Paradise, Lost: Why 'Beyond Eden' May be the Best Musical You'll Never See
It’s June, 2007. Roy Surette is standing in front of a small group of people in the Belfry Arts Centre. Outside, Fernwood is hot and sunny; inside, the Belfry is hot and busy. Seats normally filled by an audience are instead stacked with the usual array of theatrical clutter essential to any rehearsal period: lights, ladders, laptops, cables, coffee, coats and papers, lots of papers . . . scripts and clipboards, technical notes and musical scores, set designs and lighting plots.
While the cast and crew mill about, Surette—still the Belfry’s artistic director at this time—explains to the rest of us that we’re about to see a workshop production of a new Canadian musical, Beyond Eden. Standing beside him is Glynis Leyshon, artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse and the project’s co-director. Amidst the usual pre-show small talk, Surette explains that, far from a formal run-through, we should all expect today’s performance to be “a bit ragged in the transitions.” Surette pauses and gives one of his characteristic shrug-and-chuckles. “Some it will just be stand-and-deliver.”
“This isn’t presentational,” adds Leyshon, Surette’s professional predecessor at the Belfry. “It’s just an attempt to see what the production actually feels like in here.”
Which is one of the key reasons for this, the fourth workshop of Beyond Eden—to find out if this undisputedly large show can actually, physically fit on the Belfry’s small stage. A co-production in development with the Playhouse, Beyond Eden is the work of Victoria-based composer and playwright Bruce Ruddell and has been in process with the two theatres for two years at this point—but from the start, there’s been concerns about fitting it inside the Belfry.
And there’s absolutely no argument that this is a big show, in both size and scope: the historical and mythological journey of an anthropologist traveling up B.C.’s west coast—by boat, during a storm—culminating in a 30-foot totem pole being chopped down on stage. At the 688-seat Vancouver Playhouse, no problem; in the 280-seat converted church that is the Belfry? Could be a challenge. That, along with issues about the script and music, are exactly the kind of things everyone has been tinkering with; the performance itself is merely the culmination of a week’s worth of inspiration and perspiration.
Soon, two icons of the west coast music scene take the stage—Chilliwack’s Bill Henderson and Spirit of the West’s John Mann—and it’s time to begin. Henderson is Ruddell’s musical collaborator, here today leading the band, and Mann is playing the lead character in Beyond Eden. No big stretch for either of them: Henderson has been honing his producing and songwriting skill for more than four decades and Mann has already starred in such musicals as Cabaret, Threepenny Opera and Miss Saigon, as well as TV series like Da Vinci’s Inquest, Intelligence and Battlestar Galactica.
Also among the workshop cast is rising aboriginal actor and playwright Kevin Loring and five first nations singers and drummers. And this is what sets Beyond Eden apart from other unproduced musicals: not only does the story revolve around northwest art and culture, but more than half the 22-person cast and many of Ruddell’s collaborators on this production are Haida, integral to show’s planned songs, dances, costumes and set design. He even has a letter of permission from the council of the Haida Nation—the elders and chiefs of Haida Gwaii—offering their full endorsement to this project. Given all that, it’s safe to say there’s a great deal of interest and excitement about the project. Not only is it an entirely new rock musical, but it’s a fresh, uniquely Canadian rock musical.
Let’s put on a show
Musicals are not exactly a revered part of the Canadian theatrical canon, with the exception of the minimalist masterpiece Billy Bishop Goes to War and the maple sugar staple that is Anne of Green Gables. There are others, of course: recent faves like The Drowsy Chaperone and Evil Dead: The Musical, and contemporary classics like Ann Mortifee’s Reflections on Crooked Walking and the Quebecois sensation Starmania. Then there are the noted flops, like the locally-penned Napoleon (which failed twice: first in 1994 and again in 2000) and the oh-so ho-hum The Return of Martin Guerre. Small-stage stories we do well; mythic rock musicals have never been a Canadian forté. Still, the musicals that do succeed tend to be those that capture a slice of our shared history—much like the international successes of West Side Story and Les Misérables—and, as such, there is a very good chance that Beyond Eden could be the show that breaks through.
