LARK & WHIMSY CO-FOUNDER, PRODUCER, AND ROBERT ACTOR, CHRIS BAKER, ON THE SUBJECT OF BAGPIPES
When Briana Brown first began writing her new comedy, Robert, as part of Driftwood Theatre’s Trafalgar 24 event, she wasn’t thinking, “bagpipes.”
When she won Driftwood’s Beyond the Castle award and received an Ontario Arts Council Playwriting Residency with Driftwood to finish Robert, she still wasn’t thinking “bagpipes.”
And when Robert was shortlisted for the Stage West Pechet Family Comedy Award, one of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada’s Tom Hendry Awards, Brown was definitely not thinking, “bagpipes.”
But when she took off her writing hat and put on her producing hat, the Best-of-Fringe, Jessie-nominated, and 2018 Cayle Chernin award-winning playwright suddenly realized she had written a play that would never make it to the stage. Because, well… bagpipes. Robert requires an actor (the female lead) in the show to play the pipes. And understanding this to be a enormous feat, she knew she’d written herself into a corner.
Where does one find bagpipes? How many actors, female-especially, are capable of playing bagpipes, or even learning them? Do women even play the bagpipes? Why don’t more women play the bagpipes? How do you put on a comic two-hander, as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival, where your third, and arguably your most important character, is a set of bagpipes?
These are the problems that we had to solve in order to produce Robert at the 2018 Toronto Fringe. Every Fringe-level show faces challenges, but this one was pretty unique.
And here is how we did it.
Real Scottish bagpipes run in the range $1200 - $1600. I say “real” because eBay is home to a number of knock-off, mostly decorative, bagpipes that could easily deceive a first time bagpipe-shopper. Any producing Fringe company knows that an expense this big would be a huge chunk of, if not their total production budget, so purchasing was not an option. Music shops don’t rent out bagpipes either. A quick phone-call to Ian Goodtimes (aka the Toronto Bagpiper, torontobagpiper.com), a lucky acquaintance of mine confirmed this, revealing that pipers don’t typically lend out their pipes. They are too personal an instrument. And for that reason, along with their “niche-ness” they are not rented. Goodtimes suggested our best bet was to try and find a used set of pipes, somewhere, and hopefully restore them back to working condition.
Enter Rob Kempson, or rather, Rob Kempson’s mother, Pat, who lives in Kingston. Rob is a long time friend of Lark & Whimsy. Briana and Rob last worked together on Kempson’s award-winning musical The Way Back to Thursday in 2013. She asked Kempson to come on board with Robert as a co-director, a trend she was inspired to try after adjudicating the (formerly Sears) NTS Ontario Drama Festival this past year, and observing many successful pairs of high school directors working together on their plays. Kempson’s mother, amazingly, had an old set of bagpipes somewhere in her basement but hadn’t thought about them in years. It seems a long time ago, when Pat was her son’s age, she used to play the pipes. A female piper. Seems fitting, for a play about a lady who pipes.
Rob’s mother drove from her house in Kingston to drop off the bagpipes to us here in Toronto. The pipes were old, but in good enough condition that only a few things needed replacing (specifically a valve, which Goodtimes explained, is nowadays is made out of plastic, but in older bagpipes like these, was made out of “hair and spit”). William Glen & Son, a Scottish kilt shop on Avenue Road, also happened to sell bagpipe pieces, so with a new valve, and some cleaning and seasoning, which Goodtimes offered to do, free-of-charge, the pipes just might work.
Our next challenge of course, was finding an actor who could play the pipes. We didn’t. But we did find an actor brave enough to be willing to learn them. Janelle Hanna (Bad Baby, Prairie Nurse), a member of Lark & Whimsy, has somewhat of a musical background, having played piano and clarinet in her youth. Clarinet fingering it turns out, is very close to what is required for piping. Goodtimes offered lessons in piping at an affordable rate, noting one caveat, “I was taught by a mean, old asshole, so that’s the only way I know how to teach. As long as your actor is fine with that.” It’s unclear how much of a joke that was.
To find out if Janelle was successful, you won’t want to miss Robert, a comedy by Briana Brown, directed by Briana Brown and Rob Kempson, and starring Janelle Hanna and myself, Chris Baker.
Robert is produced by Lark & Whimsy Theatre Collective, and will be playing at St. George the Martyr Church, as part of the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival, July 4-15, 2018. Tickets at Fringetoronto.com.