THEATRE: Century old labour dispute more relevant than ever in Strike!

GigCIty Edmonton Strike musicalJust to save Ezra Levant the trouble of looking into this, the show Strike! – a musical about the bloody 1919 general strike in Winnipeg – is all union. Equity actor’s union, stage tech union, you name it, no scabs here.

The only dodgy bit is the show’s co-creator, producer, promoter, chief cook and bottle washer Danny Schur – who was LOADING GEAR when reached in his hometown Winnipeg to talk about his popular labour union epic that plays the Timms Centre April 24-28. Where’s your IATSE card, man?

“I’m loading trucks because I’m actually production managing, too,” says Schur. “But it’s a completely union show. We couldn’t do this show without union.”

In more ways than one. Among the backers needed to bring this elaborate $160,000 production to Edmonton for its Alberta debut and still keep tickets in the $30 range is the Alberta Federation of Labour, along with Ukrainian and Jewish groups and other organizations with a vested interest in bringing one of Canada’s great historical dramas to light. The story revolves around a Ukrainian immigrant named Mike Sokolowski, who became embroiled in the 1919 labour dispute that shut down Winnipeg for six weeks and sparked sympathetic protests across Canada. Not much is known about Mike’s tale, which is why the element of suspense can be maintained in something said to be based on a true story. Schur and co-writer Rick Chafe also invented a Godson named Stefan to personalize the saga, and has the kid falling in love with pro-labour Jewish girl to put him at odds with his anti-Semitic Godfather. Sparks and bullets fly. Cue songs – like “Plight of the Working Class” and “Love in a Place Like This.”

Strike Edmonton GigCitySchur admits that a complicated and violent labour dispute that happened nearly 100 years ago isn’t an obvious subject on which to base a musical – which is exactly why he wanted to do it. Too big a topic for the stage? Not for a musical, he says: “That’s what musicals are about. If you can’t put these kind of big emotions into it, why bother?”

Inspired by the story that’s been with the Ukrainian Winnipeger since childhood, Schur says he set out of make a musical that even haters of musical theatre will like. The trick is in “the transition between dialogue and song. If you can make it seamless, it’s really effective drama.”

Along with a big cast – 11 principal characters, 18 on stage in total – there are a lot of big themes working here, not just labour issues, but immigration, racism, Canadian democracy, human rights. Every year since Strike! premiered in 2005, there is greater interest, more backers, and more examples in the modern world that give the story relevance, Schur says.

“You don’t write a period piece just because you want to put people in fancy costumes,” he says. “You do it because it’s a metaphor for the present, and there are so many applicable metaphors between then and now that it’s crazy. There’s the Occupy movement, the Quebec student protest, Arab Spring, all these near breakdowns in civil society that came about because of something rather innocuous and then mushroomed into something bigger, something pan-societal.”

The show’s first director is reported to have remarked that this isn’t a play – it’s a movie. And what a great idea, Schur responded. Shooting begins in 2014 with ex-Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page in the lead role as Mike Sokolowski. The musical-movie already has raised $6 million of the $10 million budget, says Schur – and here he is, on the phone doing an interview to promote the show he wrote, on a break from loading equipment while talking about raising big money for a feature film.

He doesn’t have to load the truck – but he does.

“Some of it sounds like over-reaching, over-detailed producer stuff,” he says, “And some of it is that there’s no alternative. To raise that kind of money – which isn’t a crazy amount of money to raise in the movie business – it takes someone who’s so passionate about it that the people you’re trying to get the money from can’t say no. That’s why I’m loading the truck. You’re building a team every second. The actors see you loading a truck, and say, this guy believes. The investors see that, and then they see a great show – and they believe.”