Saturday, February 24, 2018

Spirit of folk music takes the stage in Pete Seeger play

January 7, 2015 by Jason Schreurs, assistant editor

It’s been hailed as “the people’s music,” and a new local production based on the writings of influential singer/songwriter Pete Seeger celebrates that communal spirit of American folk music.

“[Seeger] figured the answer to the world’s problems was communication, and the best way to communicate is to get them to sing together,” explains Ross Desprez, director of The Incompleat Folksinger, based on the Seeger book of the same name.

Desprez, a big fan of Seeger’s music, started researching the career of the mid-20th century American folk singer who passed away last January with the intention to mount a production based on his life. He knew a musician friend, Mark Hellman, who he thought would be perfect to play the part of Seeger.

Mark Hellman plays musician Pete Seeger in The Incompleat Folksinger (photo by Mike Kurgansky).

Mark Hellman plays musician Pete Seeger in The Incompleat Folksinger (photo by Mike Kurgansky).

“Mark has a similar enough look and sound, but more his personality, and when you’re dealing with a guy like Pete Seeger you’re dealing with a banjo and guitar player with certain skills, and Mark seemed to be a guy who had the closest skill set to play him,” says Desprez.

When Desprez came across Seeger’s nearly 600-page book The Incompleat Folksinger, featuring letters written by the singer, he decided to use select correspondences in the production.

“He was quite eloquent and well-spoken in these letters, and the more we read them we realized that everything we wanted to say was already there in his own words, and it told the bulk of the story we needed to tell,” says Desprez. “So the whole play is verbatim out of his book.”

Seeger made a name for himself as a protest singer in the ’60s, using his modest approach to win over audiences during appearances at concert halls and union meetings alike.

“That’s a big part of what he carried through his whole career; it wasn’t about going to listen to Pete Seeger sing, and he didn’t think it was about going to hear him,” explains Desprez. “It was about sharing the music and getting the audience to participate and open some lines of communication.”

Desprez, it turns out, is no stranger to writing plays about folk singers. The longtime folk music fan became interested in the genre as a child, and he fondly remembers singing around campfires and in choirs at school. He carried that love for folk music through to adulthood and has mounted a similar production in the past.

“When I was younger, I wrote a one-man musical about [American protest singer] Phil Ochs, so I’ve kind of been down this road before,” explains Desprez. “I felt pretty confident going into this new production that I knew the theatrical territory.”

Although Desprez’s version of The Incompleat Folksinger hasn’t been performed in front of an audience yet, he’s eagerly anticipating the communal spirit of Seeger’s music translating into a live setting, and he encourages audience members to sing along at the performance.

“My favourite parts are going to be when the audience feels compelled to join in,” he says. “That’s when we’ll really feel like this thing is working and doing what it’s supposed to do. That’s a big part of why I think this show is important; to keep that sense of communal singing alive and keep people communicating.”

The Incompleat Folksinger
January 9-18
$15-25, Metro Studio Theatre

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