July 10, 2012 1:20 pm

Homeless Calgarians taking musical talents to New York

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Just a few short years ago, they were living on the streets.

But now, two Calgary men are bound for the Big Apple, performing an original production, Requiem for a Lost Girl, as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, alongside residents from shelters in New York.

Max Ciesielski has been busy practicing this once in a lifetime performance. “I started this journey to New York about 45 years ago when I was 14 and picked up the guitar for the first time.”

Together with John Harris, the musical pair was asked to each write a piece of music for the Off-Broadway production, about a young woman who lost her life on the streets.

It’s a story the men are all too familiar with.

“I had 10 good years of marriage. My wife said she had five. We split up. Blah, blah, blah… I went to one place. She went to another place,” Harris told Global National‘s Francis Silvaggio.

The place Harris eventually ended up at was the Calgary Drop-In Centre more than a decade ago.

That’s where Onalea Gilbertson approached him – and Harris – when the Calgary singer and theatre artist first developed the production to draw attention to homelessness.

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“We’re trying to erase the line between us and them and without all of us being a part of it together, it simply wouldn’t be possible,” she said over Skype in New York.

Her show premiered in Calgary in 2009 to rave reviews. Now, Gilbertson is bringing the show to New York, along with Ciesielski and Harris.

“Most people in Canada live just one paycheque away from total disaster in their life and it’s not something we think about,” Gilbertson said.

Performing in New York is an incredible opportunity most artists dream of, but few achieve.

“I’ve always loved performing. I never really thought I’d end up in New York,” said Ciesielski – who has two original pieces of music in the play – will sing and play the keyboard on stage. He says bouncing back from homeless and being involved in this production has shown him that anything is possible.

“Being homeless and living in a shelter, it’s really easy to become institutionalized and you disassociate yourself from everybody and everything that’s going on,” he said.

The Calgary Drop-In Centre’s executive director said supporting clients in their creative endeavours is important.

“We have many people that are very creative and are very talented and it’s a way for them to feel more confident about themselves, show the talent that they have and I think sometimes it opens up the opportunities for other things to happen,” Debbie Newman said.

In the meantime, Ciesielski is looking forward to 10 days in New York, packed with a heavy rehearsal schedule, three Off-Broadway performances, and some sightseeing.

“I want to go through Central Park. I’ve just read so much about it. Maybe I can stand where Paul Simon did his concert,” Ciesielski said.

Requiem for a Lost Girl doesn’t just cover themes of homelessness and poverty, but also mental illness and addiction.

With files from The Calgary Herald

Follow Francis on Twitter: @FJSilvaggio  

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