Room To Breathe diary

room to breathe posterJune 2006. In re-reading these four-year-old email messages I’m struck by how complete was the breakdown of communication between me and the director of the rock opera, Warren Cowell. I guess the problem was simply that we were trying to do two completely different things – Andrew and I were trying to create a darkly absurd rock-n-roll show with dramatic elements, while Warren was trying to create a musical play that you wouldn’t be afraid to take your grandparents to. The tension between “rock opera” and “play” recurred, in a much milder form, when we revived the show in 2003 with Jay Arnold directing; but in that case the tension never degraded to the point of open and bitter conflict, probably because Jay and I simply got along better – we were friends already, and we remain friends to this day.

I hope I’m not too hard on Warren in these messages. I’ve edited here and there for clarity and concision, but for the most part this page represents what I was thinking as I went through the process of writing and mounting the show. It should not be presumed that I retain whatever bitterness I may have expressed at the time. Remember that we threw the production together in an astonishingly short time – Warren was hired about six weeks before opening night – so of course we were under stress.

There are a lot of choices that Warren made that I still disagree with. But when the band undertook the revival the following year, despite having the freedom to express our ideas without interference, we didn’t really do a much better job of solving the show’s problems. I can sympathise now with what a tough job Warren had. And I had a tough job, too, writing multiple drafts of the script while simultaneously trying to rehearse the ever-changing songs with the band.

I offered Warren the chance to look over this page and tell his version of the story. I thought reading his perspective on our quarrels might be instructive. But he doesn’t get into the negative stuff. I guess he doesn’t see any point in dredging it all up. Anyway, perhaps his sunny version is a useful corrective to my relentless gloom.

One clarification: Warren Cowell, the director of the rock opera, should not be confused with our friend Warren Brooke, who turns up occasionally on this page and elsewhere on this website. For the most part, where it isn’t obvious from context, I’ve identified the former as “Warren the Director”.

Just to set the stage. At this time our drummer, Dean, was living in London and unable to participate in the rock opera. But he and I exchanged a lot of emails, some of which are reproduced below. Our guitarist Olin was working in the States at the time and completely out of the picture. I was unemployed, having been fired from my previous job as a porno clerk a couple months earlier. I was getting by on my dwindling savings and on occasional remittances from my father. Both my parents, although they were excited to see me working on something that interested me, were harrying me to find a real job.

In December 2001 Andrew and I performed our suite of six original art songs in the gallery of the Mendel Art Gallery. Afterward, I mentioned to Troy Mamer, our friend who works at the gallery and had arranged our performance, that I’d always wanted to compose a rock opera. And that’s how it all began…

December 31 2001
Message to friends

Well, Warren, it’s all your fault. If you hadn’t been so busy playing Denise’s Colecovision, we could have watched Global News’ segment on Andrew’s and my show this afternoon at the Mendel. Instead, we tuned in about ten seconds too late, during a story on the old lady who sells pucks at junior hockey games. Luckily, I’d set my VCR to record the news, so I have a permanent record of our twenty-five seconds of fame.

My favourite part is at the beginning, when the announcer says, “Hundreds of people made a stop at the Mendel Art Gallery this afternoon to take in the musical stylings of the band known as Sea Water Bliss.” Then it cuts to footage of our ten-member audience. Warren can be seen passing in front of me, carrying two styrofoam cups of water. Andrew can sort of be made out for a couple seconds at the far edge of the screen. Then there’s about five seconds of footage of me, eyes closed, tie askew, frantically strumming and singing into the duct-tape-covered microphone. Luckily, you can’t hear us playing. In voice-over, the announcer talks for a few seconds about the John Will exhibit, and the camera pans over a few of the paintings, and that’s it.

So, all in all, it was a good afternoon for the band known as Sea Water Bliss. Andrew and I were paid a hundred bucks apiece, and we got twenty-five seconds of free publicity on the evening news. Also, when I mentioned to Troy that I was still interested in writing a rock-n-roll opera for the Mendel, he seemed moderately enthusiastic about the prospect. Yes, I foresee great things for these talented young performers. Now if only they’d fire their crappy rhythm guitarist…

January 1 2002
Message to friends

Andrew has been pretty severely disrespected in recent days. First, as payment for our shows at the Mendel, rather than cutting two separate hundred-dollar cheques for Andrew and me, we received a single two hundred dollar cheque in my name, forcing me to pay Andrew with a wad of twenties from the bank machine, as if he were a mere employee of Sea Water Bliss, Inc. Then, Global News focussed their camera exclusively on my pasty mug for their news report on our performance, reducing Andrew to a shadowy figure in the corner of the screen. Then tonight, when we played Theresa’s New Year’s Eve party, everyone ignored Andrew’s nifty chromatic runs during our acoustic version of “Talk dirty to me” – even though I stared admiringly at him between verses and said into the microphone, “Check out what Andrew’s doing.” Yep, my under-appreciated partner is due for a crisis of confidence any day now. I won’t blame you if you throw down your bass and stalk out of our next rehearsal, Andrew, vowing to start your own band.

January 3 2002
Message to Troy Mamer of the Mendel Art Gallery

I’m serious about writing a rock-n-roll opera. All I need is time to write it, some collaborators to help me perform it, and a rent-free space to put it on. (And an idea to write about, which I don’t have just yet.) If there’s any possibility of using the Mendel as that rent-free space, let me know. And of course, if you want Andrew and I to just set up again in a gallery and belt out a few of our silly tunes, we’re happy to do that anytime.

I guess that’s it. Anyway, Troy, thanks once again for letting us play. I’ll see what I can do about getting a recording of the art songs for the gallery’s archives and for John Will’s personal amusement.

Troy alerted me to an upcoming exhibition called Qu’Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys, which explored the relationship between Natives and European settlers in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley. Troy told me to come up with a proposal for a rock opera that tied in with the exhibition, and he’d pitch it to his boss.

January 21 2002
Message to friends

Sometime between now and Wednesday Andrew and I have to write a proposal for the Mendel describing our rock-n-roll opera and outlining a budget. I think we should ask for ten thousand dollars. Troy said it was better to aim too high, and get shot down, than to aim too low.

I’m going to start off with something like this: “This opera will explore the twin themes of toponomy and identity, as suggested by the name qu’appelle, or who is calling?” Then I’ll plagiarise a few paragraphs from somebody’s Native Studies textbook – throw in some New Agey hokum about the Indians and their harmonious relationship with nature, and the importance of the Valley as a “locus of residuary spirituality” – then the price tag. Should go over pretty well.

January 23 2002
Project proposal to the Mendel Art Gallery


It’s hard to describe a work of art that hasn’t been created yet. It’s a little like trying to explain to your mother why some off-colour joke is funny. The act of putting it into words destroys whatever humour was there to begin with. That’s how it is with this rock opera. I think I can see, in my mind, how it might be pretty grand – moving, even. But when I try to pin down some of the ideas and images and melodies I’ve got floating around in my head, to describe them in words, they lose their power.

Here’s what I’m thinking. The setting is the Fort San tuberculosis sanatorium near Fort Qu’Appelle. The time is sometime between the First and Second World Wars. But don’t get the impression that I wish this rock opera to be a period piece. I envision robots roaming the halls of the San, and television monitors hanging on the walls. The main character is a TB patient – a young man – confined to his bed in a small room overlooking Echo Lake. Quarantined, he is visited only by nurses and doctors in full-body contamination suits. Via telephone and closed-circuit television he is also able to communicate with the patients in other rooms, as well as with friends and family who remain outside. Foremost among these secondary characters is his girlfriend; I haven’t yet decided if she should be a patient in the hospital, or someone on the outside. Other characters I’d like to introduce include the horse-obsessed Qu’Appelle Valley poet Stanley Harrison, and the young Prime Minister Mackenzie King; I haven’t yet worked out how they could be incorporated in the plot.

The story is a loose retelling of the legend, popularised by the poet Pauline Johnson, which supposedly gave rise to the name “Qu’Appelle” – about a young Indian who hears his name echoing across the empty surface of the water and, frightened, hurries home, only to discover that his true love has just died with his name on her lips. In this version of the legend, when the protagonist hears his name, it is as a disembodied voice over a telephone. Hence the working title for the project: “Who’s Calling?”

If it all sounds kind of ridiculous, that’s okay. Rock operas are supposed to be ridiculous.


Set design should be spare and evocative. I visualise a stage bounded on three sides by sepia-toned walls, to suggest a faded photograph. These walls could, in fact, be hugely enlarged photos of the walls in the actual sanatorium (which is still open to visitors, as a convention centre). Alternatively, one of the three walls could contain a window overlooking Echo Lake. Another enlarged photo?

The stage contains only a hospital bed, a telephone, and a mannequin. The mannequin has a television in place of a head. Upon this television screen we see close-ups of the faces of the characters with whom our protagonist interacts.

All this, incidentally, could be done pretty cheaply. I already own a mannequin.

Also onstage would be an area for the musicians – myself and Andrew, and perhaps others. The musicians might or might not interact with the actors on the stage, depending on the needs of the story.


It will sound like a rock opera. Bombastic, pretentious, occasionally over-the-top. There’s no point writing a rock opera unless you’re willing to embrace the format, and milk it for all its melodrama. Expect power chords.

Another model for “Who’s Calling?” might be the musical theatre of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Brecht’s lyrics were not sung, so much as declaimed. Given the paucity of musically-trained actors in Saskatoon who might be convinced to volunteer for such a project, it might be more realistic to expect our cast to chant, or recite, their lyrics, rather than sing them.

Another possibility would be to restrict the part of the actors to mere pantomime, with all of the songs sung by myself, and perhaps one female singer. This might be confusing to the audience, though. To some extent, these questions will go unanswered until the songs are written and a cast is assembled.


How big can we afford to be? How big does the project need to be? It’s too early in the creative process to address these questions. I think that by mid-April Andrew and I could complete the music and libretto for a rock opera between an hour and an hour-and-a-half long, containing eight to ten original songs, plus incidental music. That would leave two months for rehearsals.

