We spoke to Ben Caplan ahead of his Australian tour with the show Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. Dates and ticket links at the conclusion of the article.
You’re coming to Australia starting off with Sydney Festival. Will it be your first time to Australia?
It’s gonna be my 3rd time actually, I performed as a singer/songwriter twice before. I came down once in 2012 and once in 2013.
Was that with your band?
That was with my band yeah, I played at the Woodford folk festival on one of the tours and at Byron bay blues fest on the other, and a bunch of club shows around Sydney and Melbourne, all over. It was great.
So you’ve came from a theatre background before you went into music so in a way with Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, you’ve gone back to your first love. You’re going back to your theatre roots in some way?
Absolutely yeah, I think in many ways this project has given me an opportunity to pull together a lot of the different pieces of my education and my career as an artist and a lot of my various interests. It’s a project that allowed me to fuse all of these different things. Some of which I’ve never really dealt with on a stage before, some of which were things I’d never dealt with at the same time or different kinds of projects. So it was a really neat experience building this show, to be able to create something I think in many ways is very, I don’t know, it demands more from me than any other project I’ve worked on.
Yeah, so it’s a lot more challenging?
Well not necessarily, in some ways it’s easier than a lot of the other work I’ve done. Because it has a kind of consistency to it which is really lovely. But it pulls on more facets of my personality, pulls on more of my life experiences.
Were your parents refugees?
My parents were not refugees no. My great grandparents, you know the term refugee wasn’t really a term when my great grandparents were emigrating to Canada in the late 1800’s. We don’t know, or I don’t know, it wasn’t really talked about by either my parents or my great grandparents specifically what the conditions were that they were leaving in. But certainly we know that the places they were coming from were in the midst of a lot of geo-political upheaval and that certainly Jews were not considered to be your ideal neighbour in those days. There was certainly a lot of anti-Semitism that was likely the cause of them having fled.
So is the show based on them?
The show is actually based on the great grandparents of my co-writer, my collaborator Hannah Moscovitch. So the story is about her great grandparents, Chaim and Chaya Moscovitch. Who both emigrated to Canada in 1908 and we know just a little bit more detail about that family and also did a lot of research about the specific kinds of events that were happening in the towns that they fled from.
So how did the show come about?
Well it started off with just a phone call from director and co-writer Christian Barry, so there is 3 of us that made the project, there’s myself and Christian Barry we were co song writers and really started the ball rolling on the project. It was really Christian who was the first mover of “let’s make a thing” and he didn’t know what kind of thing he wanted to make, he knew he wanted to make a sort of theatre/music mash-up. And then as we were writing we began collaborating with his wife Hannah Moscovitch, who is a tremendous play-wright and she’s heavily decorated with awards, and I think is probably one of the most important writers in Canada today. Which is a stupidly large claim to make, but it’s also true and she’s been highly recognised as well. So anyways, Hannah came on board and so suddenly we had this remarkable play-wright to collaborate with as well and she brought in the story of her great grandparents, or sort of began to discover the story around the time we had coalesced around the idea of making a play about refugees.
You’ve already played it in Canada, where else have you played it?
We’ve toured a bunch in Canada, just shy of a 2 month run off Broadway in New York, and we toured it in the UK and the Netherlands.
So Hannah and Christian and yourself wrote the play, and you and Christian focused more so on the music-side I’m guessing?
That’s right, you know Hannah’s the play-wright she really wrote all the themes. Christian and I’s role was more in sort of imagining the parameters, the arc of the show. Imagining the characters a little bit, and Hannah wrote it from there.
And why did you think it was a story that needed to be told?
Well were sitting and trying to come up with some sort of story to tell that was an examination of Jewish identity and the reason for that was because Christian was having his first Jewish son, he and Hannah were about to have a child. So he was interested in exploring Jewish identity and some sort of Jewish themes in relation to his son being born and in exploring that and trying to find something to really sink our teeth into, we saw this image of the young child Aylan al-Kurdi, the young Syrian boy who washed up in a beach in turkey.
