Opening night for Two Planks and a Passion Theatre’s 2017 season was absolutely glorious! The weather was perfect for both shows — Nothing Less! set on a hill overlooking the beautiful Nova Scotia landscape; A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed around a roaring campfire, the Bard’s words rising up with a near-full moon.
I only wish my grandmother had been there to see it.
We all have those moments—at weddings or the birth of a child; or during a spectacular sunset; or even upon pulling a loaf of bread, perfectly browned from the oven — when we wish more than anything that a special someone who has passed on was standing next to us. My Grandma Bartz has been gone since I was sixteen, but I’ve felt the echoes of her influence in my life throughout the writing and rehearsal process for Nothing Less! I’m sure she would have loved it.
Nothing Less! was inspired, in part by my grandmother’s life on her family’s farm in the early 1900’s. She and her siblings helped run the Stewart farm in Michigan’s Shiawassee River Valley through good times and bad, growing everything from sugar beets to spearmint (the later for Mr. Wrigley’s chewing gum.)
Elsie Irene was born in 1894, and was in her early twenties during WWI. She and her sisters were a lively bunch, giving their brothers a run for their money when it came to both smarts and strength. She was a firm believer in women’s independence and in getting the vote. She was also an accomplished pianist, and even left the small town of Owosso, MI for a brief time to study at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Not long after she met my grandfather at a picnic auction, they married and she gave up her musical aspirations.
Throughout my childhood she encouraged me to stick with my music lessons. For much of my youth, she lived in an apartment in Lansing, MI, so I only saw her during summer vacation. The rest of the year she was my pen pal, writing to ask how I was fairing in school and “at the piano.” When I’d complain about the drudgery of practising scales, she’d reassure me that it would all be worth it.
When I was in my early teens and she was nearly ninety, she came to live with us for a short while. Dementia was slowly pulling at her mind, but she enjoyed sitting and listening to me practice. My piano teacher lent me some old hymnals and a few Reader’s Digest songbooks with popular songs from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s so I could play and sing the music of my grandmother’s youth. We’d hold little sing-a-longs, just the two of us in the living room, and when we were done she’d make me promise that I’d never give up music.
It was a powerful thing to have such an ally when it came to my artistic pursuits, especially from an early age. It made made me feel as if I had full licence to follow my dreams. So it was no surprise to anyone in my family when I went on to study music in university and later became a full-time musician, conductor and teacher.
When I moved to Nova Scotia, I broke my promise to my grandmother. After a brief stint of playing harp at a nursing home as a volunteer, and a few coffeeshop gigs here and there, I largely stopped making music. A number of tragedies had piled up in my life that were connected to my musicianship, and I just couldn’t go on with it. Writing became my path to healing, and then an occupation. I wasn’t sure I’d ever return to my musical roots again.
Fifteen years and three novels later, I’m finally back at it. I’ve spent the last several months writing, composing, arranging, singing and conducting my way through Nothing Less! and every minute has felt like a homecoming; the two halves of my artistic life—music and writing—now made into a whole.
Thanks dear Elsie Irene, (dancing out there between the moon and stars,) for everything.
A Perfect Day, by Carrie Jacobs Bond, 1909. (from my grandmother’s music collection)
When you come to the end of a perfect day, and you sit alone with your thought,
While the chimes ring out with a carol gay for the joy the day has brought.
Do you think what the end of a perfect day, can mean to a tired heart?
When the sun goes down with a flaming ray and the dear friends have to part?
Well this is the end of a perfect day, near the end of a journey too;
But it leaves a thought that is big and strong, with a wish that is kind and true.
For memory has painted this perfect day with colours that never fade,
And we find at the end of a perfect day, the soul of a friend we’ve made.
Nothing Less! runs until August 19th at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts. For tickets, visit:
Read a review of this year’s productions: