Miwa Hiroe, Amy Braun and Ian Griffiths, with dogs Ponyo and Max, in front of the Sunset Theatre. /SUBMITTED

By Rachel Fraser

Local musicians Amy Braun and Ian Griffiths, with local playwright and actor Miwa Hiroe, recently spent 10 days hosted by the Sunset Theatre Society in Wells, BC. From April 6th to April 15th, 2024, they participated as artists-in-residence as part of its Exploration Series, a grant-supported program whose aim is to produce new Canadian plays.

Artist residency programs provide an opportunity for creatives to be away from the distractions of day-to-day life and focus on creating. The Society owns a residence directly adjacent to the theatre where it hosts visiting theatre professionals. 

Amy and Ian perform as HALF/ASIAN with Amy the CODA, a synth-pop duo inspired by their formative experiences of straddling two worlds: Ian’s as the son of a Chinese-Canadian mother and Amy’s as the daughter of a deaf mother, growing up signing as her first language. Amy vocalizes in English, with choreographed signs, over Ian’s ’80s Casio keyboard and vocal harmonies.” 

On tour in 2021, while playing a show at the theatre, the duo had the opportunity to get to know the folks who run the Exploration Series. They offered the opportunity to spend 10 days each year over three years in Wells to develop a project called “Between Two Worlds,” incorporating their music and stories. They were also completing an album of material to be released in early May of this year, called “Formless”, as well as recording brand new material for an upcoming album.

Miwa came into the mix after the three worked together on the Wishbone Theatre musical production “Showdown.”  Miwa pitched Amy and Ian on a collaboration on her next play, “Hallowed Be Thy”, and they extended the invitation for Miwa to join them, shifting their focus from their original project.

“It was really loose,” Miwa said. “We knew we wanted to work together – we’d worked together on Showdown, and really enjoyed each other’s company, but that was as much as we’d really figured out.”

Miwa came away with a completed draft of her new script, a piece centering on a little girl who Miwa said is “dreaming these beautiful and grotesque dreams,” as a means of grappling with and processing her lived experiences, and her mother who is recalibrating the belief systems she was raised with. The script tries to incorporate lightness while exploring heavy themes, aspects of our experience that we can’t explain, the subconscious, even death.” 

As a starting point to collaborating with Amy and Ian, Miwa had access to their back catalogue of material, but about four days into the stay, she sat in to listen to their new songs with a list of scenes needing music.  She immediately found that each of their songs had a place they fit perfectly. By the end, she said that all the new album is incorporated in or around the play, and that because the songs are also still in their creation period, they have the flexibility to take on new meaning through this collaboration. A song originally written about Fortnite (a hugely popular online multiplayer video game) has transformed into a Halloween nightmare dance number for Miwa’s play, the lyrics translating to a completely different context. 

“The cool thing was we went there to work pretty independently,” Miwa said. “They had a project that they were working on, a musical project they were trying to wrap up, and I had a script I wanted to write, and we knew we wanted to integrate the project somehow, but it wasn’t discussed thoroughly.”

“I see the meanings of a lot of songs differently already in the context of ‘Hallowed Be Thy'” Ian added, 

Amy agreed. “It’s going to make my signing performance for the new album really heavily influenced by the stories that Miwa’s telling. It’ll be really interesting to see how much of the themes cross over into our festival performances and our music videos.”” 

In addition to the visual story-telling element that Amy’s signing brings to HALF/ASIAN with Amy the CODA’s musical performances, Amy will be choreographing actual dance numbers with Miwa for the play, and Ian will expand the existing songs into a complete score. 

HALF/ASIAN with Amy the CODA practicing under the stage lights inside the Sunset Theatre. /SUBMITTED

It’s not a musical in the sense that people will be singing their lines, Ian clarified, but it will integrate music, dialogue, masks, and dance. And maybe even puppets. “I’m excited for how dynamic it’s going to be,” said Miwa.

At the end of the 10 days, the theatre hosted a cold reading of Miwa’s draft script. Actors from nearby Barkerville volunteered to read, giving Miwa, Amy and Ian the opportunity to sit in the audience, observe what they were creating, and receive feedback from experienced theatre professionals. A lot of actors typically live in Barkerville, employed for historical re-enactment, but as luck would have it, there was also a film being shot at the time of the reading. The community of Wells was also invited to the preview, so approximately 10 locals showed up to watch.

Miwa Hiroe in front of a panel of actors prepared to “cold read” her draft script, “Hallowed be Thy.” / SUBMITTED

“The exploration series has always offered that – something at the end (where) you can show what you’ve done, or you can ask for feedback or whatever. Ian and I didn’t do that last year, because it wasn’t really applicable to what we were working on, but it was so cool to be able to use that part of the series,” Amy said.

Wells, with a population of only 218, has a rich artistic tradition. Established around gold quartz mining in 1933, miners who were also musicians were purposefully sought out to participate in the mining company’s dance band and orchestra.  Barkerville Historic Site, only 8km away, also had a strong arts and literature tradition in its heyday, and now employs professional actors to bring the past to life for visitors.

A 90-year-old theatre that has been and seen many things, the Sunset was purchased in 2000, and restored to become the heart of the Sunset Theatre Society. They hosted their first season in 2006. 

The Exploration series also goes back that far, though Sunset Theatre’s Director of Presentations Julia Mackey says they’ve only received funding for the last 5 years. Dependent on funding from Canada Council for the Arts and BC Arts Council, she said the Society can provide a creation fee for the week to 10 days artists stay in residence, plus a travel stipend, per diem and accommodation, as well as the theatre to play in and technical and administrative support. 

“It’s a beautiful 90-year-old haunted theatre,” said Ian. Legend has it an old miner benevolently haunts the place, encouraging people to play the piano. The group agrees there is a feeling of not being alone, of performing, when the theatre appears to be empty.

The group said the residency was so well set up for their needs and offered independence, space and time to create. “It’s like ‘Here’s the keys to the theatre,'” Ian said.

“‘We’ll keep it warm in there for you.'” Amy added.

 “We were completely away from all of our everyday stuff, we were staying in an apartment where we didn’t have any chores. Like all we had to do was feed ourselves and work on being creative. The Exploration series achieved its point (by) going there with a nebulous idea and getting to explore an idea, and then create something out of that, (through) the time and space you have to explore it” Miwa said. 

Miwa expressed how much the story was influenced by the experience. “If I had written this at home, it would have turned out to be a different story.”

Mackey says they look for eclectic works, prioritizing new plays from underserved voices, and rely on their network of artists to find the right groups. She says also consider applications from those with well-thought-out play projects that are viable for funding, and that the waitlist is currently sitting at about a year.

The play is scheduled to premiere in October 2025. Part of the deal is that the Sunset gets to host the opening show, though of course there will be shows in Valemount and McBride.

“It’s a really wonderful and original script that our audience was really compelled by,” said Mackey

HALF/ASIAN and Amy the CODA’s musical material will also retain its own identity as an album released separately but also likely in the Fall of 2025.