Following in her footsteps Maternal inspiration sparks local performers, artisans
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/05/2020 (934 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A generation or two ago, when young people were taking up a family vocation, it was generally said they were following in their father’s footsteps.
Today, moms are inspiring more than sentimental Mother’s Day cards. They are acting as guides and mentors as their kids venture onto trails blazed by their maternal figures.
In Winnipeg, the stories are abundant, including:
Debbie and Gislina Patterson: Theatre-making in the blood
The expression “born in a trunk” has long been used in conjunction with children of performers — especially children who grow up to be performers themselves — referring to the gritty life of being raised in a touring show.
Technically, actor Gislina Patterson was born in Winnipeg, and no trunks were involved. On the other hand, baby Gislina could be seen bouncing in a jolly jumper hanging from one of the arches in the ruins of the Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park in St. Norbert, while actor-parents Debbie Patterson and Arne MacPherson worked at Shakespeare in the Ruins.
“In the early days of SiR, one of the volunteer positions was babysitting Gislina,” recalls Debbie Patterson, 54. As a toddler, Deb recalls, Gislina resisted the urge to run around the park and play during a production of Twelfth Night, fixating instead on the show, night after night.
“We would play this game of ‘Who Says?’ in the car on the way to and from the show,“ says Debbie. “We’d say a line from the show and ask Gislina: ‘Who says it?’”
The precocious child would not only remember who said what. By the end of the run, Gislina could recite long passages of text from the show… at the age of three. It may have been inevitable Gislina would choose the theatrical path, though it’s not an easy one.
“Mom and dad might’ve hoped I would’ve gone into something a little more stable,” says Gislina, 26. “But at the same time, they did start roping me into their performances basically from birth.”
Before long, it was the other way around. At the age of 14, the budding playwright premièred a Winnipeg fringe show, Sucker in 2008, which Debbie directed. That was after Debbie took a summer off from family to tour her own fringe show. She returned and vowed the following year she would perform at the fringe as a family, a promise she kept in 2007 with the show Candy From a Baby, followed in 2009 with Molotov Circus, which cast Debbie as a wheelchair-bound performer, billed as the world’s “sexiest chicken geek.” Gislina played her daughter, rebelling at chores such as pulling mom around with a rope. Gislina’s brother, Solmund MacPherson, also joined the cast as an “anti-gravity boy.”
Debbie wrote the role for herself years after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, facing the fact she could no longer hide her resulting disability onstage.
Debbie acknowledges the show proved to be a teachable moment, demonstrating some of the sheer willpower required to have a career in theatre.
“I thought I had to stop performing,” Debbie says. “And then when I wrote Molotov Circus, I wrote my character in a wheelchair so I could be on stage without limping.
“So a lot of that thing about just doing it yourself, just make it happen, has been energized by my disability, so that’s been a positive influence as well. Even not walking, it doesn’t have to stop you.”
“I’ve been thinking about it more and more, as I found that I seem to be making my own work,“ says Gislina, “I find I’m a lot less reliant on the larger institutions than I thought I would be as an artist.”
And that was largely because of the example set by Debbie.
“Deb is one of the most prolific self-producers and independent artists working in Winnipeg,” Gislina says. “She has made almost everything she has done by herself or with collectives outside of larger institutions. And she has been able to control what she has done so closely.
“I found that really inspiring and I think that has been a big influence on me. I wonder if I would still be doing this if I didn’t have such an excellent example of how to do it in a way that was on my own terms.”
— Randall King
Gwen Hoebig and Juliana and Sasha Moroz: Family… with strings attached
Home has always been alive with the sound of music for Juliana and Sasha Moroz.
Their mother, Gwen Hoebig, is a violinist and the concertmaster of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and their father, David Moroz, is a piano professor at the Desautels Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba, and often performs with the WSO. Their uncle, Desmond Hoebig, Gwen’s brother, is a cellist with the Houston Symphony.
So it comes as no surprise that Juliana, 18, and Sasha, 20, took up instruments as youngsters. After years of lessons as kids, they are now following their mother’s musical path, with Juliana becoming a cellist — she’s just completed her first year in music performance at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. — and Sasha a violist who has just finished the second year in a similar program at the University of Ottawa.
Mother’s Day gives the siblings a chance to appreciate the musical environment, the encouragement and empathy their mother and father have given them, rather than constant pressure.
“We practised, it was our decision to do it,” Sasha says. “It always had to be our decision.”
