Joan MacLeod explores faith and family in “Gracie”

A young girl is born into a world full of faith and family, and as she grows from a child to a teenager, she faces increasing pressure to conform. But what if that 15-year-old is born into a tightly controlled fundamentalist polygamous community — will she dare to take a leap and step into an outside world she’s never known?

Joan MacLeod backstage at the Belfry in 2016 (UVic Photo Services)

This is the world Department of Writing professor and alumnus Joan MacLeod is exploring in Gracie. Her latest solo show, Gracie was commissioned by the Belfry Theatre as a co-production with Alberta Theatre Projects. A gripping and tender story about growing up unusual, Gracie is set in the radical polygamous sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Bountiful, BC — the largest polygamous community in Canada.

“Perhaps mystery is at the heart of all religions and writing about a place that is full of secrets is impossible,” says MacLeod in her program notes. “But this play began the way all my plays do: by creating one voice and trying to figure out why that voice wanted to be heard.”

As with all of MacLeod’s plays, there is an undeniable timeliness to Gracie: currently three people from Bountiful are on trial for allegedly removing girls from the community in 2004 and taking them across the US border to be wed to much older men in the polygamous community in Colorado City. The verdict in that case is due to be handed down by Canada’s Supreme Court in February.

“Joan MacLeod is one of Canada’s foremost playwrights,” says Gracie director and Alberta Theatre Project artistic director Vanessa Porteous. “Her writing feels like the tide coming in: gentle at first, it gradually sweeps you up, leaving you moved and changed. ATP is proud to have launched three of her plays: The Shape of A Girl, Another Home Invasion, and The Valley, all of which went on to national acclaim. I’m thrilled to direct Gracie, and honoured to work with the Belfry Theatre. [This is] an exciting collaboration, a play of national significance, and a deeply human story.”

Described as “one of the most important playwrights working in Canada today” by the Toronto Star, MacLeod is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Award for Drama and the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize. Her plays—including Jewel, Toronto, Mississippi, Amigo’s Blue Guitar, The Hope Slide, Little Sister, The Shape of a Girl, Homechild and Another Home Invasion—have been translated into eight languages.

The Belfry’s production of “Gracie”

Gracie, her 11th play, had its world premiere on January 26 at the Belfry, and it received a good deal of coverage, including this Times Colonist preview and another preview in the Victoria News. “I just try to get grabbed by [a subject] and look at it really deeply,” MacLeod told the TC. “My own political agenda, it doesn’t usually remain intact. I don’t want to get too messagey.”

You can hear more about the creation and development of Gracie in this series of B4Play live interviews, featuring CBC On The Island host Gregor Craigie in conversation with MacLeod, Porteous, star Gillian Calder and Department of Writing instructor Marita Dachsel, who has explored the polygamous Mormon community in her book, Glossolalia.

Gracie was also reviewed by the TC, where theatre critic Adrian Chamberlain noted “devotees of this award-winning playwright likely won’t be disappointed . . . . MacLeod approaches her subject with the same gentleness, thoughtfulness and humanity apparent in previous plays such as Amigo’s Blue Guitar and The Shape of a Girl.” The production also earned positive kudos on CBC Radio’s On The Island (no link yet), where CBC Reviewer and Theatre alumna Monica Prendergast was taken by “MacLeod’s huge capacity for empathy . . . in this day and age where everyone is judging everybody, [MacLeod] doesn’t judge; [Gracie] tells her own story without judgement.”

Joan MacLeod working on “Gracie” with star Lili Beaudoin (photo courtesy the Belfry)

Busy arts blogger Janis LaCouvee also praised this new production in this review. “By turns humourous and transcendent, the script pulls the audience into the world of a child — and anchors firmly there — laughing along with observations about the kilometre signs on the road, rejoicing at the gift of a first doll — before taking them on a quiet journey filled with observation and growth.” LaCouvee also praised the score by School of Music alumnus Tobin Stokes, which “conveys lightness and innocence while simultaneously carrying deep notes of unease and foreboding.”

And Monday Magazine reviewer Sheila Martindale says,” if you feel up to the challenge of confronting life from a different point of view, grab yourself a ticket for this world première.”

Her previous play, The Valley, also appeared at the Belfry in 2016. “How blessed we are to have playwright Joan MacLeod living in our midst,” says Belfry artistic director Michael Shamata. “We commissioned Joan to write a play specifically for this theatre and this audience. Gracie is that play – and it is a beautiful study of a young girl as she gradually develops a sense of self and self-direction. Approaching Gracie’s situation with the same unique absence of judgement that made The Valley so compelling, Joan has given us a moving portrait of a moral quandary.”

