Manitoba History: Strike While the Iron’s Hot: Diary of a Musical

by Danny Schur
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 60, February 2009

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The cast of the 2006 Saskatoon Persephone Theatre production of Strike!

The cast of the 2006 Saskatoon Persephone Theatre production of Strike!
Source: Jody Longworth

November 2001

In retrospect, it seems only fitting that a motivating factor in my creating a musical set against the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike was a meeting at a restaurant in Winnipeg’s North End: Eddy’s Place at the corner of Selkirk and McKenzie. It was at Eddy’s that I had a mentoring meeting with theneditor of the Winnipeg Free Press, Nicholas Hirst.

I had by that time composed two large-scale musicals. The Bridge, commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ukrainian settlement in Canada, enjoyed a one-week run at the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg in 2000 and The Tree had just concluded its first professional workshop. I was casting about for ideas for a third musical and Nicholas Hirst was unequivocal; the Winnipeg General Strike was a passionate story with intense regional and national interest and the Strike itself remained a metaphor for the breakdown of civil society. While I had entertained the idea of adapting the story in musical form, the scope of the story, to say nothing of the political minefield of so bitter a community legacy, had scared me off.

Nicholas was adamant about one other aspect of creating successful musicals. He reasoned that musicals succeed when they build on the interest of a whole community, even a nation. Les Misérables succeeded, he said, not just because it was based on the ultra-popular Victor Hugo novel, but because it came to symbolize the aspirations of the entire French nation, and of democracy itself. His advice was to seek strategic partnerships in Winnipeg to build the long-term success of the musical. To that end, he suggested I partner with a university drama department to develop shows.

That very afternoon, I called Doug Arrell, Director of the University of Winnipeg Drama Department. By 19 November 2001, Doug and I had come to an agreement to co-produce workshop productions of both The Tree and my next musical Strike! (That I had not so much as committed one word to paper for Strike! speaks to Doug’s incredible bravery!) When I opened up Alan Artibise’s Illustrated History of Winnipeg and saw the famed sequence of pictures from the Strike, I was bitten.

December 2001 – September 2002

I found something incredibly intriguing about the pictures on pages 111-112 in Artibise’s book. Twenty-first of June 1919, the day that came to be known as “Bloody Saturday” is surely one of the most photographed of Winnipeg’s events. There are in fact photographs of the same instances, from multiple angles. And yet, despite the presence of several thousand witnesses, and a plethora of photographic evidence, there was precious little knowledge about the dead Ukrainian immigrant at the violent epicentre of Bloody Saturday: Mike Sokolowski.

I do not have a background in labour history. But as a Canadian of Ukrainian descent, the plight of Sokolowski (alternately spelled “Sokolowiski” in some accounts) struck a sympathetic chord with me. Here was the person killed, virtually on the steps of City Hall, and yet his legacy was so scant. I wondered if this lesser legacy was due, in part, from his status as an “enemy alien.” It soon dawned on me that the framing for the story could be through Sokolowski’s eyes. The Winnipeg General Strike could be re-interpreted as an immigrant saga that lay beneath the broader labour story.

And so began the research, and therein grew the mystery—a mystery that endures to this day despite thousands of hours of research by me and many others. We still cannot say with assuredness what Mike Sokolowski did to get himself shot. The only eye-witness account (“he was a real fanatic … ran up to pick up a brick—it was only fifteen feet in front of a Mountie—he had just straightened up when he got it.”) comes from a recollection of an eyewitness fifty years after the incident. There is a report printed in the Montreal Gazette that tells of Mike being shot in complete innocence. (Coincidentally, only out-of-Winnipeg coverage suggests the possibility of Sokolowski’s innocence.)

In this enduring mystery, however, was born the dramatic pole of opposites. At one end was the absolutely innocent hapless immigrant—a boring dramatic possibility to be sure. At the other end of the dramatic spectrum was the wild-eyed Bolshevik revolutionary intent on assassinating the mayor or other civic officials. This possibility was too pat, too unsympathetic, to warrant the creation of a character a modern audience could associate with. But somewhere between those two poles—that was where the dramatic interest lie.

My goal was to uncover Sokolowski’s story, to see if the true story might serve the historical fiction. In the winter of 2001–2002, I set upon a path of intense, some might say obsessive, research into the historical person. If I can be accused of being obsessive in my research, it was because the trail turned out to be very cold. It was almost as if Mike Sokolowski did not want me to find out his true story.

