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New musical based on Craigslist ads captures human longing

Bill Richardson and Veda Hille will perform A Craigslist Cantata.

Bob Peche

We've all read them: those Craigslist ads so good (or bad) you just have to pass the URL on to a couple of friends, before resuming your search for a couch/babysitter/love.

Or turning them into a musical.

Next week, as part of Vancouver's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, veteran CBC broadcaster Bill Richardson and local singer/songwriter Veda Hille premiere Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, made up largely of verbatim ads Richardson has found while trolling Craigslist.

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It was an idea originally created as a 20-minute song cycle for the 2009 PuSh Festival. Inspired by the trajectory of The Drowsy Chaperone, Hille – a stalwart on the Vancouver indie music scene – began working on a series of short musicals and wanted to collaborate with Richardson, an old friend and host of CBC Radio 2's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and In Concert. When she asked what he'd like to write about, his immediate answer was Craigslist.

"It just seemed like it was ripe for mining; a rich, rich vein of stuff," Richardson said during an interview on Granville Island, next door to the theatre. "Because it's just so full of stories and weirdness and all the evidence of humanity. A kind of humanity, anyway."

It was a bit of a surprise idea for someone who had never bought or sold anything on Craigslist (still hasn't, although he did conduct a search – ultimately aborted – for an accordion this month after giving the instrument a whirl at a New Year's Eve party).

But what Richardson quickly found was that a Craigslist ad can reveal a lot about a person, often unintentionally.

Consider the ad-sourced lyrics for the musical's Decapitated Dolls: "My daughter likes to pull the heads off dolls. The therapist says we should let her, so we do. We have lots of headless dolls. Some of the heads may be retrievable. Most probably not. Free to a good home. Washington, DC."

Hille composed the music for the initial six songs in the weeks after her son was born in 2008 (you can hear him crying on the early demos), and premiered the work in the Club PuSh program two years ago. There was a strong feeling from the Arts Club Theatre that the material could support a full-length work.

Hille wasn't convinced initially, but she and her librettist got to work, finding and writing new material and workshopping it along the way. Meanwhile, Craigslist usage became ubiquitous, they found. (Heck, even part of the show's drum kit was bought on Craigslist.)

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Now at about 80 minutes, the Cantata includes numbers such as 300 Stuffed Penguins, Chilli Eating Buddy, Clown on Stilts and RIP Steve Jobs (a fairly recent – but not the most recent – addition).

The work has a loose story arc and no real through-line, according to its creators. And finding the happy (or not) ending was challenging, given the source material.

"The thing about Craigslist is you don't get to see the results," says Hille, who also performs in the show. "People don't say 'I sold it to this person or I met this person and now we're happy.' All you get is the initial question. So that was sort of a trick. Because how do we keep it questioning and yet still make it satisfying? We've written a few little tiny storylines that tie up, but mostly it is just a relentless onslaught of desire."

Ultimately, this is not a show about missed connections, quirky merchandise for sale or trying to find that perfect roommate. The ads serve as a window into the collective psyche in the age of social networking.

"What comes through in these ads so often is just this bald longing and tenderness. It's a kind of searching. People are looking for something," Richardson says. "It turns out that it's a piece about hunger, as much as anything else."

Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata is at the Revue Stage in Vancouver Jan. 19 to Feb. 11; opening night Jan. 24 (artsclub.com[[LINKTEXT]]rtsclub.com[[/LINKTEXT]][URL]]ttp://artsclub.com[[/URL]][TARGET]]blank[[/TARGET]]. The PuSh Festival runs Jan. 17 to Feb. 4 in Vancouver (pushfestival.ca[[LINKTEXT]]ushfestival.ca[[/LINKTEXT]][URL]]ttp://pushfestival.ca[[/URL]][TARGET]]blank[[/TARGET]].

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Other PuSh festival highlights

Amarillo

Renowned Mexican touring ensemble Teatro Linea de Sombra presents the story of a Mexican man who departs for the U.S. border – Amarillo, Texas, specifically – but never arrives. Through a multimedia performance, his story slowly emerges. Jan. 17 to 19, Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts

Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot

Neworld Theatre and Vancouver Moving Theatre, whose adaptation of Crime and Punishment was a 2005 PuSh highlight, have created a musical adaptation of Dostoyevsky's tale of a prince whose goodness ultimately contributes to his demise. Adapted and directed by James Fagan Tait. Jan. 20 to 29, Frederic Wood Theatre, UBC

Guided Tour

Peter Reder ( City of Dreams) collaborates with Vancouver's Boca del Lupo to take the curious through the darkened passages of the Vancouver Art Gallery after closing time, with a live performance complemented by multimedia elements. Jan. 25 to 29, Vancouver Art Gallery

Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca

Spain's world-renowned flamenco group and its celebrated premier dancer Soledad Barrio return to Vancouver, following a sold-out performance at the 2009 Cultural Olympiad. A glowing New York Times review last fall called Barrio's dancing "thrilling" and "invariably charged with intense drama." Jan. 21, Chan Centre for the Performing Arts

Eat the Street

From Mammalian Diving Reflex – the company that brought you Haircuts by Children – comes food reviews by children, where Grade 5 and 6 students hit a string of Vancouver eateries. Book a table nearby and eavesdrop on their commentary. Or attend the awards ceremony Feb. 4 at The Roundhouse. Various restaurants Jan. 25 to Feb. 2

For a detailed schedule, visit pushfestival.ca.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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