Gracie continues until Feb 19 at the Belfry Theatre (1291 Gladstone), and will also run in Calgary from Feb 28 to March 18.

Lafayette String Quartet celebrates Shostakovich

Learning an instrument is largely guided by both oral and aural tradition. From one generation to the next, teachers pass along the skills and techniques instilled in them by their mentors. Now, the School of Music’s internationally acclaimed Lafayette String Quartet — violinists Ann Elliott-Goldschmid and Sharon Stanis, violist Joanna Hood and cellist Pamela Highbaugh Aloni — will honour their own mentor, Russian violinist Rostislav Dubinsky, with a rare performance cycle of all 15 string quartets by 20th century Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich.

The Lafayette String Quartet in rehearsal, 2017 (photo: Kristy Farkas)

As graduate students at Indiana University, members of the LSQ were coached by Dubinsky, founder of the famed Borodin Quartet. The Borodin Quartet had the unique opportunity of working directly with Shostakovich and, as a member of the Borodin for over 30 years, Dubinsky performed 13 of the 15 Shostakovich quartets before emigrating to the west in 1976.

“Studying with Dubinsky transformed the way we play Shostakovich,” says Hood. “His style of teaching — his use of the bow, concept of sound, the way the quartet works together — came from a tradition passed on from his previous generation.”

Dubinsky’s techniques are so ingrained that they have become automatic for the LSQ, and these skills — only one step removed from Shostakovich himself — have become an essential part of their teaching and performance repertoire. “Our origins are deeply connected with Dubinsky . . . his connection with Shostakovich, and his patient teaching of this music in our formative years, proved to be the foundation upon which we have built this cycle,” explains Elliott-Goldschmid. “His adamant words to us — ‘Keep the Quartet’ — have been our burden and joy.”

Indeed, the LSQ see it as their responsibility to share the intense and rigorous coaching of their “musical father,” who continued to support and encourage the quartet until his death in 1997. “We have a unique contribution to these quartets,” says Hood. “It’s important that we pass this down to our students and to share it with our audiences.”

Over the five concerts, running February 3–9 in the School of Music’s Phillip T. Young Recital Hall, the LSQ will perform the complete cycle in chronological order, alongside a series of pre-concert talks presented by some of the world’s most distinguished musicologists. “Hearing all of the quartets in the order they were composed is a great way to experience Shostakovich’s own journey,” says Hood.

The Times Colonist ran this preview of the concert, describing it as “what will surely be the classical music event of the season.” And, in a separate piece, the LSQ were interviewed for this Times Colonist article, where Stanis compared playing the Shostakovich cylce to ” running a marathon.” Focus Magazine also ran this extensive piece on the event in their January/February 2017 issue, quoting Stanis as saying, “UVic has allowed us to take on these kinds of research-based projects—delving into 15 quartets of one composer is a great opportunity.”

The cycle of 15 quartets documents Shostakovich’s life during an important period of history, spanning his compositional career from the late 1930s until his death in 1975. His creative life was profoundly influenced by Soviet communism and the Cold War — two factors that dictated and regulated intellectual freedom in Russia. Shostakovich was twice denounced before joining the Communist Party in 1960.

The Borodin Quartet

“He withheld some of his compositions from publication and public performance — often at the advice of his friends — until the regime changed, for the very reason that he feared for his life and for the safety of his family,” says Elliott-Goldschmid. “So terrible were the times that even music had the power to threaten the governing regime.”

Unfortunately, the composer’s health began to deteriorate in the 1960s and his later work reflects an increasing preoccupation with his own mortality. “Every single one of Shostakovich’s quartets stands with the greatest string quartets ever written,” says Elliott-Goldschmid. “Each quartet tells its own story with its own personalities and expressive colours. This is why his music is so powerful and why we love working on it so much. Every day we discover something new and remarkable.”

The LSQ (photo: Kristy Farkas)

While a massive undertaking for the performers, as well as a significant commitment for any listener, the timing for the concert is ideal, given that the LSQ are currently celebrating both their 25th anniversary as UVic’s quartet-in-residence and their 30th anniversary as a quartet — still the only all-female string quartet in the world to feature all four original members.

Ironically, recent political events have also added a fresh dimension to these works. “When we were planning this cycle a couple of years ago we could never have known how fitting and relevant this music would be in these extraordinary times, rife with ‘alternative facts’,” says Elliott-Goldschmid. “Shostakovich warns us and challenges us to cherish and to protect our freedom.”

For a detailed schedule of concerts and pre-concert talks, visit the Lafayette String Quartet’s website.

—Kristy Farkas, with files from John Threlfall