At this point, if not earlier, we would almost certainly need to acquire a director to coordinate the production. I have some experience in theatre, Andrew has considerably less, and between the two of us we certainly don’t have enough to direct a project of this scope. I know the names of a few people we might ask to fill this role.

The cast will contain somewhere between two and maybe half a dozen singing or speaking parts. In addition, we’ll need to find someone to operate sound, and someone else to operate lights. Light and sound equipment will probably have to be rented – which might wind up being one of the major expenses of the project.

I can see the rock opera fitting in the auditorium in the basement of the Mendel. It might be possible to do it upstairs in the gallery, but the acoustics there are problematic, and you’d need to seal off a section of one of the rooms in order to achieve near-darkness.


A bedridden invalid alone in a hospital room, talking to a television-headed mannequin, might not sound like a very promising scenario for a stage musical. But I’m convinced that there is great drama to be wrested from one man’s struggle with isolation. It’s a theme that we, as Canadians, have always been interested in – especially in the early years of the last century, the time period in which this rock opera occurs, when our ancestors were isolated by the vast geography of this country – but no less in our own time, when isolation is self-imposed, when so much of our interaction with the outside world is filtered through a television or computer screen. These problems are not unique to the Qu’Appelle Valley, but the legend of “the river which calls” – of a solitary man hearing his name echoing across the water – seems to suggest that the Valley is a perfect setting to explore our terror of being alone.

January 24 2002
Message to Andrew Hall and Dean Drobot

Andrew – Troy called. He got the proposal. He says he liked it. However, Troy said that I should adapt my proposal to include stuff from an Indian perspective – to fit in with the “Two Valleys” theme of the exhibit. I guess we should have thought of that.

He also said that, before the proposal can be approved, he’s going to need a recording of our John Will songs, to show the high mucky-mucks at the gallery what you and I are capable of.

February 11 2002
Message to my father

I finally talked to Troy from the Mendel – he and his boss and his boss’ boss all heard the CD and liked it enough that we’ve been given leave to advance to the next stage: the submission of a budget proposal. In our meeting with Troy, Andrew and I floated a figure of ten thousand dollars, just to see if he’d laugh, and he didn’t, so I think we’ll aim for a budget in the ten to fifteen thousand dollar range, expecting to see it cut back considerably. I’m a little frightened, quite frankly, by the prospect of having responsibility for anywhere near that much money. I’d better start displaying symptoms of genius real soon, or else I’ll feel like a fraud.

Anyway, today and tomorrow Andrew and I have to drive around to a few places and see how much it would cost to rent lighting and sound equipment. Then we have to start searching for a director. I know somebody, but if that person isn’t available, then I haven’t got a clue where we’ll look.

Of course, our proposal might yet be rejected, but I guess I’d have to say I’m nervously optimistic. Or merely nervous. Anyway, if I’m not around, it just means I’m out attempting to justify the Mendel’s faith in me. I’ll talk to you soon.

February 11 2002
Message to friends

So Andrew and I met with Troy tonight about the rock opera. Our proposal is still crawling along. Troy is championing it to his higher-ups, who’ve asked that we submit a tentative budget. So, just to see if he would burst out laughing, Andrew and I hit Troy with a figure of ten thousand dollars. He took it with a straight face. So it looks like our budget proposal will be in the ten to fifteen thousand dollar range, which is a scary amount of money for me to be contemplating. I’ve switched over from being nervous that our proposal would be rejected, to being nervous that it will go ahead, and I’ll be required to somehow justify the expenditure of that much money. When Warren marches across the stage carrying a giant puppet head to the tune of “La Cucaracha”, I’m sure the director of the Mendel will order me summarily executed.

Pray for us.

The only director we knew was Jay Arnold, so we got our friends to track him down and see if he was interested.

February 11 2002
Message to Jay Arnold

Kurt Soucy wrote:

You’re in luck, Jenn and I attended a supper on Saturday with Jay. We spoke to him about your project and he seemed interested in doing it.

Hey, Jay. I don’t know what misinformation Jenn & Kurt have been spreading, but it should be noted that, at this time, there is no rock opera, only a hazy idea involving a TB sanatorium and a mannequin with a video screen in place of a head. I’ve only just begun to compose the actual songs, and we’re in the process of trying to get a budget approved by the Mendel. So I don’t want to get ahead of myself by inviting you to attach yourself to a “project” that barely exists as yet, except as a few malformed mental images and wordless chord progressions.

Having said that, Andrew and I would like to meet with you sometime in the next few days. (I’m not sure if you’ve met Andrew – big guy with a beard? – my bass player and collaborator.) We’ve never prepared a budget for an artistic project before – my experience in drama is limited to writing and acting, never directing or producing. So we have no idea how much things might cost. You, on the other hand, have a little background in the Saskatoon drama scene, so maybe you could give us a few useful suggestions. We’re hoping.

I dunno. If you’re into it, and if you’re free for coffee in the next couple days, get back to me via email, and maybe we can get together somewhere. Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to find some way to incorporate a few Indians into the story. The Mendel wants Indians.

February 12 2002
Message to friends

Jay the director was busy, so we couldn’t meet up with him. I talked to Troy on the phone, though. He discussed our proposal with his boss. It looks like Andrew and I are going to have to wave goodbye to some of our grander ideas – the budget (if it’s approved) is more likely to be in the three thousand dollar range, rather than the ten thousand dollar range. We’re going to have a meeting with Troy’s boss sometime soon, and maybe we can squeeze a little more money out of her if we can convince her we know what we’re doing. Or perhaps if we threaten her with large clubs.

February 14 2002
Message to Andrew

Got some useful information from Jay. For instance: the budget for a student production at the University of Saskatchewan – a ten day run – is usually about three thousand dollars. And they don’t have to rent equipment (the theatre comes fully loaded) or hire actors (cos the students volunteer their time).

So to put on ten shows in the basement of the Mendel, renting our own equipment, and paying the actors and director even a token amount, PLUS to write and perform the thing, for only three thousand dollars, is a little unrealistic. I don’t know what choice we have, though. We’ll talk it over when you get back.

February 15 2002
Message to friends

I tried to go to bed early, but I woke up after a couple hours, so I guess I’ll just stay up. My mind is a-swimmin’ with theatrical possibilities. I was called in for a surprise meeting with Troy and his boss Noreen at the Mendel late this afternoon. They vowed to continue to scrounge around for rock-opera money in this year’s operating budget. Noreen claims to be enthusiastic about the project. She thinks it’s “wacky” and “fun”. I gave her some rough budget figures, based on the research Andrew and I did, which added up to between six and seven thousand dollars. She seemed to think five was a reasonable number.

I was hoping to snag a few hundred research dollars to make a road trip down to the sanatorium in Fort Qu’Appelle, the setting of the opera. But Noreen stomped that idea into the ground. However, she has given me the greenlight to go ahead with the writing of the piece, even though there’s no guarantee it will ever be performed. So Andrew and I are assured a payday of four hundred dollars – yippee? – which would still be our largest-ever rock-n-roll paycheque, so we’ve no cause for complaint.

February 15 2002
Message to friends

Warren Brooke wrote:

Micheal, Noreen at the Mendel is genuinely thrilled with the rock-opera idea…She said, “Yeah, they are really fun…they sound like Barenaked Ladies”.

Yikes. Andrew has heard this comparison a few times, and is equally appalled by it. I wonder how much less cuddly we have to be before people will stop comparing us to the Barenaked Ladies? I thought we were already as far from cuddly as two people could be.

Andrew and I were talking about how it would be cool if he wore Kiss-style makeup and punctuated our performances by vomiting blood all over the audience. I suppose people would just go on tapping their toes and saying, “They’re so adorable!”

I’m a gloomy, tortured artist, dammit! What’s the point of being a rock-n-roll star if it doesn’t permit you to wear all black and mope in public? I’ll bet the Barenaked Ladies don’t even have groupies, let alone hot eighteen-year-old Goth chicks. What am I getting myself into?

February 18 2002
Message to friends

Andrew Hall wrote:

. . . Hey Mike, don’t take any guff about job hunting from your mother…you’re working on a commissioned piece and therefore technically employed.

Let’s see…four hundred dollars for four months…that’s twenty-five dollars a week…assuming I work forty hours a week on the rock opera that comes out to…um…sixty-three cents an hour. Yep, I guess I’m a working man now. I wonder if I can join the rock opera writer’s union?

March 8 2002
Message to Dean

I just put in a few hours work and managed to come up with lyrics for another rock opera song. The end is in sight – I only need to write three or four more complete songs, and a few fragments here or there, and I’ll be done the first draft.

Meanwhile, Andrew and I are going to try on Tuesday to make a recording of four or five of the songs so that the folks at the Mendel can listen to them. I’m a little worried that the tunes aren’t catchy enough – the subject matter I’m dealing with seems to lend itself to mopey acoustic dirges, rather than the ball-shaking power chords I’d intended to bring back to our sound. Oh, well. Perhaps we can work in a few ball-shaking moments when we begin rehearsals. (Assuming the Mendel gives us the go-ahead, touch wood.)

March 11 2002
Message to Andrew

Troy says they’re pretty busy at the Mendel, so he’s not sure when we’ll be able to get together. It sounds like the meeting, when it does occur, will consist of Troy & Noreen telling us that if we want this thing to fly we’re going to have to raise money on our own. Delightful.

I’m supposed to go in next Monday to browse through some of the archival materials the Mendel has assembled – mostly photographs, I take it. I’m not sure how much use it will be to me, but if it helps to humour them, I’ll gladly spend all afternoon looking at photos and acting like it’s all inspiring or whatever. Then I’ll go home and write exactly the same baloney I would’ve written otherwise.

March 11 2002
Message to Andrew

Andrew Hall wrote:

You know….if we have to raise most of the money, then I suggest that we don’t actually spend any time worrying about what they want and just do what WE want.

