Ben Caplan is narrator and co-creator of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, which runs Jan. 24-30 at Frederic Wood Theatre, as part of the PuSh festival. (photo by Stoo Metz Photography)
The 2020 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival opens next week. Among the highlights is Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, which follows Chaim and Chaya from the pogroms in Romania they are fleeing, to Halifax’s Pier 21, where they meet in 1908, to Montreal, where they end up living. The show, which runs Jan. 24-30 at Frederic Wood Theatre, is narrated and co-created by Halifax-based musician and performer Ben Caplan, with whom the Jewish Independent recently spoke.
JI: How and when did you become involved in the production?
BC: It all started with a phone call from 2b Theatre Company’s artistic co-director Christian Barry in mid-2015. Christian was familiar with my work as a songwriter and performer in the music world and he wondered if I would be interested in collaborating on creating a theatrical production featuring new songs that we would write together.
To be honest, I was skeptical at first. I tend to be a very solitary writer and, though I had a lot of experience in theatre many years ago, it had been a decade since I had performed in theatre. The first few writing sessions were pleasant enough and Christian and I got along great, but we were struggling to find the story that we wanted to tell. As we were searching and exploring to find the substance of what the work would consist of, a confluence of events conspired to show us the story that would become Old Stock.
The first thing was our growing consciousness of the scale of the human tragedy emerging in Syria as a growing number of refugees started trying to find their way out of the violence. Next came Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments about “Old Stock Canadians” during the 2015 leadership debate. This othering of “non-Old Stock Canadians” seemed to be vile and absurd. At what point does one get to call themselves “Old Stock”? I am the great-grandson of Jewish immigrants who came to Canada fleeing violence in their own home countries. Was I supposed to think of myself as “Old Stock” or did I fit into some other category in our [then] prime minister’s logic.
Around this time, Christian’s wife, who happens to be the celebrated playwright Hannah Moscovitch, gave birth to their first child, Elijah, and came across the immigration records of her own great-grandparents who immigrated to Canada in 1908 through Pier 2 in Halifax. She realized that, if her great-grandparents hadn’t made the journey to Canada, she would not exist, let alone her infant child. It was then that Hannah asked if she could write the scenes for the show we were trying to create.
With Christian’s vision of the artistic whole, my work as composer and lyricist, and Hannah’s work as playwright, we were off to the races and we worked together to create the show. We thought that the Jewish story from 110 years ago had a striking and tragic resonance with the tragedy unfolding in our own time. I should mention that, of course, the originating cast, musical director Graham Scott, our production manager and designer Louisa Adamson, and many others played a huge role in realizing the vision and bringing the music and the play into the world.
JI: In broad strokes, could you describe how the co-writing process worked?
BC: Christian Barry created the structures and conditions that made it possible for any of these songs to be written. I was probably not always the easiest artist to work with – I tend to desire quiet and solitude when I am writing.
The way it usually worked is that Christian would book a time and a space in whatever city we were able to meet up in (we did writing in Halifax, Montreal, Stratford and Banff) and the day would start with conversations and questions. We would talk, share ideas, listen to music, read texts, Google things, etc.
Out of our conversations and questions, the idea for a song would emerge. The first one we wrote was something for their arrival at Pier 2. We didn’t have a scene or a broader context to work with but, after awhile, Christian would say something like, “We know they are going to come through Pier 2, let’s start there.” I sat at the piano and started mashing out some chords and throwing words into the air. Christian had a wonderfully delicate touch after I got rolling, and would provide helpful comments, critiques, and throw ideas into the room.
JI: What is it about the production that drew you back to performing?
BC: I had stopped performing in the theatre after I became somewhat disillusioned of the possibilities of making a career in theatre. In 2005, the year I did my last theatre performance, I was working on academic pursuits, theatre and my hobby as a singer-songwriter. My life was over-full and something had to give. My logic was something like, in theatre, you need to rely on finding a lot of talented people who are willing to work on a project that takes a lot of time and resources to complete. As a singer-songwriter, there is more room to work solo and bring other people into the project as interest and resources permit. So, that’s the path I chose to express my artistic impulses. I gave up the dream of becoming an actor to focus on the more reasonable and safe path of becoming a songwriter. Ha!
When Christian called me to ask me to make a piece of theatre with him, it was a no-brainer. Being a part of this show has been one of the great privileges of my life. Not only did I get to collaborate with a crazy good team on writing the thing, but I had the opportunity to perform on stages that I wouldn’t have dared to dream of stepping onto when I was making theatre 10 years ago. It’s been an amazing learning experience and one that is sure to influence my work as a performer for the rest of my career.
JI: In what ways does the story and/or themes of Old Stock speak to you as a Canadian in 2020?
BC: What is most meaningful for me about the story and themes of the show is the humanization of the character of the refugee. It has been disturbing to see the ways in which migrants have been portrayed by so many politicians and media outlets around the world. They are often spoken of as hordes, masses and statistics. What is lost are the individual human lives – people with hopes, dreams, fears and trauma searching for a safe harbour.
In Old Stock, we tell the story of Hannah Moscovitch’s great-grandparents coming to Canada. We see their struggles to overcome their past and to generate new and complicated identities. I think that we all, as human beings, have complicated and multi-layered identities. I think that, among other things, this show is about demonstrating layered and sometimes tragic identities with compassion and a healthy dose of humour. That’s basically the most Canadian thing I can think of.
For tickets to Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story and other PuSh shows, visit pushfestival.ca. The soundtrack to Old Stock is available on Spotify, YouTube and elsewhere.