“From TV Pilot to Site-Specific Musical & On Keeping Open to Options and Optimism” In Conversation with Kris Hagen on LIGHTERS IN THE AIR at the 2018 Toronto Fringe
Interview by Jared Bishop.
Kris Hagen, often known for his comedy or his role as ‘Sketchy Looking Dude’ on Kim’s Convenience, brings his original music to the Toronto Fringe Festival. Lighters in the Air, the first show by Dive Bar Productions, is a site-specific musical set in a bar where the mic is always open. I spoke with Kris about how the story kept developing from TV Pilot, to feature, to site-specific musical, what it’s like wearing many hats with this show and on how he lives his life by keeping open to options, optimism and surrounding himself with good people.
The show is performed in the Monarch Tavern, this is where we met to chat about the show. We move throughout the space during our conversation. We start the interview with Kris behind the bar.
Kris Hagen: Water?
Jared Bishop: Yes, please.
KH: (looking over at their stage setup) I just realized I had left the table there. I kept running into it last night. There is always something to keep it fresh every night!
JB: Wait, so last night there was a table on stage that wasn’t meant to be there?
KH: Yeah, that little table there in front of the couch wasn’t supposed to be there so last night I am like walking and talking and walking backwards and it’s like right there and I am running into it.
Kris is walking me through the space, reliving moments from the show the night before.
JB: When did you know you were going to use this space?
KH: Well, basically when I decided to put it on as a live show, I thought that this space would suit the bar in this story. I had written this as a TV pilot, this was a few years ago, and I thought if I was to film it, this would be a great place to film. And I still had this place in my mind when I decided to make it into a live show. I know the Monarch has had Fringe shows before so they were perfect people to approach. When they agreed to do it, I adapted the film script into the live show. I could really visualize the space. I just thought this setup, apart from these pillars, was perfect, but I guess there will always be something when you’re working with a different space.
JB: The pillars though, they were written into the script and they even become a character in the story. This is an example of what impressed me with your use of the space. It felt like this show couldn’t happen anywhere else. What other unexpected challenges came up for you?
KH: So apparently we have the worst lighting board in history over there and these are the lights to the bar, so there are two places to change the lights on stage. So we just thought to get the cast to do it and that became part of the story as time went on. We didn’t have to bring in any other lights except for an LED strip along the base of the bar.
JB: How long was your cast in this space before the start of Fringe?
KH: We were able to get in and do a fair amount of rehearsals here starting a month ago. Being a Fringe show with a 9 person cast, everyone wasn’t always available. It was great to have the space to work with small groups in the cast. Trying to transfer a script into a site-specific space, I have never really done that. Taking a square rehearsal space and trying to move all of that into here, it would have been a nightmare. Being able to be in here saved us a lot, it just made the show feel more polished with transitions and lighting. All of that stuff would not have been possible without earlier access to this space, so we got lucky. It was fun to problem solve in a space like this.
JB: When did you start writing the story you tell in Lighters in the Air?
KH: It was originally a TV pilot. I had all these songs I had written over the years and I hadn’t done enough with them, so I started this TV pilot idea, setting it in the Toronto music and busking scene, having each episode feature one of my original songs. From there, I adapted the story into a feature film. In terms of story, it kept shifting a little bit with each version. It evolved over time. Focusing the story in a dive bar with the final version that we have now all came to me in January and February when I knew I had to adapt it for this space. It sat in the back of my mind for about a month, and then one day within an hour I had every scene finished. It all just came to the surface.
JB: Musically, where do you find inspiration?
KH: I think I’m drawn to the idea of music being a soundtrack to life. I have tended to write more sad ballads because, when I turn to write, it is more often than not when things aren’t going that well in life. I am just home by myself and the guitar is kind of my therapist so I pick it up and start improvising songs. I think it’s very helpful. It’s helped me stay calm just having those songs and, at any time, having that ability to write.
JB: How has it been wearing all of these different hats in a production? Is it something you have done before?
KH: I have done it but not like this… maybe for a short film or web series… there was some significant effort before but not like this. I have been living off of coffee and potato chips for a month. I have lost 15 pounds, so right after this I am heading back to the Good Life. But I just feel like I got to keep going. Once you get a great cast and crew together you feel responsible to do it for them, as well. I have two great assistant directors and the cast is great. It has become very collaborative. I want to be sure to be in the scenes and present when I’m acting, so it’s good to have those eyes on the outside. And everyone gets along so well, it’s a great group.
JB: Are there other parts of this experience you feel are important to share?
KH: It’s an art-imitates-life sort of thing for me. The story is about personal relationships and how important they are in a community. The dive bar is this community, it’s in rougher times but those bonds between people persist through that. Just working with this group, I think we have imitated that. Building a community out of nothing. It’s that experience for me that’s been the most fun. We are all pleased to have met each other and to be working together. We have fun and we try to bring that energy to the audience. Hopefully we are achieving that with this show.
I have always wanted to do more with music. Did that inspire me to do this show? Or is it inspiring me to focus on the music side and record an album and do more live shows? I am not sure at the moment.
JB: Your character said the exact same thing on stage
KH: Just not sure what to do next, right? As long as you have some options and some optimism and some good people around you to work with, you can always do something.
JB: I like that, options and optimism.
KH: Yeah, you find it by pursuing things actively and pursuing relationships openly and accepting. I am trying to cultivate that in my own life. Being active and optimistic can go a long way.
Lighters in the Air
A musician named Leo returns to his former hangout, The Empty, a dive bar where the mic is always open.
Lighters in the Air will feature original songs by Hagen as well as nightly guest performances by some of the brightest talent in the Toronto music and comedy scenes, including Laura Tremblay (Jukebox Hero: The Musical; Stage West Calgary’s Legally Blonde: The Musical), Ben Beauchemin (Kim’s Convenience, Saving Hope), Ted Morris (Yuk Yuk’s, Just for Laughs, Sirius XM), and more!
The Monarch Tavern
12 Clinton St.
Company: Dive Bar Theatre
Creator: Kris Hagen
Assistant Directors: Kristen MacCulloch & Steven Holmberg
Cast: Natalia Bushnik, Balinda Corpus, Cody Crain, Anna Douglas, Rachael Fisher, Kris Hagen, Olaf Sham, Amanda Silcoff, Taylor Wittaker
July 14th 3:00pm
July 15th 7:00pm