Juliana started playing the cello when she was two or three — “My hands are cello hands” — but it was watching her mother perform as part of the WSO that convinced her to try a music as a career.
“When I was little and going to the symphony, she was the one who would stand up and tune the orchestra,“ Juliana recalls. “But one time she was the soloist and she was at the front of the stage, wearing a beautiful dress, and I thought: This is what I want to be one day.”
She got to see first-hand from her mother what it takes to be a professional musician, and has since tried to follow her lead.
“She’s where I got my work ethic and drive from,” Juliana says. “She makes sure we’re sharing our love of music with the audience and there’s no sense worrying. You’re just sharing.”
Sasha started with the violin but says he struggled, giving it up when he was 10. Instead of insisting he stick with it, he says Hoebig helped him find a solution and get back to playing music again.
“I told her I couldn’t do it any more,” he recalls. “She said I should play a different string instrument, and it worked.”
In 2017, the Winnipeg Music Festival added a new class for string instrument groups, including family ensembles, to its vast schedule. It proved to be an opportunity too good to pass up, Hoebig says.
“My husband said, ‘Hey, we should enter that.’ It was literally because of the festival that we started to play together,” she says of the JAGD Quartet, a moniker derived from the initials of the members’ first names.
A year later, the JAGD Quartet was one of the headliners for the festival’s 100th anniversary gala. The quartet performs on occasion when everyone’s busy schedules can allow. All four are at home this spring, with school years finished and the WSO on COVID-19 hiatus, so the quartet has added a YouTube performance on May 22 to everyone’s suddenly wide-open schedule.
Sasha says they’re able to set aside the usual family roles when they play, but that doesn’t make it less of a challenge.
“It’s harder and easier at the same time. I have to play my hardest all the time,” he says, adding his parents’ playing ability is a step up compared with fellow students and friends he usually rehearses with.
“I’m glad we didn’t do it when they were little,” Hoebig says. “Now we sit down and play as equals.”
— Alan Small
Anita and Pina Romolo, almond-based entrepreneurs
Pina Romolo grew up in a home that valued entrepreneurial spirit, so it’s no surprise she eventually started a business of her own.
“My mom used to own a restaurant when we were kids and my parents were both in real estate,” says the 42-year-old president and CEO of Piccolo Cucina, the almond-based product manufacturing company she runs alongside her 65-year-old mom, Anita Romolo, who serves as vice-president and was the inspiration behind the company’s creation in 2009.
“She was laid off from her job and she just started baking,” says the younger Romolo, who adds that her mom usually lets her do all the talking.
Pina became curious about the possibilities of creating a business plan for her mom’s baking. Eventually, her mom asked her to join her as a business partner. Now it’s a full-time job for both of them, making what their website calls “gourmet artisan Italian products,“ such as lemon lavender almond macaroons.
“Food is very central to our family,” Pina says. “So it was a really natural fit. It’s certainly gone through a metamorphosis since 2009.
“We started with different products and honed in on the gluten-free space about six years ago. That’s when we realized we had an opportunity with our products, that are inherently gluten-free and natural.”
“It’s better for you,” adds Anita, in a rare speaking moment.
“It’s a healthy, indulgent snack,” agrees Pina Romolo. “People are more and more aware of what they are consuming and they want to indulge guilt-free.”
To some children, the idea of working alongside a parent might sound like a nightmare, but in this case, both mother and daughter are enjoying the experience.
“There’s a beautiful dance that happens with my mom that couldn’t happen with anybody else,” says Pina. “There’s an understanding.”
“She knows what I need and what we need to make the business go forward. It works quite harmoniously, I would say. There’s always going to be disagreements, but we know how to handle each other.
“She’s the only person on earth who knows me as good as I know myself.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, both mother and daughter have been working from home. Since the two work together, Anita has been visiting regularly to help take care of Pina’s nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, but so far, the family has no big plans for Mother’s Day.
“We haven’t really talked about it yet,” says Pina. “I have two brothers, and one of my brothers has two daughters of his own. In the past, the kids have made us breakfast so the moms get to enjoy breakfast, but I’m not sure this year with social distancing.
“We might just have a coffee and breakfast from home and see each other from afar.”
Despite not being able to celebrate with extended family, Pina has already received a really nice present for Mother’s Day.
“My son has been allergic to tree nuts and peanuts since he was born,” she says. “Just this week we did a food challenge, which is where you sit in the doctor’s office and taste one of your allergens. The blood tests came back negative.
“He got to taste almonds for the first time.”
