27 July 2013

Great Comet

Originally posted on Broadway.com

I started working on Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 in the summer of 2011; the idea had been in my head since reading War and Peace while playing piano on a cruise ship four years earlier. One particular sliver of the book seemed to me a perfect musical; it had the classic two-couples structure, only in this story the second couple (after Natasha and Anatole) was Pierre and…God? Himself? Humanity? Natasha? So there was that existential throughline, and the fact that these two disparate stories only intersect at the end, flipping the story around in the last moments. I made a rough outline in my head and then moved on to other things.

I never really believed it would happen…then I met Ars Nova. They had seen my show Beowulf - A Thousand Years of Baggage, and after meeting with them a few times and doing a concert there, I was commissioned to write a piece. I proposed the Tolstoy idea, expecting/half-hoping they’d ask for something more manageable. But to my surprise and terror, they were thrilled by the idea, and off we went.

From the start, the intention was to really embrace Tolstoy’s language, keeping his peculiar way of writing (made all the more peculiar through translation) intact, in which every blush, sigh, laugh and tear is lovingly detailed. Starting from this text, I wrote lyrics combining word-for-word Tolstoy, free adaptation, and some modern flourishes (“In nineteenth century Russia we write letters”). I’ve often joked that in Tolstoy I had the best collaborator, because he’s both brilliant and dead.

This novelistic text also resulted in music that freely combines song forms with a sort of accompanied recitative style that I probably learned from singing in a jazz choir in high school. We sang a lot of “vocalese,” in which lyrics are written for famous jazz solos (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross are my favorite purveyors of the style). This style fit both the classical, operatic sections and the more contemporary, electronica ostinatos (introduced by the entrance of Anatole) of the score. Another main intention in writing the score was to feature the band, both by writing them very exposed and soloistic parts, and staging them throughout the space. One of my favorite parts of previews was moving around to sit in front of the oboe seat, the strings seat, and so on, and really live with each of our musicians for a while.

The opening song, “Prologue,” was actually one of the last to be written. Originally the show started right in the thick of Pierre’s self-loathing. After a couple workshops, a constant piece of feedback was that it took people a while to know who was who and where we were, so we decided to add a proper prologue, a la Romeo & Juliet, laying things out as clearly as possible, employing the time honored preschool music tradition of the cumulative song. To my surprise, it worked. It’s probably the most “musical theater” song in the show, both in style and tone. So the show starts with this fun but kind of false, trick beginning; as it goes on, the musical and emotional trajectory gets further and further away from where we started.

A few songs were written for specific performers…Brittain Ashford is a singer/songwriter I’ve known for years; some of her songs about heart-breakingly fierce loyalty and love reminded me of Sonya. It took a few beers to convince her to be in a show, but once she signed on, I wrote “Sonya Alone” specifically for her. Natasha’s Act One aria, “No One Else,” wasn’t in the Ars Nova version of the show; only after working with Phillipa Soo and really getting to know her voice did I get inspired to write a true Natasha song, tailored to Pippa’s talents.

Anatole’s last note (a high C# “Petersburg!”) was written in a spastic moment of composer frustration at not knowing how to end the song. I forgot it was there until we came to it in rehearsal, and Lucas Steele sang it without a second thought. We were picking our jaws off the ground. The opera-within-the-opera too was written with the original performers, Gelsey Bell and Paul Pinto; both are experimental music vocalists, who regularly employ extended technique in their work. The challenge there was to produce something that pokes fun of avant-garde opera (which I sometimes love), but is nevertheless grotesque and amazing in its own right.

That delicate balance of tone is one of the most important things in the work for me, and something director Rachel Chavkin and I talked about a lot. Often when I read a piece of classical literature, I’m simultaneously enraptured and amused; so often a moment of “man, people were ridiculous back then” is closely followed by a moment of “oh my God, I said that yesterday.” There’s a real beauty in reading these works ironically and sincerely at the same time, both commenting on and communing with another time and place. And ultimately, for me it’s the communion, the humanity in these timeless stories, that sticks with me.