The papers of the day all stated that he had a wife and three children but, according to cemetery records, no next of kin showed up at his pauper’s burial. No relatives claimed his body from the Main Street funeral home where he lay and the coroner had to estimate his age because of a paucity of identification. The funeral home that took care of the arrangements burned in the 1920s, destroying any hope of retrieving documents. And if the reported family were in fact in Canada (and not in his Ukrainian homeland), no trace of them existed.

Through the course of my research in January 2002, I developed the relationships with the Winnipeg historical community that I enjoy to this day. Much credit must be given to the very patient Professor Nolan Reilly at the University of Winnipeg and Professor Jack Bumsted at the University of Manitoba. The research of Henry Trachtenberg, Ros Usiskin and Lily Stearns was also invaluable. I grew to be on a first-name basis with most of the personnel at the Provincial and City Archives, the libraries and more than a few North End churches.

On 10 January 2002, I stood on the snow-covered field in Brookside Cemetery where Mike Sokolowski lay in an unmarked grave. Here was the story that brought me to tears—the unknown immigrant whose life was symbolic of the era, but whom history had forgotten.

By March 2002, the arc of my Mike Sokolowski story had taken shape, with an interesting position on the dramatic pole. My research showed that, because of the chill in the Ukrainian community due to the internment during the Great War, many working class Ukrainians like Mike would have been hesitant to be associated with radical elements in labour, lest they suffer deportation. However, as borne out by the high numbers of non-unionized labour that joined the Strike (as much as two-thirds), many of Mike’s class sympathized with the aims of the Strike. And then the perfect dramatic situation occurred to me: Mike could initially oppose the Strike, because he needed to earn the money to bring his family from Ukraine, but his death on Bloody Saturday could symbolize the biggest arc of change that a character could achieve. Someone who had been so adamantly opposed comes round to being the one who pays the highest price. That arc was the stuff of opera and musicals and presented me with many dramatic possibilities.

It turned out that history provided many dramatic possibilities. One of the most fascinating additional characters of the era was a Jewish left-wing activist and journalist who wrote under the name of Moishe Almazoff. Despite not being actively involved in the leadership of the Strike, Almazoff was arrested with the other bonafide Strike leaders in a vain attempt to prove the Strike a Bolshevik conspiracy. The Jewish community rose to his defence and his subsequent release was one of the little-known inspirational moments of the post-Strike period. Henry Trachtenberg’s excellent research showed, however, that Almazoff’s neighbour, an itinerant Ukrainian Catholic, was responsible for the false accusations against Almazoff. Now there was a dramatic possibility! Without giving away the story to those that have not seen the musical, in my historical fiction, I created a way for Mike Sokolowski to do some very dramatically interesting things to get his family to Winnipeg, against the backdrop of the Strike.

A page from the Strike! movie screenplay by Danny Schur and Rick Chafe.

A page from the Strike! movie screenplay by Danny Schur and Rick Chafe.

October – December 2002

There is no better feeling for a writer than when, fully fortified by one’s research, one can dive into the writing process. It feels as if the characters are literally able to leap from your imagination, because one’s research has so informed their presence.

In addition to Mike and Moishe, I had discovered the wealth of potential that Winnipeg of the era was for character development. The captains of industry, the teaming masses of immigrants, the stratified classes of the British ascendancy, the suffragette movement, to say nothing of the divisions and subdivisions of labour—this polyglot, cosmopolitan prairie city that we call Winnipeg had it all.

It should come as no surprise then that within the space of six weeks, I wrote the script and composed some twenty songs for the first draft of Strike! By Christmas of 2002, I finally had that script to show Doug Arrell at the University of Winnipeg theatre department. Next step: U of W workshop May 2003.

May – June 2003

They say that the purpose of staging a musical in a “workshop” setting (a small-scale performance in a small venue to test out the show) is to find out if you want to live with the musical for the rest of your life! Having lived and grown with Strike! all these years now, it was in the U of W workshop in 2003 that the relationship almost failed.

To be sure, the support of Doug Arrell and the entire faculty and students was exemplary. Director Ann Hodges, choreographer Tom Mokry and I did not lack for enthusiastic community support. However, within a few days start of the two-week workshop, Ann Hodges took me aside and delivered a brutal blow; the musical had massive problems, which would doom the show, if not addressed.