And we were so arrested by that image and by much of the political discourse in Canada at the time, around the same time that was happening, former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper made these comments during one of the Canadian leadership debates where he talked about. He made a distinction about old-stock Canadians, he was talking about whether or not old stock Canadians want to be paying for the healthcare of refugee claimants while their claims are still being assessed he wanted to take away funding for healthcare for new migrants.
The politics of that aside, this distinction of there is such a thing as an old stock Canadian is an idea that both Christian and I found a little bit ugly. For me in particular it raised a question, “well am I an old stock Canadian, do I get to be in that in-group?” Certainly my great grandparents when they came here were not considered as people who ever could ever be proper. My parents themselves encountered a great deal of anti-Semitism growing up, so and I’ve been pretty blessed I’ve had pretty few and far between experiences of anything of that sort but does that make me therefore an old stock Canadian?
And so thinking about that, thinking about what it means to become a citizen of a place, what it means to leave one place and go to another and allow the new place to seep into you and become a part of your identity. These were the kinds of themes that we became interested in exploring, and our motivation was the Syrian refugee situation but the lens through which we chose to think about that was through this true story of Hannah’s great grandparents.
Which is a love story.
What can audiences expect when they go to see the show?
Well I think they shouldn’t come expecting musical theatre like they’ve seen before. It really is a mash-up of a concert experience with a play woven in, it’s an immersive experience it hits a lot of emotional layers. Audiences have frequently talked about weeping with tears of laughter and sadness. It’s an emotionally complex ride… and lots of dick jokes (hehe).
Hahaha, well come see the show, you’ll see, you’ll see.
Well I’m hoping to come and see it in one of the cities. So who is the show for, who would be best suited to going and seeing it?
Well I think it’s for anyone, we’ve tried to make a play that is accessible and interesting to people of any background. It’s not a show that’s about politics, it’s a show that’s about human beings. We’ve tried to take a very complex world and set aside as much as possible to focus on the experiences of two individuals. And to give our audience the credit to draw whatever conclusions they wish to make on their own. It’s a show that I recommend probably 16+, it’s not for kids. But it’s an exploration of what it means to be a human being, to have to move from one place to another or even just to try to make a relationship in a challenging world.
Is there a message in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story? You’ve said about people drawing their own conclusions but is there a message you’re trying to get the audience to pick up?
I don’t want to say too much, but what I will say is that the message is that before all the labels that we place on each other, we are all human beings, with our own innate dignity and our own hopes and fears and traumas and joys. And I think this show is really a celebration of that, and an exploration of that.
Did you manage to get Stephen Harper to see the show?
Hahaha not yet, not yet, but we are doing a run in the capital I don’t know if he’s still in the Ottawa area these days, but we will be doing a nice run at the National Arts Centre.
Is your music you play with your band quite different from the music you’ll be performing in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story?
I think there are certainly different influences that are more pronounced on the music of the show. I think myself as a song-writer I tend to write a lot of very different sounding songs, I think on all 3 of my albums there are songs that are tangents in some ways and I think that’s true of the music on the show. It would be difficult to place the full body of work into a single genre, but I think one thing I can say is that on my first 2 albums I was playing with a sort of folk-rock ethos or aesthetic, but introducing a lot of eastern-European and Klezmer sounds and I think on this project we leaned more heavily into those eastern-European folk traditions and sort of used those as the meat and then wrapped those in all kinds of different shells.
You can see Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story at the Sydney Festival from 12-22 January at the Belvoir St Theatre. Tickets cost between $60 and $66 plus booking fee and can be purchased here.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story then moves on to Melbourne where it will be on at the Melbourne Arts Centre from 29 January to 2 February. Tickets for the Melbourne performances are $55 with discounts for groups, under 30s and concession card holders. Tickets can be purchased here.
The Adelaide Fringe will also have performances of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story from 15-23 February (except Monday and Tuesday 18 and 19 February). Tickets cost $40 (or $30 for concession card holders) and are available here.