Engelbert Humperdinck Comes to Vancouver Fringe
by Emily Davidson
Kathryn Kirkpatrick has just come upstairs from writing on her walls.
“I’ve been putting up a map in the basement,” she explains. “A journey of the story on paper.”
The story she’s mapping is that of I Am the Bastard Daughter of Engelbert Humperdinck, the one-woman show she and writer Michelle Deines are bringing to this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival. Drawn heavily from Kirkpatrick’s childhood, the play tells the story of a family on the verge of collapse, and a group of women who find solace in the music of pop singer Engelbert Humperdinck.
“My mother was the secretary of the Engelbert Humperdinck Fan Club, Montreal Chapter,” recounts Kirkpatrick. “These women would come to my house, and my sister and I would think, ‘Oh my God, here comes all the screaming and yelling.’ They’d have the records playing all the time. There was a very strong bond between those women, to get out of whatever was happening in their real lives.”
Kirkpatrick plays members of her family throughout the course of the production, as well as several women based on those she remembers from 1970’s Montreal. The show paints an off-beat, nuanced family portrait, with a healthy spattering of kooky obsession.
The journey of bringing the production from concept to stage has been, according to Kirkpatrick, one of timely encouragement and lucky breaks.
“I started telling the idea to different people, and they said I should make a play,” she says. “I then did a workshop with Martha Ross at Theatre Columbus, where we improvised all the characters. I got back a bunch of different ideas I didn’t even know I had.”
But it wasn’t until she teamed up with Deines that the play itself began to take shape. The duo met while working behind the scenes in Vancouver theatre, and acted together in Deines’ 2007 production, To the Moon. Kirkpatrick was then brought onboard as Co-Artistic Director of Working Spark Theatre.
The collaboration on the project itself began when Deines prompted Kirkpatrick to apply for the Firehall Arts Centre’s BC Buds Spring Arts Fair—and they were accepted. They had two weeks to comb through Kathryn’s material and put together a fifteen-minute reading.
“It’s her project; she has been talking about since I invited her to be part of the company,” says Deines. “When she presented the material to me, I started honing in on the arc side of things – trying to suss out what would be the actual story.”
The collaboration process was new to Deines, but both women were keen to solidify the work Kirkpatrick had done so far.
“I’ve written plays before, but I’ve never written a play with somebody,” Deines says. “I didn’t know how Kathryn would react to me saying, ‘I think we should do such and such,’ but it ended up being really cool. I had some suggestions about what might tell the story, and she was willing to go along with pretty much all of them!”
The reading at BC Buds was met with rave reviews. “We were a hit – we kept getting more and more audience,” says Kirkpatrick. “Donna Spencer, [Artistic Producer of the Firehall], heard about it and invited us to do their 30th Anniversary party and fundraiser. We were so honoured. Then someone mentioned to her that we were interested in doing the Fringe.”
It was the call from Spencer that ultimately decided the future of the production, and its appearance at this year’s festival.
“We had both enjoyed working on it so much together that we knew we wanted to keep going,” says Deines. “But it was down to Donna Spencer – she sent me this e-mail that said ‘Hey, we heard it was great! Why don’t we put you down for the Fringe as a Bring Your Own Venue?’ If that hadn’t happened, I don’t think we would have a show yet at all. It was the deadline and the fear of God, basically.”
The project was left with six weeks to expand the fifteen-minute script to the Festival’s usual forty-five minutes. The show lucked into support from the Union of BC Performers, who gave Deines and Kirkpatrick time in the Union’s rehearsal space.
“We’ve been rehearsing for free,” says Kirkpatrick. “We’d be doing it in the living room if it weren’t for that. Most Fringe shows, let’s face it, are written in a living room.”
As the show nears its opening performance, Kirkpatrick has been feeling the responsibility of holding up an eight-character, one-woman play.
“I keep thinking someone else is going to come in and play one of the other characters, but nobody does!” she says. “Sustaining a one-woman show is much harder than I thought it would be. I’m eating more vegetables and I’m working on a treadmill now. I need to work on my energy – there’s no phoning it in. You’re all in, or get off the stage!”
Deines is confident that Kirkpatrick will be able to convey the story that comes so richly from her own experiences.
“She’s an incredible comedienne. She actually has a kind of stand-up quality about her performance,” says Deines. “In a lot of ways, I don’t really have to direct her acting because these characters already come from her – from her memories and experiences. They’re so much a part of her already.”
Until then, Kirkpatrick is going back to writing on the walls, plotting out the frenzied, funny show she helped to create.
“It moves really quick – I don’t even know when people will have time to laugh,” she jokes. “I guess I’ll find out!”
I am the Bastard Daughter of Engelbert Humpderdinck runs from Thurs. Sept. 5 to Sun. Sept. 15 at the Firehall Arts Centre. Show times vary; click here for details and tickets.