Well, let’s not get too high-n-mighty. If you & I, a pair of common schmoes with an unsuccessful basement band, went door-to-door in the business district asking for money to put on a rock opera, we would be laughed out of every shopping mall from here to Martensville. (And quite rightly.) If we do have any success raising funds – and god, I hope we can wriggle out of any such obligations – it will be entirely through our affiliation with the Mendel. Besides, even if the Mendel were unwilling to invest a single penny into putting on the show (beyond the highly theoretical four hundred dollars we’re supposedly being paid to write it), they’re still offering a rent-free space to put it on – something we’d have a hard time finding anywhere else in town. In other words, let’s keep our caps well in hand when we speak to them, and remember which of us has the money and the power, and which of us has nothing but a dumb idea about TV-headed mannequins.

My main objection to being asked to fundraise (besides laziness) is that I know very well how much I suck at it. And Troy & Noreen, if they have any sense, should recognise it too. They’ve met me, they know how inarticulate I can be. Sending me out on any errand which might demand fancy-talking is simply misguided. But I don’t think we have any choice, at this point, except to play along and hope for the best.

March 15 2002
Message to friends

I have a growing suspicion that even if the Mendel does decide to give us the money and the support we need to proceed with the rock opera, we will be left with so little time that we won’t be able to do it justice. Plus, Troy keeps speaking ominously about having me and Andrew go out and seek sponsorships or partnerships from other sources, which implies that he recognises the Mendel isn’t fully committed to supporting the project, without outside assistance.

I’ve been trying to think of ways we might pitch a cheaper version of the rock opera concept, but unfortunately it can’t get much cheaper than it already is. If they offer us any less than five thousand dollars, the best we can do is set up in the gallery and perform the songs ourselves, much like last time. Anyway, I dropped off a disc with the five rock opera songs at the Mendel yesterday. I hope hearing the songs will excite greater interest in the project.

March 19 2002
Message to friends

I guess I’ve unintentionally duped a few people into believing that I’ve got some kind of master plan. At the Mendel yesterday afternoon, I was chatting with Troy and his co-worker Tammi, who is a painter. She was saying how she really wished she could afford to rent a studio. “Sometimes I dream about just quitting my job and dedicating myself full-time to my art,” she said.

“Like Michael’s done,” observed Troy.

Tammi looked at me admiringly. “Have you really? That’s so awesome!”

I started to explain that I didn’t exactly “quit” my job, and that my dedication to my “art” was a little spotty, to say the least. But, what the hell. Let at least a few people believe that I know what I’m doing. Perhaps they will mistake my disorientation and inarticulateness for quiet confidence.

For the record, the name of the rock opera is “Echo Lake”.

April 5 2002
Message to Dean

My progress through the few remaining songs has been like Napoleon’s progress through Russia. Last night I spent over an hour and nearly fell asleep trying to invent a suitable partner for the rather ungainly line, “We fear he may succumb”. In the end I settled on the equally ungainly, “He’s as lonely as they come”, and lurched off to bed. I’m reasonably certain that neither of these lines will survive a rewrite, but I shudder to think of the effort involved in trying to replace them.

April 8 2002
Message to a friend

I got a message from Troy at the Mendel saying, “Things are looking up, buddy.” That’s all the message said. Now I can’t get through to him, so I’m not sure which “things” he’s referring to. Presumably the rock opera. Should I be excited? Or would that just be setting myself up for disappointment?

My excitement is palpable. It is ready to be palped.

April 11 2002
Message to friends

Ah, the 4:30 AM sandwich break. My rock opera sucks. I’d thought I was one song away from completing it, but tonight, on re-reading the libretto (yes, I am pretentiously calling the lyrics the “libretto” now), I realised that the female lead has only one song, and that her character is underdeveloped. So I think I’ll have to write another song for her to sing.

Yeah, yeah, you all care. I’ve been moody lately, and bored. Everyone – my father, my mother, Andrew – is hassling me to get a job. Screw ’em all. I’ve decided that after this rock opera is done, whether or not it gets produced, I’m gonna give away all my possessions and move somewhere remote and join a monastery. Hopefully I can find one that doesn’t require me to believe in God, or meditate, or keep bees or something. (I’m afraid of bees.) I’ll never touch a guitar again, except to break it into tiny pieces and feed it into the monastery’s pot-bellied stove.

In the meantime, I’m stuck in Saskatoon, so I might as well make the best of it. If anyone feels like having a game or watching a movie or something tonight, give me a call. If I don’t answer the phone it means I’ve devolved into a primordial ooze like William Hurt at the end of “Altered States”. Now, back to the stupid libretto.

The rock opera was set in the former Fort San tuberculosis sanatorium outside Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. The former hospital had been preserved and was operating now as the Echo Valley Convention Centre. (More recently it’s been closed down altogether.)

April 15 2002
Message to Dean

Opera research might happen later this week – I got a message from Troy this morning saying that some higher Mendel mucky-mucks are going to be heading down to Fort Qu’Appelle on Thursday and I’m welcome to come along. We’d be staying overnight – hopefully in the San itself, but I doubt it. So I have to call Troy back after lunch. How exciting!

I got another song done last night. That brings me up to – um, fourteen, I think. Should be all I need. Just a little rewriting and tweaking now. Troy has told me that the Mendel wants to aim for June 20th. That’s two months away! I told him we couldn’t do a full production with only two months’ notice – we’d have to treat the Mendel show as a live workshop, with the hope of doing a full production later at some other venue – possibly the Mackenzie Art Gallery (where the Qu’Appelle exhibit is headed after the Mendel).

April 18 2002
Message to friends

So my all-expenses-paid, two-day research road-trip to Fort Qu’Appelle has shrunk to a one-day, out-of-pocket excursion in my own car. That’s all right. Two days in Fort Qu’Appelle would be a little excessive anyway. So I guess Troy and I are just gonna drive down Friday morning, take a tour of the San, snap some photos, and be back in time for Letterman. In theory, I’m supposed to be “inspired” by this visit, but most of the songs are already written, and it’s too late to change the story anyway, so at best, all I can do is get some ideas for set design. But my new theory is we’re not gonna have enough time or money to build actual sets for this show, so that’s moot, too. Whatever. Any excuse to leave town for a day.

April 22 2002
Message to friends

So on Friday I went with Troy down to Fort Qu’Appelle to see the old sanatorium. We left at six-thirty in the morning. I was so proud of myself, getting out of bed at five-thirty after only a couple hours of sleep. I felt just like a workin’ man.

We drove straight down and got lost only once and arrived at the Echo Valley Conference Centre – which is what they call the San nowadays – at ten-forty-five, just fifteen minutes late. Troy’s boss Noreen and co-worker Alex, and a couple officials from the conference centre, were sitting around a table in the dining room, eating muffins and drinking coffee.

“Your timing is perfect,” said Noreen as we sat down. “I was just about to tell Gus and Dini about the rock opera.”

“Oh,” I said. They all looked at me expectantly.

I picked up a muffin and waited for someone to say something. Finally it dawned on me: “Oh, you want me to tell you about it,” I said. “Okay. Uh…” And then five minutes of variations on “uh”.

I guess I’m not quite grown-up enough to give presentations just yet. But Gus and Dini were very patient with me, and smiled as one does when a small child tells a knock-knock joke, and fortunately Noreen and Troy were there to nudge me forward when I stammered to a halt.

“You should probably mention that it’s loosely based on a poem by Pauline Johnson,” said Troy during one lull.

“Right. It’s loosely based on The Legend of Qu’Appelle Valley by Pauline Johnson,” I said.

“Oh?” said Gus, smiling encouragingly.

“…Very loosely,” I said.

So Troy handed out copies of the script, and put on the CD Andrew and I made of the songs, and our music played quietly in the background as Noreen and Gus talked about the possibility of performing the rock opera at the conference centre in August or September. Gus seemed open to the idea. “Maybe we could make an evening of dinner theatre out of it,” he suggested. “You know, serve a nice plate of roast beef in the dining room, and then afterward, people could go up to the auditorium to watch the show.” I guess this is what my rock-n-roll career has come to. I’m pretty sure the Sex Pistols never planned their performances around a nice plate of roast beef.

April 25 2002
Message to Dean

I always assumed that there was a postman in the movie “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, but it turns out there isn’t. The postman is just a metaphor.

It’s four AM. I should go to bed – I have to be up by eight for a meeting at the Mendel at nine. I’m not sure what the meeting is going to be about. But I know the people at the Mendel well enough now that I don’t get as nervous as I used to about meeting with them. It’s still weird, though. They treat me like a grown-up, which makes me uneasy. I feel like I’m putting something over on them. I guess I shouldn’t feel that way – all they asked me to do was write a rock opera, which I’ve done. I never guaranteed its quality. Still, they’re investing a lot of time and energy in me, and it doesn’t seem like I’ve done, or am capable of doing, enough to justify that investment. It helps when I remind myself that there are all sorts of performers out there who get paid ridiculous amounts of money even though they suck far worse than I do. But that’s even more depressing. If the audience is so undiscerning that it confuses good with bad, and vice-versa, then what hope is there for me? Either I’ll suck and be successful, which would be degrading, or I’ll be brilliant and misunderstood, and starve to death. Maybe there’s a middle ground – maybe I can be mediocre and scrape by. That wouldn’t be too bad.

On the bright side, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that my rock opera actually makes sense. Thematically, or whatever. What had been intended as a more-or-less random sequence of strange events, strung together with music, has cohered into an actual story. I’m not sure if anyone besides me would recognise it as such. I might be too closely involved with the script to assess it accurately. The guy who made “The Fifth Element” probably thought it made sense, too. Anyway, I’m pleased. About fifty percent of the time. The rest of the time I feel like a fraud.

I’m not looking for you to be supportive or anything. I just thought I’d let you know how I feel about this whole thing. The “postman” in the movie is a metaphor for justice – it means, you always get what’s coming to you. It has nothing to do with this message. Or maybe it does.

April 25 2002
Message to friends

So get out your red pens and circle June 20th on your calendars. If the rock opera happens – I put our chances at about fifty/fifty right now – that will probably be opening night. There’s a good chance we’d get to do later performances in Fort Qu’Appelle and at Regina’s Mackenzie Art Gallery, too.

