Al Simmons needs an audience. To the beloved Manitoban children’s entertainer, butts in seats are almost as crucial as well-placed puns. Many performers make themselves the centre of attention or the ultimate decision-maker, but what’s made Simmons an icon for over 50 years is that he does precisely the opposite: he lets the audience participate, inviting five-year-olds to sing with him, heckle him, and sometimes, stage bomb him.
"In front of an audience, they become my directors. That’s what I’ve done my whole career: I hear when they laugh, and I hear where they don’t," says Simmons, now 72. "I instruct the audience at the beginning that I expect them to yell things at me, to laugh at me, to have fun. I encourage hecklers. It just makes everybody remember: Hey, I’m watching a live performance."
Take an archival clip from 1980. At Assiniboine Park, the Human Jukebox stands tall and attracts a dense crowd, wondering who or what is inside. A coin is dropped into a Rube Goldbergian slot, rolling through a tube. The audience is quiet, until a hand pops through to catch it. A child screams, a bell dings, and out pops Simmons. "Now for this tune, I’m going to use a very special horn," he says. "The noise of this horn comes out of your mouths. When I squeeze it, you all go, ‘HONK.’" They oblige.
There’s real artistry at play when Simmons performs live, which is why the last 12 months have been such a strange, inexplicable era in his life. 2020 was supposed to be the busiest year of his career, but it came screeching to a halt with the pandemic, right after a run of his one-man production of Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville wrapped up in Manitoba schools. (He developed the show with Manitoba Opera in 2009, and has toured it for the organization since).
"I wouldn’t say I was depressed. I sort of accepted it," recalls Simmons. "To me, it felt like a forced retirement. You’re done. We’re all in. It’s over."
He started doing housework in Anola with his wife, Barb. He didn’t touch a musical instrument for months. "I did whatever I felt like doing, and to tell the truth, it was amazing. It was the first time in 52 years I was home, just my wife and I. Glorious," he says, despite the huge financial hit.
But Simmons got antsy. He set up a barebones home studio — his former studio-workshop, along with 50 years worth of props, memorabilia, and home-made instruments was destroyed in a 2018 fire — and started producing some pandemic-related short videos. In one, he cuts the bottom off a milk jug and wears it like a medical mask. "The only problem is, everything smells like dairy air," he says.
Simmons was somewhat content, schticking it to the pandemic as only he could. He had to be, with no clue when a return to crowds would come. One day this winter, his phone rang. It was Larry Desrochers, Manitoba Opera’s general director and CEO, and he wanted to know if Simmons was interested in filming his Barber of Seville for an online recorded performance.
"I said no," says Simmons. "It was designed as a live show with audience interaction. They played a part. They were the chorus, and they holler when they’re supposed to. At first, I flatly refused. It was precious to me, and I didn’t want to mess with it."
Then, he thought about it. He called back Desrochers, and met with the production company, Moose Toque, which changed his outlook, finding unique workarounds to compensate for the lack of crowdplay. He agreed to do the show, which runs online from March 20-28. Over five eight-hour shoots at the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre, Simmons got to work.
"What we did was, (in addition to Al playing every role), we had Al narrating his own show, reacting from the audience to what’s happening on stage," says Moose Toque’s Alex White. "He talks to the kids through the camera." At other times during the 45-minute show, using editing tricks, Simmons appears on screen in duplicate.
"When it’s for kids, it allows you to play and have fun. If you’re shooting a commercial, a movie, or documentary, there has to be a certain sense of realism," says White. "With Al, it doesn’t have to be real all the time."
The Barber of Seville as styled by Al Simmons will be available free to stream online at mbopera.ca from March 20-28. The show is sponsored by Safe at Home Manitoba, Canada Life, Manitoba Hydro, Payworks, and the Canada, Manitoba, and Winnipeg arts councils.
The plot, per Manitoba Opera: Rosina is in love with the Count, who is pretending to be someone else; Dr. Bartolo is determined to wed Rosina, and Figaro, the jack-of-all-trades barber, is having a bad hair day.
On March 25, the Free Press is hosting a subscribers-only livestreaming event at 7 p.m., featuring a live chat with Al Simmons. Visit this page for more information.
That’s probably a fair thesis statement for Simmons’ whole career and a key reason for his longevity: he toes the line between pure inventiveness and realism, gleefully tap-dancing back and forth over it. He makes child-like wonder an ideal state of mind, constantly rejigging old lyrics and one-liners to keep up with the changing times.
To do that on a production like Barber, Simmons takes his cues from its composer and librettist, Gioachino Rossini and Cesare Sterbini, who built their show in the tradition of Commedia dell’arte, with characters like Figaro and Bartolo filling archetypal roles. "They were making fun of the music and the styles of the previous century," he says. "I’ve done what I can to poke fun at other styles of music as well." An example: he samples both Lizzo and Carly-Rae Jepsen, whose music echoes themes of courtship and bravado present throughout the production.
Manitoba Opera’s Larry Desrochers says the reason, aside from Bugs Bunny, that the Barber has resonated for so long is its funniness and the relevance of its themes. "It’s an old man, trying to control the free will of a young woman, and he gets his comeuppance," he says.
Desrochers understood Simmons’ initial reticence about filming his production, given the lack of an audience. "He gets his energy from the kids, and they get theirs from him," he says. "We couldn’t duplicate that, so we had to think of this as a different experience."
For Simmons, "different" isn’t necessarily a bad word, even if in this instance the change — performing with nobody to direct him, aside from the paid crew — was an unexpected and unwelcome one. He misses audiences dearly, but against even his most pessimistic expectations, the production is one he’s proud to have made, he says. So, what did the process teach him about being a children’s performer during the pandemic, with no audience to show him the way?
"The main thing I learned is, it’s possible," he says.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.