Playwright Ross Desprez has come full circle in the creation of his work The Ballad of Jim Pane. The play had its early roots as the story of a fictional 1960s folk singer, but morphed into The Ballad of Phil Ochs after Desprez discovered an album by Ochs and was moved by songs such as "When I'm Gone" and "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore." He crafted a one-man show about the passionate, prolific, yet underrated flesh-and-blood singer who ultimately committed suicide at the age of 35.
The Ballad of Phil Ochs managed to expose a new generation to the singer who never achieved the popularity of his folk contemporaries Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. It toured for about 15 years, first with Desprez himself in the title role and later starring BC actor/singer Zachary Stevenson. Stevenson took the show to campuses and clubs across Canada.
But the curtain fell on the production when Ochs' only child became of legal age. The play had been running in Canada with the blessing of Ochs' brother, Michael, but, for reasons unknown, Meeghan Ochs chose to withdraw the rights.
Desprez, a Victoria-based playwright, describes himself a "surprised and a little hurt" by the turn of events, but chose to go back to the drawing board and rework his original idea of a fictional character. The result was The Ballad of Jim Pane, running May 4 to 6 at the annual On the Waterfront Theatre Festival in Dartmouth (which itself runs across six shows until May 13).
"I'd say about half the story parallels Ochs' and half is new," says Desprez, over the phone on a rehearsal break at BC's Belfry Theatre. "And of course, I had to get rid of Phil's music and write my own." The resulting songs have been described as catchy and anthemic.
While Phil Ochs was written to showcase his own acting and singing abilities, he was able to rewrite and reinvent the play with Stevenson in mind. He is also open to the idea of the play being produced and acted by other people. "It's always interesting," he says, "to see different interpretations."
The play is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. It emphasizes the controversy of the conflict's legality and morality, begging present-day parallels. Star Stevenson sees it as a kind of call-to-arms.
"It's sort of a reminder to older activists, something to reinvigorate their spirit," he says. "And maybe a way to show young people that it's cool to be an activist. I'd like to think it could shake them out of complacent and apathetic attitudes and to get them to speak up."
The role of Jim Pane is a marriage of Stevenson's two passions—acting and singing. He studied theatre at the University of Victoria and has acted on stages all over the country, most recently appearing in Hair and The Buddy Holly Story. He has just released his debut album, with fellow musician Jeff Bryant, called Sweet Sorrow for the Happily Departed. He describes the battle to fit both theatre and singing into his life as "a constant struggle, but a good struggle."
For Desprez, the trip to Dartmouth for On the Waterfront marks the beginning of a hiatus from is other job as an instructor in the theatre department at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo. He intends to spend his time working on a play called The Alexander MacKenzie Historical Monument and RV Park, a takeoff on his own successful play about the Klondike gold rush, Moodyville Tales. Both plays incorporate traditional Canadian folk songs and stories.
Both Desprez and Stevenson are excited to bring the The Ballad of Jim Pane to Halifax.
"It's great to be back together and I'm thrilled that we're doing this show," says Stevenson. "I really enjoy the music and the topic. It's so poignant and relevant."
The Ballad of Jim Pane, May 4 to 6 at On the Waterfront, Alderney Landing Theatre, 2 Ochterloney, Dartmouth, $17.50 ($16 students/seniors), festival pass $67.50 ($60 students/seniors), 888-311-9090, www.ticketpro.ca