It doesn’t come as a surprise to Rob Kempson that the first question he is usually asked about his song cycle The Way Back To Thursday is whether it’s based on his life. While the answer is a qualified yes, it may not be in the way you think.
“People assume it is somehow autobiographical and an homage to my grandmother, but my grandmother actually passed away when I was 12,” Kempson says.
The idea for The Way Back To Thursday actually came to him during auditions for a different show, and the impression that two actors of diverse age left on him at the time. While the two may have been the starting point for The Way Back To Thursday, it was the idea of exploring a relationship that doesn’t typically get a lot of airtime that he found most compelling.
“What I became increasingly interested in was the dynamic between an older woman and younger man,” Kempson says. “We often see stories on stage about grandfathers and grandsons, and grandmothers and granddaughters, but not cross-generational, cross-gender stories.”
It’s not just an intergenerational story that Kempson sought to capture, but a queer story about family neither denying nor avoiding a conversation about sexuality.
“It is the journey of a family coming to terms with the grandson’s sexuality,” he explains. “There are many facets to that exploration of the relationship between the two, especially when things like aging and dementia are also factored in.”
Presented as part of this year’s In Tune, the biennial Vancouver event that develops and showcases new Canadian musicals, The Way Back To Thursday is the story of a grandmother and her gay grandson struggling to connect. Kempson, who plays the grandson, felt the story would best be told exclusively in song, hence the distinction as a song cycle instead of a musical.
“It takes place over 30 epic years, and it was very clear to me that each moment in the story was best expressed through music, because I can get more across with music and lyrics than with just with text,” he says.
The production’s somewhat enigmatic title harkens back to the Thursdays shared by grandmother and grandson, as they came together to watch old Hollywood movies.
“When I started to research the piece I interviewed a number of men around my age at the time about their relationship with their grandmothers, and how that relationship manifested itself,” Kempson says. “One thing that came up was there was always a single task or activity that these men had with their grandmothers. Kids who always went to the movies, or spent a certain night with them, or had them as a babysitter. When they were remembering or reflecting on their grandmothers they would always reflect on those activities.”
For Kempson, the activity that he remembers most vividly is spending time on his grandmother’s farm. “There is something about a relationship between a young person and an older person that is really unique, and I still have a special picture of me at three-and-a-half years old, where we’re both wearing overalls and collecting eggs.”