Playwright dreams new dream for Les Mis
Fringe festival cancellation shifts parody of Victor Hugo classic online
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/07/2020 (1046 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Theatres in Winnipeg may still be dark, but that’s not stopping playwright, director and actor Connor Wielgosz from putting his new musical on to the stage and into the light.
LESS Miserable is a musical parody created by Wielgosz for the 2020 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival. When that was cancelled owing to COVID-19, Wielgosz had to make a difficult choice: put the performance off until next year or find a new way to showcase it.
“When we thought about video,” he says, “we figured out a way of being socially distanced and safe where we could also perform.”
The musical being parodied is the 1980 synthesizer-heavy spectacle Les Miserables, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 historical novel of the same name, which traces the redemption of Jean Valjean against the backdrop of a revolution — not The Revolution, this is a different revolution — in Paris.
Hugo’s book is an epic that explores themes, like divine grace and the qualities of different kinds of love, and moral ideas — stealing bread is bad, raising the child of your dead employee is good — that perhaps initially don’t lend themselves to the genre of musical theatre.
But writer Alain Boublil saw potential in Hugo’s book. He was inspired to create Les Mis, as it’s colloquially known, while in the audience at a performance of the musical Oliver!, itself an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist.
And today, Wielgosz sees further creative potential in Boublil’s adaptation, which is the second-longest-running musical in history.
Even if you’ve never seen Les Mis, you may be familiar with some of its imagery: a young girl sweeping a floor; an ensemble marching in place while the French flag waves behind them; or the infamous stage that revolves 63 times during every show and has set off an overused trend in theatrical scenic design that simply will not die.
But while the elements and ideas in Wielgosz’s parody are the same, the plot is different, so audiences don’t need to be familiar with the musical or book to enjoy LESS Miserable, which has a more simplified plot: one man trying to be happy.
Wielgosz is in the middle of an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to raise $3,000 to help cover the costs of creating the performance — billed on the campaign website as a “video storybook” — and paying the nine artists involved, many of whom rely on money earned at the fringe and were hit hard by the effect of the pandemic.
(Perks of donation, beyond a link to stream the performance, include posters, raunchy cross-stitched samplers and Marius-and-Cosette-themed condoms.)
For some of them, LESS Miserable would have marked their fringe debut. For others, like stage manager Erica Mitchell, who is starting medical school in the fall, it would have marked their final fringe show.
For Wielgosz, a regular performer at the fringe (Magic: The Musical, Hundred Shows Price of One, Taxidermy: The Musical) the idea of digital theatre was an interesting one that had many exciting possibilities… and many challenges.
“The biggest challenge was finding a way for all of them to perform together without rehearsing together or performing in the same space,” he says. “It was definitely a new experience.”
Wielgosz has embarked on a new kind of process to bring LESS Miserable to life. The cast rehearsed digitally and Wielgosz filmed each person individually. He edited all the shots together to create a finished product.
“We’re filming everyone separately on a black backdrop, in front of a camera, and then putting it together and making it look as if we’re all in the scene.”
It’s not quite theatre and it’s not exactly film. There’s no real word for what theatre artists are attempting to capture yet via the mediums available to them.
But Wielgosz knows one thing is for sure: it will be a lot of fun and, he hopes, one way for the theatre industry to move forward.
“We tried to find a new way of doing things and by figuring out that we could create something like this while being socially distanced,” he says.
“I’m hoping this will open up new opportunities into the coming months and the future, and we’ll find more creative ways of performing theatre.”
LESS Miserable will be available to stream after the Indiegogo campaign wraps up on July 29. The cost of viewing the performance is $19; to donate to the campaign and access a link to the live stream, visit wfp.to/lessmis.
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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.