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November 6, 2015

Q&A with Mike Ross

Soulpepper’s Slaight Family Director Music talks about musical creation and the return of Spoon River.

What is appealing to you about the musical format as a theatre artist?

Combining story with music is one of the oldest paths to the human heart, and it has been a major form of storytelling from the Greeks, through opera, and through the advent of musical theatre in the 20th-century. When words meet stories meet notes in that perfect way it can make people feel something profound. There’s great power in the form. But it takes a great amount of energy to create memorable moments. You have to build towards those moments. And it’s knowing how to build that momentum, that is the challenge. And it’s the exciting part of writing musicals. When you can create something meaningful, it feels like a service, not just something for your own success or ambition. You’re the creator of something that is bringing energy into people’s lives, and you can feel really good about what you do.
I’ve been at Soulpepper for 10 years studying words and storytelling, and that path has led me to bring music into the creative equation when I’m working on a new production.

What do you think contributes to the success of Spoon River, which is returning for its third run at Soulpepper, and touring out of province next summer?

The amazing thing about Soulpepper is that I know I have a chance of my work being heard and that fuels me: it’s motivating and inspiring. The landscape here gives artists lengthy meaningful employment – it inspires creation. You know you can dig into the work and not have to get distracted by outside concerns.

And you have access to people you know, and that will be around, and so you build things around certain people and their talents, which also inspires creation. The music for Spoon River I wrote partly on my own, and partly for specific people I knew would be in the show. And that affected the range, the energy, and the tone of the songs.

I’m really excited that Spoon River is going on the road next summer, and that it will be part of the Charlottetown Festival, my PEI hometown. My personal connection aside, there are universal themes in Spoon River that I think could resonate anywhere else in the world. People want stories about where they’re from. And small towns – they’re everywhere. And the themes in this show are universal, about living your life every day to its fullest, something everyone strives for. And there are songs about gossip and that’s everywhere. Death – everywhere. It’s about America also – it’s familiar, audiences get it, and the situations of the characters can be applied to personal situations.

I would love to see this show reach an audience as wide as it can, and for people to know that it can be performed by virtually any group of people willing to take on a whole bunch of characters and strum some guitars – it can play to 100 or 1,000 and ideally have the same impact. I would love to eventually see more companies perform it as well.

You’ve performed this show hundreds of times, and you’re on stage again now. Are there still moments that move you?

There are still moments that make me laugh. There’s a moment you can feel the audience understand what the show is about, from whose point of view – I never get over that moment. I never get over the musicianship present on stage. Or the journey that Albert Schultz and I created in terms of meeting characters in a certain order so the train of the show keeps carrying the story through the Spoon River community. And I love standing backstage with the ensemble before we go on – that feeling of anticipation.