Andrew & I just got back from a meeting with Troy & Noreen at the Mendel. The government funding we were waiting for has come through – twelve thousand dollars to hire four performers. This is more for four performers than I had previously budgeted for the entire rock opera. Of course, we have no money for sets or sound equipment or costumes or anything. And we still have to find money to hire a few other performers. And the performers we hire using the twelve thousand dollars have to be unemployed, because the funding is coming not from some arts board, but from Human Resources Development. And the positions start on May 6th, so basically we have to find an unemployed director and an unemployed stage manager – preferably with rock-n-roll experience – in the next ten days. So if anyone knows any unemployed rock-n-roll directors, let me know. Right away.

Still, a good day for rock-n-roll. After the meeting, Troy took us over to his place to take promotional photos of me & Andrew. Just like real rock stars. He posed us in his backyard – “go stand under that tree; watch out for dog poop” – unlike real rock stars.

I met with our new director, Warren Cowell, and with an actor named Diarmid McLauchlan, who we’d eventually hire to play our Singin’ Cowboy and Prince of Wales.

May 1 2002
Message to friends

I went over to the Mendel to drop off the finished first draft, and to meet with a potential stage manager and a potential director. I’m enthusiastic about the director – he’s the guy who did “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” at the Mendel last year, and he seems capable, and he claims to be quite interested in the project. While Troy and I were chatting with him in the tea room, a wild-haired, crazy-eyed older guy with a beard wandered up to our table and introduced himself. He said he was an actor and a singer. I was ready to hire him on the spot, he looked so cool. We had to tell him to come back with a resumé, though. We’ve received a few other promising resumés, too. Things might just be coming together.

May 5 2002
Message to a friend

The grant amounts to only twelve thousand dollars, and it comes with so many conditions attached that, in practical terms, we’ll still be mounting the production on a shoestring – and a frayed shoestring, at that. Not that I have anything to whine about. Four months ago, we had no rock opera and no money; now, we have a rock opera (first draft) and some money. The general trend has been from bad to good. For the last few days, though, we’ve been sitting on our hands – I haven’t been able to get through to Troy at the Mendel, and I have no way of getting in touch with the director myself, to discuss the outline for the next draft. There’s a million things that have to be done, and it’s excruciating to just wait, knowing that putting them off is not helping them to get done any faster. Every time I sit still, all these worries start cluttering up my brain – “when is this gonna get done? how are we gonna pull that off?” – it’s very stress-inducing.

May 7 2002
Message to a friend

Yeah, I hate looking for work, too. I put it off for months and months and look where it got me – I’m composing a rock opera. Couldn’t have worked out better for me, really. Not that I’m recommending you follow my example; but I do believe that, if other people had the freedom to goof off and avoid responsibility the way I have, everyone would be so much happier. Screw this whole “dignity of work” concept. Work is for suckers. I’m opting out.

On the other hand, this rock opera gig has morphed into something close to a full-time job without anything approaching full-time benefits. Or indeed, any benefits at all. I’m going in to the Mendel for a few hours almost every day to sit and bat around ideas with Troy and our director, Warren, and then I’m going home to write (as I should be doing right now). Troy and Warren are both getting paid for their time; I’m getting zippo. I cling to the optimistic belief that someone at the Mendel will eventually see fit to toss me and Andrew a few bucks for our trouble, but who knows? – maybe we won’t get paid a dime. That would be funny. It would still be worthwhile, though. Better than working for my non-living.

May 9 2002
Message to friends

I finished the first draft of the rock opera nine days ago. Now I have to write a second draft by May 20, which is when we’re supposed to have a cast in place. So far, the only second-draft progress I’ve made was to change the title of the song I’m just a singing cowboy to “I’m just a singin’ cowboy” – you know, with an apostrophe, for down-home country authenticity. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done, but I can’t seem to get started. I’ve been sitting up these last few nights watching silly movies instead – “Dawn of the Dead”, “The Phantom”. Silly movies are fine, but they’re not helping me to be inspired.

May 10 2002
Message to friends

The day after he read my script for the first time, Warren the Director had an inspiration. “The character of the Nurse,” he said, “shouldn’t sing at all.” It was a sound choice, dramatically. Unfortunately, the first song in the rock opera, a peppy little number called Attitude is everything, was sung by the Nurse. Since then, I’ve been trying like hell to satisfy the director’s requirement of a non-singing Nurse, while at the same time keeping the song in the show.

There’s a quote from some fruity southern author – I can’t remember if it’s Tennessee Williams or William Faulkner – to the effect that, if you want to be a great author, you have to be willing to “kill all your precious babies”. I think you could argue that an aversion to creative infanticide is my chief problem as a composer. I’ve managed to cut two songs from the rock opera during the rewriting process – but for each song I removed, I added two more. Back in February I guaranteed the Mendel that I could come up with ten original songs – meanwhile praying that I would actually be able to generate that much material. The show now contains fifteen songs, some of which are played more than once. I’d promised that it would run an hour – now I’m not sure we’ll be able to keep it under ninety minutes. It just gets bigger and bigger.

I think I’ve figured out a way to keep “Attitude is everything”, by giving it to a different character. I dunno, though. The show is starting to look bloated and preposterous. Warren and Troy don’t seem to be demonstrating any inclination toward self-restraint – every new idea they have adds a new technical problem we’ll have to solve. And I’m not helping matters by pumping out a new song every week.

When I get apprehensive, I remind myself that a rock opera is, by definition, a gaudy and hubristic exercise in self-indulgence. The spectacle of a musician making an ass of himself is part of what makes the genre appealing. So just remember, friends, when you finally see the show – it was meant to be bad. Unless it’s good, in which case, I meant that too.

One of the first causes of conflict between me and Warren the Director was the name of the piece. I was keen on “Echo Lake”, but Warren and the Mendel folks didn’t care for it. During brainstorming I tossed out the name of one of the songs from the show – “A Little Room To Breathe”. But like an irradiated lab monkey in a bad sci-fi movie, my suggestion mutated and turned against me.

May 11 2002
Message to Warren Cowell and Andrew Hall

Warren Cowell wrote:

Everyone seems to be in agreement at the Mendel that “Room to Breathe” is a more marketable and appropriate title. I hope you see our reasoning and you did say you had no strong objections.

I can see the advantages of getting the word “breathe” into the title, which is why I suggested “A Little Room to Breathe”, but I don’t like “Room to Breathe” because, without the article, the double entendre is lost – there’s a difference between “room to breathe” and “a room to breathe”. As I said, Andrew kind of turned up his nose at “Room to Breathe”, but we could all get together and fight over it, if you’re keen on changing the title. In the short term, can’t we just use “Echo Lake” as the working title?

I polled our friends to come up with an alternative title that Andrew and I could live with, but it was too late…

May 14 2002
Message to Andrew

The decision has been made by an executive committee at the Mendel – for marketing purposes, they’ve decided to call the show “Room to Breathe”. (Or, more specifically, “Room to Breathe: A Rock Opera”.) Basically, they think they can raise more money with this title.

I’m still a little unclear on why “Room to Breathe” is more marketable than “Echo Lake”, or for that matter “Room 404” (which I never got a chance to pitch). But as I started to gripe about it, I decided, why bother? I’d have to go all the way up the chain of command, irritating everybody, after the issue has already been settled in their minds; and the only way I could get them to change would be to throw a big embarrassing fit. There will be other fights that are more worth fighting. (Mind you, if it turns out there are no other fights, then I guess I’ve rolled over for nothing.)

May 14 2002
Message to friends

Thank you to everyone who participated in yesterday’s rock opera title survey. ‘Twas a noble democratic experiment; unfortunately, as is so often the case, the will of the people was thwarted by the arbitrary actions of a self-selected elite. An executive committee at the Mendel held a meeting this morning (while I was still sleeping) and decided that “Room to Breathe” was the most marketable title. I was informed of their decision when I arrived at the gallery after lunch. Might things have gone differently if I’d been able to drag myself out of bed earlier than eleven AM? I guess we’ll never know.

Just for the record, the survey resulted in a deadlock – “Room 404” and “Echo Lake” (my personal preference) received an equal number of votes, with a smattering of support for “Room to Breathe” and one lonely holdout for “Dream of the Descending Satellite”.

May 14 2002
Message to Andrew

I guess one drawback of using the title “Room 404” might’ve been that it would draw too much attention to the Girl too early in the plot – the audience would know something fishy was up with her as soon as they found out what room she was in. But the posters could’ve been pretty cool – big, clunky 3-D letters, right out of the sci-fi illustrations of the era. “Echo Lake” would’ve made an alright poster, too. With “Room to Breathe”, the designer is going to have to work hard to overcome that free-floating chick-flick association with the word “breathe” – four different people independently had that reaction to it.

Whatever. Let’s get over it.

May 17 2002
Message to friends

I seem to recall reading somewhere that a gentleman is never supposed to discuss finances. I’m no gentleman, but I’ll still use that as an excuse not to divulge the specific amount of the fee Andrew and I will be receiving from the Mendel for composing and performing this rock opera. Let’s just say that my dreams of permanent, or at least summer-long, financial independence were premature. I guess I should be pleased that, if you don’t count the cost of sustaining myself for these last few months, my rock-opera-related expenses – gas, printer ribbon, photocopies – will be more than covered.

Andrew, when I revealed the figure to him, was less philosophical than I. He banged a few objects together and then grumped around for the next couple hours. I think he finally arrived at the same conclusion I have – that, by any reasonable measure, whatever amount the Mendel should choose to pay us is far more than we deserve, considering how much rock opera experience we have between the two of us. The fact that they’re investing considerable energy and resources into this ridiculous project of ours is amazing enough. If we were to actually make any money off it as well, it would be downright extraordinary.

