news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Q & A with Ross Manson

Volcano Artistic Director Ross Manson joined the team of Century Song as director in 2011 and has been keenly devoted to its growth and development ever since. In this post, Ross reflects on some of his favourite aspects of the show.

Ross sits at the piano during an early workshop of Century Song
Q: What moment in the show always delights you/takes your breath away?

A: Whenever Neema sings. Which is often. But her ability to sing the incredibly complex Aperghis vocalise while dancing the incredibly complex Alton choreography, for example, is breathtaking. Every time.

Q: What artist from the past century do you wish more people knew about?

A: Olivier Messiaen’s life story is enormously interesting. He had a happy life into which horror intruded - this would be in France and Poland before and during the Second World War. We have 2 compositions of his in the show - one from his happy pre-war period  when he was in love and working a lot (1930s), and another - called Vocalise for the Angel who Announces the End of Time, which is part of his Quartet for the End of Time (1941) - which he wrote in a Nazi POW camp, after his wife had gone mad and he had lost pretty much everything he held dear. The premiere of this piece was in the camp, with an audience of guards and prisoners in the outdoors in cold weather. There were only three other musician prisoners, and so the piece was written as a quartet for the instruments they happened to play. It is a towering piece of music in the 20th century. In our show, our arrangement of this music accompanies a series of images by German Expressionist artist K├Ąthe Kollwitz. It is a section that exemplifies what artists can show about the experience of war.

In addition, a large part of the work we did on the show was to look into the history of black women in Canada from the early 1900s to the present day - this to inform the emotional choices Neema makes while singing. There are MANY things in this history that I would guess the majority of Canadians know nothing about. There's the bulldozing of an entire thriving neighbourhood in 1970 in Vancouver (called Hogan’s Alley) to make way for a viaduct that was never actually built. The neighbourhood was mixed race, but predominantly black. Among the residents displaced was Nora Hendrix, the grandmother of Jimmy (who used to visit his grandmother in Vancouver as a child). There’s also the community of black farmers who moved to Alberta from Oklahoma in the early 1900s. They were answering a Canadian government ad campaign inviting American farmers to Alberta. The new black arrivals were not what was expected and were so unwelcome that the government of Canada began another marketing campaign in the USA - this one to discourage black immigration. There’s also the fact that black women working in munitions factories during the 2nd World War were often given the most dangerous jobs, and paid the least. But there’s also the jazz scene in Montreal though the 30s and 40s - the only major North American city at the time where white and black musicians were allowed to share the stage. And then there’s the rise of black women’s feminism in the 1970s - a powerful and articulate movement calling not only for liberation, but for justice. Black history in Canada is rich, and, sadly, mostly unknown. 

Q: What moment from the past Century do you wish you’d been a witness to?

A: The first performance of Quartet for the End of Time in Stalag 8A in Poland. As Messiaen later wrote of the experience: "never have I had an audience who listened with such rapt attention and comprehension."

Q: Do you listen to music to get ready before the show? What music?

A: The music FROM the show is in my head whenever we do it. And that’s ok.

Q: This show’s been in development for 5 years. Have you ever done anything else that took five years?

Yup - most Volcano shows take this long to take shape, give or take a year or two.

Ross during the green-screen shoot in 2013
Q: Can you tell us about a surprising or memorable moment during the creation of Century Song?

A: When Greg and Deb are given too much time on their own while on tour, it’s like watching brothers at a family get-together - with Greg as the misbehaving little brother, and Deb as the long-suffering older brother telling the smaller one to knock it off. Lots of eye rolls. I love it. I love this team. It’s a deep joy working together.

Century Song begins January 19 (preview) at the Theatre Centre as a part of Progress. Tickets are available now. Learn more here. 

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