Lights, dance, action

Heavy Bell breathes new life into Elizabeth Smart’s novel

Plays like the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s As You Like It demonstrate the success of combining literature with music and choreography to create crowd-pleasing pieces, and they set the stage for others to follow suit.

One such production is By Grand Central Station, which runs at the Prairie Theatre Exchange from March 11 to 29. The play is an adaptation of Canadian poet Elizabeth Smart’s novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by duo Heavy Bell, a musical collaboration between actor and singer-songwriter Tom Keenan and Matt Peters of Royal Canoe.

The Heavy Bell twosome, which cre- ated an album with the same name as the play, say they wrote those songs using Smart’s words 10 years ago and since then have spent time rearranging the songs.

“We put out the album two years ago during a tour, and now we are adding a new dimension to it, adding two new dancers with us on stage,” Keenan says.

Elizabeth Smart’s novel is a prose poetry piece that is inspired by her relationship with English poet George Barker. Described as “a book of a lifetime” by British newspaper The Independent, the piece highlights the emotional rollercoaster Smart endures during this affair, and it is this emotion that Keenan and Peters want to emphasize.

The duo points out that although the show may not encompass the full Smart story, their focus is on more than just the narrative. Taking snapshots from the novel, they turn the piece into something special.

“The narrative story is almost second- ary to the emotional story,” Keenan says. “We intentionally chose parts that told more of the emotional story, and with something like this, I do not think people need to know the full story.

“You are always going to benefit by understanding the full story, but there is so much everyone can take from this, whether it is the dance or music. If all you want to do is come to the show and listen to the music, I think you would have an amazing experience. Moreover, if you wore earplugs and just watched the dance, it would be enjoyable, too.”

With an eight-person band, dancers, lighting producer Jaymez and Thomas Morgan Jones at the directorial helm of the show, the duo praises everyone’s individual efforts, saying that they have all been emotionally affected by the show as well.

“We are very lucky to have Thomas Morgan Jones, and throughout this entire process, he has been able to be the objective observer, and it is really his direction and vision that has brought all of these elements together,” Peters says.

“Everyone in the band is so emotionally affected by this piece. There were moments in rehearsal where I looked over, and our violinist was just in tears. We were all surprised by how moving this piece is, even in the rehearsal process and when we do not have microphones yet.”

By Grand Central Station runs until March 29. Tickets are available at pte.mb.ca.

Published in Volume 74, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 11, 2020)

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