Last month, as summer faded to fall in the foothills of SW Alberta, a beautiful story unfolded on the land at Leighton Art Centre. It was a poignant tale about love, connection and hope – for our earth and for one another.
On September 18 & 19, 2021, Wandering with Wonder – a new, all-Canadian immersive outdoor musical storytelling experience – was performed for live audiences at Leighton Art Centre, for the very first time. Over three years in the making, the production was performed three times over two days, each time for an outdoor audience one hundred strong.
The creation of Calgary musician and teaching artist Samantha Whelan Kotkas, Wandering with Wonder tells of a magical young woman “Wonder”, who guides the audience through a day that never was. Through the eyes of Wonder (a puppet) and moving together as a group across the landscape, audiences experienced the transformational power of nature, music and friendship as Wonder searches for her lost song. For those who attended, and for the cast, crew and LAC staff and volunteers, it was a remarkable experience.
For Samantha, it brought her full circle. Originally hired as a children’s camp instructor at the Leighton Education Centre during the summers of 1992 and 1993, when she was a university student, Samantha credits her experiences here with helping to form her future as a storyteller. “That’s [part of] what I was asked to do for the children… to tell stories, about Echo Hill, about ants and animals and plants, about Barbara and A.C. and their lives and art. This place was pivotal in my life as an artist and what I chose to write about and what I chose to create around.”
After making a shift from pursuing a science degree to achieving two degrees in music (a B. Music from University of Calgary and an M. Music from University of Houston), Samantha embarked on a career in the arts. Her foundation was shaped by a wide variety of artists and particularly by many women artists, including the legacy of Barbara Leighton. That career, she says, has really been all about relationship building. And the many relationships she did build became critically important when creating Wandering with Wonder, especially once the pandemic began.
Conceiving the project to bring together many disciplines, including theatre, visual arts, puppetry, music and dance, Samantha was thrilled to be able to choose not only the subject of and location to perform the production, but most especially the artists involved. The original group was a carefully selected ‘dream team’ for Samantha: composers/performers Chris Andrew, Jordan Andrew, Matt Epp, Sherryl Sewepagaham and Walter MacDonald White Bear, as well as dancer Yukichi Hattori. As the project grew and evolved, so did the team, and Samantha repeatedly tapped into the large network of arts professionals who she is proud to call friends.
Inspired partly by the works of Canadian composer Murray Schafer and made possible primarily by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts | Conseil des arts du Canada, Wandering with Wonder was originally approved to be performed at Leighton Art Centre about three years ago, by past LAC Executive Director Chelsey Kehler. Most of the writing and music creation for the project was completed by winter of 2020, with the performances set for September 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The concern for the safety of cast, crew and audiences, as well as the financial repercussions of a potential last-minute cancellation, nearly ended the project. In the end, the decision was made to continue, putting off the live performances until September 2021. The one-year delay led to further challenges with cost increases, budget challenges and concerns over the continued availability of the original artists.
During those three years, Leighton Art Centre also experienced some big changes and challenges, with a total of three Executive Directors (Chelsey Kehler, Stephanie Doll and current ED Christina Cuthbertson), plus one interim ED (Kirsten Christopherson), leading the Leighton team, and the centre experiencing a combined total of over 9 months of mandated closures to the public. The Leighton staff was forced to implement large-scale changes in how they operated and fulfilled the centre’s mandate, both during those closures and continuing today.
By late spring of 2021, it became apparent that Alberta would likely be experiencing a 4th wave of the pandemic by September and there were once again concerns about trying to stage the production. Samantha knew that the idea of setting Wandering with Wonder on the land at the Leighton Art Centre would not survive another delay, so she advocated strongly for the project. With the support of LAC interim Executive Director Kirsten Christopherson, Manager of Exhibitions, Events & Volunteers Lindsay Corbet, and the rest of the Leighton team, the decision was made to forge ahead and hope for the best. In the end, the health restrictions in place on that September weekend allowed the premiere to take place safely with the added extra measure of requiring the audience to wear masks. Samantha particularly credits Lindsay Corbet with the success of that weekend: “Lindsay was pivotal in this performance coming off.”
And it really did. Set against a spectacular backdrop of foothills and Rocky Mountain views, on a ridge high above the valley floor (and with the notoriously changeable Alberta weather cooperating!), a large team of performers, arts professionals, and volunteers brought Wandering with Wonder to life. It was a complex production, involving live music and performances, previously recorded music and dialogue delivered to the audience via individual radio transmitters, and an audience that followed the story to multiple locations across Leighton Art Centre’s 80 acres. Despite all that complexity, it came off effortlessly as this experienced team brought the project to life. The performance delivered what the first character, Grandmother Turtle, promised. It allowed us all to ‘wash away our sorrows and swim for distant horizons as [she took us] on an unforgettable journey’.
