Little Volcano: Mount St. Hille in Autobiographical Performance

Veda Hile, photo by Matt Reznek via Shadbolt Centre for the Arts.

Veda Hile, photo by Matt Reznek via Shadbolt Centre for the Arts.

There were 15 little volcanoes on stage at Burnaby’s Shadbolt Centre: One 2x2 model on a wheeled table, 13 volcano illustrations by Orra White Hitchcock, and the musician Veda Hille.

From behind a  grand piano, Hille explained to the audience that her nickname ‘little volcano’—technically, ‘das klein vulkan’—came from a review of a show she played in Hamburg back in the 90’s.

“I used to play like a demon, all flailing, a lot of leg work,” Hille narrated over her own accompaniment. “But now I have the power of age. I can be still, smoking, implacable. Mount St. Hille.”

Decades later, Little Volcano is the name of Hille’s autobiographical musical. The elevated piano concert includes works from JS Bach, Hille’s 21-album discography, and a sprinkling of Ella Fitzgerald. Throughout the performance, Hille narrates a collection of stories from her life— curated by her and Theatre Replacement’s James Long and Maiko Yamamoto.

The trio has worked together since 2003, but only within the last five years have they toyed with the idea of collaborating on a “heightened Veda Hille show.”

“We own this show all together,” Hille tells me by phone, days after the debut performance. “They helped bring the stories out of me and then together we decided which ones had life and which ones needed to be chopped.”

Three decades into her career, Hille still struggles to answer why her stories would be interesting to other people.  “I do think if you hit upon the right way to tell a story, people just hear their own stories in it. That’s what I hope for with this show,” she says.

Little Volcano is an invitation for audience members to embrace an  absence of normalcy. Hille plunked cheerful tunes while sharing an anecdote of being strapped down to a hospital bed at two years old, her skin shedding like a newt—or a phoenix— on account of Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Later, the record player spun a soundtrack of Scottish frogs in a mating frenzy as Hille described losing a child. Guided by lighting designer Sophie Tang, Hille’s cross legged silhouette is projected onto the tapestry behind her, amphibian like.

Hille herself captured the sounds of the froggy fornication while in Scotland last year for an artist’s residency, a setting mentioned regularly throughout Little Volcano. That’s where she returned to playing Bach, a piano practice that brought her so much joy as a teenager. Eventually, his  work became a backbone of the show. Other cameos include Hille’s own mother, recorded on vinyl, and a clip of 20-something Hille singing a capella.

While the show avoids a linear narrative, the 90 minute trip through Hille’s life still feels incredibly cohesive.

“I’ve always liked a cut and paste overlay, having so many threads and stacking them all up in a way that makes things more interesting and hard to untangle,” Hille says, describing the show as part self-portrait, part an ode to music as a form of sustenance.

“Mostly it’s just a 50-year-old woman laying it bare, sisters.”

This  elevator pitch is a work-in-progress, as is the show. Little Volcano debuted April 26-28, but will be packaged differently when it returns to local stages in 2020.  

“It used to feel crazy for me that we would work on a show for three or four years, and then having to let go of iterations and get excited for the next round and know what to feel attached to,” Hille says.Yet that’s exactly how she and Amiel Gladstone created the award-winning musical Onegin. The version of King Arthur’s Night that just returned from the Hong Kong Arts Festival is far from the same show Hille and Neworld Theatre staged in Vancouver last year.

“I consider myself to have started with indie rock, which is so much more about being in the moment, and then leaving it for the next moment,” explains Hille. “Theatre is much more planned and devised in a way that I am now super excited about.”

Whatever the next iteration of Little Volcano looks like, it is sure to give you big feels and huge respect for the artistry involved. Days after the show’s first run, Hille says there have already been talks of adding in more stories from her childhood. There may even be changes to the ending, an explosive rendition of “Titanic” from Hille’s 2018 album Love Waves that had the entire theatre clapping along until the final line of the show:

“I love you like dynamite – KABOOM”.

Vancouver is lucky to host such an active Mount St. Hille.