Collaborating on mythology

Hawksley Workman delivers a rock cabaret of revelries in The God That Comes

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There’s always been a certain theatricality to Hawksley Workman.

It’s there in his music—sometimes shaped as frenetic pop-rock, sometimes as more-considered folk—and in his performances, live or otherwise—just YouTube the videos for “Jealous of Your Cigarette” or “We Will Still Need a Song” for proof. It’s there the way he anchors on a stage (or traverses it untethered), and in the dynamism of his songs. But all that said, to hear Workman talk about his first foray into (almost) proper theatre, he sounds sincere in thinking he’d never end up here.

“I’m not really a theatre guy, per se,” he admits, almost sheepishly, over the phone from his home in rural Ontario.

It’s a confession he makes as a way of gently deflecting discussion of the acclaim The God That Comes has been earning across the country (and beyond—it spent the summer traversing Denmark and the Netherlands).

“I knew it was a quality thing we’d made,” Workman clarifies. “But I didn’t really understand it in terms of its relationship to the rest of what’s going on in theatre.”

So maybe he’s not particularly versed in scripted stage-work; the world of it still seems a good fit for the guy. Perhaps it’s best to consider The God That Comes as simply a refraction of his artistic essence into a slightly more blocked-out form. Created in collaboration with Halifax’s 2b Theatre Company, The God finds Workman alone onstage, re-envisioning Euripides’ The Bacchae as a rock cabaret of revelries. He plays every character from the oppressive king to Bacchus, Greco-Roman god of wine. In other words, it’s about the ancient, enduring struggle between boozy fun and a stick-in-the-mud: to the King’s chagrin, Bacchus has taken up residence on a nearby mountain, throwing the sorts of orgies that infuriate the rule-obsessed tyrant yet attract the people in drove. (The double-entendre of the show’s title surely isn’t coincidental.)

The tension between those two socio-political extremes also marks out The God’s origins: Christian Barry, artistic co-director of 2b, had been pressing Workman for a decade on the idea of collaborating. But it was when Barry brought The Bacchae to his attention that something clicked for Workman: it connected with an anger he’d been mulling over, one he didn’t feel could translate onto a pop record.

“I think I’d had quite enough of certain Canadian political leaders, and their self-righteousness and their finger wagging,” Workman says. “The fact that so much of the Canada I grew up in was being misrepresented and being talked down to, which is something that makes me wildly angry. And I’m becoming quite sick of it. The Canada I feel like I grew up in is not much in the way sometimes the Canada I see before me.

“You turn on the news, and this is kind of where humans are at,” he continues. “We’re struggling right now with the freeness of our expression, all because of our security obsession, with our economic security obsession, with our social security obsession—not social security in terms of return, but the security of our social mechanisms: church, school, politics of the sexes. … I grew up in a world where those things were starting to be three-dimensional, nuanced points of conversation. And all of a sudden, because of these austere modes, … all that wondrous depth, almost engaging with these more complex and nuanced elements of humanity—they’ve all been slapped back with this sad little whip, back to their little cage where they’re withering again. At least that’s how it feels to me.”

In that regard, Workman found that constructing a cabaret wasn’t so different from building an album. (Actually, The God That Comes has already been released as an album, quietly sitting on iTunes alongside the rest of Workman’s discography.) From the show’s outset, Workman had some ground rules for taking to the stage. No singing any dialogue was chief among them.

“I did not want the thing we were to make to be something that only existed within the context of itself,” Workman says. “I wanted to write songs, and removed from the play and sound just as strong, and just as contained outside of the context of the play. So I guess, in some ways, I didn’t want to sacrifice the opportunity to use words and cadence and movement that would be too theatre-y or musical-y. I wanted it to be these desperately biting chunks of folk or pop music.”

Workman admits that touring The God is keeping him from his more usual artistic endeavours; there are people on his team that would rather he be putting out Hawksley Workman albums and continuing to cultivate the album-tour-album structure that’s buoyed him for most of his career. But this is where he’s at, conveniently or not.

“I just don’t have much governance over what I end up doing,” he says. “My body is so much in control of me that if there’s something my body decides it’s going to do that day when it wakes up, it’s pretty hard for even me to stop it.”

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The party deity, um, parties

And though it’s Workman alone up on stage, the collaborative element of creating it with Barry was one of the show’s biggest appeals. Sharing the creative process seems to be a boon for Workman today. That includes even making more straightforward music: known best as a solo artist, Workman formed a jangly pop band called Mounties last year. With Hot Hot Heat’s Steve Bays and Limblifter’s Ryan Dahle, there’s an album due out in the spring called Thrash Rock Legacy, and a tour to follow.

“There’s been times in my life when that collaboration has always sort of been there,” he says, pointing to early collaborations with people like Doc Mckinney or A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed. “It impresses me to want to impress the person I’m in the room with, which for some reason feels like a more exciting challenge than trying to impress myself. Probably lots of artists feel that.

“Impressing yourself just doesn’t hold the same mystique,” he continues. “In some ways I feel quite comfortable with that. If you read music criticism, … there’s just a disdain for artists as they age, sometimes. And there’s a wonderous honeymoon in the early phase of your creative life: when I first found my voice in my early 20s, it was erotic. Writing was erotic. I would have to pause in the middle of writing a song to masturbate in order to just cool and calm and refocus. It was so tumultuous, it was just so big. And I think you’re in a constant state, as a person who makes stuff for a living, of renegotiating terms with that thing.

“Because that honeymoon, it doesn’t last. It doesn’t last for Dylan, it doesn’t last for any of the greats, it doesn’t last for anybody. It’s the great ones who are able to renegotiate the terms of that marriage to that creative life.”

Until Sat, Jan 25 (8 pm)
Directed by Christian Barry
Citadel Theatre, $45 – $73.50

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