One small victory today: I at least managed to convince the folks at the Mendel that our guitarist, Jason, and whatever drummer we hire should be paid at the same rate – $75 per show – as the actors. (Troy had budgeted less than half that.) To secure this money for the band, we had to gut the budget for sets, props, and costumes. Warren the Director received this news with impressive equanimity; but, perhaps in subtle retaliation, he has radically reconceived one of the main characters in the show, necessitating a major rewrite this weekend. I don’t even know where to start.

Warren sat in on rehearsal this evening at Jason’s place. He claimed to be impressed with the songs. Afterward, we all went to Tim Horton’s and talked over the proposed script changes. Basically, Warren claims there isn’t enough space in the auditorium to accommodate one of the main elements of the script – a live video feed, which would project a character onto video monitors onstage. He wants this character to appear physically onstage, instead – which would mean changing the story radically. Andrew challenged him on the “lack of space” issue.

“All you need is a videocamera and a blank wall,” Andrew said. “How much space does that take up?”

Warren tried unsuccessfully to evade the question. But Andrew was having none of it: “So basically,” he finally broke in, “this whole ‘lack of space’ thing is bullshit.”

Warren wouldn’t concede the point, though. So I don’t know where that leaves us. As I said to Andrew and Jason on the way back from Tim Horton’s, we’ve already rolled over on the whole name-change question. Part of our justification in doing so was that we would have more moral authority later on, when some really important disagreement came up – we could say, “We compromised on the name; it’s your turn to compromise now.” This might be the time. But then, Warren has his concerns too. A live video feed would be a huge pain in the ass, technically. And he’s right about not having much room to work with.

May 19 2002
Message to friends

I have a pimple on the bridge of my nose which, I am convinced, is a stress pimple. (It could just be a regular pimple, but then it wouldn’t have anything to do with the following story, and I wanted an excuse to work the pimple into this message somehow.) I came home last night exhausted from my long day of auditions at the Mendel and rehearsal with Andrew and Jason. The rehearsal part of the day went fine – but the auditions were ridiculous. First off, a grand total of five performers showed up to audition for four roles. In other words, we didn’t have a whole lot of choice in who we hired. On the bright side, that meant we weren’t placed in a position of having to reject a whole lot of capable people.

On the not-so-bright side: there is a role in the rock opera called “the Indian”. (We haven’t got around to naming him yet, though we probably will – he was called the Indian because there also happens to be a Cowboy.) All along, I was worried that we would have trouble finding a competent Native actor who could also sing. But a few days before auditions, Warren the Director met this guy named Joseph, who claimed to be able to act and who also has a CD of traditional Native songs. Warren invited Joseph to audition, and of course, Joseph was the only Native guy to show up, so there was really no question of not giving him the role.

The audition consisted of Joseph singing two songs, one in Cree, one in Cree & English, to the accompaniment of his own drumming. His voice is pretty good, but the style of singing, of course, was radically different from what we were going to be asking him to do. So after he was finished, I said, “That was really good, Joseph. But I was wondering if you have any experience singing in a more modern style.”

“Not really,” he replied. “I’ve tried doing a little folk singing in the past. What do you have in mind?”

So I sang Joseph a couple verses from our song Who’s calling?, which is one of the Indian’s big numbers from the show. It’s a rock-n-roll adaptation of the poem “The Legend of Qu’Appelle Valley”, by the Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson, which served as the inspiration for our story. The song begins,

“So I was paddlin’ my canoe
Across the lake one starry night
Oh, the autumn moon shone bright…”

And so on. Anyway, after I finished singing, Joseph nodded and said, “Yeah, that’s very different from the kind of stuff I do.”

“Well, we’ll have to see what we can do to meld the two styles,” I said. Then Warren the Director took Joseph outside for a few moments to prepare for his monologue, which he delivered in wooden but acceptable style. He’s a neat-looking guy, this Joseph. He’s in his forties or fifties, and he kind of shambles, and he has an endearing smile, and it’s impossible to dislike him. Anyway, as I said, we had no other Native actors to evaluate, so Joseph won the part as soon as he walked through the door.

After Joseph, who was the last performer of the day, the four of us (me & Andrew & Warren the Director & our stage manager, Tracy) sat for a few moments discussing our newly assembled cast. We all agreed, albeit with reservations, that it was a pretty good cast. I worried aloud that Andrew and I would have trouble adapting our songs to fit Joseph’s style. “It shall be interesting,” I predicted.

“We’ll have to work with him and Jason, see what we can come up with,” put in Andrew.

“Yeah…I dunno…” said Warren. “I’ll be perfectly honest with you, Michael,” he continued. “Joseph doesn’t like your song.”

I chuckled. “Oh, yeah? He told you this while you were out in the hall?”

“Yeah. He said that it was too literal. He said a Native person would never sing a song that started with the line, ‘I was paddling my canoe’.”

I thought about this for a second. “I’m a little uncomfortable changing the lyrics based on the whim of one of the actors,” I finally said. “But I guess we’ll have to see what we can work out.”

“I think it would be easier if Joseph sang one of his own songs,” Warren said. “After all, it would be good for the story to get a more authentic Native voice in there.”

“I dunno…maybe we could give ‘Who’s calling?’ to one of the other characters,” I said. “I’d have to take a look at the script.”

Warren shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah…I’m not sure…that’s a possibility. I don’t want to promise anything.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean, we’ll have to see if there’s any practical way we can go about preserving the song. If there’s not…”

This was when I started to get really angry. “I’m not going to cut the song on the basis of one guy’s opinion after hearing two verses,” I said. “I’m sorry, but we’re hiring this guy to come in to work on our rock opera, and suddenly we’re giving him veto power over what does and doesn’t get sung? Quite frankly, that’s bullshit.”

“Look, Joseph’s a Native person, and he’s sensitive to the question of what a Native person would sing.”

“That’s fine, and if he’s uncomfortable singing the song himself, we can find ways to work around it,” I said. “But why is his opinion on what Native people would sing suddenly taken as gospel? Why does Joseph get to speak for all Native people? He’s one Native guy. Just like the character of the Indian is just one Native guy. He doesn’t stand in for all Native people.”

Warren took a breath. “Look, Michael, I know you’re having problems letting go,” he said. “But ultimately, I was hired to be the director here, and that means I was hired to put together the best possible show we can put together. If that means cutting some of the songs, well…”

I noticed that Tracy was standing uncomfortably behind Warren, staring at the back of his neck. I could hear Andrew breathing behind me. “I don’t know exactly how the lines of authority run here,” I said, “But if you’re suggesting that you’re going to pull rank on me…well, I have a prerogative as an artist to protect, however ridiculous and feeble it might be, my artistic vision. I’m not going to allow you to cut a song because this one Native guy claims that he finds it offensive.”

I could feel myself losing my temper again, so I stopped myself. “Let’s back up,” I said. “I have no problem including some traditional Native singing in the show, if that’s what you want. And if Joseph doesn’t like this particular song, we can give it to another character. There’s room for compromise here.”

“I’m just warning you that I may have to cut the song.”

“If cutting the song is an artistic decision, and not a political decision, then I’ll respect that,” I said. (Of course, he and I both know that every political decision can be framed as an artistic decision, so this was a cop-out on my part.)

So that was where the meeting ended. We all tried to smile and we parted company politely enough, but I know my day was basically wrecked. I was stressed-out and headachy. I got through an unremarkable rehearsal with Andrew & Jason, then came home and went to bed early. I feel better today – more optimistic that we can reach some kind of compromise. But fuck, what a lot of trouble. I was only just recovering from the fight we had a few nights ago about abandoning the live video feed. Warren won that fight, too, as he won the name-change fight. He’ll probably win this one.

While I was composing this email, Troy called. “How did auditions go?” he asked. I told him that things had gone well. He told me about the progress he’s made on the poster, and then we said goodbye.

A few minutes later, Troy called again. “I just talked to Warren. He said you two had a little tiff yesterday.”

“Yeah, there were some disagreements. I was hopeful that we’d be able to work them out between the two of us.”

“I hope so,” said Troy. “I’ll talk to you Tuesday.”

So that’s that. I have a pretty huge rewrite which needs to be done tonight and tomorrow. I haven’t got a clue where to start.

May 20 2002
Message to Dean

Dean Drobot wrote:

Stand your ground. They have no authority over you, you should be demanding as much control over your artistic work as you want. It’s not like you sold the work to the Mendel and walked away. You’re part of it. You and Andrew ARE it. It’s your name that has to be associated with this rock opera, its creation, and its writing. Make sure it’s something you’re behind 100%.

They have no authority over us? Well, sure they do. We’re not getting much money out of this initial run, but if it goes well, there’s the opportunity for all kinds of spin-off projects – future shows in Fort Qu’Appelle and Regina, a video version, maybe even a semi-professional soundtrack recording.

I don’t know who really has the power to make the final creative decisions – is it Warren or is it me? (The fact that Warren is so confident that it’s him suggests that he might have received reassurance to that effect from the Mendel at some point.) I’m reluctant to go to Troy and force him to take sides with one of us – Troy’s a laid-back guy, it would be cruel to place him in that conundrum. Most likely we’ll muddle along and arrive at some kind of compromise. The truth is, I don’t really care too much about the dramatic side of it – the story was only a flimsy framework upon which Andrew & I could hang fourteen or so new songs. (This is why it angers me so much more when Warren tries to cut a song than it does when he tries to cut dialogue.)

As for Joseph and his singing, I don’t mind him doing one of his own songs in the show. “Who’s calling?” can be sung by someone else – it doesn’t carry the plot forward, it merely serves as commentary on the action, so it can go almost anywhere in the story. But if Warren has decided that the song itself is “insensitive” and has to go – then I’ll get pretty steamed. I’m not sure what I’d do. Probably make a big kerfuffle and get outvoted by the “executive committee”, thus losing both the current battle and the long-term benefits that come from being associated with the Mendel. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Four years after the events described in the preceding messages, I’m still not sure whether I cravenly succumbed to pressure, or whether I was being a stubborn and unreasonable fool to argue with Warren in the first place. As Dean pointed out, it was OUR goddamn rock opera. On the other hand, the Mendel was paying for the show, and Warren had been hired in part to shape the production in a manner that was consistent with the theme of the exhibition. The Mendel wanted to include The Native Perspective. I am not native. Once we agreed to accept money in return for the Mendel’s patronage, once we agreed to hire an outsider to direct the show, should we have accepted that it was going to change in ways we might not have intended?

