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Mama Says: You Are What You Do

A musical play written and directed by Ronald Weihs
Artword Theatre, 81 Portland Street, Toronto

March 10 to 27, 1994

with Scott Bell, James Kirchner, Catherine Smith, Rhonda Lee Stephenson, James Thompson

Original illustrations by Gail Geltner

Better not pick that up, he goes
You just might drop it and smash your toes.
Don't touch that, don't climb on that beam,
On and on until I'm ready to scream...

"The Radio Plays Love Songs", a jaunty country tune, was one of the first songs to ring out in the Artword Theatre (known then as the Artword Centre) on March 10, 1994. The song was sung by a woman carpenter who was completing her third year apprenticeship and describes her confrontation with one journeyman who wouldn't let her try anything difficult. As in that tune, the lives and life choices of real people are the subject of an original Canadian musical written and directed by Ronald Weihs, Mama Says: You Are What You Do.
Other characters include a plumber, a punch press operator, a high steel painter, a bus driver, a cocktail waitress, a street-wise counsellor for runaway girls, a parking lot attendant, a garbage collector, and one man who describes himself as a "putterer".

Although the individuals in the play recount difficulties and disappointments, the overall spirit is joyful and affirmative. The playwright recounts:
"As you know.... the actors are wonderful. (Scott Bell, James Kirchner, Catherine Smith, Rhonda Lee Stephenson, James Thomson.) The play is about people and how they build and create their lives through their work. It is based on interviews with some amazing people disguised as ordinary people. I was living in British Columbia, having just written Hands Up: The Bill Miner Story with the Caravan Stage Company and Highball!, a musical about logging. The play was a commission, but the theatre company lost a grant and couldn't stage it. It's taken over ten years for this dream to be realized. The actors and I have been working together, developing an ensemble approach that is specially suited to this material. There are ten songs in the play, in variety of popular and folk styles: Mama Says, Wrapper Picker Packer, The Radio Plays Love Songs, Magic Toy Store, and others....These people are winners. They are courageous and thoughtful. They have worked out a way of living that suits them and they can teach us a lot about making something of our lives."

The stories and songs that make up the play are all based on interviews conducted by the playwright over ten years ago, when he was living in Vancouver. In the grand oral history tradition, he asked around for people willing to be interviewed about what they did. Then he turned on the tape recorder and sat back. Processing the material took a long time. Very early on, Weihs discovered that transcribing the words in paragraphs seemed to rob them of a lot of their meaning.

"I realized that the pauses were very important elements in the communication, so I decided to begin a new line on the page every time the speaker paused. When you set the lines up like that, the meaning just jumps out. If I could clone myself, I'd study linguistics and spend the next twenty years analyzing the syntax of pauses."

Mama Says: You Are What You Do begs comparison with Studs Terkel's Working, and this is no accident. The original impetus for the play was a commission from Kaleidoscope Theatre of Victoria, who wanted a Canadian play similar to the American classic. However, the result turned out to have a very different flavour, with much more of a sense that the characters are speaking directly to us, not simply displayed as exhibits. Structurally, it is different as well, with characters coming back through the course of the play.

This play marked the debut of a new theatre company, Artword Theatre, in a new space at 81 Portland Street, just east of Bathurst and King.

Mama Says: You Are What You Do was given a one-week workshop in December, 1993 and presented as a staged reading with songs at the Artword Centre on December 12. The response to this reading persuaded the company that the piece was ready for a full production.

You know, so much of my life
has been doing
meaningless work.
In factories,
hammering nails,
doing work
tomorrow's machine work.
Just doing work that tomorrow they'll make a machine to do
equally badly.
Don't want to do that any more.