Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with Ellen Wilkes Irmisch of the TARTAN TERRORS–
Canada’s The Tartan Terrors are their own Celtic Invasion, mixing rock’s energy with traditional folklore, dance, and humor. With an arsenal featuring classic pipes and fiddle, driving drum tones, and signature guitar styles, standing-room only audiences understand why Dig This Magazine declares “(The Tartan Terrors are) one act to keep an eye on!” The Terrors use their sonic blitz to score award-winning step and Highland dancers and internationally recognized comedic performers alike.
Pillow Talking had the pleasure of speaking with Ellen Wilkes Irmisch who tours with and co-directs The Tartan Terrors with her brother Ian Wilkes Irmisch. The group also includes Daniel Pentecost, Jake Saenz, Phill Hood, Chris Kerba, and Keith McGonigle (swing includes Greig Cairns, Peter J. Corneil, Sean McKeown, and Alex Moore).
PT: Where did you get the name Tartan Terrors?
TT: My brother Ian and I run the company. What happened was we were raised in a dance studio family – our mom had a dance studio where she offered classes in dancing and acting and singing. My dad was a real estate agent. He had “dad humor.” His humor was that the only dance he could do was the elevator dance because it had steps – badaboom. Being married to a dance teacher he got to do all the announcing. So when Ian was small – his class would be announced as the Wee Tartan Terrors. When we were trying to come up with a name for the band in ’96, we were reflecting on all different titles. Our dad had passed away in 1988 from leukemia and we thought this was a really nice childhood memory, a fun memory, and something to honor him and family, and that’s where the name came about.
PT: So sorry to hear about your dad, but that’s a fantastic story. Now was that in Scotland?
TT: No. We’ve always been in Canada. There is a soccer team in Scotland. But we came up with that name on our own because of the memory and something to honor him. It’s interesting. Canada is an immigrant country, so one of the reasons we do Highland dancing is because my grandmother came to Canada as a war bride after the Second World War and she had her children do Highland dancing. And then my Mom became a very prominent judge and went to Scotland and judged all over North America. And she passed that on to us. And now we’re here.
PT: So your heritage is Scottish?
TT: Yes. And we studied all the different things with my mom. My mom was very big on it being an art form first. And then you do all your other basic studies, be it for exams or shows or competitions. And she was very big on giving back to the community. So we work really hard to do as much community outreach as well. In fact, we give a donation from each CD to breast cancer research. That means a lot to us as well. There’s enough to go around
PT: Yes, absolutely. (Wayne) Stephanie knows about coming from a family of dancers. Her mother was a ballerina and her dad did national tours. (Stephanie) Yes. My mom was with American Ballet Theater and before that with the Boston Ballet. They both danced with some of the greats.
TT: Wow! When I look at when my mom was dancing, she had to dance on cement. Even my favorite poet, Maya Angelou, talked about how she used to dance and she danced on cement and had to give that up. And she was a beautiful dancer – a really passionate dancer – but I’m not surprised since Maya Angelou was passionate about everything.
PT: Yes, she certainly was. We know you and your brother also did some acting.
TT: Being performing artists, we went through theatre school. In Canada there was a television show called Road to Avonlea which was based on the Lucy Maud Montgomery books. All the stories were set on Prince Edward Island. And we would do a lot of the dance sequences. We would do period dances –like waltzes and turkey trots and all those old dances from 1905 to 1912-1915. We did a lot of Disney movies. We actually are singing in the very beginning of The Santa Clause.
PT: Wow! That’s fantastic. (Stephanie) I love that movie!
TT: There we are. Right at the beginning. My mom also was an agent so she supplied twenty-three kids who were elves in the movie. She supplied kids for film and television and things like that.
PT: That’s a great background.
TT: Yes. We’ve been very blessed to have a well-rounded education in the performing arts and then be able to connect with people – and you want to surround yourself with like-minded people – and that’s how you become better. Lots of journeys along the way. You find where you want to go and certain things fall into your lap. But I’m very grateful for the acting training I had because everyone on our team has such strong abilities that they can bring to the table. Like being strong writers like yourselves, when I use to teach my students about ballet – I’m like, “Listen, you take ballet so you can do all the crazy avant garde dances.” Or like, “If you want to be a good writer – even if you want to do murder mysteries or science fiction – you still have to be able to have strong grammar skills, right?”