Having a good chance of success is important when you’re talking about mounting what’s touted as a million-dollar musical. Fortunately for both the Belfry and the Playhouse, it’s also the kind of project that practically guarantees strong box office: a B.C. story created by a noted B.C. composer and featuring an established B.C. star. If all goes well, Beyond Eden will be the ideal show for both theatre companies to mount during B.C.’s 150th anniversary in the 2008-09 season. Better still, it’s a good show; my notes from that day’s performance—the second workshop I’ve attended—include the line “an important story, historically and culturally; well worth telling.” As well it should be, given that Ruddell has been working on Beyond Eden for the past 20 years and that nearly $500,000 has already been invested in its development by various provincial funding bodies; you can almost hear the opening night champagne popping.
Less than nine months later, however, Ruddell got the shock of his life: the Belfry was pulling out, effectively scuttling the entire project. Whatever the show’s future, Beyond Eden would not be appearing on the Belfry’s stage.
Bruce Ruddell is an affable fellow. With a somewhat unruly shock of greying hair and a creative twinkle in his eye, he looks very much the part of the composer he is. Three decades into a career as a Canadian artist—a composer and arranger, yes, but also a music director, songwriter, playwright, conductor and one of the co-founders of Vancouver’s noted Tamahnous Theatre—his commissioned works have premiered as far away as Beijing and his 30-minute oratorio, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, was recently chosen as the opening for the 2010 Cultural Olympiad; he was even the music director and arranger for the Belfry’s hit production of Urinetown, the Musical, back in 2006. His list of past collaborators is unquestionably impressive—Bill Reid, Tennesse Williams, Bruce Cockburn, Robert Davidson, Leon Bibb, Harold Prince, Karen Jameison, Stephen Point (before he was the Lieutenant-Governor)—and he was the artistic director of the Bill Reid Foundation back in 2001. Lately, he’s been producing the impressive-sounding Haida Songs Project, a 14-CD box set archiving the complete aural history of Haida songs. Raised on the northwest coast and having shifted between Vancouver, Salt Spring Island and now Victoria, it’s safe to say that Ruddell is passionate about this province and its stories—which is a big part of the reason he’s so disappointed by the turn of events earlier this year.
The more you know about Beyond Eden, the easier it is to believe that it should indeed premiere on a B.C. stage. In addition to the roster of provincial talent already mentioned, the show’s historical basis is without question: in 1957, an expedition of anthropologists from both the University of British Columbia and what was then called the Provincial Museum of B.C. departed from Victoria and traveled north to the Haida village of Ninstints on Anthony Island in the Queen Charlottes, where arrangements had been made with the Skidegate Band Council to purchase, cut down and remove 23 totem poles for preservation. A CBC film crew came along to document the experience, including Bill Reid who, at that time, was a CBC employee and had yet to embrace the northwest art which would soon become synonymous with his name. (You’ve probably got some of Bill Reid’s work in your pocket: just check the back of any $20 bill.) Some of those poles are at the Royal BC Museum (including the three on the cover of this very issue), some were destroyed in a fire and some are in UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, which was built to house the poles . . . and was also the site of Duff’s suicide in 1976. And while Duff’s death was not directly related to the poles themselves, he did have a long-standing obsession with the preservation of northwest coast culture, to the point where he had expressed hopes of being reincarnated as an aboriginal from either Haida Gwaii or the Tsimshian First Nation.
“It’s a B.C. story, and that’s what I’ve been doing my whole career, telling B.C. stories through my music,” Ruddell explains to me one afternoon over tea in his modest Fernwood townhouse. Upstairs in a spare bedroom is his home studio; nothing fancy, just keyboards and a computer. Show posters from previous successes adorn the walls, along with various pieces of first nations art. Everything is simple, nothing extravagant. “But this is a story that will be completely missed here now, where it all begins, which is deeply unfortunate for all people who love theatre.”
And while he has told other provincial stories in music—notably this year’s Vigil, which honours the murdered and missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—Beyond Eden itself goes back 20 years, to when he was collaborating with Karen Jamieson Dance on a piece called Rainforest. “I was really into West Coast stuff,” he recalls. “I grew up in Kitimat, right beside the Haisla village, and I wanted to do something about that.” Looking for text for the choral component of Rainforest, Ruddell kept coming across the name Wilson Duff and “became more and more fascinated by this guy.”