After the Ars Nova run, we were fortunate enough to have Howard and Janet Kagan transfer the show to Kazino, a space custom-built for it. It’s been incredible to see the show grow into this more expansive and elegant space, and see each designer’s vision fully realized. Also the addition of an amazing ensemble and a fantastic music director, Or Matias, have made the score richer and fuller; and watching Rachel fill the space and create moments of such simple beauty and whirling spectacle has been an honor. And of course, the occasional cellphone hurling has kept us all on our toes…I’m sure Tolstoy would have loved that tale.

22 January 2013

Originally published at Culturebot


Last Saturday, I sat on a Culturebot panel at Under the Radar, entitled “The Theatre of Tomorrow, Today,” which was intended to explore the impact of technology on theatre and what constitutes “theatre” in a rapidly changing Information Age. I’ve never sat on a panel before (and even this was not a true panel, but a “long table discussion”), but I figured it would be fun, and maybe I would talk a bit about electronica, or how the Internet is solitary and sad, or how cool immersive and/or durational theatre is.

Instead, I managed, quite unexpectedly, to spend the entire 90 minutes literally not saying one single word.

There’s a part of me that would love to just leave this experience behind, or to spin myself as a culture-jamming, Dylanesque non-conformist who shuns meaningful dialogue and revels in absurdist performance art stunts. I have imagined aggressively pursuing a career as a silent panelist, building my reputation as a black-shirted enigma who sits on panel after panel in quizzical yet smiling silence.

However, another part of me just feels a bit bad about the whole thing, and would love to explain what was going on for me, especially to Andy and Culturebot, whom I admire quite a bit.


What I was thinking during my silent 90 minutes was that I was deeply unaligned with most of the discourse that actually unfolded. On several occasions I came close to voicing my dissent, but I missed my first few opportunities, and then as I found the list of disagreements in my head growing to an unwieldy size, my innate sad-clown social awkwardness found the increasingly difficult task of spewing out what was becoming a more and more potentially disrespectful manifesto to be paralyzingly impossible.

Essentially, my own belief is that the many “crises of American theatre” are self-imposed and imaginary, stemming mostly from a simple yet entitled desire to make more money. Among the many points made at the panel: that the word “theatre” and the frame it provides is ineffective and potentially harmful in describing what some experimental theatre artists do; that the many expectations of the institutions, buildings and markets of the theatre hurt or constrict the work; that there is not enough funding and that ticket sales are non-sustainable; that Broadway is artistically bereft; that theatrical art is not valued in the same way as other art forms; that one method of increasing our value would be to frame ourselves as researchers rather than artists; etc.

I started doing (i.e. composing music for, performing in, designing sound for and writing or co-creating) theatre in San Francisco in the summer of 2000. I didn’t study it, or imagine that I would make a career of it. At the time I had just dropped out of grad school (in Music Composition) and was working in a record store, playing electro-jazz in shitty clubs in the Mission. I did a theatre show on a whim, and soon found other shows offered to me as a result of the people I met. For about 8 years I did theatre in San Francisco, making mostly no money at all; for some shows I got maybe $50. I think $300 was an all-time high, which crazily was all from ticket sales, due to director Maya Gurantz’s awesome share-based model of paying theatre fees. I continued to work day jobs, at a preschool, a home for severely emotionally disturbed youth, a test prep company, and occasional stints on cruise ships. I didn’t apply for a single grant during this period, because it honestly just didn’t occur to me. I was so happy doing what I was doing, and I found living on the brink of poverty quite thrilling and enlightening, in a Jack Kerouac sort of way. Furthermore, I was in my 20s, living in San Francisco: eating excellent produce, listening to awesome drum’n’bass music, reading a lot of Buddhism and Taoism. There was a lot of optimism and self-awareness in the air.

I am fully aware that I was also (and will ever continue to be) living life through the prism of straight white male privilege and mild class privilege (though again, there were entire months when I always got off BART using the turnstile-less North Berkeley elevator, because I couldn’t afford to actually pay). I don’t really know of a successful rhetorical way to get around this straight white maleness, other than to suggest that I do what I can to avoid working exclusively with other straight white men. But I don’t think that my philosophy is dependent on my status, and I know a hell of a lot of people who share my status and still bitch all the time. So if it helps us get past this hurdle, then we can say that the rest of this essay is just for them.

