Michelle Bouey (Patsy Cline) and Rob Kempson (Director) from 'A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline' at Port Hope's Capitol Theatre

Moving Forward

Sam Moffatt

Joe Szekeres

A conversation with Rob Kempson (Director) and Michelle Bouey (Patsy Cline) and ‘A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline’

If you haven’t made the trip to Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre to see ‘A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline’, I encourage you all to do so. It was a lovely evening at the theatre and a smart choice to stage this play and begin welcoming audiences back after two years.

But why ‘A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline’ to re-open the Capitol summer season?

Artistic Producer and Director of the show Rob Kempson was happy to explain his reason why this show was apropos to begin. He wanted to start the season with this show because he has loved Patsy Cline’s music for a long time. As the first BIPOC artist to essay the role of the country music songstress, Michelle Bouey is such a talent that Rob couldn’t even imagine doing the show without her.

But in his new role at the Capitol, Rob had to also think of the larger picture – how to introduce himself artistically to the community plus how to bring people together through all ages and demographics. For Rob, very few musicals, artists and plays have that cross-generational appeal as Patsy Cline’s music does.

‘Closer Walk’ is cross-generational. There are many Patsy Cline fans in the audiences who have never seen a performance like the one Michelle Bouey delivers. That was intentional as Rob wanted to make sure that, as Artistic Producer, he was delivering the familiar alongside the unfamiliar. Yes, it’s important to ensure the Capitol’s legacy supporters are welcomed back plus it is also important to bring a whole new generation of audiences into the theatre.

Kempson shared two stories as proof of this crossover. He recalled an older gentleman who has been a long-time supporter of the Capitol who said: “You make sure you go back and tell Michelle that she’s even better than Patsy Cline herself, and I saw Patsy Cline perform when she was alive.”

The other?

One performance had many of the workers from the local brewery attend who had a great time and were loving the show and had no idea the Capitol existed.

These are signs changes have already begun as Rob continues to look for ways to invite audiences back to the theatre, but he is keenly aware they will have their own terms. As Artistic Producer, he’s looking for where he can find other crossovers in live entertainment and have people sit beside people who are totally different from each other and yet have a shared artistic experience. Thus the reason for selecting ‘Closer Walk’ and Dolly Parton’s musical ‘9 to 5’ to be staged later this summer.

When rehearsals and initial preparation on her own began for ‘Closer Walk’, Michelle Bouey says she didn’t know a lot about the singer when she first began working on the show but is “so glad she was introduced to Cline’s world because her catalogue of songs and her legacy is one that is so truly incredible in that it all happened before the age of thirty.”

What is it about Cline’s music that speaks to Michelle?

It’s the vocals and passion that spoke first to her when she heard Cline’s music for the first time. Whether it was an up-tempo piece or a soaring ballad, Bouey felt transported and stated she felt exactly what Cline was feeling at that moment.

Bouey reiterated further that if you’ve never heard of Cline before, it is her music and the stories told through songs that are touching to hear, plus the bonus of being able to hear the songs live in a theatre instead of a recording. Michelle loves singing the songs for which Cline is known like ‘Always’ and ‘Crazy’, but there are some lesser-known musical numbers that pack an even greater punch.

As director of the show, did Rob wonder about the mammoth task at hand to mount the production or did everything fall into place for him?

He said it fell somewhere between these two parameters.

Rob has directed other historical productions and has always felt inspired by the history of real-life people rather than being bound by the history. This connection is interesting as he further reitrerated: “Patsy Cline didn’t dance around the stage. She stood at the microphone and sang because she wasn’t wirelessly microphoned.”

In other words, Cline lets the song tell the story.

Although we are watching this show in 2022, Kempson praises the work of the entire crew and the band in all of their fringes and tassels. He recognizes the fun in using history as the inspiration from which to jump off rather than mimic it or pretend to do something. Rob completes a lot of research even before rehearsals begin because he asks the question: “As artists, how can we interpret and imagine the world of Patsy Cline through a 2022 lens rather than impose it?”

