Sean Willett/the Gauntlet

A picture worth 1,000 words

Onalea Gilbertson tells the story of her grandmother’s life in Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame

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The story started with a photo album. Onalea Gilbertson was flipping through a book of old family pictures when she saw photos of her grandmother, Blanche — not as the person Gilbertson had known, but as the young woman she used to be. From that moment forward, Gilbertson was set irreversibly upon the path that would lead to Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame.

A theatrical song cycle originally written by Gilbertson in 2007, Blanche will run in Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre from Jan. 14–26 as a part of the High Performance Rodeo. Accompanied by Jeff Gladstone on the guitar, Brian Sanders on the cello and Jonathan Lewis on violin and clarinet, Gilbertson uses a variety of musical styles to tell the story of her grandmother — a story that might have never been told.

“It was the look in her eyes, and the way she was smiling in all of those pictures,” explains Gilbertson, as to why she was inspired to write about her grandmother. “The gleam in her eye, that smile, that spirit that was within her — it made me realize that I didn’t know her and how tragic that was. I was so inspired I thought ‘Oh my god, I want to write about her life’. ”

At the time Gilbertson had just been commissioned for her first all original piece by The Banff Centre, so she began to ask her grandmother about her life in the era of the Great Depression and World War II. She recorded these conversations with Blanche, and weaved them throughout the narrative of the play. Throughout these interviews Gilbertson also learned of the people who helped shape her grandmother’s life, such as her great uncle Lloyd.

“Where my grandfather Woody would write letters that were short and sweet, Lloyd would write these really long missives to Blanche, and she really remembered his letters during the war,” says Gilbertson. “He had been taken as a prisoner of war after they landed at the battle of Dieppe on their very first day in the war, which is enormous.” 

Gilbertson also interviewed Lloyd while writing Blanche, and in doing so uncovered a part of her family history that was almost lost.

“He had never, ever told his story,” explains Gilbertson. “He had never spoken about this with anyone in the family. He wouldn’t allow me to tape record him, so I just scribbled down everything he said as fast as I could.” 

Lloyd and his story are the subject of one of the most powerful songs in Gilbertson’s performance, whose brief experience with her great uncle touched her in a profound way.

“I had never met him before. I didn’t really know him, so it was an incredibly poignant day for me to speak with him,” says Gilbertson. “I never saw him again, he passed away a year and a half ago. I sent him a CD, but I really wish I had seen him before he had passed away, to ask him what he thought about it. It was really powerful, even just to say thank you for what he did.”

Through learning about Lloyd and the many other people who were a part of Blanche’s life, Gilbertson began to see the same spark in her grandmother that she saw in those old photos — a spark that had never really left.

“It’s almost as though I already knew that was in there,” says Gilbertson. “It is not though I thought she was one way, then interviewed her then changed my mind about it, it was more of a real deepening of everything. It’s simple, but that is exactly what it was. Finding that spark in her again, to talk about those things.”

The discovery of the photo album and the resulting conversations with Blanche caused Gilbertson to better understand her grandmother and, through this, the relationship between the two was strengthened. Gilbertson explains that after Blanche had been placed in a nursing home, she had found it difficult to connect with her aging grandmother.

“It’s hard,” says Gilbertson. “I didn’t know what to say, I felt bad that she was there, I felt guilty, I felt weird, I felt upset. But all of a sudden, finding that photo album changed everything. I could ask her about all of these people, and I realized I didn’t really know anything.” 

“Ultimately she was moved to the dementia ward before she passed away, and I was telling the stories back to her,” says Gilbertson. “So it was damned good that I got them before she forgot. It is one of the things that I think people take away from [Blanche], that you have to find out this stuff or nobody is ever going to know. That you have to tell these stories before they are lost forever.”

While the story of Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame is intensely personal to Gilbertson, it is also told in a way she hopes can speak to anyone. With a combination of folk, torch, jazz and chamber music, she weaves a soundscape between joy and melancholy in a sophisticated and powerful tribute to memory and the power it holds.

“Sometimes I think people listen to what this show is about and think ‘Why would I want to go see something about someone’s grandma?’ But it’s not just about that,” says Gilbertson. “It’s about womanhood. It’s about what happened to that whole generation during the war. It’s about having both a remarkable life and an unremarkable life, like all of us do. We go through so many things in our lives, and when you’re in your 90s, what are you going to look back on? What’s going to stick out to you? You’re going to remember the specific ways people looked at you, how they touched you.”