Canada Scene: Ben Caplan puts down his singer’s hat and steps out onto the stage in Old Stock

Ben Caplan. Photo: Jamie Kronick

Ben Caplan is known as an energetic singer-songwriter with a dynamic stage presence. Now he can also put actor on the resume.

Caplan is a sort of mythic being in the play Old Stock written with Ottawa native Hannah Moscovitch and her life partner Christian Barry who also directs the show for 2b Theatre Company of Halifax, where they all live.

It is an ironic break from his musical career, acting in this story of Romanian Jewish refugees coming to Canada. That’s because Caplan had always wanted to be an actor, to be in theatre, but the siren call of being a singer-songwriter hit him halfway through theatre school.

The idea for Old Stock began with a series of talks between Barry and Caplan about collaborating on an interdisciplinary piece. Barry had previously worked with Hawksley Workman on such a show and wanted to try it again.

Caplan was game. He was, he admitted in an interview, ready for a break from his music business.

“So we started by looking at different short stories and talking about different ideas. I said early on that I wasn’t interested in making a one man show similar to what he had already done. I was interested in working with a playwright. My skills are writing songs and being on stage. My narrative structure is not my strongest suit.”

Conveniently, Barry happens to live with one of Canada’s best writers for the stage, Hannah Moscovitch.

“After that it just sort of came together. As we were thinking about what to make a show about, the now infamous image of Alan Kurdi hit the news. We started thinking we need to tell a story about refugees.

“We were talking about Jewish themes, ideas and culture in our early meetings and there are no shortage of stories about Jewish refugees.”

That became a way into the issues confronting refugees today. Moscovitch and Barry then set out on a fact-finding mission at Pier 21 in Halifax.

“Hannah wound up discovering all this information about her ancestors and where they came from and when they came here in 1908. That journey became the nucleus of Old Stock.”

Her great-grandparents were Romanian Jews. Caplan’s own family history is from Eastern Europe as well, he says.

While the story is very much about Moscovitch’s ancestors Caplan believes “I think we have tried to leave just enough space for the audience to arrive at the stories of today.”

Caplan played a direct role in the creation of this production, especially in the writing of songs with Christian Barry and in the music that is performed.

“I have a difficult time co-writing. It’s all the rage, but I have never been very successful at it. I’ve done a few. But working with Christian was wonderful. He helped me focus my energy on songwriting.”

Barry helped with research and talking through the words. He also challenged Caplan and was adept at giving Caplan the space he needed when he needed it.

“Christian has skills as a director and is used to working in collaboration so he was capable of directing the process without crowding me as the artist. I learned about the aspects of co-writing that work for me. Hopefully I will be able to tinker with it some more.”

Being an actor on stage is brought Caplan back to his artistic roots.

“Theatre is actually my background. I started and trained as an actor for quite a long time. During my second year at university I filled my boots with a new hobby as a singer-songwriter and … something had to give so I quit the theatre.

“I grew up wanting to be an actor, but at a certain point I said to myself, ‘Get real kid, this is never going to happen; there is too much luck involved so go be a musician instead, that sounds like a much more stable lifestyle.,” he said with an ironic laugh.

“There is some truth to that. To do theatre you have to rely on so many people. You have to gather such a team. As a singer-songwriter if you don’t have a budget you can still just go out on the street and play.”

“I’ve now done more than 1,000 shows as a singer-songwriter. I’ve been touring almost non-stop for six to seven months a year, for years. I am beyond comfortable on stage. In some ways I’m more comfortable on stage than I am on a street corner.

However the great thing about Old Stock, is that there “is no longer this weird little lie happening. I’m still selling myself as myself and trying to find moments of authenticity and at same time embedding authenticity within what is unavoidably artifice.

“But now there is no blurriness. I am a character and have the mask of this production around me. It has given me a new freedom that I don’t exactly have as a singer. It’s given me room to experiment and play.”

On stage there is a five piece band three of whom also act: Caplan, Lemon Bucket Orkestra’s Chris Featherstone, who also plays clarinet, flute and saxophone and actor-musician Mary Fay Coady who also plays violin. The other members of the band are Graham Scott on accordion and keyboards and drummer Jamie Kronick.

Caplan is very connected to his Jewish heritage.

“There is a great quote by the singer Theodore Bikel who said ‘I sing Jewish songs because if I don’t sing them that field of musical flowers will have the Jewish one missing.”

Jewish culture and ideas and identity contribute to the tapestry of Canada and world, Caplan said.

“I am in a position to be able to share some of those things and to keep them breathing and changing and growing into new things and bumping  up against other ideas. I’m not interested in looking at those ideas and that culture in a museum. To me it’s a living culture.

“I want to find out what it is, where it’s going and what it could become. To me, looking at the past is also an interesting way of looking at the present and into the future.

In response to a comment about the revival of Indigenous culture in Canada, he found a comparison.

“In the aftermath of the Holocaust a lot of Jewish culture, tradition and art was lost. There was a feeling that those things were too sad to deal with.”

The Jewish community turned towards Israeli culture, he said, which was young and new.

“That seemed to represent a place of strength and a new beginning. In my generation we are starting to reject that a little bit. We are saying there is something beautiful in the old European Jewish culture. Something was lost but it’s not dead and we can carry it forward and pass it on despite the tragedies that have been experienced.

“I am not particularly interested in Israeli culture as an artist. It’s not my background, it’s not where I look to find my identity as a Canadian Jew. I’m more interested in the music and language my grandparents would have spoken and sung.”

Old Stock will carry on after its short run at the National Arts Centre.

“The next official booking is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We are in the Canadian venue. That’s a big honour and really exciting.”

It is interrupting his musical career but that is actually a blessing, he says.

“It comes at a good time. I’m far off the cycle for the next album and it gives me a chance to step back from that eco-system for awhile and recharge my batteries and clear my head from” the business of the music business.

“I am administering my own business and it has been an enormous job. I tour in 27 different countries and the logistics of all of that” is gruelling.

“What’s great about this play, is I am not the producer, I just have to show up at call time and be on stage.”

Old Stock
Canada Scene
When: July 13-15 at 7:30 p.m. There is a 2 p.m. matinee June 15.
Where: Azrieli Studio

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.