Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011
By: Christopher Greco – “There is no such thing as definitive,” he says emphatically.
On our way to lunch, director Morris Ertman and I are considering the Prodigal God project’s recent shift toward the cinema. We’re talking theatre. We’re talking film. We’re talking story. If I’m understanding him correctly, he’s trying to free me from the pressure of getting it right or trying to be brilliant.
“You know what story you need to tell,” he says.
And like nearly everything Morris says, it has both a concrete application and it’s the sublimest of spiritual truths.
The angular October sunbeams make his white hair halo-like against the blue sky. We are walking down the main street of an idyllic hamlet an hour’s drive east of Calgary where, in Morris’ words, “an ocean of prairie rolls down into a valley through which a railway track runs along a river where native Americans used to winter camp.”
We’re in Rosebud, Alberta. Yes, Rosebud. And Morris Ertman may well be the town’s Citizen Kane. He’s in his 9th year here as Artistic Director of a theatre company which attracts 40,000 patrons each year from far and wide. www.rosebudtheatre.com
We’re on our way to grab a bite at the newly renovated Mercantile before the 2 p.m. curtain of Morris’ production of the South African play, “The Road to Mecca”. How fitting that a busload of eager senior citizens, equally ravenous for enlightenment as for food, pulls up as we enter.
Audiences have to come from far and wide as there aren’t nearly that many people nearby. Bubbling up in the middle of kilometers of wheat fields and crusty badlands, Rosebud is a paradox. Is it a rural, folksy hand-dug well or an urbane and innovative imported marble fountain? Take your pick.
Morris is a living example of this duality. With more than 200 productions under his belt over 30 years of directing and designing theatre, his credits are impressive: The Canadian Opera Company, Vancouver Opera, Edmonton Opera, Stratford Festival, The National Arts Centre, The Manitoba Theatre Centre, The Arts Club, Pacific Theatre, Chemainus Theatre, The Citadel Theatre, and Brookstone Performing Arts. His musical, “Tent Meeting,” co-written with Ron Reed, the AD at Pacific Theatre in Vancouver, was up for 4 Dora nominations in Toronto and a Sterling in Edmonton. To the point, it’s a hilarious and worldly take on decidedly serious-minded and rural faith.
Inside the Mercantile, we’ve helped ourselves to an early Thanksgiving meal (early by American standards, that is). In the intimate country dining hall, a 30-ish man plays the guitar and serenades us with blue-grass inflected spirituals alongside his 50-ish female harmonizing counterpart. I learn from Morris that one is a student and the other an instructor at the Rosebud School of the Arts, a school unlike any other in the province (or the country, for that matter), which offers a rigorous professional theatre training program while aiming “to express God’s wonderful and universal gifts to His children in a spirit of hope, joy, forgiveness, and love.” I’m feeling the love as I savor the freshly baked apple crisp and soulful music.
Rosebud attracts a uniquely diverse audience, consisting of roughly half people of faith looking for a faith-infused theatre experience and half non-religious theatre-goers who love good stories well told. Rosebud delivers on both promises. And this is just the kind of crowd we’ve been dreaming of for the Prodigal God project.
Back to my spiritual direction session:
There isn’t one way to express the ineffable, according to Morris. You have to listen to yourself. You have to get personal. You have to connect with your partner – be they an actor, an audience, or your collaborator. You have to go with your gut. You have to tell the truth. Transparency begets translucence. When we talk, I never know whether to take notes or fall to my knees in prayer.
Since he’s talking “out of his hat” as he often does (and always emphatically so), there’s space to ask for clarification, to disagree or to add a counterpoint. At least that’s my American interpretation of the lilted Canadian “Yeah?” which often punctuates his aphorisms. He’s a robust sparring partner and a magnanimous host.
Several passersby acknowledge Morris with a nod as we hastily make our way across the street to the theatre, though no one diverts him from his mission. I drop into my seat, the lights dim moments later, and Morris steps onto stage left in a pool of white light. A golden star is suspended in black space to his far stage right amidst an evocative Mecca-inspired stage design.
Morris’ voice is commanding. His smile is mischievous and inviting. His reach is deep and wide. This is true of Morris across a table, Morris in a rehearsal hall with actors, Morris on Skype, Morris in front of a sold-out matinee crowd wondering what we’re in for.
It is this voice you will hear when you pop in your ear buds and cozy up with the Prodigal God story version due out this spring. If my experience of him is any indication, Morris will help you feel right at home while stretching you beyond what you thought was even possible.