The Grapevine Questionnaire: The Door You Came In

By Susan Wedlock

Author David Macfarlane and musician Douglas Cameron have created an extraordinary performance of spoken word and music based on Macfarlane’s 2001 historical memoir *The Danger Tree*. The title of this performance piece is “The Door You Came In: Songs and Stories From The Danger Tree” and it plays at The Evergreen Theatre in Margaretsville, July 22. More info: evergreentheatre.ca*

Susan: David, why did you originally write *The Danger Tree*? What did you want readers to learn from it?
David: When I was a boy our family went to Newfoundland for our summer holidays because that’s where my mother was from. For the most part, her family was still there – mostly in the Grand Falls area. So a lot of my childhood summers were spent listening to Newfoundlanders tell stories – not a bad early education for a writer! So part of the answer to your question is, I just loved the stories. But another part is because I realized that the stories would disappear if I didn’t grab them first. I’d like to think that *The Danger Tree* makes it clear to its readers that history and family history are not two different things.

Susan: Is there really a “Danger Tree” and what is its significance?
David: On July 1, 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment took part in the first day of Haig’s Somme offensive. The Newfoundlanders were by no means an exception to the rule. The Somme was generally a disaster. The advancing Newfoundland regiment was pretty much wiped-out within half-an-hour of going over the top. The actual Danger Tree was a bit of an old dead stump that Newfoundland soldiers used as a marker for the beginning of No Man’s Land.

Susan: Why is this performance piece called “The Door You Came In”?
David: My mother always used to say to visitors “Be sure to leave by the door you came in.” She said it was an old Newfoundland belief that if you didn’t leave by the door you came in you’d take the luck out of the house. Douglas came to my mother’s funeral, and he noted that every speaker mentioned this saying. So he wrote a song. More or less at the same time, I was starting to think about a story that would be built around the idea of reading to my mother in the last few weeks of her life. So when I heard the song Douglas wrote for the first time, I realized we were already starting to tell the same story.

Susan: What made you decide to collaborate with a musician and tell the story in a different way?
David: When I published a novel called *The Figures of Beauty* I wanted to read a passage at the book launch that made reference to an Italian song from the Second World War. It’s a familiar melody but I didn’t think many people would know the title, and I really wanted some sense of that song to hang over the passage I was reading. So I asked Douglas to accompany me. He worked out a nice arrangement for classical guitar, and he slowed down what was essentially a marching tune, making it something quite haunting. And we were both immediately struck with the power of combining spoken word with music. We didn’t need to spend a whole lot of time talking ourselves into trying something on a bigger scale.

Susan: What makes this story relevant to young people today?
David: Something that surprises people who come to see our show is how much of it has to do with a contemporary frame of time. And I think that’s something pretty central to the show. As my great-aunt Kate used to say, “The problem with young people is not that they think they’ll never get old, it’s that they think old people have never been young.”

Susan: Douglas, when did you first meet David and had you read *The Danger Tree* prior to this meeting?
Douglas: I first met David when we began to play together in a band called 3 Chord Johnny. I replaced his son Blake as the drummer. I hadn’t read *The Danger Tree* at that point but I did shortly after.

Susan: You are a two-time Juno nominee who has been composing and performing for years, can you tell us what other musical projects you are involved in?
Douglas: In my youth I performed as a pop musician. Later on I composed music for television programs and did a lot of children’s music and performing. I’ve also recorded and performed with a group called The Louisiana Snowblowers and as a solo artist. I continue to compose and record on my own projects, and with other artists. Most recently I played banjola on my friend Sarah Loucks new CD *Without Meaning To*. I’ve also been working on an album of tunes, performed solo on the banjola, that I’ll finish up this fall.

Susan: Can you describe the process of collaboration and development for this piece?
Douglas: We first collaborated on a piece that we performed at the launch of David’s last novel, *The Figures of Beauty*. The combination of spoken word and music worked well so we decided to work on a subsequent piece. *The Danger Tree* was about to be re-released to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first world war so we figured it would be a good project – as well, I have a connection to Newfoundland music. I re-read the book and then David and I began a series of meetings and conversations to explore what we wanted to do both musically and with the story. We ended up spending a few days at his mother’s house in Hamilton shortly after she had passed away and mapped out our approach. I went away and began composing some music and David went away and started working on the text. We eventually had something to perform and did so just a couple of months later. The project has grown from there.

Susan: Would you say this is a play or a reading?
Douglas: It would seem to be both and neither. It’s really a hybrid – part play, part concert, part reading, part improvisation. It seems to be a piece that allows the audience to build the stories in their imagination.