Saint Leonard Cohen doesn’t just haunt Montreal. He infuses it. And anyone who spends enough time in Montreal, eventually will absorb some of his transcendent essence. Rita Sheena, is a perfect example. Although she now hails from Vancouver, she lived in Montreal and is bringing “Everybody Knows”, a semi-autobiographical performance piece that uses First Aid Kit’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s works to the Montreal Fringe Festival. The story arc follows a woman spiralling in and out of depression.
“This is the result of 30 years of fandom,” she says. “I’ve been a massive Leonard Cohen fan since I was 12 from back in the day when we listened on a tape. I went to the Edmonton public library and put everything on hold, the sheet music, the books, anything to do with Leonard Cohen.”
But, of course, a 12 year old is going to understand Cohen differently from a 42 year old. She says, .”Without knowing, over the years as you get older, you have more life experience to lay on top of his words. Okay, life sucks, but the beauty is that you get this experience. I didn’t know I had permission to murder and maim. I can understand that a bit better than when I was 15 reading Beautiful Losers in English class. I didn’t understand the sexual context then.”
And of course, his words take on new resonance. “As I go over it again and again, I find a new layer. Every line has a meaning,” Sheena says.
Sheena is more than a fangirl, though. She’s done deep research into the Cohen’s work and life to give her pieces proper context. She recounts how one time she was explaining to a date the meaning of the lines from her favourite song, Famous Blue Raincoat. In particular, she was exploring the phrase, “I see you there with the rose in your teeth.” “It’s about finding solace in that moment,” she says. “He’s cold and he’s in New York, and he’s trying to convince his lover that he’s okay.” As for Sheena’s date? “It was short lived because he thought I was digging too deep.”
Her conclusion from her research into Cohen is that “he’s a prophet.” Sheena says, “That sounds too crazy, but he’s prophetic. He can predict the future. ‘Give me Stalin and St. Paul.’ We’re still doing this. The future was written in 1992. It’s 30 years of the same. We’re still trying to have body autonomy and exercise rights as women.”
In the piece, Sheena draws on her lifetime of dance experience. She says the show is, “Post modern performance theatre. There’s a skeleton of choreographed moves. For the line, ‘Everybody knows that the dice are loaded’ there’s only one place I’m going to be on stage, but the vibe of the audience will determine the rest. Theatre is alive and breathing. If I suddenly need a drink of water – I’ll take it. That could happen.” She isn’t afraid to draw back the veil between audience and performer. “That’s the theatre I’m interested in. It may make you feel uncomfortable. That’s when you know you’ve grown. I want this play accessible to younger folks too, to 20 year olds, so they can do their own deep dive.
Nor does she shy away from Cohen’s viscerally sexual lines either. She recounts paying attention to her kids and ex-inlaws in the audience during the line, “give me crack and anal sex”. “Leonard keeps us on our toes,” she says.
Sheena is thrilled to be touring the show through different Fringe festivals in Canada. Her memories of Fringe Festivals are warm. “I grew up in Edmonton in the ’90s and my favourtie time of year was the summer because my birthday is in August and we’d go to the Fringe. We’d bum cigarettes and then check out these improv shows in comedy.” Montreal in particular is meaningful because she knew that this is the city where the show needed to the go. “The park where the Fringe Festival is is exactly where we hung out in Montreal 20 years ago, when I had my French fiancé. I had to drag him to Leonard Cohen things.”
Ultimately, though, Sheena connects with the creation of art and the experiences that lead to it. Just like one minute dancing on stage represents hundreds of hours of work, a single line can represent a totality of an experience. She says, “In my 20s and teens I romanticized the poet, the tortured artist. Then I became 40 and embodied it somehow through life. I get it now. I’ve been in a big transition over the last 2 years, and it was an agonizing process. I left my job of 20 years from a major hospital. I didn’t get off my couch for a year. ‘If it be your will, to let me sing.’ God, please let me sing. My friend says your mess is your magic. That’s why we love art. It came out of somebody organically. It’s human.”
Everybody Knows is part of St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival that runs from June 9 – 19. The show runs at Studio Jean Valcourt du Conservatoire (4750 Henri Julien) on June 9, 10, 12, 16, 17, and 18. $15.25. Get tickets for the show HERE.