Musician Sarah Hagen started out playing it “straight” on stage — that is, performing classical piano in the traditional, conservative style. That all changed a couple years ago when she honed her current show, called “Perk up, pianist,” on the fringe festival circuit, adding comedy along the way.
The ride has been both fun and terrifying for Hagen, who brings her brand of musical mischief to Surrey City Hall’s Centre Stage theatre this Saturday night (May 12).
She’s learned a few things in recent years.
“You know, an audience will fake applause, but they’ll never fake laughter,” Hagen told the Now-Leader in a phone interview from her home in Charlottetown, where the former Comox Valley resident teaches university classes.
“Usually I can tell within 30 seconds how hard I’m going to have to work to woo an audience, which is kind of a good thing. Like, I’d like to develop at least that much of a skill.”
Early this decade, Hagen hosted a series of morning concerts in towns around B.C., including the Classical Coffee Concerts first performed at Surrey Arts Centre in 2012. A few years later, she’d pushed herself to create a music-based comedy show that reveals, according to the promo, “the ups and downs of a touring musician on the lookout for love, and her belief that ultimately, in some way, there is a pianist inside all of us.”
Only very early in the life of this story-filled show did Hagen have an audience turn on her, she said.
“That was the worst feeling of my life,” she explained with a laugh. “They sat there with their arms crossed and didn’t give me anything for, oh, 40 minutes. I was like, really? Nothing? It was so awful. At least I can laugh about it now.”
Blessed with dry wit and deadpan delivery, Hagen has performed in concert halls around North America and Europe. In 2015, she was named British Columbia Touring Council’s Artist of the Year, a year before she went full-on in her fringe-fest adventures.
“I had a spot in the Toronto fringe in the summer of 2016, two years ago, so that was the start of it, although it doesn’t look much like that anymore,” Hagen recalled. “And then I toured it through fringe festivals for two summers, finishing with Edmonton fringe last year. I used it as a workshop, to try things out and not worry about it being polished. The first main-stage show of this was in Vernon in January of this year.”
The 75-minute show offers “pretty slow humour,” said Hagen, cautioning patrons not to expect standup comedy.
First of all, she sits on a piano bench.
“The show grew out of an older realm, like Victor Borge and Carol Burnett, kind of a slower humour like that,” Hagen explained. “With Borge, I know people really tried to recreate what he did, and that never sat right with me. I just think that he was himself and I think I really used the fringe festivals to find what my comedic voice was, what did that look like, and it wouldn’t look like putting a seat belt around the piano bench, you know? That’s not my style, that’s for him to do. Does that make sense? But I love the way he was able to make fun of himself and make fun of kind of the stiff parts of classical music, and I definitely kept that, those qualities.”
Hagen’s Saturday show at Centre Stage starts at 8 p.m., 13450 104th Ave., Surrey. Tickets ($25-35) are available online at tickets.surrey.ca, or call 604-501-5566. Hagen’s website is hagendoestheatre.com.