It was around this time that Ruddell became friends with Bill Reid, who gave him a first-hand account of the expedition and then happened to mention the 28-minute documentary that had been made about it. “Bill went to CBC archives, got the film and we watched it. And that’s the inspiration for Beyond Eden. I saw that film and thought, ‘Holy shit, I’ve got to tell this story.’ And because of the scope of this whole piece—a man who commits suicide, his best friend who had denied his Haida heritage but then goes on to single-handedly change the face of northwest coast art—this is a big story, so I thought, ‘It’s got to be an opera.’”
What began as a 15-minute suite for the Vancouver Chamber Choir then developed into a 90-minute oratorio called The World is as Sharp as a Knife, which was mounted at the Museum of Anthropology in 1984 and featured soloist Benjamin Butterfield, as well as Skowkale chief and elected Stó:L? Nation tribal chair and spirit dancer Stephen Point and the Spindlewhorl Dancers. While critically acclaimed, it didn’t end well: Ruddell ended up in a two-year legal battle with his producer to retain ownership of the material. Enter old friend and Tony Award-winning producer Edgar Dobie, who not only assisted with the legal wrangling but introduced Ruddell to Broadway legend Harold Prince (Sweeney Todd, Evita, Phantom of the Opera). “Hal read it and said, ‘You’ve got to do this as a musical.’ It just hadn’t occurred to me; I had moved away from theatre and was in the classical world at that time.” Ruddell shrugs, as if it was just too darn obvious. “He gave me the confidence to write the piece as it is now—and I grew up in the ’60s, so I love rock, I love folk.” After connecting with fellow Salt Springer Bill Henderson, Ruddell began honing his pop chops and writing the songs I would later hear at the workshop.
A near-miss with director Julie Taymor (“Unfortunately, she got hired for The Lion King”), put the project on the back-burner until Ruddell found himself living in Victoria, where he reconnected with the Belfry’s Roy Surette. Years earlier, Surette had directed Ruddell’s first musical, The Piper, and was happy to look at the script for what was then simply being called Ninstints. (At least it wasn’t called Ninstints! The Musical.) “I took it down to Roy at the Belfry and he said, ‘We’re doing this show. I’m going to get it over to Glynis at the Playhouse because we can’t do it alone; it’d have to be a co-production.’”
Which brings us back to the bad news: the collapse of the co-production earlier this year after three years of development, workshops, investment and ever-increasing excitement on the part of almost everyone who got wind of the project.
“I can’t tell you how shocking it was,” says Ruddell. “I’ve never been hit so hard.”
Before the curtain
No question, the world of theatre is a delicate balancing act, with a scary financial downside that makes it riskier than any circus acrobatics. The management of any theatre company always want to be enablers, but sometimes must become gatekeepers and, by necessity, bookkeepers. Just ask Mary Desprez, general manager of the Belfry Arts Centre.
“We’ve done a fair number of premieres over the years,” she explains, “but not as many as we’d like to.” (31, in case you’re keeping track, including the likes of Morris Panych’s Vigil, Janet Munsil’s Be Still, Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Coronation Voyage, Kevin Kerr’s Skydive and the collaborative effort Flying Blind.) “There’s also been a fair number of workshops that haven’t come to fruition—which is not unheard of in Canadian theatre either; it’s a shame, but it’s not unusual. Unfortunately, there are boxes and boxes of scripts in the basement that never see the stage. It’s incredibly difficult to find the money for it.”
And while money was a factor in the collapse of Beyond Eden—with an estimated million-dollar price tag, the Belfry’s share of the production costs were projected at $400,000, far beyond their average per-show budget of $125,000 (even eclipsing their most expensive show to date, Urinetown)—Desprez says cost certainly wasn’t the motivating factor. That she puts down to “unfortunate timing” as much as anything else: the twin resignations of both Roy Surette and Glynis Leyshon as the artistic directors of the Belfry and the Playhouse, respectively. Having accepted a position as artistic director at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, news broke in late 2007 that Surette would be leaving the Belfry without planning their 2008-09 season—a task that would be left up to their incoming artistic director. Faced with filling Surette’s position for the first time in a decade (which followed Leyshon’s own 11-year tenure), Desprez says it was “the integrity of the artistic choice” that forced the Belfry’s decision to pull out of Beyond Eden.
