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Whitehorse inspires its very own rock opera

A struggling street busker. A beautiful barista. Lots of coffee and a Whitehorse summer. The stage is set for one of the Pivot Theatre Festival's most quintessentially Yukon productions.

A struggling street busker. A beautiful barista. Lots of coffee and a Whitehorse summer. The stage is set for one of the Pivot Theatre Festival’s most quintessentially Yukon productions called, not surprisingly, The Busker and the Barista.

It’s a rock opera that tells the tale of Carl, a caffeine- and pot-addicted street musician struggling to make ends meet. The poor guy is hopelessly in love with Trina, a perpetually hung-over barista at a local coffee shop, but he can’t muster the courage to talk to her.

Trina is originally from Teslin, now living Whitehorse and slinging coffee. She parties too much, and her friends keep pestering her about being single. Both characters happen to cross paths at a moment of uncertainty in their lives, and hilarity, romance, and drama ensue.

Whitehorse playwright Barry “Jack” Jenkins penned the story over a year ago, and this will be its second time on stage.

“I was doing a 24-hour playwriting contest and I was just trying to come up with a story, something a little different. I’d been experimenting with writing plays and incorporating lyrics, so I decided I’d just go full-on rock opera. I know a lot of musicians, so it just seemed natural to write about a busker and a barista,” Jenkins said.

Set against the improbable romance, the story also paints the picture of 24 hours in downtown Whitehorse.

“It’s kind of like Dylan Thomas’s 24 Hours in a Welsh Village applied to Whitehorse,” Jenkins said.

He recruited Whitehorse-based musician Graeme Peters to compose the music over drinks at a New Year’s Eve party a year ago, and the project was born.

Peters’s band, Whitehorse post-punkers Speed Control, will supply the live soundtrack for the production.

Jenkins wrote all the lyrics, and Peters sat down with his guitar to write the music. He and his brother Jody - Speed Control’s bassist - are also characters in the play.

“It’s been fun. We’d rearrange some of the words, drop some out, put others in,” Peters said. “I really like saying, ‘rock opera.’ It just sounds so awesome: rock opera.”

The duo wrote 12 original songs for the play a year ago, and have added eight more to the repertoire. Driven by Peters’s Fender Telecaster guitar and a hefty helping of his brother Jody’s bass, the music shifts from classic boy-meets-girl ballads to slinky jazz rhythms.

Some are rambling, introspective numbers while others are hard-hitting 30-second auditory assaults.

The range is wide, but the backbone of the set is big, ballsy rock and roll.

“It’s like Bruce Springsteen on crack,” Graeme said.

The Busker and the Barista is probably the most lighthearted of the plays at this year’s festival. While following the classic will-boy-meet-girl story line, it also addresses many of Whitehorse’s social ills, including housing, drugs and violence.

That’s what makes it a perfect selection for the Pivot festival, according to Nakai artistic director David Skelton.

The festival, now in its fifth year, is designed to be a different type of theatrical experience, he said.

“The Yukon Arts Centre certainly brings up a ton of beautiful shows, but I wanted to bring up shows that were maybe a little more provocative, maybe a little more for niche audiences,” Skelton said.

Some of the festival’s past performances have elicited mixed reactions from the audience, but Skelton is adamant that pushing boundaries is important.

“Some of the responses have been really negative, but ultimately everything that is programmed here, there is some kind of beauty in it. That’s why we put it out there. You find a piece of beauty in something you would never expect,” he said.

Case in point: some might dispute the beauty in an audience of people pummeling a performer with hockey sticks. But that happened.

It was Pivot’s most controversial show, at the 2010 festival.

Artist Ulysses Castellanos did a show called Teaching Chickens the True Nature of the Civil War through D.W. Griffith’s A Birth Of A Nation.

“There was a lot of uproar. He’s absurd. He’s irrational. There is violence in what he does. And people just didn’t know what to make of it,” Skelton said.

The show ended with Castellanos becoming a human pinata. Hanging from the ceiling and clad in hockey gear and cardboard, he sang and recited poetry while the audience attacked him with hockey sticks.

“I thought people would be hesitant,” Skelton said. “I thought they would wonder if this was moral, but when they realized they had the chance they jumped on the stage and went nuts because they were mad at him. The final ending of the show was him swinging around and singing, We Are The Champions. It was hilarious and absurd and funny and beautiful.”

While there’s nothing quite that outrageous on this year’s bill, highlights for Pivot 2013 include Agokwe by Waawaate Forbister, which explores the story of star-crossed gay lovers caught between the loyalties and traditions on separate aboriginal reserves. Also on the bill is perennial Whitehorse favourite Dogtown, which chronicles the life, superstardom and eventual salvation of Trevor the Dog.

The festival runs Jan. 21 to 27 at the Yukon Arts Centre and the Old Firehall. Tickets are available at the Yukon Arts Centre, Arts Underground and online at

Contact Jesse Winter at