A Canadian Tribute to an American Hero Comes to NYC, an Interview With Mark Hellman

Interviews, Lead Article

By Lauren Wiener, Public Relations Coordinator, All About Solo
 
When renowned American folksinger and social activist Pete Seeger died in 2014 (only a year after losing his wife, Toshi), Canadians from coast to coast‑and many people around the world‑marked his passing at age 94 with great sadness and a good deal of singing. Seeger inspired at least three generations of Canadian artists, singers, musicians and activists, playing in every corner of the country. He helped create a country‑wide network of major folk festivals and local folk music clubs in towns large and small. He demonstrated to Canadians young and old the joy and transformative power of singing along at his solo concerts. At a time when he was blacklisted by the mass media and accused of being un‑American by the US government (HUAC), in Canada he found both refuge and welcome.
 
It should therefore come as no surprise that many Canadian tributes to Seeger would emerge. Actor/musician/singer/choir director Mark Hellman is delighted to bring his solo “hootenanny of epic proportions” to the United States for the first time as part of United Solo. Mr. Hellman’s career in Canadian theatre/music spans 35 years: as an actor‑musician, he has worked with professional theatre companies across Canada and toured from coast to coast, while also specializing in arts education and community development. He has been touring this show, a work of love, to communities large and small in Canada since 2015.
 
Mr. Hellman is pleased to announce that this New York debut of “Pete Seeger’s The Incompleat Folksinger” (Sunday, Nov. 10, 4:30pm) is a sponsored event and all tickets are complimentary. This is made possible through the generosity of colleagues, friends and family, who all agreed that this first performance in Seeger’s hometown‑on the centenary of his birth‑should be given as a gesture of thanks for Seeger’s years promoting ‘harmonious’ Canada‑US relations. Seating is limited, so interested readers need to visit markhellman.ca to make a reservation.
 
Lauren Wiener: Is this your first time performing in New York City?
Mark Hellman:
Actually, my very first professional gig was with a Canadian children’s theatre company (a storytelling improv jug band, Kaleidoscope Story Theatre), which toured the US for 5 months in the spring of 1984, including a 2‑week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I also brought a group of high school students from Montreal to NYC in 1986 to present a play hosted by the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, as part of a festival called “Children as Peacemakers.” Since then, continuing my career while also raising a family generally prevented me from touring too far afield. It’s only taken some 30 years, but I am very excited to return to NYC and to be part of United Solo’s 10th anniversary.
 
What was your first experience with Pete Seeger’s music?
In the 50s and 60s, Pete Seeger spent a great deal of time in Canada, touring as a solo artist to cities and towns from coast to coast, playing in venues large and small. My mother was a huge Seeger fan (seeing him 3 times‑in 3 different cities‑in Canada during the 1960s) and she’d always have his albums playing at full volume while she worked around the house, and because she always sang along, so did I! I believe there’s still a recording of me in the family archives somewhere‑about age 5‑singing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” in full voice! Pete continued to be an inspiration as I started playing guitar at 16 (my first book was “Pete Seeger’s Folksinger’s Guitar Guide”), then as I began writing children’s songs for theatre, exploring social issues through education and community development. I eventually finally got to see him play (with Arlo Guthrie) in the late 1980s.
 
What inspired you to create this piece?
In retrospect, it’s really more as if this project found me. In the weeks following Pete’s passing in 2014, I was approached 3 times by friends saying it was time for me to “do a show about Pete.” The last of these happened to be two colleagues from a small production company (The Other Guys Theatre Co.), who offered to commission me to do so. I was more than a little daunted, to say the least, as we were looking at a career spanning over 70 years, and I didn’t even play banjo at the time! Shortly thereafter, I came across a rather large book (780 pages), “The Incompleat Folksinger” by Pete Seeger (published in 1972, edited by Jo Metcalf Schwartz), and as I flipped through it‑a collection of previous writings from various sources, tributes to his musical/cultural influences, tales of his trials and tribulations standing up to McCarthyism at home, and his extensive travels to conflict zones overseas‑what had seemed daunting now seemed not only possible, but a perfect fit. Here was Pete in his 50s (I was also in my 50s) in his own words, looking back at his first 35 years on the global stage, writing in a very personal rhetorical style, almost Shakespearean in tone. The next step: acquire a long‑neck banjo (invented by Pete) along with his book, “How to Play the 5‑String Banjo,” and a 12‑string guitar, and we were off. Seven months later, we had all or part of 29 songs and about 20 pages of text, taking it all on stage for the first time in January 2015.
 