Back in those San Francisco salad days, and indeed still today, I didn’t do theatre to make money. I didn’t really do it to change the world, or even to communicate some deep human truth. Ultimately I did it because I liked it; because it made me happy. I can make music at the piano alone or under headphones in my room too, and that can often bring a tickle and a smile, but for me the interaction with both other creators and the audience is divinely fulfilling. It makes me happy. The act of writing a new song is often as simple as asking myself “what would make me so happy to hear at this moment?” And it makes me happy to see other people happy as result, to hear people singing along or quoting scenes or giving a hug afterward. As someone with sad-clown levels of social awkwardness, it is the medium through which I can most effectively communicate in joyful and spiritually rich ways with other people. Most of my hardest laughters have been in rehearsals and my profoundest revelations and catharses have been in performance. Theatre is how I found my God.

So for me, the very thought that I “should be paid” for this work or that it has “monetary value” is shocking, laughable and even blasphemous.

Now don’t get me wrong; I love earning money from theatre. It’s something that’s only started happening in meaningful ways in the last 4 years or so, but I continue to work a day job (teaching the GMAT to business school applicants), and there are still lean times. But fundamentally, I don’t actually think I deserve this money. I mean, out of simple fairness, I think if tickets are being sold I should get a cut; but I think of theatre and music as valuable in spiritual and intellectual ways, not in monetary ways. Not the way food or clothing is. Or even computers and cars, or doctors and teachers and policemen (actually there are a quite a few Communist bones in my body that don’t put monetary value on any of those things either, but that is another essay, one I’m too ill-read to write). For me art is ultimately a profoundly selfish act, though paradoxically the reason I pursue this act is that it brings me close to other people, and other people closer to each other. But it is selfish, it is not needed, and probably you’d be better off just staring at the ocean for 2 hours than seeing any of the plays I’ve ever made.

So the fact that I have managed to get paid for theatre in recent years is both delightful and amusing to me. As the fees have gotten bigger, so have the resources, and thus I’ve been able to make progressively more and more involved and thoroughly executed pieces. But there has never been in me this feeling that I find so prevalent among my peers in NYC today, that I need more money/grants/commissions/institutions producing me to be able to execute my art. It just seems like a fundamentally backwards way of looking at the situation. I’ve always created pieces based on the resources that were available to me at the time, and found all of these experiences to be quite fulfilling. Some were better than others, and I’ve grown as an artist and I think gotten better at what I do. But I never felt this entitlement that I needed/deserved money or opportunities to properly create. Interestingly it’s mostly only since I moved to NYC that I’ve heard these conversations; in San Francisco most everyone seemed quite happy chugging away, but again, the produce there is really quite phenomenal.

A theme at the panel was that the institutions we work within are antiquated and stilted, following old models and not funding/producing daring work. But my experience is that this is clearly not true; as someone else brought up at the panel, there has been so much work created and/or presented in NYC in the past few years that defies conventions and standard producerial models, takes risks (both at being experimental and at being not experimental), and plays with the frame through extended forms, non-theatrical spaces, different audience/performer relationships, and un-“play”-like content (I’m thinking here of Gatz, Lily’s Revenge, Sleep No More, Roman Tragedies and other van Hove pieces, Life and Times and Nature Theatre’s work, the Woodshed Collective, Untitled Feminist Show and We’re Gonna Die, 13P in general, Radiohole at the Kitchen, Foreman at the Public, the Wooster Group of course, Habit, Then She Fell, Zee, Einstein on the Beach’s remount, Richard Maxwell, Jay Scheib, Temporary Distortion, Witness Relocation, Two-Headed Calf, 600 Highwaymen, ETG’s fabulous combustion, Half Straddle, Toshiki Okada, Rotozaza, Gob Squad, the founding of JACK, the TEAM taking over the world, Catch and Little Theater, a lot of the programming at the Armory, works produced by the Bushwick Starr, Soho Rep, Chocolate Factory, HERE, PS122, etc. Plus my own experiences at the ever-awesome Ars Nova, Incubator, NYTW, ART, and Collapsable Hole, and the hundred things I didn’t see or am just forgetting). So it’s totally out there, whatever it is that the community laments is not there. It’s right there! And many of these pieces were performed in spaces that are often described as antiquated institutions. So in the end, to me, the complaints that are so prevalent in this community seem based more in a selfish, sour grapes, “but why don’t I get that” mentality, than in an actual crisis of the system itself. Yes there are olden, sad theaters that produce play after boring play by straight white men, and there are olden sad critics who write about interesting work in ill-informed ways, but there are and more and more alternatives every season, and those genre-pushing theaters and pieces are often the ones that get the most attention. It seems to me that the olden and sad will die with their audiences, like Republicans, but we shall see.

