Calgary homeless choir to drop-in Off-Broadway

Allie Jaynes, March 20, 2012

When Max Ciesielski found out he’ll be performing Off-Broadway this fall, his first thought was, “Yahoo!”

“I still don’t believe it,” says the musician, composer, and client at Canada’s largest homeless shelter, the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre. Its resident choir, the DI Singers, was recently accepted to perform at the New York Musical Theatre Festival as part of the show Two Bit Oper-eh?-shun.  “I might know half a dozen people who have ever done Off-Broadway in New York,” he says. His voice maintains its infallibly modest tone, but behind his big wire-rimmed glasses, Ciesielski’s eyes beam. “It’s a real honour, for sure.”

Originally commissioned by the Land’s End Chamber Ensemble, Two Bit Oper-eh?-shun is a modern-day “oratorio” (a musical composition including an orchestra, a choir, and soloists) about poverty, homelessness, mental health and addiction. “The piece focuses around a memorial for a young woman who has been lost to the street,” says creator Onalea Gilbertson. “It strives to erase the line between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and have people question their viewpoints about poverty and perhaps the stereotypes they have in their heart about people who are less fortunate than they are.”

Gilbertson created a choir at the Drop-In Centre in 2009. She then gathered stories from Calgary’s homeless community and teamed up with composer Marcel Bergmann to pen the oratorio. The DI Singers were then invited to perform in the show, as well as contribute to the script and the songs. In fact, the show includes a number composed by Ciesielski, with lyrics by Gilbertson. Although he has been playing and writing music for decades, Ciesielski says, “until I met Onalea I had never sung before. I just never appreciated, or even bothered with lyrics.”

The show premiered two years ago at the High Performance Rodeo theatre festival, and featured the Land’s End Chamber Ensemble, DI Singers, members of the community choir Revv 52, as well as soloists Gilbertson, Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan and Doug McKeag (who also directed the piece). The Off-Broadway production will combine performers from Calgary and New York City.  Gilbertson says that this is the first musical theatre-chamber piece she knows of in North America where people experiencing homelessness perform and contribute writing to the work. And it’s definitely the first time the New York Musical Theatre Festival has done anything like this show.

“The festival is really excited to bring [the piece],” says Gilbertson. “It’s on the edge of the form of musical theatre, but also there are things about it that are on the edge of peoples’ comfort levels, which is the whole point of the piece: to address stereotypes.” Gilbertson says taking the show to New York right now feels particularly timely, “in this current social climate, with the current social revolution that’s going on and that’s getting louder and louder, and with the ‘Occupy’ movement having been burst in New York.”

That doesn’t mean that everyone from the original Calgary cast will necessarily be along for the ride. For one, Ciesielski says getting U.S. visas could prove tricky for homeless performers, such as himself. “Being homeless and not having a permanent address, they may take a hard look at this,” he says. “So we have to establish community ties and family ties to prove that we’re actually going to come back.”

And of course, there’s always the cash issue.

“It’s important to me to offer everyone the opportunity to come to New York, if we can afford it,” says Gilbertson. “We’re still crunching numbers in our budget, and I’m doing the best I can to make sure I can bring as many people as possible from Canada, but we’ll also be creating a New York team that we’ll work with in partnership.”

Gilbertson is currently shuttling to and from New York, connecting with performers in the homeless community there to be part of the production. Ciesielski says he’s intrigued to see what the two casts will create together.

“We worked together for a year before the show went up, so of course we had some really tight bonds between us,” he says. “[When we go to New York], we’ll have about 10 days with these people, so it will be interesting to see whether we can establish that same sense of community. And because we’re coming from this essentially little cowtown in Alberta, to the big city, it will be really interesting to see the dynamics of the group.”

Whatever those new dynamics may be, Gilbertson hopes the production will get audiences talking about some tough questions. “Poverty makes people uncomfortable,” she says. “But as we all know, it’s something we need to start to really address.”

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