To her eternal credit, Ann was diplomatic in the extreme, stating that the musical could travel beyond Winnipeg and might succeed internationally, if fixed. I had made the mistake of incorporating too much of Mike’s story. My passionate research had garnered a bloated, confusing story—a typical mistake of an inexperienced writer. Ann suggested I not worry about making the changes immediately; we could make the improvements in a subsequent workshop. I spent several feverish nights and had the changes ready within days.

Our first performance of the workshop occurred on 6 June 2003. I ensured that the invited audience was stacked with the theatre and historical community, journalists, government and labour officials, as well as many potential investors. All of the changes Ann Hodges suggested were spot on. I knew the show had succeeded when several people approached me that evening, asking to be investors.

Winnipeg Tribune, 23 June 1919, page 1.

Winnipeg Tribune, 23 June 1919, page 1.

June 2003

Brookside Cemetery was celebrating its 125th Anniversary in 2003. Many of Winnipeg’s influential early citizens lie at Brookside, not far from Mike Sokolowski. The city administrator in charge of cemeteries, Rick Thain, was supervising the publication of a Brookside memorial book and wanted to include Sokolowski. Of all the featured stories, only Mike’s lacked a headstone to accompany his chapter.

What followed was truly a humbling and gratifying experience. Rick Thain saw to it that the City of Winnipeg paid for the base of a memorial and he then convinced Charles Brunet of Brunet Memorials to donate the headstone. It fell to me to compose the inscription on the headstone. The official unveiling of the monument on 20 June 2003 and the attendant publicity was overwhelming. Mike Sokolowski’s story was of more interest to Winnipeg than I had ever imagined. His grave at plot 450, section 45 of Brookside Cemetery was finally marked eighty-four years after his death.

September – December 2003

After the U of W workshop in the summer of 2003, the creative team determined that we would subject the musical to yet one more workshop, this time with the added benefit of professional actors—always eager to rip apart a show to the chagrin of writers. The one-week intensive workshop took place at the historically appropriate Ukrainian Labour Temple at Pritchard and McGregor, a mere stone’s throw from Eddy’s place, the restaurant where I had met Nicholas Hirst. Ukrainian Labour Temple historian Myron Shatulsky provided fascinating information about the Labour Temple’s role in the General Strike.

By Christmas, 2003, the musical was ready for full-scale premiere. The only problem was, I was not! How could I raise the $500,000 required for its premiere for a musical no one knew about? With 2004 being the 85th anniversary of the General Strike, there was a unique opportunity to raise awareness of the historical event, and the musical.

January – May 2004

Mayworks is a festival of the arts that celebrates the contributions of working class culture. The festival was founded in 1994, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the General Strike. In Mayworks, I found a willing cosponsor to stage an outdoor version of the musical which I called Strike!—Winnipeg Shocks the Nation.

In an effort to create advance interest in an eventual fullscale premiere, I adapted my two-act musical into a one-act outdoor spectacle featuring a cast of one hundred, period vehicles and mounted horses. The free show was staged in Old Market Square, literally metres from the events of Bloody Saturday, on 15 May 2004—the 85th anniversary of the start of the Strike. Over three thousand people were in attendance and the spectacle was covered nationally. The outpouring of interest and the deep emotional connection to the story were obvious; this was a story that all of Winnipeg wanted to hear.

21 June 2004 to Present

In an effort to build community interest in the historical background to the musical, and in a legitimate effort to find out more of Mike Sokolowski’s real story, I wrote and lead a tour entitled “Mike’s Bloody Saturday” which retraces Mike’s final hours. I have repeated the tours annually and am amazed at the new information tour attendees bring forth. Through the tour, I have connected with Sokolowski’s long lost relatives. The attendant publicity brought me in contact with Mike Dupuis from Victoria, whose exhaustive research for his upcoming book about the Strike (A Cloak for Something Deeper) was the way I found out what happened to Sokolowski’s missing identification: a reporter scooped it off the dead man.

