SUNDRE – Life experiences tend to be the source material that influences and guides an artist’s creative process.
A local duo who harbour a shared passion for musical Broadway-style stage plays are certainly no exception.
Brian Bailey and Jamie Syer, the Sundre-area founders of B.S. Productions, have over the past nearly two years collaborated closely on composing an original musical.
Inspired largely by some chapters from their own lives, Camp Spartan is a coming-of-age tale about growth and self-determination.
“Essentially, it started percolating after Matilda,” Bailey said on Tuesday, Nov. 22 during an interview at the Sundre Municipal Library joined by his creative cohort, referring to the group’s six sold-out performances in February 2020 just prior to the pandemic.
“I probably started writing down some ideas about two years ago,” he said.
B.S. Productions has ever since its inaugural stage play performances of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in 2017 used existing scripts and lined up arrangements for the rights to use the music involved. Camp Spartan represents the first original musical play Bailey and Syer composed fresh from scratch.
Bailey said they had both very much enjoyed working on Matilda with a mixed, all-ages cast.
“We wanted to do something similar. There isn’t a whole lot of theatre that involves multi-generational casts like that,” he said, adding they started reading some scripts and listening to some scores.
“And then audaciously I decided, ‘Well, I’m going to try to write something,’” he said.
The stage-setting scenario that popped into his mind for a story that would logically feature a group of adults interacting with a larger group of youths, he said, is a summer camp.
Art imitates life
“I spent a couple of summers in a summer camp where my mother was a nurse,” said Bailey.
Syer also recalls – albeit not particularly fondly – a trip to a summer camp.
“It wasn’t the best experience in my life,” Syer said. “But then we’ve got kids in the show whose characters are kind of ambivalent about being in this summer camp.”
Of course there are also others who, like Bailey, loved and looked forward to going, said Syer.
“I wouldn’t go that far!” Bailey chimed in with a laugh.
Asked if personal experiences planted the seeds that sprouted into Camp Spartan, he said, “Isn’t everything that’s written, really?”
There were even times when the artists essentially plagiarized directly from life’s pages.
“Some of the names are borrowed. Pepper was my mother’s nickname at camp, and that’s one of the characters. There’s a Jamie in the script that doesn’t really want to go to summer camp,” said Bailey.
“So you know, part of it is just plain stolen from life, and parts are just concepts and ideas that came to mind.”
While Bailey built the story and script, Syer’s extensive musical background conjured up the original musical score.
“This isn’t his first rodeo as far as writing a script is concerned, whereas this is the first musical that I’ve written,” said Syer. “We identified places in the script where we thought there should be music and we worked together on that.”
Bailey would send to Syer bulky summaries of what he felt should be said in the songs, and the latter concisely snipped the lyrics down to size.
“Basically, he cut everything by half, which was brilliant because I just said too much,” said Bailey.
Although there weren’t any late night coffee-fuelled brainstorming sessions to spitball ideas, much of their creative collaboration was initially done virtually because getting together at the time was more challenging.
“We had well over a thousand emails before we got started auditioning,” said Bailey.
“But we’re both good communicators and so gradually we came up with something that we thought we could live with,” said Syer.
Once they were finally satisfied with the script and the lyrics, the search began last summer to find actors for the 21 roles, of which 14 are for characters under the age of 17. Performing the score is a three-piece band with Syer playing two keyboards, Bailey on drums as well as Laurie Syer on bass.
“That’s been our core group for all of the shows that we’ve done,” said Syer. “Sometimes we’ve added another instrument or two, but it’s always been keyboards, bass and percussion.”
The musical score has continued to evolve a bit throughout rehearsals, which Syer said he expected.
“There have been some changes, not so much in the script, but in the songs and in the scoring,” he said, adding that taking artistic liberty to alter licensed productions is not an option.
“But because we created this, we can also change it as necessary.”
By the time the cast hits the stage early next year, the production will have been in the works for more than two years.
“It’s not as though we’ve done nothing since the pandemic hit,” said Syer. “But this will be the first time that we’re mounting a full-length, Broadway-style musical on the scale of the others that we did leading up to Matilda.”
A coming-of-age tale
Providing a synopsis about their story, Bailey said, “The heart of the play is self-determination; that people have choices” and that the freedom to make decisions can also lead to consequences.
Camp Spartan also explores how youth preoccupy themselves and what challenges they face on the path to self-discovery, as opposed to having kids with helicopter parents constantly hovering overheard and indefinitely enrolling them in endless programs, he said.
“This is the essence of the play, is that kids have to make their own fun,” he said. “They do find their way; they discover things about themselves and why what they do matters.”
Like any good story, Syer added there’s also some conflict that creates opportunity for growth.
“It’s the idea that we do have choices even if it’s not always apparent that we do,” he said.
Both spoke passionately about the creative process.
These productions “are always a tremendous experience because people end up discovering things about themselves or their talents that maybe turn out to be a bit surprising,” said Syer.
“And the result – in my experience – it’s never been anything other than beyond what I could have hoped for.”
Bailey said also he enjoys watching flourish into relationships the connections made by cast and crew on the stage and behind the scenes.
“Some really good friendships are made,” he said. “There’s really not much that brings people together much more than a challenge and taking risk together, which is really what theatre is.”
To livestream, or not to livestream
The full-length musical’s runtime is expected to last upward of two hours with an intermission, and the two are optimistic about planning six performances.
“I think we’ll get a good response,” said Syer. “(But) if these are not sold out, we’re not unhappy, because we figure many people are still more comfortable coming to a place that’s not packed full of bodies.”
Whether there will be an option for people to livestream the show – as was offered in 2021 for All Together Now in combination with a half-capacity crowd to adhere to gathering restrictions at the time – has not yet been determined.
“I’m hoping that it’s going to be a live show,” said Syer, adding that watching a livestream takes away from the more intimate experience of personally attending stage theatre.
“There’s nothing like being there,” he said.
“I’d rather a live audience than someone on their couch,” he said.
That being said, the possibility was not dismissed outright.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Syer. “Maybe we won’t have to cross it.”