There’s no better tribute to the late American musician and activist Pete Seeger than a show that takes an audience along for a sing-along tour.
The Incompleat Folksinger is based on an autobiography and imagines concerts that Seeger would have given on the road between 1935 and 1970, around the same time he wrote the book.
“The audience kind of becomes another character in the show. They become the audiences at all these different concert moments and are encouraged to sing along,” said actor Mark Hellman, who plays Seeger and has over thirty years as a multi-disciplinary performing artist.
“Seeger was kind of famous for getting people to sing with him so they feel very embedded in the action of the play.”
The show is directed by Ross Desprez and will be at the Ladysmith Waterfront Gallery next Friday and Saturday for three performances.
The book is brought to life with the words spoken by Hellman all coming from Seeger’s own writing through the different sections of the book.
“When he decided to write the autobiography 35 years into his career he knew it would be a very incomplete picture that would be drawn,” Hellman said, noting that the title is not a typo but in fact a reference to a book Seeger enjoyed entitled The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653.
In making the play, which debuted in 2015 and has toured the country, a timeline was found that started around 1935 during Seeger’s formative years playing the banjo.
The audience follows him from playing in a union hall in Oklahoma City alongside Woody Guthrie with an intimate audience of 50, to him protesting the Vietnam War on the Washington Mall in 1969 singing to half a million people.
Seeger also travelled to perform in Lebanon and Israel a week before the Six Day War in 1967.
Hellman said that while there is plenty of music, The Incompleat Folksinger is a play through and through because of its “wonderful literate core.”
“There’s a lot of musical productions dedicated to musical greats of the past and they tend to be more nostalgic in tone,” he said. “This play is the opposite. It’s so immediate because the writing places us in all of these different moments….”
Hellman has been playing the guitar since he was 16 years old and picked up the banjo to learn specifically for this play.
When he was learning acoustic as a teen his sister bought him a copy of Seeger’s Folksinger’s Guitar Guide – a general instruction of how to play folk music.
“I was continuously inspired by Pete Seeger my whole life,” he said, mentioning how his mother also saw the musician three times in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Seeger’s discography includes the likes of Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, Turn! Turn! Turn! and We Shall Overcome among many others.
“A lot of people in my generation have never heard of him because if they grew up in the television generation they wouldn’t have seen him on television,” Hellman said, referencing how Seeger was blacklisted from the mainstream.
An environmentalist, peace activist, and proponent for universal human rights and feminism who also brought more awareness to the union movement, it wasn’t until Seeger was in his 80s that he was properly recognized for his contributions beyond music.
Mary Desprez said she wanted to bring the play to the Gallery because all of those issues stand true today.
“What make me excited about seeing Mark do this piece, while also a bit sad, is that we’re still struggling with those same issues,” she said. “Pete brought joy and hope and stories and song and that’s how it feels watching this show. It just brings people together and we need that.”
Even the writing in the book The Incompleat Folksinger is “immediate” which made it easier to adapt into a play.
“It feels like you’re in the here and now and that’s what theatre does,” Hellman said. “The audience, even as they hear it as a historical document, it just keeps reminding them of what’s going on right now and how important it is to continue to speak out and sing out because Seeger’s primary philosophy was when you get people together to sing, it doesn’t matter what song their singing, the act of singing affects the body politic.”
The Incompleat Folksinger is a fundraiser for the gallery.
There are three shows: Friday Mar. 16 at 7:30 p.m., as well as Saturday Mar. 17 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are available at the Gallery and Salamander Books for $18 and will be sold for $22 at the door.