When singer-songwriter Robert Ball walked onto the stage of the Festival Theatre at the Stratford Festival to perform in its new cabaret series, Up Close and Musical, it was a very emotional experience.
Ball was to have his debut at the festival last year and was rehearsing the role of Brent on that stage for the world première of Here’s What It Takes, a brand new musical by Steven Page and Daniel MacIvor, but the company’s 2020 season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had been rehearsing on that stage in order to get comfortable with the space but here I was back on that stage again, but this time to perform but yet again without an audience. So that was a little unusual but at the same time just to be on a stage and to be on that particular stage was really an emotional experience. And then when the lights came down, for performers it’s like being home.”
The role in Here’s What It Takes – a successful Black gay man – was of particular significance for him as he felt it was the first time he had seen himself in a script.
Ball had played a gay character in a play and film a year before being at the Stratford Festival but that role was “of a villain, a manipulator, not exactly somebody that I identified with but I found a way to make it human and make that experience empowering for me.”
Now, he welcomes the opportunity to play someone whom he says is seldom seen in media and being that character is really exciting but also very daunting as well.
Ball is excited to be part of a brand new show, from its foundation, describing it as a dream and to also work with a Canadian icon Steven Page, Daniel MacIvor and Donna Feore.
While his official debut waits in the wings, Ball presents himself to Stratford audiences for the first time in Bold, Bruised, Born to Be, featuring a suite of powerful songs, including Page’s timely anthem “Where Do You Stand?” His accompanist is Jeremy Ledbetter.
Captured on stage in the Festival Theatre, Up Close and Musical features intimate, heartfelt concerts, filled with emotion, love and laughter. They include songs from musical theatre greats and beloved songwriters, along with personal reflections from each singer, written during the pandemic.
Ball says the theme of the music and his talking points in Bold, Bruised, Born to Be resonated from “this idea of all of my experiences, my ancestral history, who I am, in terms of my identity, all of the experiences.”
Each Up Close and Musical cabaret will be featured on a free YouTube watch party and then will be available on Stratfest@Home, the Festival’s new $10-a-month subscription service.
The YouTube première of Bold, Bruised, Born to Be will be streamed for 36 hours free on Thursday, March 18, at 7:30pm EST, streaming thereafter on Stratfest@Home until September 17, 2021.
“People should tune in for raw, intimate, emotive music, music that tells a story, music that has a heart, to learn a little bit about my story in song and dialogue.”
When Ball moved to the Stratford, Ontario to be part of the company, he did not know anyone, however, the community of artists and performers, behind-the-scenes creatives, and the city itself, all embraced him.
“Of course, it’s not anything like what it would be like in the usual season so I’m kind of looking to at least some semblance of that. But it’s been nice to meet all of these people and to be welcomed in this way.”
Ball knew he always wanted to be an artist – from as far back as coming out of his mother’s womb all he remembered wanting to do was to become a visual artist. It was his passion.
He attended Claude Watson School for the Arts and the arts program at Earl Haig Secondary School, both in Toronto, where he was a visual arts major.
Around age 11 or 12, two significant moments piqued his interest further.
“One, I remember watching Rachelle Ferrell perform on the Grammys a tribute to Patti LaBelle. I said that’s what I want to do. And then also I was singing along and recorded myself to Boyz II Men and Des’ree, and a friend of mine came over and heard my tapes and was just completely in awe. And that’s when something clicked,” says Ball.
At about age 18 during his last year of high school he realized that this is the profession that he should pursue. This was also the time that he got his first paid gig as well.
Ball, who is 40 and the son of a Jamaican mother and an African Canadian father with deep roots in Canada’s black history, has been performing for 22 years.
On his father’s side, Ball is six generations Black Canadian. His great-great-great grandfather came to Canada through the Underground Railroad and settled in the Windsor-Chatham area of Ontario.
His mother is from Black River, St. Elizabeth and went to high school in Montego Bay, Jamaica. She immigrated to Canada in 1973.
Ball’s smooth vocals caress the genres of soul, neo-soul, jazz, easy listening but he’s not limited to only those. The singer-songwriter says he writes and sings from his heart and his life journey.
By Neil Armstrong