NACO on Tour: For Donna Feore, it’s all about collaboration

A scene from the performance of Dear Life, one of four compositions in the Life Reflected series. Photo: Dwayne Brown

PARIS — Donna Feore has done a lot in her storied career as a producer, director and choreographer. But her work on Life Reflected stands out just a little bit for her.

“Someone asked me the other day, ‘What’s your favourite thing about Life Reflected?’

“Looking back,” she said, “it was putting together artists who should never have been together ever.

“Putting them into the room and, as challenging as that was and believe me it was challenging, watching them thrive and develop a kind of mutual respect. It was a fantastic thing.”

This is someone who regularly stages massive musicals at the Stratford Festival, including Billy Elliot, which is now running at the festival. She’s hard to faze.

Donna Feore. Photo: Ann Baggley

“Let’s face it. Composers don’t really collaborate. They don’t really answer to anybody other than deadlines and their muse. To suddenly say to them ‘You are going to need to work with these people’ it was like a nightmare for some of them.”

These days, in between working on Billy Elliot and developing Little Shop of Horrors, also on this summer, she’s prepared Life Reflected for Europe. The first performance was a big success in Paris’s home of new music La Seine Musicale on May 17. The next show will be in Gothenburg, Sweden on May 26.

“I am excited to take Life Reflected to Europe because I think … there really is nothing like it.”

Feore recalled, in an interview with ARTSFILE, what it was like to bring the project to fruition. Life Reflected tells — with music, video, dance, text, spoken words and photographs — the stories of four Canadian women: Nobel prize winning writer Alice Munro; the Mi’kmaw poet laureate, Rita Joe; astronaut, scientist and photographer Roberta Bondar and the teenager Amanda Todd, who was bullied online and tried to fight back.

All of this was difficult but, Feore said, what really shook the tree was the collaboration of diverse artists.

Theatre is the most collaborative art form. That’s because it involves the most people, she said. “For artistic collaboration in a room, there is nothing like theatre.”

In Life Reflected, all the various artistic segments were used to working on their own.

“I did read the riot act,” she said. “They all had to hear from me that we must respect each other’s art. You have to get outside of the me, me, me.”

Normal Studio didn’t want light on its videos. But, she told them, the orchestra needs to see the music. The orchestra, meanwhile, didn’t want to be lit from the front.

She overcame that by getting the principal players in NACO onside.

“They trusted me and Alexander and went with it. The only way this project could happen was because there was an exercise in trust.”

It helped that Alexander Shelley is one of a “new wave of theatrical maestros,” she said. “He understands that there is a film running.”

Feore says she wore two hats on this project. One hat was her producer chapeau. That job was to bring all the artists together and allow them to function.

Example: Convincing the photographer Larry Towell.

“I own several of his black and white photos and I reached out to him and said:  ‘Larry, here is the thing. I’m looking at your Mennonite series on my wall and I’m doing this piece on Alice Munro. I’m quite interested in your series on southwestern Ontario’.”

Then she said, “‘I’m thinking of a multi-dimensional piece with three dimensional layering in black and white photography’.

“He said, ‘Ok, that sounds interesting. How many photos do you need? 10?

“I said. ’75. He’s like OK?'”

So she sent him a version of the text she was using which was a distilled short story called Dear Life. The distillation was done by the Kingston writer Merilyn Simonds.

After that she asked Towell what photos the text suggested to him. He sent those to her. Then she consulted Normal and started to layer in the component pieces for Dear Life, one of the four pieces of music making up Life Reflected.

She followed the same kind of tack with the actor Martha Henry She told Henry, “‘You’re going to do this voice’. She said, ‘I’m not doing that.’

Feore replied, “‘Funny, Alice Munro said you should do it and Martha said, ‘you’re not going to let me say no are you?'”

Producing is fun ain’t it?

Then the story line had Feore drafting storyboards and encouraging the composers. That meant coming up with a narrative for each piece and somehow connect them all.

That’s where her director’s hat took over.

“I felt the piece would be the sum of their parts. They can be standalone pieces as well.

“From the 75-minute performance, what do we walk away with? I do believe these are four remarkable Canadian women but these are also international themes we are talking about.” These are stories of abuse, of women in the workplace, of respect and ultimately of courage.

“What I am really excited about is seeing the National Arts Centre Orchestra and Alexander with this piece sitting in the middle of their wheelhouse.

“They know it now. I wonder if it will deepen their understanding of what storytelling is.”

She knows too that if you are going to Europe “you had better show them something they haven’t seen before.”

“I am immensely proud to be in on a piece that actually has that kind of viewing in the symphonic world. Now what’s next. Let’s go Stateside.”

Feore is effusive about NACO.

“There are so few orchestras that can do this with. The symphonic world is such a world of tradition. So when you have a symphony that is as talented as NACO willing to do this to me as an artists the sky is the limit.”

The fact Life Reflected is on this tour is because of a request from Gothenburg, Sweden. The show will be performed in that city’s Point Music Festival of new music.

“Gothenburg was hugely important. They were real champions for the work.”

Feore said she believes the “Canadians are coming in guns a-blazing. It’s a really provocative, thought provoking and different way of telling a story and there is nothing sexier than that.”

Working on this project has changed the way Feore works, “100 per cent. I now use video a lot on my projects because I now know how well it can fit in and not intrude. I am now looking at how much video and projection can enhance theatrical pieces.”

In fact she even hired Normal to work on another of her projects The Hockey Sweater.

“We are always looking for more stuff to collaborate on. I think technology has opened up new avenues for creators.”

In the end Feore believes that Life Reflected is something “we can be proud of. It is innovative. It is new. It is unexpected and I think it is great story telling.

“It’s also Canadian. I’m excited to show Canada can do something cool. I think there is respect for Canadian art around the world, we just have to get there more.” 

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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.