The title of your play draws from the title of Pete Seeger’s memoir. Why do you think he called himself an “Incompleat Folksinger,” and why he spelled it “incompleat”?
This is both a bit of a pun, and a case of Pete revealing himself as a lover of language and somewhat of a “Shakespeare nerd.” The word “incompleat” was actually spelled this way 400 years ago. The title is what you might call a riff on a book from the 1600s called “The Compleat Angler” (by Izaak Walton), itself both a manual on fishing and a book about life. As Pete understood that his book would be as much a scrapbook as an autobiography‑and would inevitably leave things out, possibly contradict itself, possibly irk people who were looking for something more or different‑it could never be more than an incomplete self‑portrait, thus “The Incompleat Folksinger” seemed an appropriate title. In his own words: “…this book is neither a true record of all the mistakes I’ve committed to paper, nor is it a true record of all the mistakes I’m making right now. Just a bramble patch you must wade through in hopes of plucking some sweet berries. This book has no story line. It has no plot, not even a Communist Plot…”
 
Why is it important for the show to not be an “impersonation” of Seeger?
First, I don’t look much like Pete, nor do I sound much like him, and in the short time I had to make this show, I knew I could not begin to imitate his unique banjo style (developed over 35 years), but had to develop my own style of playing. With the addition of Pete’s written words between the songs, it’s more as if I’m inviting the audience to join me on a journey into this man’s early life and times and music, allowing them to form their own opinions and‑by leaving the rest of his story untold‑encouraging them to learn more about him. Second, this is a case of my “Canadian roots” showing: the ensemble tradition here in Canada strives to take the focus off the performer (star) in favor of shedding more light on the subject. The many jukebox musicals about famous artists (Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, etc.) currently trending across North America rely heavily on musical impersonation and, to a certain extent, glorification of their subject. I feel this “quintessentially Canadian” approach provides our audiences with a more personal and intimate encounter with the artist.
 
How did you choose which of Seeger’s songs to use? What kind of challenges are there when incorporating songs into a solo show?
The book includes a series of concert moments (1940‑70): from playing with Woody Guthrie at a union hall in Oklahoma City, to playing solo on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement; singing on both sides of the Israel/Lebanon border days before the start of the 1967 Six Day War, to singing for half a million people at the Vietnam War protest in Washington, DC in 1969. In some cases, Pete references songs that were actually played. In others, we had to imagine what the set list might have been, and chose songs that were written at the appropriate period. I might add that if you listen to his live recordings from that time, he rarely played many (if any) of his own songs, choosing to shine light on other songwriters (such as emerging artist Bob Dylan), or play songs he’d learned during his travels. We have taken the liberty of bringing more of Pete’s songs to this concert, many of which the audience may have heard before, but might not recognize as Pete Seeger songs, as during the blacklist his songs were made famous by other groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary, and The Byrds. The real challenge with the songs for me is encountering each new audience as a potential “pop‑up choir,” if you will. Getting the audience to sing at every show (never mind teaching harmonies along the way) is always stepping off into the unknown and demands that I’m at the top of my game for every single performance, whether there are 40 or 400 watching.
 
Seeger discussed how important music was to the Civil Rights movement. Why do you think song is so powerful? Do you think song and music still have the same power on today’s social and political movements as they did during Seeger’s time? Why or why not?
I think that Pete’s understanding of the power of song was born from his experiences with Woody Guthrie and the union movement, but truly came of age during the Civil Rights movement, when he was inspired to support the freedom marchers and organizers (including Martin Luther King, and members of the Student Non‑Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC) in the early 60s. Not only was song the way they sustained their tremendous energy while marching, but also where they collectively found healing and affirmation of their continuing struggle. As he began to share this music around the world (promoting universal human rights and global peace), Pete came to realize that whenever you bring people together to sing, you’re affecting the body politic, without having to tell people how to think or vote. I think this holds true in today’s social and political movements. There are some wonderful examples of activist art out there (including the work of another Canadian group, Choir! Choir! Choir!, organizing mass singing events at the border, with first responders at the 911 Museum, and with artists such as Patti Smith), which have the power not only to engage people on the ground, but to also connect all over the world through the Internet. Given the actions of young activists like Greta Thunberg, and the amazing public participation (especially by youth) in recent Climate Strike protests around the world, I choose to share Pete’s faith in the human race, even in the face of what appear to be insurmountable odds. His song (written 50 years ago) “Quite Early Morning” says it beautifully: “Some say that humankind won’t long endure/But what makes them so doggone sure?/I know that you who hear my singing/Can make those freedom bells go ringing…”.
 