And for me the issues people have with the state of theatre criticism is just such a non-starter; the idea that someone writing about my work is in any way relevant to my ability to find joy in creating theatre is just absurd. Again, like getting payment, it is nice when someone writes good and insightful things. Writing on theater can be rich, beautiful and artistic in it’s own right, as pieces on Culturebot and HowlRound exemplify time and time again. And it is hilarious when other people write idiotic things, and sure it’s annoying that I’m doomed to always just get theatre reviewers and never have cool music critics write about my shows. But again, the one-to-one relationship with the audience and creators, the moments of joy that I do this for, are so utterly unaffected by critics that I just can’t imagine spending real mental anguish on whether my work is considered, for example, “music theatre” or “musical theatre” by some Tumblr, or whether Brantley’s Radiohole review was “good” or “situated the piece in the right context.” I mean ultimately I see every piece I see in the context of my own life, not of a bunch of shows made by Richard Foreman when I was 6. But I digress.

Back to the buildings: some institutions are better than others at taking risks on experimental work; some make great work and some do not. But for me it’s a simple matter of aligning myself with those theaters that I respect and avoiding those I don’t; to lament that these other theaters aren’t falling into my worldview is, to me, akin to complaining about the rain and snow. There is a world as it is, and the route to joy and enlightenment is through understanding it and finding the places that align with your beliefs, while being at peace with the places that don’t. I recognize that this philosophy taken to its extreme undermines many of the causes of social justice, and that’s a problem I continue to work through; I do think there is great value and joy to be had in nudging systems, moving them towards a more enlightened, all-inclusive place, and that theatre can actually do that, which is pretty fucking cool. But in something as petty as the institution of American theatre itself (where lives and human rights are not actually at stake), I will say that for me personally, I find the Taoist route of assimilating to the world as it is and playing in the slipstreams to be a far more fulfilling path than bitching about the current. I mean yes there is more money in Europe than America for theatre; but American theatre artists can also just go to Europe. It happens all the time. To be upset that some of the funding is not in a geographically convenient place just seems absurd to me; the money can’t be everywhere at once. I imagine the amount of money for the arts to be had in NYC is significantly more than that in Wichita or Tahiti; that is the world as it is, and to spend time complaining about it rather than just going where the money is seems like a waste of breath to me.

And no, not everyone gets to have that money. I mean we can’t all get to make giant Richard Serra metal things. And that’s fine; a lucky few get to that level of financial and artistic support, and can create giant things that make the rest of us sad sacks shake to the core. But not every one is entitled to those resources. There is another deeper truth at play in all of this, I think—dirty words that no one dares talk about in mixed company: Talent and Appeal. Talent is the true dirty word in our field, in an art so based in the communal. But there is an objective truth to it. Vertigo is clearly better than Troll 2 (YouTube it if you’re uninitiated), and to argue otherwise is just to reduce language and aesthetics to absurdity. And I adore Troll 2, but if I heard Claudio Fragasso bitching about the lack of funding in the film industry I would be inclined turn my head silently away. I’m not at all saying that any of my peers or the other people on this particular panel are untalented (in fact I quite like all of the work I’ve seen of those participants, and I’m shaken by things I see almost weekly); but it does seem to me that when the problems of funding in our field are talked about, they are discussed in vague and sanctimonious ways that don’t acknowledge any kind of meritocracy in the system. A flawed meritocracy, run by a disproportionate number of straight white men, but nevertheless a system in which talent is to some extent a deciding factor.

