For the past 10 years, Bah Humbug! has tried to reflect the community surrounding SFU Woodward’s, the Downtown Eastside, in an authentic way. That’s meant the play-meets-musical-revue has had to be uniquely flexible in its exploration of the ever-shifting social issues that have gripped Canada’s poorest postal code in the past decade.
When the school’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts opened in 2010, director of cultural programming Michael Boucher wanted to launch a holiday tradition that would connect the new building with its neighbourhood. That led to the commissioning of a musical that reimagines Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for the streets of the Downtown Eastside, complete with a Scrooge who’s a pawnshop owner and a renoviction-happy single-room-occupancy-hotel landlord.
SFU worked closely with Vancouver Moving Theatre and Full Circle: First Nations Performance, two groups already established in the area, to create a show that would integrate professional and community performers. And now, a decade later, with more than $100,000 raised for the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, the much-evolved production is ready to take its final bow at the end of this run.
“Every project has a life cycle, and with this one, we’ve taken it to the peak,” Boucher, who will direct this last installment of Bah Humbug!, tells the Straight over the phone. “Partly because the maturity of the show, now it’s so full-bodied and everyone is in command of what they do.…Without question it has been challenging too. It requires a lot of energy, within the context of our budget and time period. If you’re going to redo it each year, you can’t fall back on what you’ve done; you have to inject it with a new perspective.”
Some of that new perspective has come on the aesthetic level. Starting in 2014, well-known local mural artist Richard Tetrault added projections of his expressive woodcut images of Downtown Eastside alleyways, shipping ports, and ravens to the show.
As for the score, musical director Bill Costin has switched up its mix of carols and contemporary fare, like Nine Inch Nails, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the White Stripes, backed by a live band and the Saint James Music Academy Youth Choir; this year, Queen’s “Somebody to Love” has been added. “We went to a modern soundtrack to counteract the Christmassy elements,” Boucher explains.
But the shifts have also come in subject matter. As Boucher and his colleagues have watched the fentanyl crisis worsen outside the school’s doors, they’ve tried to address that in the story. With the goal of shedding light on issues in the neighbourhood, the creative team has consulted with Don MacPherson, former drug-policy coordinator for the City of Vancouver and current director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. The references start with making Bob Cratchit a recovering addict.
“The Downtown Eastside has slipped further into distress in the past 10 years, and the show has reflected that,” laments Boucher. “At first our focus was on mental health and affordable housing, but now it’s the nature of fentanyl and death on the streets. So for us there’s a role of addressing addiction now.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been—everything’s more aggressive, it’s more infiltrated into the community,” continues Boucher, who has come to his own conclusions about what’s been happening on the streets outside SFU Woodward’s for the past decade. “You can’t capture all of it [on-stage] because it’s a complicated dynamic, but for me, personally, the public has to just come to terms with accepting legalization even if it’s just a matter of time, and deal with it as a mental-health issue. We’ve got to put a moratorium on illegality and treat it as a massive public-health crisis. It’s about rescue.”
Dealing with difficult subject matter is what Bah Humbug! is all about, but the team is careful to make the family show accessible to kids 10 and up, too.
As Boucher puts it, “Everyone wants beauty, even in the darkest moments. The show has been a highly redemptive antidote to the crisis in this community.”
Bah Humbug!’s final installment features cast members who have made the show their own kind of Christmas tradition, with Tom Pickett reprising Bob Cratchit and blues singer and actor Jim Byrnes back in his role as the old miser. “I would say his portrayal is a definitive one,” Boucher says of the latter. “It’s so richly nuanced and full of angular emotions. The gear-shifting is like a Maserati.”
Full Circle’s Margo Kane plays the Narrator again, and other prominent Indigenous artists include Sam Bob and Stephen Lytton. Looking back, Boucher sees Bah Humbug! as ahead of its time in the way it has approached the creative process, reaching out to First Nations for input in developing the show in the years before Truth and Reconciliation. Coast Salish spirits infuse the story.
“We asked Margo and the First Nations actors to guide us, and that led us to the use of Raven, which sat so well with the ghosts of Dickens,” he recalls. “It’s also a great story of reconciliation and the art of listening—to act on what you’re hearing.”
The end of Bah Humbug! might seem to leave a void for those looking for such a locally relevant way to mark the holidays. But fear not: Boucher is helping to develop another project to take its place. But he’ll only hint at the ideas he’ll be exploring over the next year.
“There’s a significant hospital that has served this community, and I’d like to look at that impact,” he says. In other words, prepare for another take on the ever-shifting issues affecting the streets outside his doors.
SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs and Vancouver Moving Theatre, in partnership with Full Circle: First Nations Productions, present Bah Humbug! at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts until December 21.