PT: Yes. For sure, you need all those foundation skills.
TT: Right. So I’m very grateful that. In our band, Daniel who plays fiddle and bagpipe has a degree in violin. And we have Chris Kerba who is on guitar – he not only does all this incredible music, but he has an education in comedy. And then we have Phill Hood from Newfoundland and he brings all that culture. And that’s what I love about being in a cultural show and bringing it to communities. It is heritage. It is connecting. It is all ages. People ask, “What age?” But it’s any age. It’s cultural music. It’s not even about Scottish or Irish. Dan brings a little bit of Blue Grass and all that “feel.” When you think of an immigrant country, everyone sitting down, being on the docks, or having fun at a pub – all those things that are so important.
PT: Yes, for sure. So other than your Mom, what were your early influences from an artistic standpoint?
TT: Oh my goodness. I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare! I’ve always enjoyed all of the famous people who were in the plays. I had the privilege of doing a season at Stratford Festival in 1991. I got to watch some of the top Canadian actors work – my mom always taught us to always be watching, listening, and learning because that was the best way to become better and see the best of the best. Like I said, I’m a huge fan of Maya Angelou. In fact, I learned about Maya Angelou a little differently than most. Maya Angelou did a documentary called Angelou on Burns. She compared what African Americans went through in the United States to what the Scots when through in Scotland during the same time period. Comparing Burns poetry and that was inspiring to me; to see how the two cultures connect. I always love how she says we’re more alike than unalike.
PT: Yes, we sure are.
TT: In regards to influence, what is important is who’s around you. My mom was an amazing woman and she brought a lot of knowledge and she was very big on giving everybody an opportunity. So our studio tended to be very different. Everybody didn’t look identical – we had all different shapes and sizes and backgrounds. Because of her foundation, she taught to us to think outside the box and now we are touring for our 20th anniversary with The Tartan Terrors. I also used to have a studio – which was hers originally. We created a big self-esteem show with teens – we had kids 12 to 17 who brought in teen issues and we took [the show] into elementary schools. And that meant a lot to me, too. Again, that was her influence. I feel very blessed to be around such amazing people.
PT: That sounds wonderful!
TT: We also had a lot of early experience with Renaissance Fairs in the U.S. And there are a number of incredible artists and stage acts who were so kind to us. All of these people were willing to share who they were and their ideas – not just how to be a strong performer, but how to be a smart business person, which we know you need to be well-rounded. (Laughs) We’re all in the same boat, right?
PT: (Wayne) Like I always say, “That’s why they call it show business and not show art.”
TT: (Laughs) Yes, exactly. I’ve been very blessed. And on top of performing, four and a half years ago I joined in with a company called Arbonne which is a Swiss-based health and wellness company,
PT: Sure, we know it.
TT: And I love it. Since that time, there are a number of performing artists involved. In Canada, we have Junos which are like your Grammys. There’s a woman, Amy Sky, who is one of the top Juno Award winners and singers in Canada. She not only coaches me on Arbonne, but she has helped us producing a new CD. Here she is one of the top singers in Canada, top-income earners in Arbonne, top-income earners in Canada, and she’s still so grounded – and is all about helping [others]. That’s what I want for us and the band – to be able to pay it forward.
PT: That’s a great philosophy.
TT: Sometimes your strongest influencers aren’t even in your same field.
PT: That’s true.
TT: It’s about respect, developing skills and becoming better. I also teach part time at Conservation Halton, which is one of the main parks for outdoor education with kids. We teach both First Nations and Environmental Studies. We look at cultures from 600 years ago – it was all about community or you didn’t survive. You had to work together. That speaks to me, too. I see that so much in the arts. Like with the two of you. You know you have to work together as a family. That’s what you do, right? You go through your bumps and hit your hurdles – as my one friend says, “Get your rubber butt and bounce back up!” (Laughs)
PT: (Laughs) That’s correct! We have rubber butts here, for sure. (Stephanie) I’m going to steal that! But even with rubber butts, it gets a little sore sometime. Too much bouncing. (Laughs) Just one more question about the acting, because a big part of our readership are actors and artists, musicians, etc. And everyone likes to know about process and technique. We’ve talked to method actors, Meisner actors, etc. Was there any specific focus for you vis-à-vis acting and your performing methodology?