July – December 2004

With the musical now front-page news, I felt the time appropriate to raise the money to put the show on in 2005. My venue of choice was the domed theatre in Kildonan Park a.k.a. Rainbow Stage, not to be confused with the musical theatre company of the same name. I chose the venue because only its large stage could encompass the scale of the production. As a publicly-owned venue, I applied to city officials to rent the theatre, only to be told that such rental was contingent on the approval of the theatre company that rented it each summer. Little did I know the battle I was in for.

The theatre company refused me access, despite the fact that my proposed production would be concluded before their access was required. Only after months of protracted antagonism in the media, civic administration and a final showdown at City Hall did the theatre company back down. I cannot help but wonder if the attendant negative publicity did them greater disservice than having allowed me access in the first place. The whole saga taught me a valuable lesson however; one must be prepared to fight for what you believe in.

The 2004 outdoor, abridged production of Strike! (Winnipeg Shocks the Nation) in Old Market Square, Winnipeg.

The 2004 outdoor, abridged production of Strike! (Winnipeg Shocks the Nation) in Old Market Square, Winnipeg.
Source: Glenn Michalchuk

January – June 2005

With the delay in securing a venue, I was now months behind in raising the capital to mount the production. When final approval from City Hall came on 1 February 2005, I was faced with the following reality: I had to raise an average of $5,000 per day for the next sixty days or the production could not be mounted for its 24 May premiere.

While I had some experience raising capital for my previous productions, nothing prepared me for the daunting nature of this fundraising drive. Without labouring the point too much, suffice to say that the community support for the project was so great that the goal was met. And what was so telling about the changed nature of the City was that support came from all parts of the political and social spectrum. The brutal divisiveness of the historical event had been replaced by a greater sense of civic interest that was beyond gratifying. Had the musical failed miserably as an artistic event, I would have felt a measure of satisfaction in just this sense of community interest.

But succeed the musical did. The musical played for a 24-show run enjoyed by some fifteen thousand and became a critical and audience favourite. During the run, it generated a volume of press that re-ignited a new generation of interest in the General Strike and the plight of the era. Nicholas Hirst had been very right.

September – December 2005

Flush with the success of a premiere production, all playwrights start dreaming dreams of Broadway—and I don’t mean the one in Winnipeg! Having made connections with many Canadians in the musical theatre industry in New York, I winged my way to the Great White Way for a series of meetings to gauge the interest in the musical.

What I was pleasantly surprised by was that there was interest in the musical. The unpleasant surprise was that it would cost $15,000,000 to mount. It dawned on me that one could produce a major feature film for less. And there began another avenue for the musical.

In concert with members of the Winnipeg film community, it was decided to develop the Strike! stageplay into a musical feature film. Taking a page from our own playbook, we developed a condensed version of the film, which we could use as a selling tool to garner a full production—something the film industry calls a “Proof of Concept (POC).”

January – May 2006

With support in the form of a budget of $70,000, the Strike! POC film was shot over the course of four days in the very cold January of 2006. What is remarkable about the film is the tremendous community interest in its production. From financial donations to unrestricted access to locations to the participation of some 134 cast and crew, the film’s production was another example of a community gathering to support its own. The POC could easily have cost $500,000. When we premiered the film to an outdoor audience in Old Market Square on 13 May 2006, Old Market Square was filled again. The POC has since made its way into the hands of scores of Hollywood stars and agents and its work continues to this day.

The cover of the 2007 Playwrights Canada Press book / CD publication of Strike!

The cover of the 2007 Playwrights Canada Press book / CD publication of Strike!

March 2006

The stage version of Strike! had the good fortune of being nominated for the inaugural $25,000 Kobzar National Literary Award to be presented in a gala ceremony in Toronto. With my wife, parents and sister in tow, I was ecstatic when the musical garnered the award. But more important than the award itself was my eventual meeting of the person responsible for its funding.

When I arrived back in Winnipeg, the executive director of the Shevchenko Foundation, which presented the Kobzars, informed me that the patron of the award sought to meet me. To my surprise, the patron was a reclusive elderly Ukrainian woman from Winnipeg, and one that clearly remembered the events of Bloody Saturday. I was invited to visit her immediately.

July – December 2006

The friendship that sprung up between Dr. Anne Smigel and myself was truly remarkable. As a member of the Ukrainian community, she was extremely proud that Mike Sokolowski’s story was finally being told and she wanted to help tell it some more. She was adamant that her financial assistance was going to assist in the creation of the full-length screenplay adaptation of Strike! With her assistance and that of the CTV television network in Winnipeg, my co-writing partner Rick Chafe and I were able to devote months of time to the creation of the screenplay. Her passing in 2008 was a sad day and the screenplay is dedicated to her memory.