Fuck, I don’t know. By the way, I absolutely don’t want people to get the idea I harbour any resentment toward Joseph Naytowhow, the native actor who instigated the whole brouhaha. He was a sweetheart in every respect.

May 21 2002
Message to a friend

All the conflict of the last week is making me paranoid. We had a meeting with a couple of the performers this afternoon, and Warren seemed unusually quiet, like he was irritated with me about something. At the end of the meeting, I said I would see him tomorrow for the first full read-through of the script. “You don’t have to come,” he said. “I know, but I’d like to be there,” I said. “You really don’t have to come,” he said. “I know, but I’m still gonna,” I said. He was probably just trying to save me the trouble of getting up early tomorrow, but all the time I was thinking – he’s conspiring against me! He doesn’t want me there because he’s gonna try to bring the cast over to his side!

I’m trying to relax about this whole thing. It’s going to be hard enough mounting this big production in less than a month even if we’re not quarrelling about it all the time.

So I turned in the “final” rewrite. In theory, that means I should be receiving my paycheque sometime soon. In case you were wondering: “rock opera composer” is the lowest-paying full-time job ever. (On the bright side, we get to choose our own uniforms. Right now, we’re leaning toward dressing the band up like surgeons.)

May 22 2002
Message to Andrew

I wasn’t merely being paranoid about Warren not wanting me to sit in on rehearsals – he sent me an email explicitly stating that he doesn’t want me to sit in on rehearsals. I guess he’s worried that I would undermine his authority or something. My feelings are hurt; I was kind of looking forward to hearing the scenes acted outside of my own imagination. But in practical terms, it doesn’t matter much either way, so I guess we’ll go along for the time being. (I assume that my interdiction applies to you as well.) It will make things awkward, though – at some point, preferably soon, the musical and dramatic sides of this show are going to have to be melded, and the melding will only be made more difficult if neither side is keeping close track of what the other is doing. We’ll have to set up regular meetings. At some neutral location. Ridiculous, all this.

It annoys me that Warren is probably saying to all his director friends, “You wouldn’t believe this writer I’m being forced to work with! So demanding and unreasonable!” I wonder if it crosses his mind that I’m saying exactly the same things about him?

One side effect of my being barred from attending rehearsals was that I simply wasn’t around as much as Warren. Consequently, few people at the Mendel, outside of my friend Troy and his boss Noreen, knew who I was. The predictable result was that on the Mendel’s webpage for the rock opera (which has since been deleted), Andrew’s and my names didn’t even appear, except in the small print at the bottom of the page, where we were credited as “musicians”. Warren’s name, of course, was right at the top.

Our friend Barb recently met someone who used to work at the Mendel. Barb said, “A friend of mine wrote a rock opera for the Mendel a few years back.” The ex-Mendel employee replied, “Oh, yeah, I remember him. Warren, right?”

And I wonder why I’m not famous already.

May 22 2002
Message to friends

I don’t think I could ever be one of those artists who mulishly defends every line and every note of his songs. I’m not sufficiently sure of my own judgement to say with certainty that a change would be to the detriment of the art. Maybe Warren is actually correct about some of the calls he’s making; maybe I’m the hypersensitive control freak, not him. Or maybe, by not standing up to him, I’m weakening the rock opera. But I don’t know for sure. And even if I did, what would I do? Warren’s stubbornness is almost absolute – so if I were equally stubborn, the result would be not progress, but deadlock. As it is, at least the show inches ever closer to consummation, albeit on his terms. Maybe it’ll even be good. I hope that, when I see it all come together, I will be sufficiently mature to give Warren credit for the good things he’s brought to the show, as well as to take responsibility for the not-so-good things that I’ve been unwilling to part with – assuming any such remain.

May 29 2002
Message to Dean

Tonight I have to get together with Andrew and Jason and Joseph, the Indian guy from the show. I have no idea what we’re going to work on. Right now, Joseph’s two scenes are just big question marks. Warren the Director was telling me this afternoon that when everyone goes down to Fort San this weekend, to pre-record the video part of the show, Joseph’s gonna go out to the nearby reserve and see if he can pick up some stories from the elders, to be included in the show. Which isn’t such a bad idea – except we’re less than three weeks from opening night! How the hell we’re going to shoehorn a few minutes of Native storytelling into the script is beyond me.

What’s annoying is, Joseph himself (from the few times I’ve talked to him directly) seems to be quite accommodating, eager to try and learn the songs as they were written. It’s not like he’s stamping around demanding, “More feathers! More moccasins! More Indians!” I have a theory that Warren is uncomfortable around Joseph, and therefore unwilling to shoot down his more impractical ideas the way he would if they were coming from me, for instance, or from Troy. In other words, Joseph is just innocently brainstorming, the way we all do, and Warren’s so afraid of being perceived as insensitive that he just goes, “Yes! We’ll do whatever you want, Mr. Native man, sir!” I might be blowing smoke, though. We’ll see where things stand after we get together with Joseph tomorrow.

Dean Drobot wrote:

I’ve come to realise that you are never truly happy when it comes to your own work . . .

Maybe that’s true. The problem is that writing the songs is easy for me (more or less), but performing them to a level that does them justice is quite difficult. Possibly beyond my capabilities. I sometimes wish I could just be a songwriter, and there was a terrific band that I could call up every time I finished a new song. “Here, do this,” I’d say, and play them the song, and then I’d never have to think about it again – they’d go learn it, and play it in public, and record it, and make a couple million bucks, of which I’d get half. That would be alright. And I could quite happily live with someone else getting all the fame and groupies. I wouldn’t be able to cope with fame or groupies anyway.

May 29 2002
Message to friends

So we gave the Indian a name – Joe Hump. “Joe” because the actor portraying him is named Joseph, and “Hump” in honour of the Hump Room in Andrew’s basement, where many of these songs were originally rehearsed, and also because “Hump” is an authentic Sioux name – the name of a warrior who fought alongside Crazy Horse. I think it’s a pretty good name.

Joseph sings traditional-style Native songs in a group called “Nikamok”, or something like that. But he has trouble adjusting to our rock-n-roll tempo. It’s too fast, I guess, and too wordy for him. To accommodate him, Warren the Director decided that one of Joe Hump’s songs would be removed from its original place in the story, and I would sing it instead at the end of the show. To replace it, Joseph’s gonna do one of his own songs. I’ve never been keen on the idea, but it does have the advantage of simplicity – fewer words for him to learn, less work for me & Andrew.

To help cement this alien song a bit more firmly into the rest of the show, I cautiously suggested that Jason might put an electric guitar solo over Joseph’s drumbeat. I was worried that Joseph would be offended by the suggestion. He’s using some kind of sacred drum, after all – one that’s probably been sanctified in a sweetgrass ceremony or something – and using it to back up an atheistic rock-n-roll guitar solo might stir up the evil spirits. But Joseph liked the idea, evil spirits or no. So we brought Joseph downstairs to do a little drumming and chanting, and then we got Jason laying some licks over the ending. Sounded pretty good. I wish we had time to work out an original song that Joseph could sing – something that would suit his singing style, but which would complement Jason’s guitar work better, and fit better into the show. But alas, no time.

No time, no time. It’s almost June, yes? We have less than three weeks to solve about ten thousand problems between now and opening night.

June 3 2002
Message to friends

I’d been intending to keep a fascinating email journal, for the benefit of my friends, of the process of mounting this rock opera; but the truth is, you will be disappointed but probably not surprised to learn, that mounting a rock opera is actually pretty goddamn boring. Now that Warren the Director and I have ceased to fight over the large issues, all of those issues having been decided in his favour, there’s nothing left to worry over but the little, stupid things, like learning the songs, promoting the show, and trying to keep a straight face when singing some of my godawful lyrics.

As of tomorrow, Tuesday, we will be exactly two weeks away from opening night, and we have exactly one trillion problems to solve in those two weeks; but as I’ve mentioned, all those problem are boring, so I won’t bother recounting them here. I just wanted to check in with everybody, say hi, I’m still doing this, it’s not a prank. There really will be a rock opera about the Qu’Appelle Valley opening two weeks from now, and it really does contain the line “The morning passes slow / And as you watch your toenails grow / You count up all your dandruff, flake by flake.” Swear to god.

I’m not too worried about the songs. Godawful lyrics and all, we will know how to play them by opening night, and the singers will know how to sing them. But as for the dramatic side – well, I have no idea what’s going on over there. We have no sets and no costumes and the actors barely know their lines, and the pre-recorded video stuff hasn’t been delivered to us yet, so we don’t know how that’s going to look. I watched a read-through this afternoon, and I could barely make sense of it.

None of this is Warren the Director’s fault, although he does frequently have very silly ideas which I am reluctant to share here, because I haven’t told Andrew all of Warren’s very silly ideas yet. When we finally rehearse the show with the cast and the band together, Andrew will see all of these silly ideas in practise for the first time, realise what a silly show he’s gotten himself involved in, and promptly have an embolism.

The posters will be going up this weekend. Troy designed them; if they look as good printed up as they did on his computer screen, they’re gonna be awesome. I’ll try and snag one for each of you out-of-towners. (You Saskatoon folks will have to tear them off lampposts like common riff-raff.) It’s all coming together, boys and girls! But don’t be surprised if, on opening night, it all comes apart again.

June 10 2002
Message to friends

I’m embarrassed to admit that I have nothing to write about except more rock opera stuff. It’s all I’ve been doing for the past three weeks. I tried to schedule a whole day off this weekend, but it didn’t work out – I managed to get in just twenty-two consecutive hours of non-rock-n-roll downtime between Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, then it was back to “work”.

