The Many Forms of Storytelling

Written by Gretchen Kelbaugh

Gert Harding. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

My mom’s favourite aunt, Gert Harding (1889-1977), from Welsford, NB, spent six exciting years as a member of the militant suffragettes of Great Britain. Ever since I read Auntie Gert’s memoirs, I’ve been driven to spread her story: as a biography, an award-winning screenplay and, now, a musical. One reason I’m drawn to the tale is that, as a child, I wanted to be a spy. Gert was able to spy for a noble cause, at times wearing costumes by day and sprinting like a shadow through back alleys at night. I’m jealous. Furthermore, we need to hear about women with a political story to tell, and this one is spiced up with battle and illicit love. A storyteller for over thirty years, I am still driven to tell this one. It’s in my blood.

Arrest of the Bodyguard. This is from Gert Harding’s Scrapbook (inherited by her great-niece, Gretchen). Harding organized and headed up this secret bodyguard assigned to protect the suffragette leader, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, from constant rearrest by Scotland Yard. They succeeded often but not always. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

In 2015, I finished my first play… about Gert, of course, and it had a five-night run at Saint John Theatre Company. Then I heard that Anne of Green Gables is Canada’s longest-running musical. Its success so close in PEI inspired me, and I decided to expand my story of a real-life farm girl into a feature musical, with me writing the ‘book’ (script) and lyrics, or the libretto. I asked long-time friend Theresa Patterson, a graduate in music and performance and with composing experience, to write the music. She was keen, having fallen in love with Gert’s story years ago. As Theresa’s strength lies in composing ballads, Michael Doherty, accomplished composer and music director, suggested we team up with a musician who could add power and edge. In 2017, we invited well-known Atlantic composer Debbie Adshade to share in music composition. Not one to resist a challenge, she accepted.

We couldn’t have written and begun to develop the musical without support from artsnb. Since 2019, we’ve received a Creation grant and several for Career Development, along with one Canada Council Grant. I am also thankful for ongoing support from PARC, the Playwrights’ Atlantic Resource Centre. To date, we’ve held one professional workshop on the libretto, with dramaturge Martha Irving, and engaged Michael Doherty to guide the composers as they developed their music. Finally, he transcribed their chord sheets and demos into a piano/vocal score. Our next goal is to host a professional music workshop; musicals undergo several of these before being produced.

Artist: Liudmyla Andriivna.

I’ve moved through many forms of storytelling: journalism, biography, children’s poetry, screenwriting/filmmaking and, now, writing for stage. This change adds zest to my professional life. I’m never bored. And the constant learning brushes off the brain-cobwebs (as an arachnophobe, I work especially hard to remove these). One downside, however, is that I keep having to build networks, find new colleagues, buy software and, as far as grants go, start back as an emerging artist in the new field. I never plan to change forms of writing; it just happens. For example, the whole time I worked on Auntie Gert’s biography, I could see her story on the movie screen in my mind. The day I finished her biography, I began writing a screenplay, studying the craft as I wrote.

I’ve tackled many themes in my career, with projects such as a dragon boat team of breast cancer survivors, a video series on the developing world and a short comedy about ice cream cake. (I shot and directed it in my kitchen, using my kids, ex-husband and cat as actors, and it won Best No Budget Short at the Broad Humor Film Festival in California). While Gert Harding’s push for political equality for women appeals to my feminism, it’s mainly a story about difficult personal choices. I delve into themes of finding purpose in life; having to choose among family, romance and your beliefs; and the universal need to find community. As well, the musical deals with issues of sexual preference and racism.

Gretchen Kelbaugh (left) and composers Theresa Patterson (middle) and Deb Adshade go over the libretto (lyrics + book/script) in Deb’s basement. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

For most of my writing projects, I’ve worked alone. The best part by far with this musical is having not just one but two collaborators. I love working with Theresa and Deb. We bounce ideas off each other all the time, and any two of us can always keep the other one in line 😊. As well, one of the worst things about being an independent artist is having to blow your own horn. With this project, I pitch it with my composers, and we can blow each others’ horns. A much sweeter sound.

Since her thirties, Gretchen has been a writer. She first wrote humourous commentaries for CBC radio. Next she self-published her multiple-award-winning poetry collection, Lollipopsicles. The memoirs of Gert Harding (her great-aunt), inspired Gretchen to write Harding’s biography, published by Goose Lane Editions. Her first screenplay, about Harding, won an Atlantic award and led to a career writing screenplays, with one teleplay being produced for CBC-TV. Another screenplay won the CBC Producers’ Showcase; she produced it as a no-budget feature, winning Best Screenplay at the Trail Dance Film Festival. Now Gretchen works on the book and lyrics for a musical., about Gert Harding, the musical and biography, about many other projects of Gretchen’s