By Liz Nicholls, .ca
The title of the “cabaret” that opens Thursday on the Citadel’s Maclab stage borrows the Michif word for a multi-ingredient stew.
In Rubaboo, Andrea Menard — the acclaimed Métis singer-songwriter/ actor/ playwright/ teacher/ founder of the Sacred Feminine Learning Lodge — has fashioned an original stage cabaret that embraces music (co-written with long-time collaborator Robert Walsh), dance, ceremony, stories.
As the exuberant Vancouver-based artist explains on the phone, her rubaboo ‘recipe’ comes from traditional Métis culture, and the “four sacred elements, fire, water, earth, and wind.” And “the three worlds” that structure the show start with “a band onstage. We have microphones, we have instruments….” That band includes Menard, Walsh (Menard’s song-writing partner of 25 years, guitarist/musical director), and Karen Shepherd and Nathen Aswell on fiddle and Chapman stick, respectively.
At first Menard and Edmonton-based Walsh imagined the show as a compilation, culled from their extensive archive that includes five recorded (and six or seven unrecorded) albums and two symphonies. And then, as the structure of the piece emerged, in consultation with Menard’s “grandmothers,” as she calls her “spiritual helpers from the other side,” it became clear where other original songs were needed. “There’s a hole here; OK, we need a song there; I knew I wanted some prayer songs in Michif….” Six songs in the show are from Menard’s give-away album (check out andreamenard.com).
So, on one level Rubaboo lives as a concert experience. “Then there’s an in-between place where we’re creating a ceremonial rubaboo,” says Menard of “the engine of the show. Then we enter the spirit realm where I tell a creation story, from a much higher perspective.… So, it’s a cabaret because there’s lots of elements and lots of music. But it’s such a beautiful theatrical feast too, an experience that only theatre can give.” She points to Kimberly Purtell’s lighting and Cimmeron Meyer’s set, based on the artwork of Métis visual artist Leah Dorion (“the co-creator of my deck of wisdom cards”).
Menard credits Dennis Garnhum, then the artistic director of the Grand Theatre in London Ont. (where Rubaboo premiered last year in a Vancouver Arts Club co-production) with “calling the show forth,” as she puts it. The fateful phone call came during COVID. “He asked me ‘do you have a show?’ I called Robert, my collaborator, and we made something happen! But if Dennis hadn’t called….”
“In many ways that has happened a lot in my career!” declares Menard, who has a kind of sunny, humourous exclamation-point energy in conversation. She re-located to Vancouver 13 years ago after 35 years in Saskatoon. “It was a spirit call,” she says of the move, “honestly, not for work or a relationship…. I started taking the inward-seeking path, which I’d always done, but on on a bigger scale.” And she has taken her work as a teacher online, as you can see by opportunities for workshops, courses and circles on her website.
It was as an actor the Menard, “a Métis kid living all over the prairie provinces in small towns and the bush,” made her start. “Two or three lead roles in TV series…. And then my first play The Velvet Devil had a big life — as a radio play, a CD, then a made-for-TV CBC movie. All that happened in Saskatoon.”
“My dad was the king of the kitchen party…. I didn’t know this (the life of an actor/playwright/musician) was an option for making a living. And I almost would have followed in his footsteps if it can’t been for people like Angie Tysseland,” a Saskatoon musician/ composer/ choir director.
“She and I started a band together,” says Menard. “I was 19 or 20, very late to the whole scene. We had a jazz and blues-y little duo.” And life got very busy. “I’d never be doing all the things I’m doing now — film and TV, theatre, music — if I hadn’t been given so many opportunities and help in those different genres…. The arts scene in Saskatchewan helped pull me in those directions, one at a time.”
As she describes, the heroine of The Velvet Devil “was a Métis girl from Batoche, who dreamed bigger than her community and wanted to be a big star onstage….” She’d heard jazz on the radio “and wanted to be those singers. And she ran away to the big city, turned her back on her mother and her people, and did become a big star. The play takes place when she has a vision her mother has passed, and she comes home and has to make amends for her decision.”
It’s a powerful story line and it’s all about identity, she says,. “What the world expects you to be and what you yourself are, and you just have to find a way to make those match. And here I am 25 years later. And Rubaboo is the essence of me now!”
As for so many artists, the fallow years of COVID were a time of re-assessment for Menard. “I honestly thought maybe I’m done with performing…. What I did instead was go online as a teacher, a messenger, helping people with my circles and courses. But I would never have had the courage if I didn’t feel the world so needed help…. I literally gave away my career; I thought maybe this is who I am now.”
Menard laughs. “Cut to the next scene, and I’m doing a new show, a new TV series (Sullivan’s Crossing), a new album! The four quadrants of my life just seemed to blast open!”
She thinks of Rubaboo as “my way of incorporating the teacher in me, the one who wants to help people heal…. I just want people to find their way back to their best selves. It’s always mattered to me. But now I’m in my ‘50s, (I see) it’s just crucial. People are struggling so hard!”
Reconciliation and “the way so many Canadians are feeling it’s not their responsibility” was a big motivator. “I want people to be excited to step into their role in reconciliation,” she says, “to be their best selves in this time of change and struggle…. I wanted to create a show that helps people fall in love with Métis people. to re-jig the narrative that’s out there.”
“Facing it in love is the only way I can do it!” says Menard. “The warrior way is needed but I’m not necessarily that person. People forget that love is an individual thing…. So if this show can do its part opening people’s hearts, that’s my goal!”
“We’re choosing to fall in love with the audience every night.” Menard laughs, “it’s not always easy. But that’s my goal! My team up on onstage, that’s our vow…. I take you on an emotional journey.”
Theatre: Citadel Theatre
Created by: Andrea Menard
Music by: Andrea Menard and Robert Walsh
Directed by: Alanis King
Starring: Andrea Menard, Robert Walsh, Nathen Aswell, Karen Shepherd
Running: through March 3
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com