The historical research for him becomes a launching pad rather than a definitive endpoint.

This historical launching pad for the production makes complete sense. For me, Bouey hit all the vocal emotional chords within me. The entire look of the production was constructed uniquely and solely for this production alone. If audiences see ‘A Closer Walk’ somewhere else, they will probably end up seeing a new vision.

Both Michelle and Rob speak glowingly about the incredible joy they experienced in working with seasoned actor Tyler Murree who plays DJ Little Big Man. Bouey is in awe of Tyler. She says he was so kind and supportive to her. She was intrigued in watching him develop all of the various characters he plays and how he switches characters in performance so effortlessly.

Rob has worked with Tyler before and knew he performed this role of the DJ. Kempson was not asking for a replica of Tyler’s previous performance but take on a new version of it. And he did just that.

Kempson echoed what Michelle said about Murree. He is a constant professional and such a joy to have in the room because he is a beautiful collaborator, open, and risk-taker who makes people smile at every single turn. Once again, I appreciated Rob’s candour very much. When he puts together a team he has a pretty strict ‘no asshole’ rule. For Kempson, it’s more than just if an actor can do the job; instead, it becomes ‘are you the right personality for this group of people’.

And how are Rob and Michelle feeling about the theatre, the trajectory of Canadian theatre going forward, and the health protocols?

Both agree the Canadian theatre scene has been forever altered moving forward. Kempson recognizes there are positive and negative changes Nevertheless, what really hit home for him was the sad reality many amazing artists in the industry have chosen not to return. These artists left to find other work and are staying in that other work because it is less precarious than the theatre industry.

The positive reality moving forward – Rob believes artists and arts organizations are far more attuned to taking care of people and those within the community, and this makes for a far more beautiful collaboration. Although Rob had never worked with Michelle before, he strongly felt the importance of creating a space for her during rehearsals and performances where she felt welcome, cared for and safe both at the theatre and where she is billeted.

Michelle remains grateful that Rob and the entire Capitol company have continued to ensure the safety of everyone involved in all the shows remains a top priority. She considers herself lucky because she chose to go back home to Prince Edward Island in 2020 to be with her family. The east coast provinces had strict entrance and quarantine requirements. Because of these strict requirements, the east coast provinces could continue performing and putting on shows, so Michelle could continue doing what she loved.

She continues to feel safe in her work at the Capitol.

As our time on Zoom wound down, I know I put Rob and Michelle on the spot to ask them the following question:

“If Patsy Cline were sitting in on this Zoom call with us, what would you say to her?”

There were a few seconds of awkward silence. Were they panicking? uncomfortable because they might not articulate what they wanted to say.

Rob was the first to break this pregnant pause. He said it might not be satisfying but:

“I’d want to jam with her. Can we get off Zoom and go hang out in a room somewhere and play some music together?”

Everything Rob read about Cline, he learned she was a collaborator and loved to work with people. She also had strong opinions of what she likes and doesn’t like and Kempson is fine with that in any person.

And Michelle Bouey:

“Wow! My first instinct because I’m an emotional, cheesy gal, I would probably cry my eyes out and she would be so weirded out. And in my emotional state and tears, I would thank her so much because she is such a gift to this world of music. Your talent touches me more than you’ll ever know.

And then I’d do what Rob said. I’d want to hang out with her and get to know her. She was a trailblazer, a feminist and ‘a badass bitch’. Patsy just seemed so cool and collected but still had this fire within her. I think it’s rare to have both things.”

‘A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline’ continues to June 26 at the Capitol Theatre, Mainstage, 20 Queen Street, Port Hope. For tickets, call 905-885-1071 or visit capitoltheatre.com.

Covid protocols and masks remain in effect at the theatre as of the writing and publishing of this article.

One of Rob Kempson’s responsibilities is to ensure the safety of his artists, crews and audience members because as he told me in the interview: “At the end of the day, we just wanna keep doing plays.”

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