— Frances Koncan
Tracy Dahl and Anton Dahl Sokalski: singers extraordinaire
She is described as Canada’s premier coloratura soprano.
To her son Anton Dahl Sokalski, Tracy Dahl is just mom. But be assured, Anton, 18, learned at an early age that his mother was something extraordinary.
“Since I was a baby, she has been singing glorious opera arias in my living room for me to hear,“ says Sokalski on the phone from the River Heights home he is sharing with his mother and teacher father after returning from the University of Victoria, where he was in his first year of studying music before COVID-19 sent him home.
“Before bed, she would sing me and my brother lullabies with her gorgeous, angelic voice,“ Anton says. “I think being surrounded by someone whose voice carries that much power and influence, especially with the ability to convey emotion and passion, was immediately embedded in me from a very young age.“
It may have been a foregone conclusion that Anton would be drawn to musical performance. The signs showed early, Dahl recalls.
“We are not a quiet household. We all tend to the dramatic,” says Dahl, 58. “So he always had a flair for it. You can ask any of his elementary school friends from (kindergarten) to Grade 6. Every birthday was an event: Pirates of the Caribbean. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Star Wars. He was always inclined to the theatrical.”
Dahl herself took up Anton’s vocal instruction. In 2010, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the singer had to give up work to recover from surgery and treatments.
“It was a pretty dark time for me,” she says. “I lost all my work that year because I need to be home and taking care of myself.
“So I was looking around for something to be inspiring and would be good for the kids,“ she says. “And the Manitoba Opera was doing The Magic Flute and they needed three boys with unchanged voices to play the spirits.”
Both Anton and his older brother Jaden were called to audition. Jaden decided it wasn’t for him, but Anton, in Grade 3 at the time, was cast.
“He was really young and he could hold his own in the part and he had a blast,” Dahl says. “It was just a catapult of things he wanted to try and in the next year, he did.”
Anton won a role in the Little Opera Company production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, and another in the Rainbow Stage production of Les Miserables.
“He’s a sponge,” Dahl says of teaching him the former role. “He’s got a great ear, is very musical, and he remembers things. He could still sing all of it for you now. And I think when he got in Les Miz at Rainbow, he was hooked.”
Anton says it was a subsequent role — playing James in the musical James and the Giant Peach at Manitoba Theatre for Young People in 2015 — that was his “a-ha” moment.
“That was one of the first shows I did where I was the only young performer,” Anton says. “I didn’t have any other kids to mess around with during break and just being in an adult working environment, performing seemed like an achievable job.”
In his music studies at university, Anton is deviating from mom’s operatic path to emphasize rock music as his principal interest.
“I’d say it was a continuation of my mother’s path, rather than a departure,” he says. “I just really love that music. Listening to a lot of music from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, I find that it can capture memories and emotions in the same way as singing opera and singing musical theatre.”
After his university experience, Anton now has an even better idea of how lucky he is to take vocal lessons with Tracy Dahl.
“I got hit with another wave of realization of how big a deal she was when I went to UVic,” he says. “Because so many of the female singers love her and know her. They listen to her a lot and a lot of them idolize her. When they found out I was her son, they’d say: ‘What? That’s crazy!’
“It’s not that crazy to me,” Anton says. “She’s always just been my mom.”
— Randall King
Typecasting: Free Press books editor had great mentor in writer mom
Gail Cabana-Coldwell and Ben Sigurdson, writers/editors
My first ever newspaper assignment came with no byline, no actual writing by me and no payment other than spumoni ice cream.
I was around eight years old, riding shotgun with the Phantom Gourmet as she reviewed the Old Spaghetti Factory in its old Exchange District location for the Winnipeg Sun. The Phantom Gourmet was the nom de plume of my mother, Gail Sigurdson, who wore a number of writing hats at the Sun from 1983 to 1990 before moving to the Winnipeg Free Press, where she was an editor and section manager for six years before the state of industry financials saw her downsized.
As a kid, I always found visiting my mom’s work to be exciting: people everywhere hurrying to make deadline, on their way to important interviews, photographers lugging around big cameras. (My brother and I were used more than once in photos for back-to-school and Christmas articles.) The newspaper seemed so full of energy, so important — and my mom worked there, which I thought was the coolest.
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.
Frances Koncan (she/her) is a writer, theatre director, and failed musician of mixed Anishinaabe and Slovene descent. Originally from Couchiching First Nation, she is now based in Treaty 1 Territory right here in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.
Updated on Thursday, April 28, 2022 10:15 AM CDT: Updates link to Piccolo Cucina