Amiel Gladstone has been a theatre fan for as long as he can remember. The 48-year-old playwright and director traces his earliest memories of Vancouver theatre back to the 1980s, when as a kid he went to see Ann Mortifee's musical Reflections on Crooked Walking at the Arts Club Theatre.
"I remember seeing that on Granville Island when I was in elementary school," he recalls on the line from his home on Gambier Island, "and I remember it was a huge hit, 'cause it seems like it just ran and ran and came back and was remounted. I couldn't tell you the plot of the thing, but I remember being so intrigued by just the theatricality of it all. Like the music and stage magic and all of it. It was just so cool."
Fast-forward four decades or so and Gladstone has roughly 50 theatrical credits to his name in various capacities. His current role is as director and cowriter of do you want what i have got? a craigslist cantata, which streams from the Cultch February 5 to 7. It's the latest mounting of the musical created by playwright Bill Richardson and composer Veda Hille, which was first performed in 20-minute form at the PuSh Festival in 2009.
"When we did the original cabaret version at the PuSh festival," says Gladstone, "people were immediately taken by it. But it was like a one-off--we were only doing two nights--so there was no chance for it to be a 'hit', there was just a chance to see if audiences liked it. And then after a couple of years of development it ran at the Arts Club in a full-length version, and that was a hit."
The production is based on actual Craigslist ads that were chosen by Richardson and given musical life by Hille.
"Vancouver was one of the first places where the ad site took off," Gladstone notes, "so I think there's something particular about Vancouver audiences that are into the quirky and diverse Craiglist community. I think there's something about the idea of putting that to music that kind of tickles people in a way. It's an idea that feels impossible and yet you kinda want to see how we pull it off."
A craigslist cantata is the second hit show Gladstone has collaborated with Hille on, as 2016's Onegin was also a great success. He's currently working on a third project with her, which leads to the question of what Gladstone thinks the singer-songwriter's greatest talent might be.
"Good question," he replies. "She's got so many it's hard to say what. When you ask that, this is the first thing that comes into my head, so I reserve the right to maybe change my mind. But I think it's her ability to take unusual text and lyrics and put them to melody."
That skill of Hille's transforms real-life Craigslist ads into poignantly wacky tunes like "300 Stuffed Penguins", "Chili Eating Buddy", and “Decapitated Dolls,” which are performed by cast members Meaghan Chenosky, Josh Epstein, Kayvon Khoshkam, Amanda Sum, and Andrew Wheeler, with Hille on keyboards and Barry Mirochnick on drums. The dangers of COVID-19 meant that each artist had to perform separately in a different location.
"As you know, doing theatre during the pandemic has been a real challenge for all of us," cites Gladstone. "There were two things to consider: safety, and what was allowable under the provincial health orders. And so I had to keep adapting what we knew about those two things in terms of how aerosols work in the room and all that stuff. Initially the idea was that we would do it on stage, and then that sort of got adapted to, 'Well, we'll do it throughout the theatre in order to space it out.' And that got adapted to, 'Let's do it in separate rooms in the Cultch.' "
Gladstone points out that it's kinda funny (and weird) how a craigslist cantata is a show that was originally adapted onstage from online content, and is now being adapted back online. The theme of the show is people's struggle to connect with others, so the timing of the global pandemic couldn't be, for lack of a better word, better.
"I know," agrees Gladstone. "I remember when [Cultch executive director] Heather Redfern and I were talking about it. Initially it was, 'Oh, this show is relevant to our lives,' and then the pandemic hit and it became even more relevant. Suddenly all of us were stuck behind screens and having to work and communicate and live and party and everything else behind screens. So seeing these characters trying to reach out through their screens and reach other people felt even more appropriate.
"I do think it's been helpful for people to know that they're not alone," he adds. "We're all going through it, and this shared watching of the show together is a bit of a soothing balm, let's say. People can share the experience and also be nostalgic for what theatre was and how much we miss it."
do you want what i have got? a craigslist cantata streams live from the Cultch February 5 to 6 at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. and February 7 at noon. Tix start at $29 and you can find them here.