Cello and Voice Bring an Emotional Tale to Life
Telling someone’s life story in an hour is a daunting task, but through a combination of narration and a cellist/singer who wrings an emotional performance from her instrument, a very unexpected and pleasing performance results.
As part of United’s commitment to the arts, the Garrison Green community invited cellist Morag Northey and Calgary playwright Eugene Stickland to perform. Morag is a talented performer and has countless credits to her name. She has played with the Calgary Philharmonic and taught others through her classes at Mount Royal University. This month she debuted with the Rocky Mountain Symphony Orchestra, and will perform with the Hershey Symphony this fall. In 2015 she won the Betty Mitchell Award for Outstanding Theatrical Composition.
Her lifelong love for the cello is evident in her playing. She raises a variety of sounds that complement the highs and lows of Eugene’s storytelling.
“I met Eugene during the production of Queen Lear, a play he had written for Joyce Doolittle for her 80th birthday in 2009. Joyce starred in the play and I played cello to punctuate her emotions,” said Morag.
She originally wrote her emotional life story as a series of concerts, but in 2016 worked with Eugene to retell her story in a much shorter, hour-long performance called 17 – When Emptiness Turns Inside Out.
The two of them created a polished production that combines poetry, prose, cello, song, storytelling and improvisation to relate the range of harrowing experiences Morag lived through in her early life and her various attempts to find light in the darkness. In 17, the cello, the voice and the story are equal partners in the play.
“It took us about two weeks to create the performance out of Morag’s original concert production,” said Eugene. Morag said she survived some potentially devastating atrocities and recognizes that having a balance of male and female voices is an important part of her story. “I think it was important to have a male storyteller, to create a male-female balance,” said Eugene. Balance plays an important part in the performance. The difficult emotional episodes are countered with humour, and Morag uses song and her cello to perfection to insert sound effects – whale songs, the voice of a golden eagle and a babbling brook – as exclamation points in the narrative.
“17 is a musical memoir. I wrote and composed it as a suite of nine poetic pieces, each offering a glimpse into significant moments, markers or turning points that shaped my view of life and my place in it,” said Morag. “17 marks a unique genre. You could also call it a theatrical concert.”
“Life is a journey, and when you think of it in those terms, it all becomes manageable,” said Morag. “The cello pulled me through this life. It’s been with me in the worst moments alone in the dark. What I realized is that I could view this nothingness as a gift and the gift was that I had the power to choose what I would allow back in. I could choose a new life, a new way.” Her new way took her to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago with her cello on her back. She stopped along the way to play when requested by others. Later, Morag struck out on a four-day vision quest with the help of Blackfoot elders. She came away from the experience with a renewed hope. “After everything, I am alive!”
“It’s a very courageous piece,” said Eugene, who has recently been nominated for the Order of Canada. “There are parts of her journey that we need to hear. Many women have come up to her after the performance to say that they too identify with her experiences.”
“Despite its darkness, the story reminds us that we can move on, embrace our stories, share our stories and move on together,” said Morag.
The performance at Garrison Green left the audience wanting more. Most were struck by how versatile the cello can be. Many stayed to ask questions. “I thought it was fantastic!” said resident Wendy Martin. “The balance between Eugene and Morag was exceptional. They played off of each other very well. And she really brought the cello to life!”
Joyce Doolittle, who won the Order of Canada for her work in theatre, has known both Eugene and Morag for many years. She was instrumental in inviting them perform at Garrison Green. “The most important thing in the work is to share your talents, ” said Joyce. “Eugene and Morag are incredible talents. You could hear the sadness and the joy throughout. It wasn’t a concert or recital, and it wasn’t a play. It was a combination of several types of performances.”
Photos and video by Sherana Productions
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