How do people meet, and what’s involved in making connections? I keep asking this question about the arts because in case you haven’t noticed, you can’t do it alone. Yes there are people like Beethoven who work in solitude, people like Richard Wagner who write the music and the words. But Beethoven was deaf, Wagner was a political exile, so there were reasons why they didn’t work with others. And even then yes they did work with others. Theatre is collaborative.
So the undercurrent to my questions to Julie Tepperman & Chris Thornborrow –creators of Hook Up, a new musical theatre piece about relationships in the modern era that’s opening January 30th (previewing Jan 29th)– is to ask about connections and collaborative relationships.
I probably should know both of these people better by now.
I missed Julie Tepperman’s Bandits in the Valley in the summer of 2017, done with Tapestry Opera (an important connection too). She’s playwright in residence with Theatre Passe Muraille, who are teaming up with Tapestry on Hook Up.
And she came up in my interview with Sara Schabas roughly a year ago, when Sara said this:
Aaron Willis, our director, was introduced to me through his wife, Julie Tepperman – librettist for Bandits in the Valley. Aaron and Julie are the co-artistic directors of Convergence Theatre, and Aaron has directed for numerous esteemed companies around Toronto including Soulpepper and Theatre Passe Muraille. He’s also involved in the Toronto Jewish community, and he and Julie wrote and starred in a comedy called Yichudabout an Orthodox Jewish couple a few years ago, which received wide-ranging praise.
Hm… more connections…people working together on projects they care about deeply.
I don’t feel that I know Chris Thornborrow well either. I recall getting very excited at a Toy Piano Composers concert, the record launch that included a piece by Chris back in the summer of 2017. I’d previously encountered his work through the Bicycle Opera Project’s 2014 tour, a short work about relationships called A Little Rain Must Fall, and one that I’d seen previously at (you guessed it) another Tapestry LibLab.
And so now in anticipation of the encounter between Julie & Chris in Hook Up that opens January 30th at Theatre Passe Muraille, I had to ask them to talk about their work & coming together on the project.
BB: What is the best or worst thing about what you do?
CHRIS: My favourite thing about my work is collaborating. It is so fulfilling to collaborate with other artists to bring a work to life — particularly in film, opera, and theatre. I love working on projects artists of different disciplines whose work comes together to be greater than the sum of its parts.
JULIE: I agree! So much of my work as a playwright happens in isolation until the draft is in a place to start inviting a director, actors, and designers into the process. But in order to create an opera, the composer and librettist are in it together from day one…which is thrilling.
BB:Who do you like to listen to or watch?
CHRIS: I have pretty eclectic tastes in music. I listen to quite a bit of contemporary classical music, generally leaning towards minimalist and post-minimalist aesthetics (John Adams, John Luther Adams, Nico Muhly, Caroline Shaw). I also listen to a broad range of folk music, indie pop, some electronic stuff. I have a soft spot for Sibelius, which coincidentally is also my notation software of choice.
JULIE: I rely on people way cooler than me (Chris!) to introduce me to new music. In terms of theatre, I love shows that immerse me in a world. In the case of Hook Up, our director and design team is making really cool use of screens, projections, social media, and the entire mainspace of Theatre Passe Muraille, so that scenes pop up in unexpected places.
BB: What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
CHRIS: Time travel.
JULIE: I can kinduv sing, but I wish I could really sing…like the cast of Hook Up! And tap dance.
BB: When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?
CHRIS: I love exploring the city (via bicycle), and when possible, traveling. I am also a pretty avid reader, movie watcher, and video game player. Although I love it, my enthusiasm for basketball far outweighs my skill in actually playing the sport.
JULIE: A year ago I would’ve said, “I’m never NOT working on something!”…but now I have a 15-month-old daughter who is pretty fun to hang out with…she’s the perfect antidote for a workaholic like me.
BB: How did you meet & come to collaborate on Hook Up?
CHRIS & JULIE: We met in August 2013 where we were one of four playwrights and four composers across Canada selected to participate in Tapestry Opera’s 10-day “LibLab” program. LibLab is designed like “speed-dating” — pairs of librettists and composers are matched for two-and-a-half-days of creation, with the task of creating 5-minute operas. When it was our turn, we instantly hit it off.
Chris had recently composed a children’s opera about two girls facing off against zombie pirates, was interested in continuing to explore women’s stories and also issues important to youth – a demographic Julie felt is often ignored in the operatic and classical music world. Meanwhile, Julie had spent the last three years building a theatrical piece that explores rape culture, and working with middle and high school students on various acting and playwriting projects as a guest artist in their classrooms, where this topic always seemed to come up. We were both intrigued by the others’ passion for working with youth
And so, a 7-minute piece they called “Cindy + Mindy = BFs 4EVR” was created and selected to be performed as part of Tapestry’s “Opera Briefs” in September 2013. It focused on a live Facebook chat that 17-year-old best friends Cindy and Mindy were having in their separate bedrooms, “slut-shaming” a girl at school they’d named “Ho-bag Heather”. At the time, we were motivated by the then-recent suicides of Canadian teenagers Rehtaeh Parsons (April 2013) and Amanda Todd (October 2012) after both of them endured endless in-person and online sexual harassment and bullying. This was the springboard for what would become Selfie, a roughly 75-minute piece that was written and composed over two-and-a-half years which explored teen cyberbullying.
After a rigorous process of development and workshops, including some sharing with invited audiences (which included teachers and teenagers), we got very stuck, and ultimately decided not to continue developing Selfie. In the fall of 2016, director and dramaturge Richard Greenblatt was brought onboard to help us refocus and reinvigorate.
