Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell, Firehall Arts Centre, April 29 to May 20 (previews to May 3). Ensemble cast features Kimmy Choi, David Z. Cohen, Rowen Kahn, Scott Perrie, Adriana Ravalli, and Sara Vickruck. Tickets available from firehallartscentre.ca.
Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s words bleed through generations in the musical performance Circle Game.
The messages present in her lyrics helped define an era in the late ’60s and ’70s and are now being placed in a modern context through a reimagining of her music.
Until recently, Mitchell’s songs only existed for her as part of her parent’s playlist, says Anna Kuman, co-conspirator and director of the production.
In 2013, the year of Mitchell’s 70th birthday, Kuman and Andrew Cohen, collaborator and spouse, were intrigued by the renewed press around the legendary female musician.
“That was when we first started delving into her lyrics and her music. At that time we were really overwhelmed by how poignant her lyrics were and how even though they were written 40 years ago they were really speaking to us today,” she says.
Mitchell’s earliest successes placed her in a time of change and turbulence for youth and young adults, with the emergence of modern feminism and the impact of the Vietnam War reflected in her music.
In 1970, Mitchell headlined a concert at the Pacific Coliseum that launched Greenpeace and funded their protests against nuclear weapons tests.
Her activism through art is what drew Kuman and Cohen to her message as they began to realize the intense parallels of the issues of her youth and those facing millennials today.
In Kuman’s production, she has focused on the political, environmental and economic commentary present in the lyrics of songs like “The Fiddle and the Drum,” “Big Yellow Taxi” and “All I Want.”
“Our experiment now is having these songs performed again in a modern way through the mouths of young people again.”
Kuman says that through the exploration of Mitchell’s music, they honed in on a message of feeling unmoored and a desire to find connection in community.
“We’ve come at it from a millennial perspective again and asked ourselves, with all of this technology, is it helping us to be more closely connected or is it making us feel more separated and more pulled apart from one another?” she says.
The idea of community has changed significantly since Mitchell’s days performing in Toronto bars and New York cafes, but the issue of human connection and peer support remain relevant as young people, and artists, create media to represent their generation.
With six interdisciplinary performers and 18 instruments, the group will create modern variations on Mitchell’s catalogue.
The physical performance from the artists on stage will portray the story that Mitchell’s lyrics portray, Kuman says.
“We haven’t added anything besides her own words. In a lot of Joni’s lyrics, she paints very vivid pictures of characters and circumstances so we’ve really tried to stay true to that.”
Kuman had three weeks to workshop the production in 2014 with the help of Gillian Barber at Capilano University as the inaugural performance of the theatre’s incubator project.
“At that time we only had about 20 songs and we did a workshop presentation just to put everything on its feet and see what we had.
They performed at the Arbutus Theatre with three students enrolled in the same theatre program Kuman graduated from in 2005.
“We were really able to explore and experiment with the arrangements,” she says.
Now with 28 songs on their setlist the audience can expect “moments of intimacy as well as moments of great, big, huge vocal and instrumental riffs” paired with the passionate and timeless message Mitchell’s lyrics provide.
The group of six artists carry on the Canadian artist’s legendary words and will attempt to bridge a generational gap by bringing new life to Mitchell’s music.