“How do you post an artistic director’s job that basically says, ‘Welcome to the Belfry. You have a show that’s already been chosen for your first season at an extremely large investment,’” says Desprez. “That new person would be restricted to doing a season of three one-handers [solo shows], if that, and we still probably would have had a $150,000 to $200,000 shortfall.” (By way of comparison, in order to afford Urinetown’s $250,000 cost, the rest of that Belfry season consisted of the solo show I Am My Own Wife, the two-hander Mesa and Honour’s cast of four.)
It’s also worth remembering it wasn’t very long ago that the Belfry managed to crawl out from under the kind of massive debt load that sinks so many arts companies. “Your artists need the freedom to create,” says Desprez. “It’s a huge asset, but in this case it was a catch-22.” In other words, do you support one show at the cost of a season, and favour the vision of the outgoing artistic director over that of whoever’s coming in?
“It was really hard to come to the right decision for the company at the time,” insists Desprez, “but that’s the thing: at the end of the day, we have to protect the mothership or there won’t be anymore plays for anybody.”
Surette, now well into his tenure at Centaur, agrees. “It was kind of a victim of timing as much as anything else,” he says. “I know Bruce was very upset, he felt it was a promise that had been reneged upon—there was a contract to commission, with an option to produce—and we had good intentions, at the time, to produce the piece. But this kind of thing happens more often than you’d like . . . when I got offered this other job, [Beyond Eden] was one of my big issues about leaving the Belfry.”
Surette describes Beyond Eden as “a project very much attached to the artistic director at the time” and one “the company didn’t feel as much of a reason to stay committed to” upon his departure. Cost alone might have dictated that, but issues of artistic freedom are equally compelling—and then came strike three: Leyshon’s own departure from the Playhouse, which, says Desprez, eliminated the possibility of simply delaying the project a year.
(For their part, the Playhouse was still pushing for go-mode. “Both the organization and the board made it quite clear that we were still in support of this project and moving forward with it,” says Playhouse board chair Darlene Howard. “But from a financial position, we couldn’t do it on our own; with the Belfry moving off of the project, it left us in a bit of a lurch.”)
Another issue is the amount of grant money invested to date. True, it was all money for development (“The grants state very clearly that you are not allowed to use the money for production,” explains Desprez), but there remained an expectation to eventually produce Beyond Eden—and now that it won’t be happening, at least at the Belfry, does that put arts funding for future developments at risk?
“I hope not,” she says with a nervous smile. “I’ve been attaching addendums to recent funding applications, explaining the rationale behind the decision. I’d say perhaps they are disappointed it didn’t get to the stage—but I’m disappointed it didn’t get to the stage, so we can all be collectively disappointed together.” She pauses and takes a breath. “If they’d like to step up and provide the $400,000, we could all be collectively thrilled.”
Regardless of rationale, Ruddell remains unimpressed with the Belfry’s handling of the situation. “Whatever the reason, it was a phenomenal disappointment—not just for me, but for everyone involved.”
Surette is philosophical. “I was initially pretty upset when they pulled the plug on it, but as I said to Bruce, if I had this on my plate as well as what I’ve been dealing with out here these past six months—the schedule, the committments, the grants—I’d be dead. I’m a big fan of the project, but knowing how much Beyond Eden demanded of everybody, I just don’t think I could have pulled it all together from Montreal. I think it’s more important that it get done and get done well—which is why I brought it to Dennis Garnham.”
Hang on, folks. As with any big show, there’s a third act.
Lighting the Fuse
Ah, the difference six months can make. Since I first spoke with Ruddell just after the storm broke over Eden, both Surette and Leyshon began advocating on his behalf—independently, it turns out—with Dennis Garnham, artistic director of Theatre Calgary. Currently riding a wave of financial and cultural success, Garnham may just be the man who can make this show happen. Not only is he one of Canadian theatre’s frequent names-in-the-news—a veteran of Stratford, Shaw and New York City, Garnham was just at the helm of the acclaimed production of Timothy Findley’s The Wars, a co-production with the Vancouver Playhouse—but he also likes musicals: he’s directing the recent Broadway hit Dirty Rotten Scoundrels for Theatre Calgary’s current season. And he has a clear West Coast connection: while an Ontario native, Garnham did both his degrees here in B.C.—undergrad at UVic and masters at UBC (with Roy Surette as his thesis advisor, no less).
But the real ace in the hole? Garnham likes the show, frequently describing it as “spectacular.”
After reading the script and hearing a CD of John Mann singing six tracks from the show, Garnham met with Ruddell and Leyshon and decided to pick it up for Theatre Calgary’s Fuse festival of new plays this past May. “It was such a big show, I needed the time to get a sense of it,” he says. And the reaction? “It was great, fantastic. People were very excited about it. Bruce is a fantastic human being . . . and there’s a great synchronicity between him and John and this piece.”
John Mann agrees. “I’m totally committed to this project,” he insists. “I’ve done four workshops now and I just love the piece. The whole thing with the Belfry was very strange . . . very sad. But I’ll give Bruce full credit, he just wants to make it happen and wants it to be as good as it could be. This show has had an amazing journey and we would all love to see it done here at home, but we also have no problem at this point seeing it done at Theatre Calgary. It’s really important just to see it happen.”
Knowing the show’s track record, however, Mann isn’t booking any flights over the Rockies just yet. “Dennis is really keen on it, but he’s aware it’s an epic piece; everyone wants to do it right and everyone wants it to have the production values we feel it should have—and that costs money. But it’s looking positive—we’re looking at a longer, two-week workshop at next year’s Fuse festival . . . with production values, costumes, more people, more musicians. Hopefully that will happen.”
Garnham, as you’d expect from any successful artistic director, is a bit more cautious about Theatre Calgary’s intentions. “We’re very hopeful,” he says. “There’s nothing to report yet, but we’re definitely looking into the possibility of it having a future here. Our next season is announced, but not the season after that.” He pauses and chuckles. “How’s this: we’re curiously interested and actively pursuing this possibility.”
But isn’t it odd for an Alberta theatre company—even one was well-off as Theatre Calgary—to consider mounting such a B.C. story? “That’s a good question, and it’s one I’m wondering about,” admits Garnham. “In terms of our mandate, we prefer to do Calgary stories first, Alberta stories second, B.C. third and then the rest of the country—but I’m not going to shy away from a fantastic story because it’s not a Calgary story. There are no borders to art; the story is universal. People in Nova Scotia will understand the totem’s story because it’s a Canadian story. And I consider Alberta to be in the west; we’re closer to Vancouver than Winnipeg, after all—we just have this gigantic mountain range between us.”
Mann also feels Beyond Eden’s central story of Haida art and culture is universal enough to survive a provincial shift. “It’s like watching the movie Whale Rider—everyone grasps the importance of the culture. I don’t think this is any different.”
Waiting in the wings
As for Ruddell, well, let’s call him cautiously optimistic. “Theatre Calgary needs another draft,” he says, “and they’ll make a decision after that. Dennis wants this show to be able to translate to any city, immediately, period.” Not that he’s worried about doing more work on it. “Every time I’ve tried to turn away from this project—and I have, I haven’t worked on it solidly for 20 years—it’s never long before it grabs me by the neck and drags me back. And then something really positive happens: a chunk of money comes in to do a workshop, to write the next part . . . it’s never stopped, that way.”
In addition to being simply effusive about the work Surette and Leyshon have done on getting Beyond Eden to where it is now—both during the workshops and in helping to find it a new home outside of Victoria—Ruddell seems keen on the possibility of collaborating with Garnham as well. “He’s good, and he’s good at the big stuff,” he says with a laugh. “Very few directors get to work with big stuff in Canadian theatre; it’s a different process.” Even Surette agrees Calgary may be the best place for Beyond Eden now that he’s off the project. “What’s really important is that the piece be given a fair opportunity to live up to its potential. The Belfry is a great, magical space that you can totally buy into on an intimate level, but ultimately Theatre Calgary and the Playhouse would be a great combo for it—it would make more sense in terms of scale and achieving the large-scale pictures that are part of the fabric of the play.”
(And the rumours continue of a possible run at the Vancouver Playhouse, perhaps by way of some of that Olympics money. “It’s high on our priority list for the 2009/10 season,” says Darlene Howard, “but there are no guarantees, of course.”)
