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A black background with a graphic of coloured paint strokes, roses, a guitar, a butterfly and music notes, runs along the top half of the frame. A circular headshot shows Fiona Sauder; a white woman with short red hair is wearing a white collared blouse. She’s smiling with red lipstick on in front of a grey background. All-caps text along the bottom reads, "Fiona Sauder / 'Uncovering' Dolly Parton: The Digital Experience."

‘UnCovering’ Dolly Parton, The Digital Experience with Fiona Sauder

Put on the kettle and your fuzzy slippers – with shorter days and colder nights, it’s the perfect time to cozy up at home with your loved ones and enjoy an intimate musical experience together! With the UnCovered Digital Experience only a week away, we sat down with RBC apprentice alumni & first-time #UnCovered director Fiona Sauder! We learn more about their apprenticeship journey, connecting with Dolly’s message, and the strength in sharing this experience with us.

This is our 15th annual UnCovered concert and your first time on the UnCovered artistic team. How have you approached this UnCovered concert? 

As much as I could, I wanted to make this concert about the people performing it and the people who were coming to see it. Honouring and celebrating Dolly Parton’s music was obviously a hugely important focus, but doing that part well inherently meant using her music as a vehicle for celebration, inclusion, community, and hopefulness – that’s what Dolly’s all about. We wanted to make sure the performers got to be seen as themselves and as an ensemble, and that the audience felt like they were part of the unique and special moment that this return to togetherness and [indoor] live music represented. 

Reza’s arrangements and working style lend to this extraordinarily well as he always builds things collaboratively; he tailors songs to the specific performers and allows those performers’ stories and interests to significantly impact how the songs are presented. Reza’s also just a very singularly magnetic person in a way that’s a lot like Ms. Parton – so making the show very “Dolly” was extremely easy when following the lead of someone like Reza; he is radically himself in everything he does, and someone who brings infectious magic wherever he goes. 

Both of us really wanted to make the show feel like a celebration of music and storytelling, so we just took our cue from Dolly at every turn – she’s a master. 

During our 2020-21 season, you were one of our RBC apprentice directors. How has your apprenticeship impacted your directing style, particularly when filming for the UnCovered digital experience? 

In speaking with established artists at The Musical Stage Company and throughout the industry during my apprenticeship, I gained so many valuable insights. I was reminded a fair amount, to trust my instincts and to immerse myself in whatever material was at hand in my directing projects. So that’s what I did with UnCovered: The Music of Dolly Parton.

I think of directing as equal parts making the things happen, and letting the things happen. With a company of such exceptional artists, it was easy (and so joyful) to give over to the impulses of the room. Admittedly, I was a bit intimidated to work with such an elite room of creators and performers, especially on a concert and mechanism that has happened for so many years. Despite the little butterflies over that (I think of these as really pleasant, good butterflies), it was really affirming to find my own footing in the room, and feel confident contributing my voice and ideas to the fold. My training with Musical Stage Company’s RBC Apprentice program absolutely contributed to the confidence I had in doing so. 

The apprenticeship made me think a lot about the how of what I do as a Director. I realized a big part of the job for me is thinking, ‘what’s the most delightful thing [in this project]?’ and then just doing that. Delight can be the delight of catharsis or the delight of feeling deeply – it doesn’t always have to be pleasant. I’m delighted when I’m moved, so I always try to look for the thing (the choice, the moment, the tone, etc.) that moves me. Following that, I try to always give myself permission to change my mind. 

What have you found to be most exciting about ‘uncovering’ the catalogues of Dolly Parton? 

Dolly Parton is a lasting icon for so many reasons. She’s often referred to as this great equalizer, and all my research and my experience with UnCovered has found that to be undeniably true. She has a way of welcoming everyone; she has a quality of surety about who she is and it draws people in – and she goes further by sharing that. She seems to have understood from a young age that all we’re really able to do is be curious about who we are and who everyone else is, and then to express it as often as possible and with as much truth as we can muster. She’s taught me a lot about what being a strong artist means. She’s strong in her authenticity, and that’s something no one can take from her, so people either get on board or leave her alone – and most people seem to get on board. 

My favourite quote from the show is something Beau Dixon cites from Dolly:

A full-body image of Beau Dixon and Jully Black, seated on stage and partly highlighted while they dance in their seats. Beau (left), a Black man with warm eyes and a moustache, wearing a blue blazer and light trilby hat, plays harmonica into the mic he’s holding; and Jully (right), a Black woman of Jamaican-Canadian descent with long, full earth-toned hair and blonde highlights, wearing a belted navy wrap dress, leans into Beau, her eyes closed and smiling brightly in mid-dance. Other performers are standing behind them or out of focus in the right frame.
Beau Dixon & Jully Black. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

I’m not afraid to do things. Of course, we’re all full of different kinds of fear for different kinds of reasons, but I have never been afraid of myself”

I think she’s so generous; with her music, with what she’s learning (she’s so adamant about trying new things and changing her mind), and with herself. I feel very grateful to have delved into who she is as an artist, and as a person. On a personal level, I think I really needed to know about it; it’s revived my spirit in more ways than I can name. 

UnCovered was offered in-person on a limited run, and will be available online next week (November 24th). Do you think digital theatre will be a continued practice for arts organizations in a post-pandemic world?

For many reasons, yes – I think it will. The ability to connect with broader audiences is a massively intriguing thing for many companies, but for me what’s most exciting is offering accessibility to audience members who may not be able to attend an in-person event; for many folks, simply traveling to venues and sitting through performances can be a barrier. The door that this digital age has ushered open for further inclusion is really important, and while creating digital versions of our in-person works is a wholly different medium (and something we’re still learning the ins and outs of doing well), I think the opportunity to invite more people into our theatre communities is deeply felt as a good thing, and something I hope we’ll continue to make efforts toward.

What are you most looking forward to with UnCovered: the Digital Experience? 

Experiencing it all again! This project was a true joy to work on and I can’t wait to relive it. Working on the edit of the digital version has been so much fun, but I’m looking forward to sitting back and enjoying it all as one ride from start to finish.

There are so many details in this filmed edition that live audiences wouldn’t have been able to catch. We’re able to get closer to the performers and the band and really peer into that electric energy between the company of artists on stage. I hope people at home will feel that intimacy and find their own individual connection to this incredible music. I hope people get up and dance in their living rooms – what else are living rooms even for?

The Digital Experience of UnCovered: The Music of Dolly Parton will be streaming online next week, running November 24 – December 11 (with a Special Holiday Viewing on December 30)

To learn more about UnCovered: The Music of Dolly Parton, click here!

To book your tickets to the Digital Experience of UnCovered: The Music of Dolly Parton, click here!