out as many as she can, but we don’t have the time, the manpower, or the printing budget to blanket the city the way many other Fringe acts have already done. Our blurb and photo in Planet S magaazine are pretty weak. Our appearance at the press conference two weeks ago could have been planned a whole lot better. Our website still looks just as cheap and slapdash as it did when I threw it together back in June. And we were going to fax out a press release today, but to the best of my knowledge, we have not.

All this talk about “next time” might suggest that I’m already thinking ahead to the next time, but I’m really not. This might be it for rock operas. I’ll leave it to the professionals, and go back to three-minute pop songs that come from out of nowhere and lead promptly to a chorus of “yeah yeah yeah”, then end.

July 31 2003
Message to the Sea Water Bliss mailing list

In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a rock opera going down. People have been whispering about it for weeks. “Psst, dude, did you hear about that rock opera at the Fringe?” “Which rock opera?” “You know, the one about the tuberculosis patient and the spaceman and the chick on the TV.” Whisper whisper whisper. The day has finally come. It’s time to stop whispering and, as Gene Simmons would say, shout it out loud:

ROCK OPERA, DUDE! At the Broadway Theatre! It’s called 404! It’s by those guys from the band known as Sea Water Bliss! I’M SO FUCKING THERE!

(Please excuse the profanity. It was dramatically necessary.)

The show stars local theatre whirlwind Damien Bartlett as the aforementioned tuberculosis patient; Scott Kuemper as a Singin’ Cowboy; and two very hot girls, Charlotte Brandrick and Sarah Barss, as a nurse and a chick on a TV, respectively. It features one mildly suggestive sex scene and some slightly off-colour humour involving a mannequin.

The show was directed by Jay Arnold, who very nearly abided by our guideline that there be no dancing this time around. PS, did I mention that the girls are very hot.

404 is the very first show of the 2003 Saskatoon International Fringe Festival. We don’t know what we did to deserve the honour. Perhaps OIin had a wild but purposeful affair with the lady who makes the schedule. I’m not sure; he’s not talking. Anyway, the rock opera opens at 6 PM today – Thursday, July 31.

We’re trying to get everyone to come out so we can pack the house for the very first show. I’m not sure if this is a good plan. The first show is the one that’s most likely to fall apart due to nerves or technical glitches. This, I am told, is what is exciting about live theatre.

I guess that’s it. I’ll let you start scraping through your change purses for rock opera money. I’ve got a lot to do today – pick up the programmes from the printer, assemble a sandwich board, and shine up my seven-inch platform boots. I’ll see you tonight at six o’clock, dudes.

August 5 2003
Message to friends

The group will be busking on Broadway throughout the week to promote the rock opera. At least, whenever we can work up the energy. It’s tedious work. We only have about five or six songs that are loud and energetic enough to be played on a noisy city street; and once we reach the end of those, all we can do is cycle back to the beginning and run through them again. I need to write more loud, catchy songs.

It was nice having Dean & Anne around to pass out handbills while we busked. With Anne’s Scottish accent, we probably fooled a few people into thinking we were one of those big international touring shows, rather than the bunch of local suckers that we are. I should also acknowledge Jaime, Jenn, and Carolyn, who have all helped out with handbills. Carolyn has even offered to put on the spaceman costume and dance in the street, but only if I fumigate the costume first. It’s soaked through with guy sweat.

So I spent the morning catching up on work, and more importantly, catching up on the accounting for the show. I don’t have Excel at home, so I haven’t been able to update my rock opera spreadsheet. Today I entered in all the new receipts we’ve collected in the past week and a half. Things are looking grim. Two-for-one opening night hurt us. We’re on track to lose a fair chunk of money. Nothing to do but go back on the streets and strum our impoverished little hearts out. I’m getting a blister on my thumb.

August 7 2003
Message to friends

The thing about busking is we’re continually being upstaged by cute puppies, cute babies, ugly babies, people with bagpipes, obnoxious street performers, drunks, and hot girls. If we’re ever going to make a go of this busking thing, we need to find a far more boring street to play on, because apparently we can’t hold people’s attention with our music alone. Luckily, we have Charlotte, an attractive girl in a nurse’s uniform, to dance and pass out handbills and entice the crowd with shouts of, “It’s a rock opera! It’s got a nurse in it!” So we’re getting the handbills out there. Almost fifteen hundred so far. But I don’t think that our busking is selling the show to anyone. It might help if we had more than six songs to play. Last night I tried introducing AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” into the playlist, just for diversity’s sake; but no-one seemed to notice; and, six songs later, when I suggested we try it again, Olin shook his head sadly.

We got our first review yesterday. One-and-a-half stars in Planet S magazine. It didn’t bother me much at first, but now it’s kind of gnawing at me; not because it’s so bad, but because of the condescending tone the writer uses. The first paragraph is all about how, when they get bad reviews, artists complain that critics don’t understand how much effort went into creating a play. The next paragraph begins with, “The best thing I can say about ‘404’ is that a lot of effort went into creating it.” Ouch. Simple insults would be kinder. Later on, the reviewer writes that it shouldn’t have been called a rock opera, but rather a “pop extravaganza”. This doesn’t sound like it ought to be a bad thing, but apparently it is. Anyway, they got the name of the band right.

In between our dispirited busking and the reading of our bad review, we were given half a pizza, free, by some random lady on the street. Charlotte and I disregarded the likelihood of it being laced with strychnine and happily ate it.

August 11 2003
Message to Andrew Hall

Andrew wrote:

All and all we didn’t do too shabby though, did we. If we’d managed to keep our expenses down we’d have actually made some money and that’s an encouraging thought.

Depends how you look at it. Sure, we spent a lot, but given the nature of what we are (a rock-n-roll band) it’s hard to see how we could do a show for less money. I mean, if you’re an actor or a juggler or a comedian, all you need is a stage and some props and your expenses are taken care of. But we’re always going to need equipment – and it would have been nice to have a sound guy, too, a cost we managed to dispense with. Plus, because we’re not theatre artists, we’re always going to need a director – and Jay probably works about as cheap as anyone out there. Plus, we paid our actors next to nothing.

We lucked out and got a great graphic designer for free, and there’s no guarantee that will be available to us again. As for printing costs – which were well over five hundred dollars – we could have easily spent twice as much.

The one exceptional expense from this show was the filming trip to Fort Qu’Appelle, which didn’t actually wind up being that expensive – maybe four hundred dollars, and that includes costumes and props.

I think the trick, if we ever do this again, is to spend more time visiting local businesses, raising funds and trying to get stuff donated. But more time is something we don’t seem to have a lot of. I don’t think I squandered a lot of time in the leadup to this show – it felt like I was always running to or from some meeting or rehearsal or whatever.

Anyway, we’ve learned a lot, and hopefully we can do it smarter next time, if there’s a next time.

August 11 2003
Message to friends

404 has ridden off into the sunset. The dream is over.

We wound up losing a fair chunk of change. But divided among the three of us, it doesn’t seem quite so monumental. And we had a fairly good time, so the price seems less steep.

I’m trying to remember if there are any funny stories. No…no, I don’t think so. I think perhaps somebody cracked a joke once, during the second show, but we all just shook our heads disapprovingly and went back to the grim business of pumping out the rock-n-roll.

I don’t know what the hell’s going on now. I think I might sleep for a week.

Return to main rock opera page