Ben Caplan is a busy man. Alongside his career as a successful solo musician, he’s the lead role in 2b Theatre’s Old Stock—a play that’s toured across three continents over the last five years.
“The Old Stock gig has been a wonderful blessing,” Caplan tells the Straight from a bar in Toronto. He ducked in to get Wi-Fi, and orders an IPA while we chat. We’re speaking on the last night of Old Stock’s run with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company in North York.
The Nova Scotia-based musician has a few days’ reprieve before the performance opens in Vancouver, playing at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts and produced by SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs in association with Vancouver Moving Theatre. The show, which mixes Klezmer, folk music and more traditional stage musical sensibilities, is finely tuned to Caplan himself.
“We sort of built the show around me, which has then made it very difficult to find somebody else who can do the show,” Caplan says. “It happens to use up all of my weird quirky little skills and talents in a way that’s very fulfilling, because it means I have to bring my full self to bear at every performance.”
Caplan isn’t just the star of Old Stock: he’s been with the musical since its inception in 2015, before director Christian Barry and playwright Hannah Moscovitch even knew it was going to be about two Jewish-Romanian refugees arriving in Halifax, NS in 1908.
“While we were looking for the story that we wanted to tell, we got gobsmacked by a couple of things in a row,” Caplan says.
One was the photograph of two-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian child who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea amid the 2015 refugee crisis. The other was a comment from former prime minister Stephen Harper, who referred to “both new and existing and old-stock Canadians” in a leadership debate.
“It made us think the story that we ought to be telling, if we’re going to be telling a story at all, should be about migration, about refugees, about moving around the world,” Caplan says. “That phrase, that dog whistle, that category of being like, a ‘real Canadian’ or being an ‘old-stock Canadian’ just sort of cracked open: What does it mean to be Canadian? What does it mean to make a new identity, to make a new life, and what does it mean to carry your past with you but then also to try to transmute it into something new?”
Old Stock borrowed Harper’s comment as its title, and used Moscovitch’s great-grandparents Chaya and Chaim arriving in Canada as its plot. Caplan plays the Wanderer, an enigmatic master of ceremonies who leads the rag-tag band of traveling musicians that have arrived to present the story directly to the audience. He sings, plays guitar and banjo, accompanied by musicians as well as the on-stage actors: Chaya on violin and Chaim on woodwind.
The play is a musical, but the songs aren’t “Guys and Dolls kind of numbers” that move the plot along.
“It’s a little bit cheesy when the songs are doing exposition,” Caplan says. “What music is really good at is ineffable, ephemeral experiences that language is incapable of capturing. … With the opening number, we generate a world, and then a scene fills out and inhabits that world.”
The music also lives on Caplan’s 2018 album, Old Stock. He regularly plays songs from it in his live shows, so it was important to him that the numbers worked musically without the context of the production.
“Theatre and a disc of music are just very different media,” Caplan says. “And so I didn’t want to go make an album that was, like, trying to authentically capture what the theatre show was, because why do that? What’s the point? ... I really wanted to try to write songs that could stand up on their own."
While he concedes that some tracks are “a little bit ridiculous,” he adds, “A good five or six … will probably be songs I’ll be doing live for the rest of my career.”
While work on Old Stock began in 2015, the play premiered in 2017, after Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency signaled a broader turn towards right-wing populism around the world. Since then, in Canada alone, the People's Party of Canada has gained ground, politicians have denied the horrors of so-called residential schools, and four members of a Muslim family were murdered in London, Ont. Hundreds of right-wing protestors occupied Ottawa for weeks terrorizing locals in the name of “freedom.” Reported hate crimes surged during the pandemic.
As a play that explicitly deals with refugees and migration and discrimination, Old Stock continues to feel depressingly relevant.
“The stakes already felt very high when the show opened in 2017, and they’ve only gotten higher. That’s something I’m not thrilled about,” Caplan says with a sigh. “I would have loved for it to be a show that just kind of went away because we figured it out. But we haven’t.”
The show’s central message is one of humanity. By telling the audience about the trials faced by Jewish refugees over a century ago, Old Stock hopes to remind its audience of the importance of empathy.
“Whether it’s anti-semitism or Islamophobia or transphobia or any of these things, people seem to have a paucity of imagination about the lived experience of other human beings,” Caplan says. “We wanted to make something really specific about these two individual lives … as a way of touching the universal.”
Old Stock is at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from December 1 to 11. Tickets are available here.