• Carmen Marie Fabio

Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café visits the Hudson Village Theatre


Stuart McLean, author and host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café, was in town July 14 and 15 taping a show at the Hudson Village Theatre to inaugurate the popular radio program’s upcoming 21st season.

At a point in time when the information exchange process uses primarily an instantaneous, easily accessible medium, the audience for the comparatively quaint, old-fashioned spoken-word performance has not waned. In fact, if the two sold-out appearances by one of Canada’s best-known storytellers at the Hudson Village Theatre (HVT) recently is any indication, the art of the spoken-word tale has a staying power that transcends the fickle intangibility of the electronic medium.

“I think the impulse to be told a story is as ancient as time, since people have gathered around fires,” said Stuart McLean, Canadian author and creator of ‘The Vinyl Café’ radio show who performed July 14 and 15 at the theatre. “You don’t have to teach a kid to ask that question.”

McLean’s visit to the theatre brought along the troupe of characters familiar to his listeners – used record store owner Dave, his wife Morley, and their two kids, Sam and Stephanie, and even Sam’s friend Murphy, as he recounted a tale of a road trip to transport an unexpected cargo, and another exploring Morley’s memories, experiences, and a life lesson learnt at the hands of a cooking pot, all brought to life under McLean’s cadenced narration.

The characters are derived from McLean’s imagination and have grown and matured over the last two decades both within the mind of the listening audience, and indeed in the heart of their very creator who admits to still learning about the family members, their lives, and their secrets.

“It’s like getting to know friends,” said McLean. “You make assumptions about people first and sometimes you find those assumptions are completely wrong. You get details wrong, misunderstand, and make judgements.”

McLean’s stories about the family evolve from hypothetical and imaginary situations, based both on real life experience and on non-fiction research and each peek into the family’s life can take between weeks and months of writing, and the end product is continually honed, based on audience reaction, feedback that McLean refers to as his best collaborator.

Despite the low-tech equation of the spoken-word performance delivered through a theatrical stage setting, McLean said there’s a huge range in age of audience attendees.

“There are always people in their 90s there, and there’ll be little ones as young as six years old,” he said. “Kids get it, and get carried along by the mirth and the laughter.”

His appearance at the theatre included musical accompaniment of Montreal’s Sin and Swoon playing old time country harmonies, and Hudsonite Lorne Elliott with a special lyrical composition describing the unique characteristics of all things Hudson.

McLean said he receives listener feedback on the unifying aspects of the Vinyl Café stories from families who listen from separate locales and come together to discuss the story, or from people who have listened during darker periods of their lives and drew comfort and laughter from the program.

“We define ourselves through our stories. We learn who we are. It helps us understand who we are, where we are, and what we believe in.”

McLean doesn’t hesitate when asked if his chosen medium would still be radio if he were just starting out today, particularly after seeing the results of colleagues’ forays into television. “Radio is a choice, this is where I like to be working,” he said. “I’m a writer, more than anything, and radio is a writerly medium.”

McLean concurs that the limitations and challenges of the medium force him to be mindful of how the audience receives the story, not having the same liberties as readers of the printed word to absorb, pause, and reflect. While McLean began his radio career in the early 1970s as a journalist for a CBC Radio news magazine program, he says there’s less of a difference between his early and current work than one would imagine.

“When you’re writing non-fiction, it’s truth, but it’s your truth, the way you would see it,” he said. “There are many ways to tell a story and you tell it the way you see it. You impose a certain truth to it.”

Though a native of relatively nearby Montreal West, these performances mark McLean’s first in Hudson and when asked what had taken him so long, McLean replied, “That’s a damn good question. I wonder that myself.”

He reminisced about boyhood trips to the town, taking the train in with his mom for a visit and an ice cream and in his pre-show monologue, he referred to Hudson as being as close as one can get to Tom Sawyer country without the uncertain adventure of time travel.

“I always like taking the slow road,” he said. “Hudson is along the slow road so you’d think I should be there every damn week.”

HVT Executive Director Kalina Skulska said booking McLean at the 145-seat theatre was relatively easy – all it took was to ask – and when producer Jess Milton dropped in to see the venue, it was just a simple matter of scheduling.

“I think what appealed to them is that it’s smaller and intimate,” said Skulska of the venue. “And we’re the opening show (for his new season), so that’s exciting.” The taping made at the HVT is scheduled to air on CBC the first week of September.

This taping marked McLean’s last performance for the summer before he heads off to British Columbia and resumes work on his next Vinyl Café book.

“There may be different ways of doing this but it’s the same old song,” said McLean, “and I’m singing it in an old-fashioned way.”

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