TT: It’s interesting you ask that. I have watched a lot being in Canada. I’ve also had the privilege of living in London for three and a half months between second and third year theatre school. And I find it fascinating to be a Canadian because we get influences especially when you think of studying Shakespeare or classical theatre from both countries. As Canadians, we kind of just sit and look at it all and take it all in – but that is a blessing. I’ll take a piece of this and take a piece of that. Years ago there was a woman named Lee Semple who was one of Canada’s top repertory actresses – she did everything. She was “Beatrice” – all the big leading ladies – “Cleopatra,” etc. Unfortunately she passed away years ago from breast cancer. But she was an amazing mentor. She always said. “Let’s look at the heart of the character.” And then we would do really strong character studies and bring in history. I would find out everything I could about the period and bring everything to the table and just be as honest and true to the character as possible. I just think there’s so much to the Why – What is the Why? What is the character’s Why? And then of course taking that Why and connecting through the How to the What. So the question is, what are we trying to say because of the Why?
TT: Of course you get all very scientific and compare limbic to the neocortex. But the bottom line is whether you are playing the evil guy or the hero – deep down in your gut you think you know what you’re doing and you’re standing behind it or you wouldn’t be making the choices you did.
PT: Yes, of course.
TT: I always love that when you’re playing a character and delving into that. I’ve always loved Shakespeare because to me so much is just people – and I love the fact that his stories are [about] people and that’s why I truly feel that the stories still resonate today.
PT: No doubt.
TT: I’d love to do more Shakespeare. In the meantime, what has been great about our theatre training is we are able to do more dramatic pieces than we normally would get to do if we were just playing music – not that ever you’re ever just playing music – everybody brings such beautiful art to the table. I dance in certain shows as [if I am] a breast cancer patient; prior to that, I interviewed a number of women and heard their stories – then I choreographed a piece based on all the things they told me. It was quite the emotional journey. Every woman I spoke to all said, “Yeah we had breast cancer – bring it on – we can handle anything!” I was like, “You are my heroes!”
PT: And you do this as part of The Tartan Terrors’ performance.
TT: Yes. It is part of the show. We did it last time we were in Ridgefield [Connecticut]. We actually worked with the Northern Appalachian Cancer Network which is connected to Penn State and Dr. Gene Lengerich. He helps raise money with the contributions we make. They go to a number of support groups and the parts of the organizations that give back primarily to women. One of the best things he has is a mobile mammogram vehicle which goes into inner city areas like Harrisburg and then into the rural areas so women can get mammograms.
PT: That’s amazing.
TT: It means a lot to us. That piece has meant so much to me – the stories that have come forward and the lessons learned and I am so grateful because everything in the dance is connected to someone’s story that I’ve heard.
PT: Wow. So as part of The Tartan Terrors, tell us what audiences can expect, where you came up with the concepts and the routines that are part of it. It’s obvious that it is multi-faceted.
TT: Yes. We are Celtic music and dance and comedy. The heritage in Scottish and Irish Culture – they have a thing called the Cèilidh which is Gaelic for party. Traditionally speaking, you get together with your instruments, probably a few beverages and your dance shoes, and it’s basically like a Celtic jam session. Often you’ll hear at Irish pubs that people there will have a session tonight and that references Cèilidh. On the east coast of Canada and Nova Scotia and all of that neck of the woods they still have those on Saturday nights. They are called kitchen Cèilidhs. Everybody just gets together and has fun and shares stories, fun times. It is really important to the culture. We use that as the foundation for the show. We like to bring all different things – fiddle and pipes and singing and some self-written work, some traditional, some crazy parodies, and all sorts of fun stuff. We just want everybody to come and have a good time. It is National Tartan Day. So we celebrate everything in Scottish culture. Wear kilts. We have all ages that come to the show literally from small children who will be dancing up a storm to seniors as well.
PT: It sounds like a fantastic show!
TT: We have college-aged kids that come and different people who have been inspired.
PT: How did all of you come together as a group?