Meanwhile, back at the Belfry, Mary Desprez sincerely hopes Beyond Eden does indeed break a leg at Theatre Calgary. “We’re really proud of the investment we put into it,” she says. “There was all kinds of time that the Belfry staff put in on this project, thousands of hours towards its development . . . John Mann, a huge talent, giving all of his time to development workshops, committing to future productions—that’s a huge offer on his part—and all these other people who brought their expertise to the workshops to make that piece better for Bruce; no one takes that kind of commitment lightly. But the compromises and strategies required to get that one piece on the stage . . . that was not in the best interest of the company as a whole at that time. It was sad, but I still believe it was the best decision.”
For now, Bruce Ruddell continues to work on Beyond Eden and wait for the day when the curtain eventually rises. No surprise given the sacred objects at the centre of the whole story, Ruddell compares the entire process to “making a totem pole—you just chip away at it.” He’s still not pleased with how it all went down with the Belfry, but he’s not holding any grudges either. “I’m way over that,” he says philosophically. “The thing about this piece is that it has always made its own choices. People have come in and out of this project—some worthy and some not—and the piece itself figured out very quickly how to get rid of them. I know that sounds airy-fairy, but it’s absolutely the truth.”
As for me, still humming the songs in my head two years after first hearing them, I agree with Roy Surette’s final sentiment. “I’d really love to be there on opening night to see Beyond Eden on a major stage, beautifully realized,” he concludes. “Let’s hope we get the opportunity.”
While there are no certainties in this world of shows and business, Beyond Eden already has the kind of history and artistic collaboration that seems to guarantee success. And given the show’s description of northwest coast civilization having lived through “10,000 years of balance and 200 years of confusion,” 20 years doesn’t really seem too long to wait for this story to be told . . . as long as it eventually does. M
Wilson Duff’s own journey to Eden
In 1957, a small expedition including Provincial Museum curator Wilson Duff and CBC narrator Bill Reid left Victoria to salvage 23 totem poles from the deserted Haida village of Ninstints in the Queen Charlotte Islands, before the poles were forever lost to weather and decay. While Duff had negotiated the sale of the poles from the Haida, whether the preservation of indigenous relics by the descendants of European settlers was the “right” thing to do or not is a thorny issue not only in Beyond Eden but also for museums today.
Composer Bruce Ruddell knew he was entering murky territory when he first started working on the script for what would eventually become Beyond Eden. “Years ago, I gave the first draft to Bill Reid to read,” he explains, “and he said, ‘Bruce, you cannot use the real names. You won’t get anywhere close to the truth . . . fictionalize it and the truth will come out.’ And he was right—the draft that exists now is much closer to my visceral understanding of what happened to him and Wilson Duff.”
Truth is a temporally tricky thing—back in 1957, Duff clearly believed that these totems were better taken and preserved than left to rot, as they traditionally are. “The Totem Pole Preservation Committee was under the impression at the time—and it was a long time ago, in the ’50s—that it was working with the knowledge and support of the Skidegate Band . . . with Bill Reid as a Haida representative, perhaps,” says Dr. Martha Black, curator of ethnology for the Royal BC Museum. “It wouldn’t be the same today, but at that time some people thought it was the right thing to do.”
Right or wrong, Theatre Calgary’s Dennis Garnham feels this is what makes Beyond Eden such an important show. “I think we’re more able to hear these stories now,” he says. “We’re much more ready to discuss it, rather than just take sides—how we’ve treated the first nations people, their culture, are we at all responsible for where they’ve come and gone . . . that’s why it’s a great story: you can take it as deep as you want, but you can also just take it as a great expedition story.”
The Vancouver Playhouse’s Darlene Howard agrees. “It’s a worthwhile project with a very important message,” she says. “Knowledge is the passage to understanding and moving forward in terms of what the ‘white people,’ if you like, did with the totem poles, taking them away when we had no understanding of their culture and belief systems in regards to the totems. Beyond Eden can help us gain that understanding.”
Ruddell describes his efforts in writing the show as “a phenomenal parallel journey” with both the expedition itself and the paths of Duff (“which ended in tragedy”) and Reid (“which ended in the rekindling of northwest coast art and culture”). Right now, he says he’s just “looking forward to it ending, in the sense that the show is mounted and it’s beginning to speak to many people.” He pauses and smiles. “But I know that isn’t the end . . . I think it’s a lifelong journey with this piece, getting it on the stage and beyond.”