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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ford's Focus: Nick Carpenter

A Nomadic Journey
“What is underneath the sound. Was there metaphor in music, why does it affect emotionally?”

by Barbara Ford 
I love this work!  First, I flip through the QDF calendarscanning for an upcoming production sporting someone I have yet to meet or work with in the local theatre scene or am just curious about.  Then out of the blue, I call them or send them an e-mail asking for an interview and the next thing you know, we’re on the phone, in their home or a nearby café, and for an hour or so, they graciously share the ups and downs of their professional, and sometimes, personal lives.  

Playwright, musician, performer and composer Nick Carpenter was my choice this week and am I glad I picked him.  I first ran into him when I mistook him for someone else from the back playing the Theatre Ste-Catherine piano at the MECCAs one year.  Once I realized my faux-pas I sheepishly retreated to a convenient corner while he very professionally continued playing.  Until then, though I had seen his name attached to several projects, my only other encounter was through one of his short stories in an anthology published through CBC in the late 90s. Chatting with him by phone this week I discovered a warm, introspective and candid artist.

When he wasn’t listening to music growing up, Carpenter painted soldiers and created large countryside dioramas using hundreds of soldiers.

Born into a military family in Germany, Frederick Stanley Carpenter as he was named after his father and grandfather, (his mom agreed to the name but refused to use it calling him Nicholas instead) moved from city to city, sometimes once a year.  As a child, unaware of other more stable existences, he learned to cope with new schools and teachers and kids, but it wasn’t easy for him: he spent a lot of time by himself, though the nomadic lifestyle came in handy later on in life. (Read on and all shall be revealed.) Classical music filled the car as the family drove from town to town and Carpenter amused himself by making comparative studies (flexing those budding analytical muscles) between the beginnings and endings of all of Beethoven’s works, or trying to unearth what was, as he put it, “underneath the sound. Was there metaphor in music, why does it affect emotionally?” The constant change of venue meant he had a new piano teacher every year as well, but by 16, he’d had it with formal lessons and quit, finding that he began to enjoy music much more.  

When he was 18, driven by an inner sense of duty, Carpenter applied to College Militaire Royal (CMR), a gesture that he felt would earn him a pat on the back from his old man but instead baffled his father. Intrigued by military ceremony and stimulated by its history, (positing that Canada’s history post-European contact, IS a military history), when he wasn’t listening to music growing up, Carpenter painted soldiers and created large countryside dioramas using hundreds of soldiers, moving them around in studied formations.  While living in Europe, this family often visited battle fields and abandoned bunkers and with his mother’s side of the family living in England during both World Wars, Carpenter postulated that perhaps he saw military life as a way for him to live history rather than merely study it. 

Lucky for us, the military college turned him down, resulting in his completion of grade 13 at an Ottawa high school, where he auditioned for and got a part in the end-of-year school musical, the seeds of his love for theatre but a mere twinkle in his eye.  The teacher coordinating the show wrote the text and music and Carpenter, not having been around long enough to hear older, wiser and more jaded artists tell him he couldn’t, thought if his teacher could write a show, why not he?  Still in his teens, he started composing and his “fire for music” intensified from medium-high to shake ‘n bake!

In an ingenious departure from the norm of using park rangers, Kananaskis hired theatre artists to help educate visitors about the park’s flora and fauna.

Writing, on the other hand, held a distant second place in his life, never having been a voracious reader in school, just doing what he had to for assignments and tests.  At McGill, where he studied … no not music but (you guessed it) history, Nick continued to dabble with theatre, getting involved in extracurricular musicals, sometimes writing the text as well as composing.  Realizing that history was doing nothing to float his boat, he switched to the Film and Communications program, then under the umbrella of the English Department.  He, along with other like-minded performing artists, put up shows at the McGill Players’ Theatre, the Yellow Door and, through the still active production group Tuesday Night Café (TNC), Morrice Hall.  Incidentally, one of his collaborators at the time was Jason Beck (in McGill’s jazz music stream at the time), who has gone on to musical fame and fortune as Gonzales.

