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Photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre.

Q&A with veteran storyteller Kim Kilpatrick

By Brian Carroll on December 13, 2015



Storyteller Kim Kilpatrick, actor Emily Pearlman and harpist Lucile Brais Hildesheim will be performing A Winter Tale: the Journey of the Blind Harper at the NAC Fourth Stage. It’s about a famous Irish musician whose music is still performed today.

Kilpatrick is a veteran storyteller whose repertoire includes her one-woman show Flying in the Dark, as well as The Odyssey and The Iliad. She has performed in Ottawa, Wakefield, Perth, Peterborough, Montreal, Toronto and St. Mary’s. Pearlman has toured across Canada with shows like Countries Shaped Like Stars and We Glow. Recording musician Hildesheim has performed classical and Celtic harp in Canada, the USA and Europe.

I interviewed Kim Kilpatrick about their upcoming show with Ottawa Storytellers.

Why Turlough O’Carolan?

I wanted for years to do something about this guy. When I first heard about him, (I thought) “What do you mean a blind harper in the 1600s and 1700s in Ireland?”

How in the world did he travel around, to go to all these places to play? Why is his music played now? It was written down somehow, which he didn’t do because he was blind. What would possess you to feel that you could strike out, a totally blind guy, in a time of religious upheaval. Out on the road, you didn’t have GPS. In a way to get around by yourself … how would you do that?

And his guide, he had the same guide (Dennis, performed by Pearlman) a lot of the time. How did he come to that?

For years I’ve been fascinated with that concept, in a time when blind people were not visible, not doing a lot, or hidden in the house. How did he do that?

The ones who rise above that, like Louis Braille and Helen Keller, how do you get to this place where you say, “No, this isn’t good enough for me. I’m going to go and do this.”

Really fascinating.

But then when we started to research it, there’s not a lot. There’s bits and pieces but there aren’t clear stories. So we had to create those.

We did make up a lot, but based on the facts of his life. The tunes and the harp music are his music. And some of the verses that he made up.

What would make you, when you’re 18 and you’re about to be a doctor or lawyer, because he was so smart? He was educated by a woman who was like his patroness. And then smallpox and no vision. What do you do?

Your father was a farmer and a blacksmith. You can’t do that.

That’s exciting, to have his music. And to have Emily with me, because she’s great. All of us, Laurie (Fyffe, the Artistic Director of Ottawa Storytellers) and Emily helped to create this script, these stories of him. I find it amazing to make it come to life, in the way it might have happened.

How did you enlist Laurie, Emily and Lucile?

As Managing Artistic Director, Laurie put out a (request for) proposal. So I proposed this, and it really intrigued her. Laurie did a lot of reading and research and started the creation process.

Laurie enlisted Emily. I said I didn’t want to do it alone. I would like it to be someone who was skilled in crafting (stories).

I couldn’t find accessible versions (of books about O’Carolan), so she (Emily) had to read things to me or scan them, because people had to get me material. Because I didn’t have access. I couldn’t find them in Kindle, iBooks or BookShare. I found the bare bones about his life, but I couldn’t find anecdotes.

Laurie had heard Lucile and said she’d be great. She asked her and Lucile said yes.

Laurie was like the puppet master.

Why did they want musicians in the manor houses where O’Carolan played?

They thought it was “the thing to do”, to welcome musicians in.

If you look at his tunes, he was very strategically smart. He would name tunes after people he was going to be visiting. For instance he would write a song about the wife. People liked that, that he named songs (after them).

I think he was a good marketer. He seemed to understand that he could get well known by doing this.

He faced religious intolerance, which is still with us today.

He seems to have been a character. He liked to drink. He wasn’t afraid to say what he’d think, which you hear in some of the verses that he wrote for people.

I think he had a stubborn nature. He wouldn’t convert. He was also a savvy businessman. They didn’t care if he was Catholic or Protestant, (as long as) he composed and performed.

Thank you, Kim.

You can hear Kilpatrick, Pearlman and Hildesheim perform A Winter Tale: Journey of the Blind Harper at the NAC Fourth Stage on Thursday, Dec. 17th at 7:30PM. Tickets are $22 ($18 for seniors and students) and are available online or at the NAC box office. Ticket sales have been brisk. Get yours early.