Taking stock: Christian Barry has an eye on theatre’s mission

Christian Barry is in the running for this year's Siminovitch Prize.

The last thing he’d ever want to do, says Christian Barry, is tell a story with a clear and simple point of view. That makes sense, considering there’s very little about life that’s either clear or simple.

Barry is a Halifax theatre-maker and the artistic co-director of that city’s 2b theatre company. 2b’s show Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, a boisterous, klezmer music-theatre hybrid based on the lives of two Jewish Romanian refugees who fled to Canada in 1908, is at the NAC starting Oct. 16. Old Stock was written by his partner, Ottawa’s Hannah Moscovitch. Barry and musician Ben Caplan pitched in and it has been touring the world for almost two years now. 

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to try and expose what’s complex and nuanced about issues,” says Barry of his theatre making. In the case of Old Stock, that includes the timely issues of mass migration and re-starting a life against tremendous odds.

Ben Caplan stars in Old Stock. Photo: Stoo Metz photography

While no one would accuse Barry of being overly earnest — his sense of humour shields him from stridency — he does see theatre, including Old Stock, as having a mission.

“Anybody who works and stays in the arts fundamentally on some level believes they can help make the world a better place,” he said in an extended phone interview. “It sounds awfully grand when you put it that way … but you become aware you can actually help people make sense of the world around them and tell a story that reminds them of their place in the world and how their actions may or may not have an effect on the people around them.”

It’s not just the stories of the characters on stage that awaken us to other perspectives, he continues.

Sitting in a darkened theatre, audience members can’t help but also reflect on how those around them are interacting with the story they’re experiencing. That consciousness of multiple perspectives helps inure us to the increasingly binary way we interact with ideas (making the connection between Barry’s words and the world scene, including the election campaign in our own backyard, happens easily and frequently).

Barry, 40, has been thinking about theatre and its role for a long time.

His parents took him to shows as a youngster, including one about accused axe murderer Lizzie Borden that, he notes, was likely inappropriate for his tender years.

But it was a performance of Les Miserables he saw in Grade 8 that really sold him. “I went home from school and said to my mom, ‘I saw this play today, and can you believe they get actually get paid to do that? It looks like they are playing and having fun!’ I think that’s when the bug bit.”

By the time he landed at Dalhousie University, he had a full-blown artistic infection. He studied acting as well as music (he once thought he’d become an opera singer) but he soon became fascinated with directing. He now figures he frustrated his acting coaches by playing director and analyzing the performances of others instead of focusing on his own work.

Hannah Moscovitch.

Directing — which he later studied at Montreal’s National Theatre School —  remains a passion. He explains that the work involves collaboration with everyone from the playwright if it’s a new work to designers, performers and beyond.

“It’s that exchange, discussion, debate, excavation of scenes, ideas, concepts, images that I find most exciting,” he says. “It’s a bit of a drug … then the show ends, you have your comedown and you look for your next fix.”

His love of collaboration impelled Barry to join forces with Anthony Black, a fellow Nova Scotian and graduate of York University’s theatre program, to create 2b in 1999. While Barry’s studies at Dalhousie had a classical bent, with teachers who’d worked at the Shaw and Stratford festivals, Black’s academic background took more of an avant-garde perspective on capturing truth and authenticity.

Barry says the two joke that their first conversation was a debate about those different approaches to theatre, a debate that’s continued to this day, providing a kind of tension that’s made for a rich, collaborative relationship.

2b has mounted dozens of productions, with Barry co-creating and directing shows like musician Hawksley Workman’s rock ‘n’ roll cabaret The God that Comes and directing What a Young Wife Ought to Know, also written by Moscovitch. That script is nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama this year. The Great Canadian Theatre Company presented What a Young Wife Ought to Know in 2018.

Over the two decades, Barry has won a Dora and other awards. He has also been shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Siminovitch Prize in the directing category, with the winner being announced Nov. 21. “I’m working on that assumption that I’m not going to win,” he says with a laugh. “There’s a terrific field of finalists.”

Along with enjoying award nominations and wins, Barry has pondered during the past couple of decades about how to reach more than just the usual theatre-going audience.

Old Stock has presented a unique opportunity to do just that, he believes.

The show’s roots lie in the response he and big-voiced musician Ben Caplan, a fellow-Haligonian and the lead performer in Old Stock, had when they saw the heartrending photo of young Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015 after his family fled Syria. Shortly thereafter, then-prime minister Stephen Harper used the dog-whistle term “old stock Canadians” during an election debate on immigration.

Thinking they’d create a musical, Barry and Caplan started writing songs around those issues and the experience of Caplan’s Jewish great-grandparents, who had immigrated to a not-especially-welcoming Canada a century earlier.

But the duo stalled on a narrative. Then Moscovitch, visiting Pier 21, a former immigration shed in Halifax, realized she was standing in the same spot her great-grandparents stood after fleeing the early 20th-century pogroms in Eastern Europe.

Bingo! They had their narrative along with the songs written by Barry and Caplan.

The show premiered in 2017, played here during Canada Scene the same year and has toured internationally.

Far from being an esoteric exploration of weighty issues of interest only to die-hard theatre fans, Old Stock “straddles a line of being appealing to artistically seasoned audiences because it deals honestly and directly with dark and complex themes but (also has) a very accessible form,” says Barry. “It has music, Ben Caplan is a direct-address storyteller (and is) engaging, so it’s been met with popular success as well… (it) makes its way into the hearts and minds we don’t always have access to in the independent theatre community.”

Every once in a while you create a show that is both timeless and timely, he continues. In this case, it’s a story from 100 years ago that still resonates deeply in Canada and elsewhere.

Along with touring Old Stock, Barry is working on multiple new projects. They include a follow-up to Old Stock he’s creating with Moscovitch and Caplan that will explore the fascist movement of the 1930s in New York City intertwined with the story of the rabbinate and the Jewish Mafia at the time.

He and Black are also appearing in a show next spring featuring Maritime songs and reflections on how their east coast identity has influenced them as people and artists.

And he will continue bashing out ideas with Moscovitch — an inevitable consequence of living with a fellow artist.

Theatre talk “does sneak into every crack and cranny, every little spare moment,” he says. “Often we’ll be talking about a design question over dinner, and our son Elijah will interrupt and say, ‘What are you guys talking about?’

“We talk about what that must be like, to leave your work at work, but I think by and large we come out winners in that equation.”

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is in the Babs Asper Theatre Oct. 16-27 (previews Oct. 16 & 17; opening night, Oct. 18). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.