Even more salient to me and my peers though, I think is the concept of Appeal; there is a simple truth that experimental theatre, no matter how good it is, is just not that appealing to a large portion of the population. At the panel someone mentioned that the hundreds of thousands of people that attended a Banksy exhibition in LA would have loved the experimental theatre programming down the street, if only they had known about it. I don’t think that that is true. A lot of experimental theatre is hard; it requires critical thinking skills, attention spans and knowledge of esoteric cultural and intellectual data that the average person just doesn’t have. The belief that these new, bigger audiences are “out there” if we only we could reach them seems to be at odds with everything I know about the tastes of popular culture. And again I think that is just fine. Of course there are people out there that haven’t found their way to this work yet, and we should continue to court them. But there is no model by which a Wooster Group show is ever going to be more broadly appealing than Book of Mormon.

It’s hard to talk about this without feeling massively elitist and arrogant, but there is a lot of objective data that tells us what kinds of things attract large audiences and what do not. And I loved Book of Mormon, and don’t look down on it for a second, and love the Wooster Group too, in different ways. Each opens my mind to a different realm, neither more valuable to me than the other. If you want audiences and applause and ticket sales, they can be gotten, but the work has to be broadly appealing; Christian Marclay’s The Clock is a 24-hour experimental film, a format which doesn’t have any business being successful, but it’s massively appealing due to its content and sheer audacity. (And it’s being screened in giant old institutions).

I’m fortunate that some of my own artistic tendencies (i.e. the musical form) align with broad market appeal; but that’s a happy coincidence. I’ve never found myself adapting or altering my work to make it more appealing or fit more easily into accepted forms. Again I just do what I like to do, whatever brings me the most happiness at the time. Some of it is commercial and some of it is experimental and strange, and I love riding the line between the two.

The craziest thing to me is that there is money in theatre, tons of it; if you want to make money just do a Broadway show. But that’s a hard and specific path, one that requires a certain amount of talent, and if it goes against your artistic tendencies it may not be worth it. As I listened to my peers talk about the problem of funding, the simple after-school special truth that money does not bring happiness (or, in this case, fulfilling art) was ringing through my head. Now I know that my peers are not talking about wanting money to spend on bottle-service nightclubs, but rather on things like health care and dental work. But still, as someone who was quite happy making art for free and getting fillings at dental schools for 8 years, the tenor of the room was discomfiting.

There is a difference between what is nice and what is deserved. I don’t think that art deserves money. Again, I take it when it is offered to me, I’ll ask for a cut if it is being made by others, and if I’m working for someone else I’ll insist on it. But to make my own work is a private necessity and spiritual gift, and not something I feel entitled to payment for. Pretty much all the music I’ve ever made is available on my website for free, I’m a fierce believer in giving out as many comps as I can, and I email people sheet music whenever they ask for it. I’m realist enough to still look for the bigger paychecks, but again that’s just because it’s nice to not have to worry about money things, so if I can make a living while doing what I’d be doing anyway, well that’s great. And if I want a more dependable lifestyle, I can move somewhere where the rent is ¼th of what it is here and work my day job there. Living in NYC as a theatre artist is my choice, and I make that choice fully understanding and accepting the consequences of it.

At the very end of the panel one of the other panelists turned to me after my absurd silent performance and jokingly said “well what do you think Dave!?” I rather too quickly said “I don’t think there are any problems!” and then mumbled something about hating these kind of conversations. Which in retrospect probably means that I shouldn’t have agreed to be at the table in the first place, and I apologize to Andy, the whole Culturebot team, and my fellow panelists, who I must say did make a lot of great and generous points as well (many of which are paraphrased above), and whose work I admire. But in the end these circular conversations do drive me crazy, because I just don’t really think there are so many big problems with our little world. I do encounter small problems, all the time, connected to individual projects, and they almost always get solved; and that’s part of the appeal of it all, solving these puzzles…in one of my companies, every show we would joke that we needed to try to make it 3% better. Just to give us all 3% more happiness. I still believe in that, in these tiny nudges, making things a little better, the plays, the institutions, the discourses, 3% at a time. But the overwhelmingly negative view of the theatre world as it is as profoundly problematic is, to me, profoundly problematic.

I didn’t really intend to write a manifesto, but well, here we are. Again, you probably would have been happier spending this time staring at the ocean. But live and learn—and live, and learn, and live.