Belle of Winnipeg experience

I’ve been staring at this blank entry screen for a while now.  It took four years to bring the Belle of Winnipeg to the stage.  Four years from the day that Dana Fradkin had lunch with Richard Beaune and they first discussed the concept of bringing a silent film to the live stage.  Four years since a team of actors was first assembled, and began trying to figure out how we could possibly do this thing.  We watched silent films, got a sense of their style and found archetypes and ideas that stood out.  We experimented with clown techniques, with laban, played with stage combat, and movement and improv.  We played.  We created a number of characters, we built scenes, and we started to play with various stories. After a while we added some more actors to the group, finding that we needed to round out the cast with more men.  We added four very talented guys to the group, and continued to play and create and build scenes.  And we added David Atkinson as our music director/piano player. How lucky we were as a group to find such a talented musician, who could take a scene that was just created and add what sounded like music he’d spent weeks composing.  His music, brought the scenes to life.  He was not just musical accompaniment, he was a part of the cast, his music was a character in the play.

Then we needed to get to work, and so we had to switch our focus from play to work, as we began to focus on putting together our stories and characters into a narrative, which we would present to an invited group as a workshop performance.  Presenting this was a great learning experience.  We learned how easy it was to confuse and audience, and that for the style of play we were attempting to create, simplicity was best.  And so a script was built by Richard Beaune and our dramaturg Jordan Hall, and once that was done, we set to work.

A script for a silent film play is, when compared with the script for a traditional play, a slip of a thing.  More of an outline of the scenes and story, giving the major points, and then the actors, in rehearsal take the story, put the characters into the scenes and see what happens.  The scenes are honed to find the balance between moments that are amusing and moments that drive the story forward.  And then, after a lot of hard work: you have a play.

Before we opened, I was nervous.  Here we had a play that was something that none of us had ever seen before.  We thought it was funny, but we didn’t know if other people would like it.  Fortunately, they did.  Audiences laughed, applauded and cheered.  And we, the actors, enjoyed performing it every night.  More than that, we enjoyed watching it. Every night, the actors were watching the scenes they were not in, taking in the scenes as they played out onstage, seeing what was working and what new things were happening.  And we were enjoying David’s music that played as a part of the scenes.

And now, the play is over.  We ran our two weeks, and consider the play a success.  But I think we all agree that the play needs more.  It would be so simple to tour the show.  It could go anywhere and play to any audience, with a simple adjustment of the title cards, it could play in any language. I hope that this is not the end of the Belle of Winnipeg, and that in time, we find a way to keep the show alive and to keep performing it for audiences who will continue to enjoy it.

Its been a great trip, and one that I hope is not over yet.

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