During the 2015 Canadian federal election, Stephen Harper set-off a firestorm of controversy at the Federal Leaders Debate using the term “old-stock Canadians” when answering a question on healthcare for refugees.
It is a quote that stuck with Christian Barry and collaborators Hannah Moscovitch and Ben Caplan as they began working on Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story.
“It was offensive on several fronts, regardless of your politics,” says Barry. “There was clear dog-whistle racism underlying the phrase, and it pointed out the absurdity of the phrase itself.”
While Barry doesn’t remember when they agreed on the title, he does recall it being only one of the quotes they uncovered during the creation process.
Another they discovered came from a Canadian bureaucrat in the early 1900s who said: “None is too many of that kind.” It would go onto to become some of the lyrics from the show’s first song.
“It felt eerily similar to some of the context of Islamophobia that was in the air around the 2016 election and the Syrian refugee crisis,” says Barry. “And it still exists today, not just in Canada, but also Europe, Eastern Europe and Australia, where we have toured the show. It’s been unfortunately remarkably resonant with local politics and local conversations as well.”
And Barry and his team should know, having now travelled the show to different parts of the world. And while Barry says it is difficult to generalize the reactions to the play between countries, he does say the politics of the countries in which they performed have influenced the response.
“Sometimes it comes right down to the venue that you’re in,” he says. “When we were in New York City, for example, we were performing in the Upper East Side, and several people said to us, ‘You’re a downtown show in an uptown venue.’.”
It took Barry a while to decode what the comment meant. Eventually, he realized it might have been the area’s wealthier patrons feeling uncomfortable with the politics of the show.
“I have noted that in the American context, it felt a little bit darker, partly because they don’t share our sense of humour when it comes to irony,” he continues.
While politics and the international refugee crisis initially inspired Old Stock, there was also a desire to put a human face to the statistics cited at the time. That human face came from the true story of Barry’s wife’s (co-creator Hannah Moscovitch) great-grandparents immigrating to Canada in 1908.
“They were Romanian Jews who were fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe and arriving in Halifax, before making their way to Montreal to make a life for themselves in a safe place,” he explains. “So we had our story and Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is the result.”
It is obvious Barry, and his co-creators were not interested in creating a simple story about refugees, though, as the music also plays a big part in this theatrical hybrid.
It would be a mutual interest in a collaboration between Barry and Halifax-based folk musician Ben Caplan that would take Old Stock to its final form.
Barry says there were two reasons why he wanted to work with Caplan.
“First and foremost, I was interested in Ben as a performer,” says Barry. “Ben is a very theatrical animal with big energy, a big personality, a big voice, and a big beard all rolled into one. He’s also an incredible singer and a gifted songwriter with a particular political kind of leaning.”
With Caplan’s refusal to shy away from politics in his music and his performances, Barry knew the collaboration would be one of substance.
“I sensed that there was going to be a kinship in not just creating art for art’s sake but doing something that might lend itself to some social acupuncture as well,” says Barry.
Very much a part of Caplan’s music, the idea of using klezmer music to help tell the story seemed like a natural fit.
“Our first conversations were actually about Jewish folktales, so from the outset, we knew we were going to be exploring his musical heritage,” says Barry. “And then once we settled on the story of my wife’s ancestors coming to Canada, it took that up a notch. We now had a particular context to be exploring those music stylings through.”
Created in Halifax in 2017, the show is now coming to Vancouver following critical and audience acclaim as it has travelled the world. Barry attributes the timeliness of the work for much of its success. And though he was not fully expecting the reaction to the show, he has always been confident in both the team and concept.
“We knew we had a great idea,” he says. “I knew I was working with Ben Caplan and Hannah Moskovitch. It was exciting. Like any other endeavour, you work your butt off and scramble to try and make it to opening night and then you hope people like it.”
That work ethic hasn’t stopped since the show originally played to a hometown crowd two years ago. After 200 performances, Old Stock has continued to evolve, not only in content but in how the performers have been able to dig deeper into the material.
“It’s certainly more polished than it was then, but I like to think it has a more authentic exploration of the psychology, music, and the themes that were initially interested in,” he says.
With immigration still top-of-mind for many Canadians and elsewhere in the world, there is little doubt Old Stock will find even more resonance for audiences today.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story plays the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC (6354 Crescent Rd, Vancouver) as part of the 2020 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Visit pushfestival.ca for tickets and information.
(Editor’s Note: A version of this interview first appeared on Halifax Presents on October 21, 2019).