For many of the performers and crew, this was one of, if not the first, opportunity for a paid gig since the start of the pandemic. For many in the audience, it was their first time getting together with a group to experience the performing arts. We had many people express to us just how special the experience was, particularly coming on the heels of so much isolation.
More than just creativity and entertainment, Wandering with Wonder is a call to action. It’s a call for reinvigorating our values of community, creativity, love, compassion and of course living sustainably within our environment. Knowing that the story was written before the pandemic began brings a special poignancy to the message and increases its urgency.
Despite all the challenges and setbacks that took place along the path to bringing Wandering with Wonder to a live audience, Samantha has remained philosophical about the experience and expressed that she feels the end product was indeed strengthened by the delay. “I think, in the end, that it probably happened just as Barbara [Leighton] would have wanted. We just had to wait until she was ready.”
Listen to Wandering With Wonder Now
The Wandering With Wonder soundtrack is now available! Stream it here right now… and look for it on Apple Music or Spotify in November.
Samantha Whelan Kotkas has generously made the entire soundtrack available for our readers to stream without cost. Please consider buying the album on Bandcamp. We appreciate you joining us in supporting Canadian artists!
The second track, Matt Epp’s Water and Love, was recorded live at Leighton Art Centre on September 19, 2021!
Listen to Matt Epp’s podcast Drinking the Water with Samantha Whelan Kotkas as the two of them discuss Wandering with Wonder in July 2021.
Behind the Scenes – Premiere Weekend
Bringing Wandering With Wonder to Life at Leighton Art Centre – A Two Year Journey
Creating Wandering With Wonder – Studio & Rehearsal Photos
Production Artwork by Lynne Huras
The Wandering with Wonder Team
Written and Produced by Samantha Whelan Kotkas
Dean Bareham – Director
Frances MacDonald – Stage Manager
Michael Luong – Assistant Stage Manager
Puppet Created by Green Fools
Chris Andrew – Music Director/Composer
Paul Johnston – Recording Engineer
Tobias Kalden – Technical Director
Andy Broughton – Stage Sound Engineer
Anni Kuhn – Costume Designer
Lynne Huras – Artwork
Christy Mackintosh – Script Editor
Luminous Voices – Tim Shanz – Artistic Director
In order of appearance
Matt Epp – Composer/Troubadour
Chris Andrew – Composer
Samantha Whelan Kotkas – Producer/Writer/Turtle
Rebbekah Ogden – Wonder/Puppeteer
Katie Kotkas – Voice of Wonder
Walter MacDonald White Bear – Composer/Bear
Jordan Andrew – Composer
Sherryl Sewepagaham – Composer/Beaver
Yukichi Hattori – Choreographer/Dancer/Eagle
Luminous Voices – Directed by Timothy Shantz – Choral Works
Musicians in order of appearance – Matt Epp – Guitar and Vocals, Lily String Quartet – Elisa Milner – Violin, Diane Lane – Violin, Patricia Higgins – Viola and Andrea Case – Cello, Chris Andrew – Piano and keyboard, Jamie Cooper – Percussion and Drums, Rubim de Toledo – Bass, Sherryl Sewepagaham – Vocals, Samantha Whelan Kotkas – Trumpet, Walter MacDonald White Bear – Guitar, Flute, Vocals, Drum, Rattle, James Campbell – Clarinet, Luminous Voices – Choral Works – Sopranos – Julie Crouch, Christina Jahn, Monique Olivier, Hannah Pagenkopf, Katie Partridge, Kathleen Warke Altos – Julie Freedman-Smith, Julia Millen, Meghan Prescott, Sara Staples Tenors – Boyd Hansen, Oliver Munar, Rod Olson, Jason Ragan Basses -Nicholas Allen, Paul Grindlay, Bryan Hryciw, Dave Latos, Evan Mounce, Krishan Power.
Samantha Whelan Kotkas and the Wandering with Wonder team would like to acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts | Conseil des arts du Canada, Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Leighton Art Centre, Green Fools Theatre Society, Calgary Arts Development, Rozsa Foundation, and Luminous Voices.
Leighton Art Centre thanks our 2021 Major Events Sponsor, The Edward – Curated Retirement Living, Rozsa Foundation, Calgary Arts Development, Samantha Whelan Kotkas and the Wandering with Wonder team, and the many volunteers who assisted on the premiere weekend.