So how’s it going? Well, the set is starting to come together. Once the lights and fog machine are delivered, it should begin to look less like a school gymnasium and more like the setting for a rock-n-roll show. We brought in our gear yesterday and ran through a couple songs with the sound equipment. It’s pretty sharp. The drums aren’t quite as overwhelming as I’d feared they’d be.

The writing, I’m pleased to announce, is finally finished. Per Warren the Director’s request, we’ve added a verse to one song, and removed verses from various other songs; and on Saturday Andrew and I finally figured out what music we would play to accompany the climactic “nightmare” video sequence, during which Troy, wearing an antique gasmask, emerges from the wreckage of a crashed “spaceship” and gambols about menacingly with a scalpel in his hand. From what I’ve seen of it, it should be entertainingly silly. The video footage hasn’t been completed yet, but we’re expecting it any day now. Then we’ll have to find someone to operate the computer which will trigger the video sequences during the show. Presumably there will have to be somebody else to operate the lights, and still another person to run sound. I’m optimistic that someone will turn up to fill each of these roles.

June 11 2002
Message to friends

Denise Beck wrote:

The Mendel is having their opening reception this Friday at 8:30. Michael, what’s your gig for the opening reception?

It would probably be a good idea, to drum up business, for us to be playing songs from the rock opera at the opening reception; but no-one has broached the idea to me, and I assume that by now they’ve got some jazzy little combo booked to play in the lobby of the Mendel for opening night, as they usually do. I’ll still make the suggestion.

I’ve heard vague squeakings that the curator of the Qu’Appelle Valley exhibit was never keen on the rock opera idea in the first place, and that he regards the whole enterprise with contempt. So perhaps I oughtn’t to be there at all. Still, I think I’ll put in an appearance, shake hands with the few people that I know, and nod knowingly at the landscape paintings.

Did I mention that I did a phone interview with Jenny Gabruch of the Star-Phoenix this afternoon? It was awful. I shouldn’t be allowed to speak to other humans. A photographer is coming by rehearsals this afternoon; then, sometime in the next few days, all you Star-Phoenix subscribers will get a chance to read my incoherent remarks. Somebody clip ’em out for me, okay?

June 13 2002
Message to the Sea Water Bliss mailing list

Greetings to friends, old friends, friends in foreign countries, friends I haven’t spoken to in ages, and people whose names I happened to have in my email address book. I am writing to invite you to an upcoming live event featuring my rock-n-roll combo, the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

As some of you know, and as some of you may have heard via rumour, my longtime collaborator Andrew Hall and I have written a rock opera called “Room to Breathe” which, through what miracle of mass-hypnosis I cannot begin to speculate, we have convinced the Mendel Art Gallery to allow us to perform in their basement auditorium. The Mendel, in order to avoid looking silly, insisted that they be allowed to spend a considerable amount of money constructing a decent-looking stage, renting good sound equipment, printing up flashy posters, and hiring a competent director to put the show together. The Mendel has also invested a lot of effort in trying to make our rock opera seem like a respectable and important piece of theatrical art. I wish to use this message to declare that, whatever you may hear to the contrary, Andrew and I are no more respectable than we ever have been. I can still barely tune my guitar, and Andrew still considers AC/DC’s “Squealer” to be the crowning achievement of twentieth century recorded music.

“Room to Breathe” features fourteen original songs; several kick-ass guitar solos by local space-noise specialist Jordan Haze; a singing cowboy; a spaceman; and the Prince of Wales in a funny hat. There’s also a story that seemed to make sense when I wrote it, but I’m not so sure anymore. It’s probably worth the ten bucks we’re charging for admission; if you don’t think so, you might still consider coming out for one of the two free shows.

June 17 2002
Message to friends

Forty-three hours from showtime. As of this evening, the set is not quite complete, our video footage hasn’t been delivered yet, and (despite all our expensively rented sound equipment) we still haven’t figured out how to make music in the Mendel auditorium that sounds any better than the enthusiastic churnings of a Grade Eight garage band. My theory is that in order to have a decent-sounding rock opera in that room, we’re going to have to remove the rock – turn our amps way down, kill Jason, and pump Aaron full of sedatives until he drums as softly as a little girl. That’s just my theory, of course, and it’s only one of dozens of theories that are currently vying for supremacy among the many hands with access to the mixing board. Tomorrow we’re going to try enclosing Aaron’s drum kit in a sound-dampening cocoon of carpet. It will look ridiculous, but it might lower the volume just enough that our audience will actually be able to make out the lyrics to the songs.

Andrew and I are both worried. (He bitches and moans more, but I’m worried too.) The band, in addition to not sounding good, is sloppy. The actors still haven’t got their lines nailed down. Whole sections of the play hang as limply as wet diapers, or some even less attractive analogy. The parts of the show that are ridiculous, which I’d hoped would look less ridiculous once they were better-rehearsed and better-lit, look just as ridiculous as ever. And in spite of all the time they spend messing with the remote control, no-one is really competent to fly the UFO. (Which looks less like a UFO than it does like a tinfoil Goodyear Blimp, but what the hell, we got it for free.)

I know you all think I’m exaggerating our woes, but I’m really not. Wait till you see it. If we get the sound problems worked out, I’m not too concerned – it’ll just be a mixed bag of silly rock-n-roll songs interspersed with bad dramatic scenes – in other words, the very definition of a rock opera. If we don’t get the sound worked out, what a fiasco it will be. And after all the uncritical coverage we’ve received from CFQC, CFCR, the Star-Phoenix, and that cute CBC-Radio reporter – I’ll feel like I’ve let the whole city down.

June 20 2002
Message to friends

Andrew Hall wrote:

I did have this idea last night for a new show . . . No actors or directors, just a soundtrack that never ends entirely. Each song would fade into a background instrumental as voice-overs speak eerily to the posed mannequins on stage. Each mannequin has a television head and smoke curls restlestly around their ankles while they peer at each other in mock emotion.

I rather like this idea. It makes me think of the plays of Samuel Beckett. The dialogue needn’t make sense, exactly – it could be evocative, dreamy, stream-of-consciousness nonsense. Perhaps the central story could be the search for “a traitor among us” – one of the mannequins is accused of some unspecified crime against the others, and they all have to ferret out the villain. I’d prefer it if the mannequins themselves were talking – which would require actors. We should discuss this further, though. It sounds very Fringe-y.

June 20 2002
Message to Jay Arnold

Given a bit more time, there are things I would have done differently – trimmed a few of the scenes (starting with that long, long scene where Joseph relates the native legend to the Patient – I’d restore the song that originally went there), shortened a couple songs, lengthened a couple others, perhaps added incidental music to jazz up a few spots where, right now, nothing much is happening on stage.

And the ending needs work. I’m not sure if it’s the band, or the choreography, or the lighting, or what – but the second-to-last number (the one before the big curtain-call song) – which was written as the big emotional finale – where the Patient sings (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m not sure whether this is real or a dream, but I don’t mind so long as I’m with you” – just lacks oomph. Each time we’ve performed the song, the audience has failed to applaud afterward, forcing us to launch abruptly into our curtain-call number – and I think it’s jarring. I don’t know how I’d fix it, though.

As for that curtain-call song, you’re right, we need to do something more with it. The problem is, there’s no real reason for it to be there – it doesn’t add anything to the story. Me, I’d rather end on the melancholy number that precedes it, fade to black, and maybe have Jason doing some more space noises on the guitar while the cast takes its bows.

It’s weird being done rehearsals – I have nothing to do with myself now during the afternoons. I need to find another project to keep myself busy. Andrew wants to do another rock opera that would adhere more closely to our original conception – less silly, more darkly absurdist. He’d like to do a show where the only characters on stage are mannequins, with TV monitors where their heads should be, with the monitors showing the faces of the actors who are performing backstage. Between scenes, you could fade to semi-blackness and have stagehands come up and re-pose the mannequins. I don’t really know what kind of story this would lend itself to – but I think it would be kind of cool.

Anyway, two more paid shows, and then another freebie on Sunday. Crowds have been pretty underwhelming since the free preview. Tonight we played to about twenty people. I’m hoping it picks up for the weekend.

June 21 2002
Message to Dean

Audience response has been positive, but not ecstatic. Roughly what I expected. I think the songs are stronger than the show allows them to be – I don’t have the talent or experience as a bandleader to get them sounding as dynamic with the four-piece band as they sound when just Andrew & I play them. Nevertheless, they all work moderately well. As for the drama, Warren’s directorial decisions, which might individually have been sound, cumulatively have had the effect of making the show silly – campy, even.

For instance, there’s a scene where a “revolt” breaks out at the hospital. It coincides with a pretty good song, a thundering instrumental number with a catchy melody and a strong solo for Jason. I’d visualised it being accompanied by chaotic video footage, but we never got around to filming any footage, so instead Joseph (the native patient) and Diarmid (as an orderly) chase each other around the room, and then, as the song reaches its climax – I swear to god – they start dancing. It makes me think of the clip from the Radioactive Man TV series on the Simpsons, where Radioactive Man and Fallout Boy are battling a gang of supervillains, and then beach music starts playing and they all start to frug. It’s funny, but not at all what I was going for.

The audiences have been older and more upmarket than I’d anticipated. They sit respectfully during the rock-n-roll songs, and perk up during the “novelty” numbers, like the Singin’ Cowboy’s song. In this respect, Warren was right to make the changes he made – he’s pitching it to the kind of audience that actually shows up for a rock opera at the Mendel, rather than the ideal audience that I’d imagined. Still, if we’re going to tailor it to the middle-class market, let’s go all the way and put a happy ending on it, rather than the present ambiguous anticlimax, which seems merely to confuse people. I can sense that they’re waiting for something more to happen, but then, boom, we’re playing our curtain-call number, the credits are being projected, and they’re being herded out the door.

Jenn’s comment – the closest thing to an honest criticism I’ve received from any of my friends – was that she disliked Joe Hump, the native character. I can see why. Somehow all my efforts to write a native character who didn’t come with any political or spiritual baggage – who was just another guy – came to nothing. At one point, Joseph asked Warren to give him a few adjectives to help define his character. “Spiritual, wise, and good-humoured” were the characteristics Warren came up with. I just rolled my eyes. The whole idea behind Joe Hump was that he was supposed to be a parody of the sage, riddle-talking Indian of Hollywood movies who comes along and teaches the white man a valuable spiritual lesson. But guess what Joe Hump is now doing?