To support himself in university, during his summers off Carpenter worked with several other McGill colleagues as a park interpreter in the Alberta provincial park, Kananaskis Country, located about an hour west of Calgary. Interpreting what, you may ask: the chitter chatter of squirrels, the ear-splitting shriek of the owl? In an ingenious departure from the norm of using park rangers, Kananaskis hired theatre artists to help educate visitors about the park’s flora and fauna. Split into pairs, each duo was responsible for creating 2 shows of their own, one hike based on a specified park feature and everyone had to create their own solo show.  It was a creatively charged, not to mention, stressful environment which Carpenter says he was glad to have experienced because it taught him how to work through his fears and as Nike so fittingly puts it, just do it! He was a perfect candidate for the highly demanding work, having well-rounded skills in writing, performing, singing and composing.  Sadly, when Carpenter was recently at The Banff Centre, he visited the nearby former stomping grounds, only to discover that the interpretive team has dwindled from 16 participants during the program’s zenith down to only 4 people.

After graduating from McGill with his English degree (which he felt wasn’t very practical in terms of finding work), Carpenter’s well-fed theatre bug and strong desire to remain in Montreal (though he calls Ottawa his home and loves to visit as often as he can) prompted him to apply to the National Theatre School of Canadawhere he was accepted.  He also began to flirt with putting his own shows on the boards, starting with the Montreal Fringe Festival’s A History of Music in 12,838 Notes which did well but unluckily, was eclipsed by Rick Miller’s brainchild, the hugely popular MacHomer.

As soon as he graduated from NTS, John Abbott College hired Carpenter to replace the Theatre History professor on sabbatical, which he did for a year and a half, splitting his time between teaching the facts and convincing first year students of the relevance of the material.  Once that stint was finished, there was an option to continue in another capacity in the English Department but Carpenter recognized a fork in the road when he saw one: the secure pedagogical path stretching out for miles in one direction or the twisted and at times indiscernible road of an artist in the other.  Carpenter turned down the teaching job, finally and fully committing himself to an artist’s journey.

“I love what I do and there are many places I’ve enjoyed working, but I never have more fun than when I’m working at MainLine."

In the late 90’s and beginning of the second millennium, Carpenter also wrote short stories. The Pattern was a finalist for the Commonwealth Broadcasting Award and his essay, The Art of Giving and Dying was presented on CBC Radio. The genesis of that little ditty was an eye-opener for Carpenter.  He came home to the tiny one-bedroom apartment that he shared with his sister, only to find a homeless woman in the lobby, attempting to weasel herself into the building. It was cold so the compassionate Carpenter invited the woman into his apartment, where he, his sister and a friend were splurging on cheap wine and cheese to celebrate the end of term. To the chagrin of sis and sidekick, they had to share the rare treasures with this mystery guest, who (understandably) gorged herself, not knowing when her next meal would be. However once Apple Annie began checking out the palatial digs, looking more than a tad cozy, Carpenter knew he had to send her back out to face the elements, begging the question ‘what is generosity?’

Carpenter belongs to that generous group of alumni who, having passed through the NTS program, return as instructors. After graduating, he helped out with a few small school projects as well as a Cabaret show, all of which eventually led to a teaching position. For the last 7 years or so, depending on where the need is, he has taught students in the acting, writing and/or production streams.  He modestly admits that when he’s working with the playwrights, he doesn’t feel like a teacher so much as a sounding board providing feedback, as “they’re all so talented.”

Carpenter kept bumping into Jeremy Hechtman at different times in his life: from his McGill days when they hung out at Players’ Theatre and the Savoy Society, at the Fringe Fest for Carpenter’s 12,838 Notes and when Hechtman directed Carpenter’s (ironically appropriate) A Difficult Stage, a play that in Carpenter’s own words was “a fiasco”.  To this day they can’t agree and rib each other about whether Jeremy jumped ship or was fired by Nick.  Incidentally, Rick Miller eventually went MIA as well; it must have been a real stinker!  

