When Pancouver reaches the ever-curious Ann Mortifee over Zoom, she drops an early hint of her interest in Jungian psychology. It comes as the Canadian singer, composer, librettist, and author is discussing the characters in her musical, Reflections on Crooked Walking, which running at the Firehall Arts Centre until December 24.
Mortifee, who lives on Cortes Island, began writing her JUNO-nominated musical when she was a young adult. It premiered at the Arts Club Theatre 40 years ago.
“I didn’t [know] it at the time, but in reflecting back, I realized I worked out a lot of my own gifts and lacks through what the characters went through,” Mortifee says.
Reflections on Crooked Walking revolves around four characters who remain awake while everyone else in town has fallen asleep due to a mysterious disease. According to the script, Madame Opia represents the forces of resistance, trying to tempt the four away from seeking a solution.
“I tried to turn Madame Opia into the light, but she wanted to stay where she was,” Mortifee quips. “I think it was when I was working out my shadow.”
Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung described the shadow as the unconscious part of the Self that doesn’t align with a person’s idealized view of their personality. Through a process known as individuation, Jungians maintain that people can bring these parts of the Self into the light of consciousness, thereby becoming more whole. As a result, they are less prone to project their shadow onto others.
Another character in Reflections on Crooked Walking, Gabby, is a bright and curious tomboy. Mortifee says that as a young woman, a big part of her nature was to be very optimistic, only looking at the good in life and not wanting to see the bad.
“I was only in my 20s when I started this,” Mortifee recalls. “I realized that there was a part of me that just believed duty was duty. That’s all you need to know—and don’t look at your shadow at all.”
“Books, Books, Books” from Reflections on Crooked Walking.
Mortifee buries two characters in garden
Yet another character, Reverend Blinkers, is a kind-hearted older man who’s uncomfortable with expressing his emotions.
“Reverend Blinkers was the part of me that was drawn to the spiritual way,” she says. “Actually, it was my very strong period of time in Christianity.”
Mortifee has since expanded her consciousness by drawing on the best aspects of other traditions.
Meanwhile, Feathertoes is a lighthearted ballet dancer. And Sufferton is a lonely pessimist who sees suffering as the mark of a true seeker. Mortifee points out that Sufferton emerged to demonstrate that in order to grow, one sometimes has endure hardship.
She initially had six characters taking the journey, but had to eliminate two of them because early drafts were too long.
“I made my little coffin for them and buried them in the garden with the pages of script that no longer worked,” Mortifee says.
She started writing Reflections on Crooked Walking when she was living in Whistler. The mountains had been closed to skiers at the time, so Mortifee headed off to a small library to learn how to create a play.
In those days, a friendly and “very happily ensconced alcoholic” used to drop by for coffee every morning.
“We had built this path that went around two trees that I didn’t want to cut down,” Mortifee says.
Her older friend managed to navigate this curved path perfectly even while inebriated. So, she suggested that he write a book called Reflections on Crooked Walking. In the end, this became her title.
Never too late for new beginning
Mortifee had many more career successes following Reflections. She recorded albums and wrote musicals, books, and scores for ballet and opera. She also became a popular public speaker.
Her 2010 book and musical, In Love with the Mystery, encapsulates her growing awareness.
“It is never too late to begin anew,” Mortifee writes in the book. “We must allow our self to be forever recreated. In fact, this is the only way to live the spiritual life. Every day, every moment is a doorway into a new possibility.’
So, did Reflections play a role in Mortifee becoming a spiritual seeker, culminating with In Love with the Mystery?
“Oh, yes,” she replies. “But I was already on that path from an early age.”
As a young girl growing up on a sugar-cane farm in Zululand in South Africa, she would look up at the stars and ask where the universe ended.
Even though her parents were agnostic, she still had a yearning to know more about the meaning of life and where she fit in.
“I related that to a higher consciousness—somebody who knew what was going on,” Mortifee says. “And in my early days, of course, it was a god. As my consciousness has changed, it’s broadened.”
Her parents moved to Canada when she was a child because they didn’t want the family to live under apartheid. She says that she wrote her second full-length musical, When the Rains Come, because she owed a debt on behalf of her family to South Africans. On Mortifee’s website, it’s described as a “modern Romeo and Juliet story” set during apartheid and post-apartheid periods.
On marriage and serendipity
She states that the greatest gift in her life was marrying internationally renowned flautist Paul Horn, who died in 2014. Like Mortifee, he was a curious soul. Both meditated for decades and both had learned from spiritual teachers in India.
She knew Horn for decades before marrying him later in life. In fact, he played the flute on her album The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, which was recorded in 1973. It was a cast recording from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet production based on George Ryga’s play.
“I was 57 and he was 75 when we got married,” Mortifee discloses. “It was such a blessing.”
Mortifee’s newest project is a CD, which she recently recorded in Argentina. It came about due to her friendship with musicians Don Pope and Rhonda Padmos. Mortifee insists that she had no intention of making another album, but Pope asked if she had any songs that she had never recorded.
One thing led to another and before long, Pope and Padmos were telling her about a recording engineer in Argentina.
“I’ve been reading Carl Jung’s book on serendipity and realizing I’m the queen of serendipity,” Mortifee says with a hearty laugh. “So many extraordinary adventures have come out of following the bread crumbs through the forest and not being afraid to go where the forest and nature and life meet you.”
The Firehall Arts Centre, along with The McGrane-Pearson Endowment Fund, is presenting Ann Mortifee’s Reflections on Crooked Walking. Firehall Arts Centre artistic producer Donna Spencer is directing the show, which runs until December 24. For tickets and more information, visit the Firehall website.