Turn! Turn! Turn! indeed: Nearly a year after the death of legendary U.S. folk singer/activist Pete Seeger, his words and music have come to life again on the stage in Victoria, with the premiere of The Incompleat Folksinger. Adapted by Mark Hellman and Ross Desprez of the Other Guys theatre company from Mr. Seeger's book of the same name – with the knowledge of the Seeger estate – the play features Mr. Hellman as Mr. Seeger in a one-man show directed by Mr. Desprez. Audience participation is encouraged.
The Globe and Mail reached Mr. Hellman during a break in rehearsals earlier this week.
Are you a big Pete Seeger fan? Is that how you got onto the project?
I am a great big Pete Seeger fan. About 35 years ago when I started playing guitar, my first book was Pete Seeger's Folksinger's Guitar Guide, so he's been a bit of a guide of mine all through my musical career and as a songwriter as well. Our director, Ross Desprez, is as much of a Pete Seeger fan as I am. So about three months or so after Pete passed away last year, we started having a conversation about trying to create a show about him. And one of the things we did at the beginning of that process was send off a letter to the Seeger family, talking a little bit about our background as a little Canadian theatre company on the West Coast wanting to do this. And about three weeks after that, Mary Desprez [the show's producer] got a call from Mika Seeger [one of Pete's daughters] to say that they'd received our information and were interested in the whole idea, wanted a little bit more information about the company, but basically kind of in that process gave a go-ahead at least to get started. We've been in touch with them a couple of different times and I think they're just waiting to see a script and maybe some video of the show before they give any sort of official approval.
When did you first read The Incompleat Folksinger?
I've actually had this book sitting on my bookshelf on and off for about 35 years. It was given to me as a teenager. I sort of took Pete's advice and I leafed through it pretty lightly and then I put it down. When Ross and I started talking about how we were going to conceive of a show about Pete, whose career spans 70 some-odd years, I suddenly saw this book sitting on my shelf and pulled it out and there it was, written by Pete when he was approximately in his mid-50s, which is the same age I am. It made sense to [use] this document which really is a wonderful book and sort of gives us a sense of how much Pete was a writer as well as a musician.
What was involved in adapting the work?
I reduced about 600 pages down to about 80 pages of material for Ross to look at, and then Ross began to bang out a script based on those 80 pages, which were then reduced down to 40 and 30, and we're still finding ourselves trimming even in this last week of rehearsal, just realizing that a modern theatre audience isn't used to sitting for much more than two hours. Pete's concerts tend to average around three hours, but we're not going to hold people that long.
At his concerts people could get up and dance.
That's right. We certainly hope by virtue of getting the audience to sing along with some of the material that people will find the time passes very quickly.
So singing along will be encouraged?
Absolutely. It couldn't be a Pete Seeger show without that. One of the things that emerges from the book is this sense of how Pete felt that any time you got a group of people together to sing you were in some way affecting what he called the body politic. And he felt that perhaps one of the most political acts of all, at least for an artist, is to get masses of people singing together.
What sort of training and research did you have to go through in order to perform the work?
I'm not really a banjo player and Pete was certainly renowned for his banjo playing. So when we started the process I told the producers, 'If you want a show about Pete you need to get me a banjo.' And I got Pete Seeger's book How to Play the Five-String Banjo and sat myself down starting last summer and just started to learn as much as I could over a six-month period of time. Certainly 35 years of guitar playing give me a little bit of a head start but I wouldn't say I'm anywhere near the banjo player that Pete was and that's why I appreciate the title of the play even more, and the fact that The Incompleat Folksinger can apply both to Pete's vision of himself as an artist as well as my own position of being a performer.
In terms of studying some of him, I've been listening to lots of live recordings. We managed to come across a DVD of a concert he gave in Australia back in 1963 and started to get a little bit of a sense of his voice and his physical presence. But we're really not trying to create what you might call an impersonation of the character. All the words in the show are words that Pete wrote or said in concert. I really don't look much like Pete Seeger and I'm not a banjo player quite the way he was, so we're hoping through the process of theatre that the character can kind of emerge through the stories and through the songs.
What sort of challenges are involved when you are playing a real person?
It really is the writing. The writing [includes] deeply personal reminiscences of his involvement in the union movement, the civil rights movement. He became a global citizen in the early sixties when he couldn't play down in his own country very much – he took his family around the world and he went into some pretty hot spots, too. He spent some time behind the Iron Curtain. He played in West Berlin and East Berlin on the same tour. He also spent a week in Lebanon and Israel just before the Six-Day War started. So there he was performing on both sides of the border with all the signs of a war about to break out all around him.
He also played a number of shows in B.C., right?
He sure did. He spent a lot of time in Canada. I guess that's the other personal connection for me. My mum saw Pete play three different times – twice in Winnipeg during the fifties and then I think in either Toronto or Montreal in the sixties. And of course his music was playing all around the house all the time when I was growing up. Apparently somewhere in our family archives is a recording of my three-year-old self singing Michael Row the Boat Ashore.
Are you hoping this show inspires people to get involved, to have a voice?
I would hope so. Part of the role of the artist is to engage and inform people, and when people are more informed they tend to be able to take actions that reflect the fact that they now have more information. We know that lots of the folks here in Victoria don't know anything about Pete Seeger. I've spoken to a few people who think he's related to Bob Seger. I've had to correct them on that.
The Incompleat Folksinger is at the Metro Studio Theatre in Victoria until Jan. 18.