But the white, older, middle-class audiences seem to really like him. I don’t blame them – Joseph is an engaging character. They laugh at all his funny lines, and they even sit tolerantly through what I consider to be the weakest part of the show, a ten-minute scene where Joseph relates an old Cree legend that he picked up from an elder down by Fort Qu’Appelle. In the original script, this is the spot where he sang the song about paddlin’ his canoe – the one over which I threw a fit when Warren suggested he might cut it for political reasons. Ultimately, the song was moved to the end of the show because Joseph just couldn’t learn to sing it. I’d prefer to have it back where it belongs.

The shows have gone pretty smoothly, but hardly anyone has come out to see them. Maybe it’ll pick up for the weekend. But I think Warren and Troy’s optimistic prediction that we’d have to extend the run can be safely dismissed. In a few days we’ll be done, and I won’t be unhappy.

Our remote-controlled UFO looked less like the flying saucer or Flash Gordon rocketship I’d imagined and more like a gravity-defying bag of stovetop instant popcorn. Warren handled the remote control himself – can’t blame him, it was fun – and consistently failed to navigate the UFO to its marks. The few times the UFO did work, however, it looked awesome.

June 21 2002
Message to friends

Jaime Hogan wrote:

So how did the show go last night? Did the spaceship miss this time?

I think the free preview night was the high point for the spaceship. On the second night it crashed in front of the stage and couldn’t be recovered. Last night was marginally better – it bounced off some guy’s head in the audience, but at least made it as far as the stage, where it hovered above the Patient for a minute or two, before spinning off into a corner and disappearing. We’ll get it right yet. They’re making modifications after every show – there’s moss on the bricks now, and the videophone has got more wires and tubes protruding from it, and they taped down the keyboard that Mark uses to trigger the video sequences – in the second show, the keyboard was knocked to the floor in the scene where Mark punches Diarmid, and the video started running too early. The vocals are coming through a bit more clearly, too.

Andrew & I went to Crawdaddy’s last night after the show, where we ran into Theresa. I told her that I was disappointed with the turnout the last couple nights, and she said that considering Andrew & I had played exactly three paying gigs prior to doing this rock opera, the fact that even twenty people would turn out to see us on a Thursday night isn’t too bad. I’m not sure if the comment ought to be a blow or a boost to my ego, but it’s a good point.

June 22 2002
Message to Dean

Dean Drobot wrote:

It’s too bad you’re not completely satisfied with the show, Michael. Well, you’d never be totally satisfied, would you?

Probably not. Still, I’d prefer it if my dissatisfaction could be entirely self-directed. I don’t have any particular regrets about the John Will art songs we did in December, for instance, even though I felt that my performances were kind of crappy; but at least I was crappy on my terms, not on someone else’s. If “Room to Breathe” is destined to be a flop, that’s fine, but I’d like it to be my flop, so that I can wash my hands of it and move on. As it is, I’m always going to be wondering if it wouldn’t have been better if we’d done it my way.

There’s nothing wrong with the Mendel’s silly, musical-theatre version of the rock opera. With a few changes – restore a couple songs, trim a few scenes, tinker with the ending – it could be pretty good. But I’d love it if somehow, without alienating Troy & Warren, we could create another version that would satisfy Andrew’s & my original vision. But, what the fuck. All in all, I have to be pretty happy with what we’ve been allowed to do here. We got to do a rock opera – we got a ridiculous amount of media coverage, considering that we’ve only played in public a few times – I made enough money to live on for a whole month – met some interesting people – was kept busy for the first half of 2002. Even if the show shuts down Sunday and nothing further comes of it, I’ll have no reason to complain.

I’ll still complain, though.

June 23 2002
Message to friends

My father just called to tell me that he spotted a clip about the rock opera on Shaw Cable. Warren the Director was interviewed – apparently he described the show as “a comedy”. I am belatedly coming to understand just how fundamental our creative differences really were.

June 23 2002
Message to friends

Well, it’s over. The final note has been sounded, the final bow taken, the inflatable UFO has made its last circuit round the stage. There’s nothing left but the dingy work of disassembling the set and waiting for our paycheques.

Until there’s another rock opera to promote, I guess I’ll have no further excuses for mass-emailing everyone in my address book. But before the bullhorn is wrested from my hands, I thought I’d send out a big howdy-thanks-a-lot to everyone who came to see the show. I’d especially like to thank those of you who took the time to offer criticism – because if people don’t razz me for the bad stuff, how can I possibly maintain a sense of perspective when they flatter me for the good stuff? – Not that I don’t appreciate the flattery, too. (I just tend not to believe it.)

So the final two shows went pretty well. Saturday night we half-filled the place – quite a coup, considering that on Thursday and Friday the audiences were slightly outnumbered by the people on stage. (…I exaggerate very slightly.) Sunday afternoon’s free show was packed – people stood in the aisles, and children sat on the floor in front of the stage. I thought that the children would get rowdy and distracted during the slow bits, but they were remarkably patient. I did spot a few old folks nodding off – oddly enough, during the loud rock-n-roll numbers. Perhaps they’d only fainted.

Anyway – a few more words of self-promotion – keep your eyes open for more rock-n-roll action featuring the band known as Sea Water Bliss. Thank-you and goodnight, Saskatoon!

June 25 2002
Message to friends

Warren Brooke wrote:

The cast party was awesome . . . It lasted until 4:30 in the morning and was good right to the end.

I left around eleven. I was just tired of being around people. The fact that everyone was sitting around in a circle singing “If I Had A Million Dollars” didn’t help. Am I that annoying when I play and sing at parties? Either way, I hereby vow never to play or sing at a party again. I would vow to give up music entirely, but I’m hoping to eventually use my talent for writing trivial songs to help balance out my other talent for neglecting to take care of myself. But if I ever do have a monster, Macarena-sized single that promises to pay me royalties for the rest of my life – if I ever do have a million dollars – I’ll gladly give up music and dedicate myself full-time to some other hobby, like learning to juggle

June 26 2002
Message to friends

I spent today lying under a fan and watching library movies and trying to figure out why I was feeling bummed out. I think it’s because I felt a little left out at the party – not because of the drinking, and not even just because I generally hate parties, but because everyone else was so perversely happy with the show. At one point Noreen asked Andrew how he had felt about the performances – he’d already had quite a lot of rye by this point – and I was worried he would start shouting and swearing and slandering the Mendel. But no – even Andrew started talking about how pleased he was with how it had all turned out. Et tu, Andrew? I wanted to have at least one person I could take aside and say, “Just between us, you’re aware that it kind of blew, right?” But no-one else was disposed to share that view. Instead, everyone just kept getting sentimentaler and sentimentaler. By the time Jason pulled out a guitar and started playing a song he’d written, with a verse dedicated to each member of the cast, I knew I’d had enough. Give me slander, backbiting, and negativity any day.

June 26 2002
Message from Andrew to our friends

Admittedly I’d had a lot of rye…quite a lot of rye. But I was quite content with the rock opera from a musical perspective. After all, I am a musician, and my primary goal was to play well and enjoy myself while I was playing. That I achieved, and I really dig the tunes, so from that perspective it WAS a raging success. Secondly (and Michael you can’t have it both ways), now it seems that whenever I start to fly off the cuff about something I get this attitude of disapproval from you, so I’ve just learned to swallow my anger about stuff. That coupled with too much rye smothered any angry or bitter remarks I may have had.

Don’t let my contented drunkenness fool you though, from a dramatic perspective the whole thing kind of stunk. I’m no connoisseur, but the type of show I like to see was not ours. Still, people seemed to like it for some reason. If we’d had it our way, and NOBODY liked it, how would we have felt? Would there still be this bitterness, or would we be content in our failure, like the success-fearing people we both are? Was this show a success though? Not really. Only a few people were actually willing to pay for it, and I’m pretty sure the only thing they really liked were the songs and the silly bits of slapstick comedy thrown in.

Maybe it will make you feel better, Michael, to know that later on in the evening, after you’d left, while sitting in the backyard, I sort of diplomatically ripped into Warren the Director for his handling of the whole thing. I brought up the incident in the Mendel boardroom the day we hired the actors. Warren told me how uncomfortable we’d made him that day…you pissed off and arguing, and me silent and glaring from over your shoulder. He told me that the day after, he called up Troy and asked if he still had a job, because he was convinced that we would have him fired over the whole thing.

June 26 2002
Message to friends

Don’t get me wrong, Andrew – I was relieved that you didn’t start shouting at Noreen about creative control and lousy pay and so on. I was just surprised at how upbeat your assessment of our performance was. To be fair, whenever anyone else in the show has asked me how I felt about it, I’ve usually told them the same thing – “Oh, I’m very pleased!” – because I don’t want to appear ungrateful for all the hard work that Warren, Tracy, and the rest of the cast put in. I’m glad that our paltry audiences seemed to enjoy themselves, although this makes me wonder, as you point out, whether they would have liked it more or less if it had been done our way. Anyway, I’m glad that I can usually rely on you to be about as grumpy and negative about our performances as I am, although you express it in different ways.

It’s interesting that Warren the Director actually believed we could have gotten him fired if we’d wanted to. The possibility never crossed my mind. Poor Warren. A few weeks ago, he told me that he’d been pretty upset after our earlier debate at Tim Horton’s over getting rid of the live video feed. We didn’t even raise our voices at that one. He’s just a sensitive guy, I guess.

That was kind of the end of our association with the Mendel. Nothing ever came of the plans to take the show on the road to Regina or Fort Qu’Appelle, or for a video version. But Andrew and I weren’t satisfied, and the following year we decided to revive the show and do it OUR way…

Read Michael’s rock opera diary, part II
Read director Warren Cowell’s rock opera recollections
Return to main rock opera page