Crow’s Theatre artistic director Chris Abraham has never been shy when it comes to expanding the reach and imagination of his company. And now, for the newly announced 2019-20 season, Abraham has literally reached for the Stars, an indie band with equally ambitious notions and a flair for drama.
“I think we’re doing something no one’s ever done in the history of the world before,” says Torquil Campbell, co-lead singer of the Montreal-based dream-pop romantics. “As far as I know, there’s never been a play about a band, starring that band, with music in it, ever."
Unprecedented or not, Stars: Together was created by the tireless Abraham, the band and playwright-filmmaker Zack Russell. It will be sold to audiences as a concert/theatre hybrid experience, with dialogue, old songs and new music from a Juno-nominated group that has been together for 10 albums, two decades and all the ups and downs that come with that kind of longevity.
“For 20 years, people have been derisively referring to us theatrical,” says Campbell, a trained actor as well as a singer. “I guess we’re taking them up on it. The things we do to survive. The little decisions we’ve made together. That’s our big drama. That’s the story of our lives.”
Rock stars fancy themselves as actors. Actors harbour desires to be rock stars. And, apparently, Siminovitch Prize-winning theatre directors wish to be in a band. “I wanted a chance to be in Stars for a while, to be honest,” Abraham says. “I’m a huge fan.”
Alas, Abraham won’t appear in Stars: Together. But he did sit down with the band members to create the structure and themes of a play about a band known for its poignancy, empathy and melodies that uplift and comfort at turns. Abraham has previous experience working with Campbell. The two collaborated on Campbell’s True Crime, a fascinating one-hander about an international fraudster that has toured the country since it premiered at the two-theatre Streetcar Crowsnest complex in Toronto’s east end in 2017.
The following Crow’s season saw the premiere of A&R Angels, a rock ‘n’ roll fable written by (and co-starring) Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, the Toronto indie-rock collective that shares members with Stars.
“It is about genre and it is about cultivating new audiences, but I’m more often led by the relationships and friendships I’ve made over the years,” Abraham says, about his collaborations in general and his interest in bringing indie-rock to the boards in particular. “Working with Torquil, for example, has been extremely gratifying.”
In 2001, Stars released its debut album Nightsongs, which included the track Write What You Know. “Keep the story funny,” they sang, “Have a happy ending.”
Speaking to The Globe and Mail with his bandmates and Abraham, the thespian-musician Campbell stressed the importance of humour in keeping the band together. “If we spent as much time working on music as we tried being funny, we would be a lot more successful band. We live to joke and with this play we’re exploring that laughter as a way to avoid being terrified and facing things that are overwhelming.”
What might feel overwhelming to the other band members is acting on stage for the first time and sharing secrets. “It’s a safe place, telling the band’s story of where we’ve been,” singer Amy Millan says. “I’m comfortable with that. At the same instant, the idea of doing something for the first time and revealing ourselves to the private place of where we are now, it’s terrifying.”
Stars: Together, which begins previews on Nov. 26 for a limited run, is not the only production within the coming season that taps into indie-music talent. The Dora-nominated Andrew Penner, a member of the alt-country trio Sunparlour Players and the root-music duo Harrow Fair, is to star in Ghost Quartet, a surreal song-cycle from the American composer Dave Malloy that opens Crow’s 37th season.
Other highlights include Julius Caesar, a co-production with Toronto’s Groundling Theatre that brings Shakespeare to Crowsnest for the first time.
Hannah Moscovitch’s Secret Life of a Mother, hailed by The Globe as one of 2018’s top 10 Toronto-area productions upon its premiere at the Theatre Centre, comes to Crowsnest on Feb. 5, 2020. As previously announced, Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick, set in an ailing movie theatre in Massachusetts, makes its Toronto premiere on Oct. 10. For the immersive, popcorn-friendly co-production with Outside the March, Crowsnest’s entire facility will be transformed into a vintage repertory cinema.
As well, Crow’s Theatre continues its long history as a touring company. The Boy in the Moon, directed by Abraham and based on journalist Ian Brown’s touching memoir about a son born with a rare genetic disorder, continues to make its way across the country, with a summer engagement at the Thousand Islands Playhouse and a run at the Globe Theatre in Regina in April, 2020.
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