September – October 2006

Strike! enjoyed its first out-of-town production at Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre. Proving the adage that musicals are never written, just re-written, my co-writing partner Rick Chafe and I engaged in re-writes that saw the creation of two new songs and innumerable small changes.

I must say that opening night at the Persphone Theatre run of the show was one of the most gratifying nights of my life. Gone were the worries that this was a Winnipeg labour story with limited national appeal. The Saskatoon audiences leapt to their feet (I wondered if they had been prompted by my presence) in the most spontaneous way. And the reviews were to die for! Ann Hodges’ tough medicine at the initial U of W workshop had been very worth it. The resulting acclaim has garnered production interest from across Canada and the United States.

November 2006 – June 2007

CBC Winnipeg’s award-winning producer Andy Blicq was at the time producing a new documentary about the Winnipeg General Strike, entitled Bloody Saturday. As a Winnipegger, Andy was taken with the story of the production of the musical and incorporated much footage from the musical into the documentary. Further, Andy brought Strike! actors and myself into the CBC recording studio and recorded special versions of material from the musical, for use in the program. The resulting feature brought the musical to its first national audience on 23 June 2007.

May – September 2007

By Christmas, 2006, CBC radio was convinced of the merits of my producing a nationally-broadcast radio-concert special of the musical. In yet another fit of adaptation, Rick Chafe and I adapted the two-hour, two-act stage play into a fifty-five minute, one-act radio play. One learns, as an adapting writer, never to fall too in love with one’s own words!

There was no more appropriate venue to record the special than Winnipeg’s Burton Cummings Theatre (formerly the Walker Theatre). The theatre’s history was indelibly tied to the General Strike and the ghosts of the Strike must have been well-pleased with 15 May 2007’s live recorded concert. By now, the musical was resounding with the audience in a deeply moving way. The performances were magical and the audience response was touching. The warmth of the reception was abundantly evident when CBC Radio One broadcast the musical to a national audience on Labour Day, 3 September 2007.

September – December 2007

The publicity from the CBC Radio Concert Special cemented the desire for Toronto’s Playwrights Canada Press to publish the book version of Strike! To the credit of publisher Angela Rebeiro, she was convinced to make the release Canada’s only interactive play/CD combination. The logistical problems that resulted from the first-ever inclusion of a CD in a play book were stressful but the resulting release on 10 December 2007 succeeded in the book’s #1 position on the Winnipeg non-fiction sales chart for two weeks – proving that the best time to release a play is in time for Christmas gift purchasing! I have prepared a free downloadable lesson plan for the book and the publication is a recommended resource in the Manitoba curriculum.


2008 was the year of the film pre-production, a euphemistic term for “spending a heck of a lot of time on the telephone with stars’ representatives.” The screenplay, so dearly desired by Dr. Smigel, is in the hands of such A-list stars as Anne Hathaway, Kevin Spacey, Warren Beatty and Ellen Page, to name just a few. The consensus from the industry is that the film will get made. At no point has the reaction been negative. If I have learned anything, the musical will live or die by continued perseverance and we hope to shoot in Winnipeg in summer, 2010.

2009 / Epilogue

But the most exciting developments for the musical are still to come. With 2009 marking the 90th anniversary of the General Strike, two big productions are planned in Winnipeg.

On 23 May 2009, we will re-mount the outdoor spectacle version of the show first premiered in 2004 in Old Market Square. But this time, the musical will be mounted on Main Street, right in front of City Hall. Returning will be the cast of one hundred, charging horses and (new to 2009), a 41-foot moving streetcar replica designed by Strike! designer extraordinaire, David Hewlett.

On 30 July 2009, the first of what is hoped to be an annual summer production of Strike! premieres for an eightshow run at the Forks Canwest Centre for the Performing Arts (a.k.a. Manitoba Theatre for Young People). And with some luck, Strike! will be so established as a Winnipeg institution by 2012 that a permanent transfer into the Canadian Museum of Human Rights will be possible.

More Strike!

Information on the musical:

Page revised: 15 April 2023