Shortly after Hechtman opened MainLine Theatre, he asked Carpenter to compose music for Johnny Canuck and the Last Burlesque, co-written by Hechtman and Patrick Goddard.  “I love what I do and there are many places I’ve enjoyed working, but I never have more fun than when I’m working at MainLine.  It’s refreshing, grungy and chaotic, but the show gets done.  It’s their tree house and I get to play in it with them.”  Verrrrry interesting … I ask Carpenter if he thinks his earlier years as a nomad, a bit of a loner moving from one military base to another, was a good training ground for the more gypsy-esque aspects of the performing arts. “I’ve never thought of that before but it’s an interesting idea.”  Carpenter partnered with MainLine again for last year’s Mid-Life Crisis of Dionysus, another campy hit that brought droves to the second-floor indie theatre.

“Sometimes I feel like all I’m doing is underscoring other people’s lives; I need to make sure I live my own."

For MainLine’s upcoming Sexy Dirty Bloody Scary, Nick will be playing a string of evocative Tom Waits songs to punctuate scenes and facilitate transitions.  Without giving too much away, seeing this play is a game of chance, so don’t rely on your program to put it into any kind of chronological order as it all lies in the hands of fate to dictate how it plays out each night.  “I have no idea how it will be received.  I’ve never done anything like this before and that’s exactly what I like most about working at MainLine.”

All but one of Carpenter’s non-musical scripts focus on the military and/or war. Stained Glass, his WWI script about a British soldier who continues to fight 3 days after the war has ended, won the 2008 Canadian Peace Play Competition. Carpenter’s most recent project, The Return of Corporal Mazenet, centres on the Canadian involvement in Afghanistan.  I asked him if he made a point of seeing other similarly themed works, which he does, having attended a reading of Scorched, Jason Maganoy’s GAS, and most recently Infinithéâtre’s Bolsheviki (David Fennario’s latest offering) and in the same month, Imago’s Champ de Mars, both of which he loved, especially the Fennario piece.  

Corporal Mazenet received a staged reading through Infinithéâtre’s Pipeline Series in 2009. Carpenter then took it to the Banff Playwrights Colony for further work after which a workshop version was produced at the 2010 SummerWorks in Toronto.  He was scheduled to continue work on it through Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal when he saw Bolsheviki and Champ de Mars, both of which proved valuable dramaturgical aids for him.  

The war genre of a soldier’s return is not new, but he found the device of an outsider (the film producer in Champ de Mars and the journalist in Bolsheviki) trying to get a soldier’s story was the same device he was using in his own script and it was starting to feel cliché. Even more disturbing to him was that he was one of the characters in his own work; it just didn’t sit well with him. Carpenter asked, “Why do we do this?  Is it because we don’t feel we have the authority to speak on a soldier’s behalf … the appropriation of voice issue?  Do we fear criticism for talking about war without having experienced it?”  Whatever the reason, he scratched the play and started over, proving the old adage that writing is all about re-writing. The new draft, still in progress, has different characters (none of which is him) telling a different story.  He is now able to see how the device had been “getting in the way” and by removing it, is able to strike at the heart of the story more efficiently.

Once the run of Sexy Dirty Bloody Scary’s run is complete, Carpenter hopes to get a little down time after the highly industrious past 8 months. “Sometimes I feel like all I’m doing is underscoring other people’s lives; I need to make sure I live my own. I want to talk to people who aren’t actors, talk about things that have nothing to do with theatre.”

You can catch Carpenter tinkling the ivories at Sexy Dirty Bloody Scary at MainLine Theatre from February 15 to March 5.  For tickets and info call 514.849.3378 or e-mail

Next week in Ford's Focus: Canadian wunderkind, Ted Dykstra.

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