The infamous operatic theatre production of The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets first premiered in Hamburg's Thalia Theatre in the spring of 1990. As a creation and collaboration between three of the 20th century's genre-benders—Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and William S Burroughs—The Black Rider takes up the fable of selling your soul to the devil for what price, and complicates the peasant folklore with twists of subconscious desire as seen through the filter of German Expressionism.
Under Edmonton's own November Theatre, the show made its Canadian and American premieres and toured from St John's to New York, finally ending its sold-out run at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre just a few years back. The production is highly complicated as it involves not just one, but three creative minds at play in terms of executing its musical score, a deceivingly simple story line and a deeply rooted nihilism within every direction. Musical icons from Marianne Faithful and Mary Margaret O'Hara to Richard Strange have been involved in past productions, and Waits' album of the same name remains one of his most elusively magical albums in an already magically elusive discography.
So when I learned that The Black Rider was going to be put up for a one-week run using students from the Augustana University in Camrose, Alberta, I thought, "Really?"
Directed and produced by Augustana's sessional theatre instructor, Kristine Nutting—who has successfully demonstrated through past productions an avid interest in pushing the boundaries through stylizing the macabre—The Black Rider ran all of last week in a small converted church to a crowd of mostly locals.
Camrose in its present state is a town holding just under 17 000 people. The centre is surrounded by farmland and dark highways. With a crowd of supportive friends and parental guardians, a cast and crew of 25 young theatre students put on a hell of a show last Friday night. Led by Augustana alumni and current U of A student Nathan Huisman, these inexperienced artists from rural Alberta delivered an astoundingly professional show in less than eight weeks.
Due to the strictest licensing rights agreements, attaining the rights to put on The Black Rider is no easy feat. Robert Wilson does not give out the rights to his play very often. But Nutting appealed to Wilson's own rural roots, his childhood of growing up as an outcast queer with a speech impediment in Waco, Texas, who, according to the director's notes, "found solace or at least some semblance that something else existed beyond his homophobic town with the weird piano teacher ... the town eccentric [who] exposed Robert to art, music and everything that would save him ... ."
This production of The Black Rider will not tour. Perhaps a couple hundred people saw it and no recorded document will exist of it. With a full band led by Curtis Ross and choreography by Kathy Ochoa, this show was a lot of work to put on, and that in itself was the sole reason it was put on: to go through the motions and process of staging a ridiculously complex show with almost no resources out in the middle of nowhere.
Throughout the show, I knew I was watching something special; I knew I was watching raw talent inexplicably throwing itself head first into experimental material with the confidence and ability to own the work. The energy of the production reminded me that anything is possible anywhere, anytime, so long as you go for it.
The director's notes conclude, "I explained to Mr Wilson that just because an artist is limited by geography does not mean that they must be limited in their artistic palette. Although we are not the chosen few who are born to New York or anywhere fabulous that perhaps the spirit of the eccentric piano teacher could live on via the legacy of his work."
Continuing on some 40 years after Wilson left Texas to become one of the most respected theatre artists in the world, the spirit of the eccentric theatre teacher lives on in rural Alberta.
*First published in Vue Weekly