TT: A lot of it – it’s like anything in life – you cross paths in life with certain people. Daniel [Penetecost] came in as a swing three and a half years ago and filled in for somebody who had to be away and has stayed and done all sorts of great stuff. Jake [Saenz] also was a connection with Phill [Hood]. We just all have crossed paths with different people. We’ve been very blessed to have phenomenal artists over the years come through and everybody brings something different. I guess this will be more the estrogen side of your blog (laughs) but like quilt, everybody brings a different patch.
PT: (Laughs) Yes, we get it.
TT: Each one is different. You can’t really compare. You just need all of the patches to make a quilt. And it’s been great. It brings very different perspectives. It’s not [only] each person’s individual heritage or culture but it’s also their regional influences – like Dan will talk about certain aspects of bluegrass. A lot of Celtic people ended up in the southern United States and then they were sharing ideas. Sometimes even in certain areas you’ll get a pure sound of something as if it would have been 100 years ago just because they have those influences and the way they have been exposed to other types of music.
PT: This is your 20th anniversary, correct?
TT: Yes. Very much so. That’s what you want, right? You want to be constantly evolving and getting better. I’m surrounded by people who really want to improve themselves. There are certain things that people love. We have a piece that people love that’s a parody of “Scotland the Brave,” and that’s one of our longest running pieces. And then we have some new stuff. Dan has written some beautiful music. He did a piece two years ago called “Freedom 14” which was to honor what was happening in Scotland when they were going for the vote for independence. We also do a tribute to the troops. We actually have one in our Christmas Show and one in our regular show – the “non-Christmas show” (laughs). That one is called “Desert Storm.” We’ve had a number of fans serve overseas and also, my grandmother came over as a war bride and both my grandparents fought in the war, so it’s nice to give back. In the Christmas Show I actually portray a WWI nurse from Nova Scotia originally called Claire Gaff – and I use excerpts from her journal. She was on the front from 1915-1917 and probably her most famous thing – although not many people know it because she’s a woman – she has documented in her journal the earliest recorded copy of “Flanders Fields,” which is one of our most famous poems in Canada.
PT: Yes, we know it.
TT: We are excited and celebrate it every year – you call it Veterans Day and we call it Remembrance Day. Yeah. It was really cool when I first found out. It was published in newspapers a few weeks later. But in her journal she had a lot of different poems and things and songs written from the war front – and documenting different things that anybody would do in a journal. We combine it with a story called “Christmas in the Trenches.” I don’t know if you are familiar with that one, but it’s the idea that on Christmas Eve troops stop fighting and actually took time to celebrate Christmas.
PT: I think that did happen during WWII in certain places.
TT: Yeah, yeah. We are portraying the First World War at that point with Claire Gaff.
PT: How much touring do you do out of the year?
TT: (Laughs) You never know. We always are looking forward to the next one. We just came back from Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. We’ve done 16 shows in Jim Thorpe and that place means a lot to us. We first learned about the Pennsylvania Molly Maguires who were a bunch of Irish immigrants who rose up against the establishment to fight for the rights of the Irish miners, as well as other miners. We actually do a piece called “The Molly Maguires” which is great.
PT: I bet Sean Connery would love that piece! He did the film “The Molly Maguires.”
TT: (Laughs) We actually hang out in the pub that he and Richard Harris would be hanging out after their filming. They would go down there each day. All I know is that they would have a nice time in the pub (laughs).
It’s an amazing story and it’s a heart-wrenching story and we work really hard to different things when we are in town. Everywhere we go we’ve been blessed and spoiled over the years by the hospitality and kindness of Jim Thorpe. Whether it’s a small city or a big city, we get treated so well and so we are so blessed that way.
But in regard to dramatic pieces, a few years back, I actually did a piece that Dan wrote for me – a heart-wrenching story about a woman whose husband was about to be hanged. As the story goes with the poor woman, she got the reprieve, and she ran with the telegram, and she ran uphill and was banging on the door. As she was banging on the jail door, they hanged her husband. It tears your heart out. We actually did a tribute to her and the women and the wives and daughters and sisters. And that meant a lot to us.