You encourage the audience to sing along with you during your performance. Does this draw upon Seeger’s words: “Participation. That’s what’s gonna save the human race”? How does audience participation enhance the experience?
I love that quote, even as I must confess it’s not actually from the book. Audiences far and wide (well, across Canada, at least), both large and small, of all ages, have remarked that they didn’t necessarily intend to sing when they came to the show, but couldn’t help themselves once it gets going. As we shift time periods and locations, it’s as if the audience becomes the unseen character(s) in the story as it unfolds, responding to events in real time. One audience member in Montreal said it this way: “…last night those songs miraculously bridged that span of time to meet up with us today. Society’s present struggles, injustices and wrongs became very present in that intimate gathering, and so we sang not out of nostalgia, but in the moment, solemnly at times with a hope that these ills might be conquered, and joyfully with the conviction that they one day would be.” Even as we start the concert as strangers (assuming that some people have never heard or seen Seeger before), by the end we part as old friends, allies in a common cause.
 
Since Seeger was an activist, helping raise money for civil rights organizations, what can white people learn from Seeger about being an activist and an ally to people of color?
This is such an apt and important question. Not only did Pete support civil rights organizations (raising as much awareness as money), but he would lend his voice to any cause that he felt was just. More to the point, in the late 60s, he began reexamining history‑both his own and that of his country‑in a new light. While defending himself in court in 1960 (charged and eventually convicted of contempt of Congress), he took great pride in his ancestors as some of the first settlers (escaping religious persecution) and early abolitionists in the 1800s. But, by as early as 1967, he felt compelled to acknowledge that his ancestors were also responsible for the horrendous treatment of Native Americans, that his country was built “on the sweat of millions of black slaves,” and that as one born of privilege, his real responsibility was now to take every step necessary to see that such things would and could never be repeated. Given our current global situation, in which the forces of nationalism and intolerance are again scapegoating people of color (as well as religion), I believe this same responsibility lies with all of us who are born of privilege. We must lend our bodies and voices to the struggle against intolerance, and encourage others (including others born of the same privilege) to engage in this process that is now known in some circles as “Truth and Reconciliation.” We must strive‑as allies‑to not make ourselves the point of focus (the center of attention), but to act in such a way as to create the circumstances wherein those who are most marginalized are enabled to make their own art, tell their own stories, write their own songs, in full recognition of the principle of universal human rights.
 
Lastly, what do you want the audience to take away from your show?
I would love the audience to take away a few things, any one of which would be enough, but all of which are possible: 1) a sense that, together, this “incompleat folksinger” and his audience have come to know Pete Seeger on a more personal level, whether or not they’ve ever heard of him before; 2) an experience of the true joy that comes with singing together for a good cause, and a desire to seek out more opportunities to sing; and 3) the realization that the process of truth and reconciliation demands that we acknowledge‑fully and completely‑the truth of our collective story, and then ask ourselves what our responsibility is in light of this truth, and what actions we might take in the movement toward peace, universal human rights and a healthy planet. The struggle is ongoing and far from over. I’ll let Pete (in his later years) have the last word: “I’m convinced that if the world survives these dangerous times it will be tens of millions of small things that do it. Keep on!”

 
Pete Seeger’s The Incompleat Folksinger
Performed by Mark Hellman
Written and Directed by Ross Desprez
Music directed by Tobin Stokes
November 10th at 4:30PM and November 15th at 7:30PM
Photo credit: P. Pokorny
The 2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
 
LAUREN WIENER is a NYC-based marketer, writer, director, and dramaturg. She is a 2018 graduate of Trinity College, where she received a dual Bachelor of Arts in Theater (concentration in writing and directing) and Film Studies. She received Trinity’s George E. Nichols III Prize in Theater Arts and the Frank W. Whitlock Prize in Drama. During her time at Trinity, Lauren wrote and directed an original play called, “Count To Ten and Repeat.” This memory play begs the question, “No matter how much we want it to, do things ever really change or will the cycle always repeat?”. Her senior thesis included an intensive research paper on Arthur Miller’s play, “After the Fall,” in which she analyzed the play through a Freudian and historical lens. She is a Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program alum, having written and performed an original piece at the acclaimed La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York City. More at https://15minuteintermission.wixsite.com/plays
 

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