“So, how’s it been?”
As a journalist, that question, or a variation of it, has been one of my go-to conversation starters for the past 18 months.
It’s a simple question, but it gives the people I speak with freedom to open up about whatever is weighing heaviest on their minds. Often, I’d get a quick response, usually accompanied by the phrase, “but I can’t complain,” before changing the subject to whatever topic I was writing about.
For Liza Balkan’s show, So, how’s it been? – presented as part of the Here for Now Theatre company’s New Works Festival – the director, singer, writer, educator and Dora Award-winning actor explored that question in depth through dozens of recorded interviews with Stratford parents, kids, grandparents, husbands, wives, business owners, artists, newcomers and more in an effort to capture snippets of life during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
Those conversations, parts of which can be heard before, after and during the show, were then transformed into brilliantly written songs composed primarily by Paul Shilton, who also plays piano and stand-up bass and serves as the musical director for the show, with a few additional songs written by Katherine Wheatley and Bruce Horak.
Interspersed with pieces composed from their own conversations with Balkan, Stratford performers Marcus Nance, Barbara Fulton, Evangelia Kambites and Trevor Patt weave together the songs and stories of those interviewed into a musically poetic tapestry depicting the pandemic-upturned lives of Stratford residents over the course of a single year.
While the songs touch on issues I’ve heard, experienced first-hand and written about time and again over the past 18 months – whether it was financial hardships, relationships ending, isolation, fear of the unknown, balancing working from home and looking after the kids, or even a song about goose poop that struck a particularly funny chord with locals – Balkan and the performers on stage behind The Bruce Hotel manage to bring those recorded words to life in a way that underscores the shared experiences all Stratford residents, and even those beyond the city’s boundaries.
Though many of the interviews depict strife on an individual level, Nance and Kambites make sure to bring the collective efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement centerstage through a sombre, lyrical and poignantly funny exploration of their own experiences with fear and bigotry in the town they call home, connecting those experiences to the larger movement against racism and hatred toward Black and other racialized people that has garnered so much international attention during the pandemic.
It is particularly fitting that, in a town like Stratford, with such a reputation for the dramatic, this monumental and seemingly never-ending trial that is the COVID-19 pandemic is being remembered and retold through music and art.
So, how’s it been? will play on the New Works Festival stage until Sept. 5. For tickets, visit www.herefornowtheatre.com/so-hows-it-been .