In regards to upcoming tours, we are going to Connecticut and then Sellersville, Pennsylvania, and then some dates in Canada and then excited to be heading back to Celtic Fling and Highland Games in Manheim, Pennsylvania. We were one of the first acts in the first season of the Celtic Fling, so it’s great to be returning. We’ve done a number of years there. In Canada we are playing the historic Fort George Celtic Festival and Niagara on the Lake and then we are off to Colorado, Illinois, and Wisconsin. We will be out in New Jersey at Christmas time.
PT: Would you say on an annual basis you do more than a half year touring?
TT: Yes, I would say we are pretty busy. If we are not touring, we are recording and creating other work. Amy Sky who I spoke of – she has been a great educator as to where do we go now as artists, and what we do, how do we get our music, our content out there. It’s a fascinating time with all the use of multi-media, social media. It’s amazing. Your blog is such a testament to what is possible.
PT: Well, Thank you so much! So, how do you feel social media has impacted your area of the industry?
TT: It’s a very interesting time. I am blessed to be around a number of ages of people. Being the age I am, I am right between Baby Boomers and Gen Yers. There are certain things I get from my mom and how I look at things from a business point of view. You only pick up a phone to have a business meeting with someone if there was no way to get to them [in person]. And then I have friends in their twenties and I’m lucky if I have a conversation with them. It’s such a different time. So the blessing is really sitting down and going, “How do we take both the positive of these pieces and make them work together and move forward?” Because it’s moving fast, right? And you have to stay up and stay on top of as much as you can. I am very grateful to be surrounded by people who feel good in their skin and don’t mind sharing. I am very blessed that people in our band are great at helping out with Facebook posts and all that information. I do find in regards to our band, Facebook is one of the strongest forms of communication for everyone. I did hear somebody say that somebody compared Facebook and LinkedIn to a Victorian home and he said Facebook is like the parlor and LinkedIn is like the library (laughs).
PT: (Laughs) That’s true to a certain extent! We do have to stay on top of everything. We are on Instagram, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, Twitter, etc.
TT: In that same breath, there is the importance of using it like any tool and there is still time for togetherness and community. I truly think that getting people out to shows where that sense of community is there is so key for people. That is one thing that is very interesting at the park where I am teaching First Nations culture where again it is a strong community and everyone working together. When we get kids out to the park and they get to be in nature and they all of a sudden are around it, it’s amazing. Right now we are in the middle of our sugar bush season and all the maple syrup is being collected, and we are seeing people in nature. But the beauty is that all these people have gone home and blogged about it or put pictures up or resonated with other patrons in the park. So it’s that finding the wiggle room through everything. It can be exciting. It can be very daunting and a little overwhelming. But again, when you surround yourself with amazing people – and find those people – I feel so blessed that to connect with the two of you – it goes back again to feeling good in your skin. I’m very grateful for my mom and dad who said, “You got to learn and it doesn’t matter who you learn from.”
PT: Thank you again, you’re so kind. We are happy to connect as well! We agree, even with all the social media today, there is something about connections and face-to-face interaction. That’s why live theatre and performance will never die out. People need that sense of community no matter what.
TT: Exactly. I think that’s key. Again, it’s a tool. I am amazed – like we will show up to do a theatre show and everything is on an iPad and it’s all programmed and it’s amazing when you think about what is possible. But the art is still the art. You still have to go back to the basics. Bagpipes have been around for centuries but here they are again. Old and new. I think that is so awesome. And there is something about connecting. People still want human touch and human connecting and how we move forward using that.
PT: Absolutely! A great many of readers are actors, musicians, and artists. They love to know the creative process. For example, if you come up with a new piece for the show, how does it work from a creative standpoint?
TT: Everybody is a little different. I know for me, when we decided to do the breast cancer piece, we were looking for a modern, vocal tune for me to do a lyrical piece. And then oddly enough – you know how in life sometimes when you are looking too hard and you don’t find it because you are looking too hard?
PT: Yes – absolutely.