We eventually landed on a theme that we had kept passionately returning to in conversations and in the sharing of research, even while working on Selfie – rape culture and consent, at large, but more specifically on university campuses. And so, facilitated by Richard over a period of several months, we created a new outline for a new story that involved three 17-year-olds navigating their first semester at a (fictional) Canadian university.
BB: Tell us a bit more about Hook Up as a piece of music-theatre.
CHRIS: Hook Up straddles the world of opera and musical theatre. Structurally, it is through-composed. Thematic material is used to augment the emotional and psychological states of the characters and the plot. There are no traditional musical theatre numbers (e.g. verse chorus structure). Aesthetically, the piece leans towards musical theatre. The singers, for example, will be miked. The story moves forward faster than most traditional opera. There, orchestration includes sounds and musical aesthetics you might hear on a university campus or college party today.
JULIE: With regard to the story, it focuses on young people navigating their first semester at university and being thrust into adulthood.
Chris and I have a shared desire to tell a story that puts complicated and complex young women at its centre, and pushes the boundaries of traditional operatic forms in an effort to tell a story of our time. The setting of our opera may be a college campus, but we believe that rape culture and consent are incredibly pervasive issues throughout society, as evidenced by the groundswell of the #MeToo Movement, and the rigorous conversations taking place around the globe thanks to the strength of women like Christine Blasey Ford. Sexual assault remains a brutal reality of modern campus life; we hope that our opera is the beginning of yet another vital conversation that we need to be having in our homes, schools, communities, and in society at large.
BB: The genre question becomes more and more tricky with every passing decade, as the difference between “opera” and “the musical” narrows or overlaps. Please talk about how you understand Hook Up, in terms of its origins, its development (when it may have changed in your hands), your objectives and the possible expectations of audiences.
CHRIS: It’s interesting that this question about the difference between opera and the musical as genres keeps coming up, even as those aesthetics have become increasingly interwoven (not to mention the cross pollination that is ubiquitous in virtually all musical genres, which doesn’t seem to get the same kind of scrutiny. Jeremy Dutcher, whose Polaris Prize winning album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa combines opera, pop, and Wolastoq folk-song. Does it ever enter into the discussion that this kind of musical blending and exploration of “genres” as tricky?) It wasn’t helpful for me to think in terms of, “Is this a musical or is this an opera?” It was more useful for me to think of the work as a piece of theatre. In developing what Hook Up sounds like, I asked what would be the most authentic, compelling way to tell this particular story through music. Furthermore, this project is of special interest to me as an artist because I am eager to fill a void in opera: I want to create an opera that connects to a young adult audience by addressing contemporary issues that are important to them, while at the same time refuting traditional operatic narrative tropes. All too often, the harm done to women who are subjugated by men in the stories of historical operas is portrayed uncritically. This is problematic. Creating a story that places the experience of women at the centre of the narrative is my way of addressing this issue.
JULIE: This is a high-stakes issue and opera lends itself to high-stakes scenarios, and big emotions. It is certainly experimental, and lives in a unique place compositionally; hard core opera aficionados will likely accuse us of creating musical theatre, but because there are no traditional musical numbers, musical theatre fans will likely relate to it as contemporary opera! Chris’ music is certainly pushing the boundaries of traditional operatic forms, and in doing so he’s created a musical world that is accessible, authentic, surprising, and fully supports and reflects the emotional stakes and states of being of the characters and situations. Opera also requires the librettist to be economical with language; if this were a play, it would be written very differently. Rather, it’s been written with the intention of it being sung, and so intentionally leaves room for the music to enhance the emotional journeys. This kind of brevity is also very true of on-line communication – 140 characters! – and in that sense opera lends itself perfectly to the style and form of this piece. Ultimately, music has the power to deeply connect both artist and audience with their emotions in a visceral way, and in doing so music can elevate the piece, and enrich the audiences’ overall experience.
BB: The Canadian Opera Company Atom Egoyan production of Mozart’s cosi fan tutte explores the idea of a “school for lovers”; does Hook Up function as a modern version, even if it’s a cautionary tale?
CHRIS: I’m not sure how to answer this question, because we didn’t really set out to position ourselves in the context of traditional operas. We were definitely interested in telling a compelling story about what young people experience on college and university campuses today. We want to create an opera that connects to a young adult audience by addressing contemporary issues that are important to them, while at the same time veering away from some traditional operatic narrative tropes.
BB: In bringing Hook Up to life, especially as far as the relationship between the two of you, please talk for a moment about the role of your dramaturg (mediator or midwife?).
[please be as elaborate or as brief as you wish.]
CHRIS & JULIE: Our dramaturge, Richard facilitated what we as the writer/composer team wanted to say. This includes clarifying, asking questions, and helping us dig deeper into our material. We have a tremendous respect for each other, and so mediation was never really a part of it.
BB: Are there any influences you would care to mention, that might be relevant to someone coming to Hook Up that might be useful for them to recognize what they’ll be seeing & hearing?
CHRIS & JULIE: We’re going to be annoying and avoid this question in terms of musical influences, but we will say that a tremendous amount of research went into the writing of this piece. News articles, journals, books of non-fiction and fiction have been poured over, and of course talking with young people. The result: Hook Up is an unflinching examination of issues around consent, shame, and power, specifically on North American university and college campuses. We imagine it as a catalyst for discussion about difficult topics. We have included a content warning that the show contains explicit language, discussion of sexual violence, and sexual consent. In light of some of the difficult subject matter, we have planned several post-show talks facilitated by CANVAS Arts Action Programs, an organization that uses arts-inspired programs to educate on gender equity, consent, and LGBQT2S+ inclusion. Further written support material is available by request at the theatre’s box office.
Hook Up, a Tapestry Opera Production in partnership with Theatre Passe Muraille opens January 30th, previewing Jan 29th at 16 Ryerson, running until February 9th. For tickets & further information click here.