“It’s all a big, beautiful embrace”: Hailey Gillis comes back home to Spoon River

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Hailey Gillis (photo courtesy of Soulpepper)

When was the last time you heard a voice that was so evocative that it seemed almost luminescent?

When Hailey Gillis sings, she has that kind of voice. It calls to my mind the opening sequence of The Crown: molten gold moving across the screen, mesmerizingly fluid, tremulous and incandescent. Even before you figure out that the swirls and whorls are forming into a crown, the movements are so arresting that you can’t turn away. And that movement remains in the mind’s eye long after.

The aural equivalent of that experience is what Gillis provides. If you’ve seen the Soulpepper concerts or musicals in which Gillis sings, what I’m describing may elicit a little “a-ha!” With a voice that is as versatile as it is sublime, she is able to perform in a wide range of styles and contexts. And as a graduate of the acclaimed Soulpepper Academy (where it is said that she was accepted immediately after her audition), she is afforded an astonishing range of works to explore. For starters, she just wrapped up her performances in all three parts of Soulpepper’s Manhattan Concert Cycle, and she relished the unique experience afforded to audiences: “I’m falling more and more in love with the idea of a concert that offers a night not only of music but of knowledge. These concerts give context to the songs that you know, and because of that, deepen your relationship to the music. I’m so happy to be a part of that exploration.”

Stephanie Cadman, Cassius Crieghtney, Jackie Richardson, Steve Hunter, Andrew Penner, Hailey Gillis and Travis Knights in the 1st Manhattan Concert Cycle 2016 (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

In addition to various of the Soulpepper concert series, she has played key roles in the runaway hit musical Spoon River and the beloved Alligator Pie. And last December, she debuted the title character in a concert presentation of Rose, a new musical currently in development at Soulpepper that is based on Gertrude Stein’s picture book of the same name. In addition to Gillis, one common factor in Soulpepper’s assorted music programming is Mike Ross, Soulpepper’s Slaight Family Director of Music, whom Gillis describes as “one of the kindest and most genuine people you will ever meet.” Ross either leads the concerts (where he typically also arranges the musical numbers) or in the case of Rose and Spoon River, composes them.

Judging by the packed houses, Soulpepper’s unique music programming has grabbed the public consciousness. Audiences appreciate both the talent on display, and the way their individual numbers aggregate, in service of the overarching theme. Gillis attributes the growing popularity to Ross’ sympathetic vision and staunch commitment to a resonant audience experience. “The care he takes in his life mirrors the care he takes in his art,” she offers. “I think it really matters to him: the experience that the audience is having.” Having reflected deeply on what it really means to experience the story sonically, he leads the audience on a planful emotional pathway. “He finds romance in the ordinary, beauty in bitterness, and gives a platform through song to those having trouble speaking up,” she observes. Gillis recounts how just that day – while rehearsing for the new production of Spoon River (the award-winning and Ross-composed musical based on the Spoon River Anthology of poems by Edgar Lee Masters, published in 1915), Ross told the actors “that he was looking for his singers to have a ‘human’ sound. That we didn’t have to sing the song perfectly for it to be right. He wanted it to be raw, and simple, and true.”

Spoon River, Soulpepper 2017 (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

This “human” sound is particularly important, considering the Spoon River Anthology’s central tenet: to honour – and humanize – the “faithful, tender-hearted souls” of  the ordinary inhabitants of the fictional Spoon River, Illinois, who experience the passions, sadness, joy, and heartaches that together make up life. Each poem is a story of the unspoken truths of the town’s inhabitants that they reveal in a graveyard after they are dead. Collectively, they form a tribute to small-town life. Gillis remarks on Ross’ uncanny ability here to “expertly simplify his music to reflect specific/everyday people”. Having been involved in Spoon River for a few years now, Gillis can speak to its effects firsthand: “Every time I come back to it, it always feels like I’m coming home. It’s all a big, beautiful embrace; from the songs, to the cast, to the connection we make with the audience. I’ve never cried or laughed more in a rehearsal hall in my life, and I can’t wait to be experiencing that again.”