TT: As we were looking somehow the song “When Pink is Just a Color Again” came up and we found it was connected to a Canadian Kal Hourd whose godmother passed away from breast cancer. Because of my own experiences with breast cancer and because my brother and I lost three parents to cancer – my mom lost my dad and then her second husband and then she passed away. I just started researching. When I met a number of women who had cancer I took whatever I could from the music. I am big on history. So I love to see the history of what it is in the story and then incorporate things. And there were some media things too – Oprah did some interviews with some amazing women who had gone through it. Just watching their stories and then create the piece and create the movement I can do for my dance. I will get a concept and then I usually come up with an ending and then figure out a beginning. I loosely know where it’s going – the shape of the dance – but I usually figure out the ending first. That’s for the more lyrical dramatic pieces.
Other pieces we just kind of look at as fun and ask, “What will this look like with a step dance or Highland dance?” And sometimes it’s just paths crossing. You know as writers sometimes it just comes out of you and other times it may be more difficult – it’s like, “Oh, Lord.”
We also have a silly pieces as well like “Death of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” We have a YouTube with an insane amount of hits.
And sometimes they are just crazy ideas that come up in a car kind of idea. You’ll hear one piece we do called “Lakeside Boogie.” Are you familiar with Chautauqua community?
PT: Yes. There was a whole Chautauqua circuit.
TT: Yeah, yeah. There’s a place in New York which is probably one of the most famous Chautauqua. What started with tents are now cottages and houses. This one has amazing facilities. It’s still very strong in music. It reminds me when I drive in that we are on the set of Dirty Dancing. But they have a beautiful, stunning theatre. And they have a resident symphony. But when we went, no one told us that it was a dry community and it was funny –the first time we went, Ian said, “There’s a lot of dark water bottles” (laughs). So the guys started jamming and so we now have a piece called “Lakeside Boogie.”
PT: What’s on the future agenda for The Tartan Terrors?
TT: Right now our main focus is working on our new CD which we are very excited about. Both Dan and Phill wrote some original tunes as well as some other traditional pieces that we have. So we are really excited about getting that out. That’s one of our BIG things right now – the new CD. And then obviously for us to provide an experience for people. That’s really key for us. We want people to come out and just have an amazing time with family and friends. If you want to dance – dance. If you want to clap – clap. Or sing along. I always tell kids, “You can be rowdy in the show. It’s okay, you’re allowed to.” It’s so important to us for people to have a night away. There are so many stressed out people right now. We want people to just come and have fun and enjoy it. And then ideally they are going to go away feeling better or maybe be inspired to look up something or learn a bit more – hopefully return to another show and come back again. We have been very blessed with our fans. We get spoiled rotten by our fans. And it’s not even just cheering us on. When my Mom was sick, the amount of support we received from fans – “Are you okay? Do you need anything? Do you need help with sales?” People went above and beyond. It really is about a family. Community and culture.
And Ridgefield has that. Allison has always been so welcoming with her team Nicky and Hilary. Every time we work with them they say, “Come in – we want this to be special for our people. We want them to have a good night.” They bring in local acts as well. And that speaks to us tremendously – that sharing – here is what’s local. We are coming from out of town – let’s work together and create a great experience.
PT: You are talking to two stressed out people who are really looking forward to your show!
TT: (Laughs) That’s great! We’ll be there for you!
PT: In our individual interviews we usually ask people to sum up their careers or lives in one word. What one word would you say to sum up The Tartan Terrors?
TT: Wow – one word! My goodness!
PT: We can give you time.
TT: To me, it’s FAMILY. I know it sounds very Oprah, but family is about connecting and overcoming the obstacles and how we are going to get through this – and sharing who you are – connecting with others. Family isn’t necessarily blood family. Family to us is so important. We wouldn’t be who we are if we didn’t have that heritage and what has come to us and we can bring forward for the next generation for the ripple effect.
PT: That’s a perfect answer! We love it! Thank you so much for the interview!
“North America’s Premier Celtic Event”
Members of the Tartan Terrors have performed on 4 different continents; in some of the most prestigious Festivals, Highland Games and Theatres of North America including; Lone Tree Center for the Arts, CO, Strand Capitol, PA, Oshkosh Opera House, WI, Dublin Irish Festival Dublin, OH, Newport Irish Festival, Newport, RI, and Good Morning America, a full list is available upon request. Join the phenomenon of the Tartan Terrors and see why Celtic Beat Magazine hails them as “the heirs apparent to the [Celtic] mayhem.