In Spoon River, she inhabits the role of a young woman so recently deceased that she still feels the beauty of the life she had to leave. In Rose, Gillis brings to life a very young girl. The hinge-point of the plot is Rose’s search for identity, which is symbolized by her inability to utter her own name. So how does one sing an omission?  By turns comically, frustratedly and poignantly – and altogether remarkably —  if you are Gillis. The night I saw Rose, there were many smiles . . . yet also few dry eyes, in the audience.  

This vocal power – arresting and mesmerizing – seems to rise from a warm, grounded and fearless place. Despite a hectic schedule, her answers to my questions are candid and reflective, delivered with palpable energy and considerable depth. Her talents revealed themselves early – which she explains simply as a “love of telling stories, and being a part of a team, and moving, and singing, and being totally silly and weird.” Although she was a top competitor on season 2 of CBC’s Triple Sensation, she resisted its lure. “I was only 16,” she explains, and too young to know how big an experience that was. Looking back, she’s glad: “I was able to risk myself in ways I don’t know if I would be able to now.” Hers is a courageous joie de vivre: “I think it’s important to always live in your work with abandon.” She continues, “Try, reach, fall, fail, try again. The longer you wait, the more reasons you’ll come up with to turn around.”

Spoon River, Soulpepper 2017 (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Gillis tries to “ride the wave” of all that comes her way, accepting the projects that she is offered, and keeping herself intellectually and creatively stimulated: “I read books, I watch movies, I see plays, I visit art exhibits, I travel, I eat amazing food. All of these experiences feed my career,” she elaborates. Her ideas tumble out until she hits on a truth that aspiring young artists can (and should) take to heart: “Expand yourself; fall in love with the world around you; take risks; work really, really, really hard.” She is living this truth: she will appear in True Patriot Love: A Concert concurrently with Spoon River, and following it, in The Musical Theatre Company’s production of Onegin. She just recently mastered whistling . . . and is still working on learning to wink. And keep plants alive for longer than a week. (“Never ask me to look after your plants,” she warns.)

“Every experience allows me to grow and change and make room for a new experience,” she says. “I really feel that, when it comes to the roles I’ve taken on.” And a monumental experience looms this summer for Gillis. She and 64 other Soulpepper company members will take selected original works (including Spoon River, Alligator Pie, and part of the Manhattan Concert Cycle) to New York City for a month of performances. “The fact that we get to perform again in Toronto, and take these shows to New York City in July feels like a dream come true,” she marvels. “So surreal and so exciting.  I’m definitely ready!”

Luckily, a trip to New York is not required if you’d like to hear her. Gillis appears in True Patriot Love: A Concert and the Toronto revival of Spoon River – a welcome opportunity to experience that versatile and luminescent voice firsthand.

News You Can Use

What: Spoon River based on The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultzfeaturing Alana Bridgewater, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Hailey Gillis, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Richard Lam, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Jeff Lillico, Diego Matamoros, Michelle Monteith, Miranda Mulholland, Gregory Prest, Jackie Richardson, Mike Ross, Paolo Santalucia, Brendan Wall, Sarah Wilson, Daniel Williston; music direction, composition and arrangements by Mike Ross; directed by Albert Schultz, assisted by Erin Brandenburg

When: On stage until April 21, 2017

What: True Patriot Love: A Concert, written by Marni Jackson, Albert Schultz and Mike Ross; featuring Neema Bickersteth, Alana Bridgewater,Stephanie Cadman, Hunter Cardinal, Hailey Gillis, Miranda Mulholland, Andrew Penner, Jackie Richardson, Mike Ross, Daniel Williston, Colleen Allen, Scott Hunter, Lowell Whitty; music direction and arrangements by Mike Ross; directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell

When: April 11, 13 and 15, 2017

Who: Audiences of all ages

Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON M5A 3C4

Information and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca

© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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