COMPOSERS NOW FESTIVAL: PHILADELPHIA AND OTHER STORIES
46 Walker St. between Church St. & Broadway
Wednesday – Saturday, February 11-21, 8:00
It’s a match made in Brooklyn. Writer Paul Rome and composer Roarke Menzies got to know each other at the Wyckoff Starr Coffee Shop in Bushwick, where Rome works as manager. Soon they were collaborating, working on audiocentric stage presentations that were written and performed by Rome, with an electronic score composed and played live by Menzies. They first worked together on the radio play And Once Again, followed by the audio epic The You Trilogy, a series of monologues about a fiction writer created for online streaming and download. For their next project, Calypso, Rome and Menzies took to the stage of the Bushwick Starr to investigate Homer and Virgil, young love and a tandem bicycle ride. They are now collaborating on Philadelphia and Other Stories, a collection of short pieces that is moving to Walkerspace in downtown Manhattan following a sold-out run at the Bushwick Starr. The work, which mythologizes memory, will be performed by Rome and Menzies, along with actress Katie Schottland and songs by Katie Mullins and David Kammerer. Rome, whose debut novel, We All Sleep in the Same Room, was longlisted for the 2014 PEN/Bingham Prize for debut fiction, and Menzies, who composes scores for such choreographers as Adam H. Weinert, Adam Barruch, and Jack Ferver, recently discussed their creative process, the City of Brotherly Love, and making the move from Brooklyn to the Big Apple as they prepared for the Manhattan debut of Philadelphia and Other Stories, part of the month-long Composers Now Festival.
twi-ny: How did the two of you meet?
Roarke Menzies: Paul and I were neighbors for a long time in Bushwick. He kept mentioning this “radio play” he was working on at the time. This was early 2010. We’d bump into each other pretty often at the coffee shop. One day he asked me to come over and listen to what he had. I was immediately into it. The writing was really strong and I just saw so much potential in developing this format. It had certain similarities to things I was familiar with from experimental theater and contemporary performance practices, but the way it zeroed in on the sound world, and more specifically the audio world — the microphonic voice, recorded sounds, everything mediated by loudspeaker and transistor — felt particularly vital and fresh. It was right up my alley.
Paul Rome: The only thing I’d ever heard of Roarke’s was a participatory improvisation at this salon my ex-girlfriend used to host in our living room. He passed out three or four Walkmen with these prerecorded textural patterns on them and people could manipulate the sounds by rewinding or fast-forwarding or changing the tape speed while he listened and did a vocal improvisation with effect pedals. It worked really beautifully.
twi-ny: What initially made you want to work together?
PR:I was really impressed by Roarke that first day he came over to listen to my radio play, And Once Again. He was really supportive and enthusiastic and seemed to intuitively get what I was trying to accomplish. He’s also technically capable in ways I’m not, so he was able to do things like mixing and rearranging my music, coaching my performance and really helping to turn a piece of text into a work for the stage. We became close friends during that project.
twi-ny: You’ve now worked together on four projects. How has the process of your collaboration evolved?
RM: When we first started working together, the projects were really Paul’s and I would play a supporting role, helping shape and realize the vision from behind the scenes. Calypso, a show we premiered in 2012, was really our first equal collaboration where we shared the stage, shared the bill, and had equal creative duties. Paul then asked me to work with him on substantive edits to his novel. So we’ve also developed a strong writer–editor relationship.
I think the best thing about our collaborative relationship is that there’s a unity of vision and an intense amount of trust. When you’re working on something new, you don’t necessarily know what that thing is yet, but there’s this vision in your imagination that you’re trying to pursue. Because we’ve worked so intensely on a number of projects, and because we’ve had so many fruitful conversations, there’s this shared vocabulary and a thorough thematic or dramaturgical language that we can refer to. In a collaboration like this, it’s really rare, I think, to be able to trust that when you each look at that vision in your heads, you’re both seeing the same thing.
PR: It’s true. We also argue a lot over the details. For me, that ability to argue and speak openly is the most important aspect of collaboration. We both want everything to be perfect and to adhere to a unified aesthetic and vision. We’re not above arguing over the angle of a chair onstage or the color of the text on the back of a promotional flyer for a few hours. Everything is important. If we fail, whatever that means, I still get to have the satisfaction of knowing that we didn’t fail out of laziness or succumbing to any preconceived notion of what our work ought to look like or sound like. The downside of collaborating with a friend is that it gets hard to talk about things other than our various projects. Roarke told me that for months after my novel came out, I talked about little else. I still feel bad about that.
twi-ny: You’ve previously presented your pieces, including Philadelphia and Other Stories, at the Bushwick Starr, but now you’re making the big move to Manhattan, performing the show at Walkerspace. How did that opportunity come about? Are you more excited or nervous about the Manhattan run?
RM: When we were mounting the premiere of Philadelphia at BWS, we really hit it off with Chip Rodgers, the production manager there. Chip also used to work at Soho Rep. and has been involved in a number of other important productions, including Ira Glass’s touring show with the choreographer Monica Bill Barnes. When the BWS run ended, Chip and I discussed the possibility of him coming on board as a producer for a potential remount of our show. Shortly after that, Chip came to us about this last-minute opportunity at Walkerspace.
With regard to the run in Manhattan, I’m mostly just thrilled to be performing this work again, and glad more people will get to see it. It’s in such a beautiful and well-equipped space, and a more substantial run, so we’ll really get to dig into the material.
PR: I agree; it’s gratifying to be able to extend this performance. I feel lucky. I can’t really separate my nervousness from my excitement. Both emotions are firing simultaneously right now. On a personal note, I’m looking forward to spending a few weeks in Manhattan. My life has become pretty Brooklyn-centric, but I spent two of my first years in New York living on Lafayette just south of Walker Street, and apparently my uncle lived next door to the theater in the ’80s, so it’s exciting to be downtown again. Manhattan, at least in memory, still possesses this incredible energy and stimulating confluence of different cultures and people.
twi-ny: You’re also collaborating with singer-songwriters Katie Mullins and David Kammerer. How did that come about?
PR: We were both big fans of their work prior to this production. I’ve seen each of them live on a number of occasions and have always been moved. Both have beautiful solo records. We wanted musicians who could accompany themselves and deliver stories in the same way that Roarke, Katie Schottland, and I do during the show. Their songs have a moody, introspective quality as well as a rhythmic pulse that conveys a traveling and Americana feeling to me, both of which are central themes in the show. Roarke shot each of them an email and they said yes. We found out later that Katie had been taking a break from music since wrapping promotion and touring for her last record. But after the performances at BWS, she’s started writing again. To help inspire something like that is really satisfying. It makes it all worth it.
twi-ny: Do you each have personal experience with Philadelphia? What made that city the centerpiece of this project?
RM: I first went to Philadelphia when I was in high school. Our choir did a minitour to DC, Philly, and Baltimore, performing in a few venues and churches, including the Washington National Cathedral. The only other time I’ve been was in 2013 when I composed a score for the choreographer Adam Barruch, who was making a piece on a Philadelphia-based contemporary ballet company called BalletX. So I’ve only ever spent a day or two there at a time. I guess it’s always felt like a place to visit, or a stop on a tour, the kind of place you pass through.
PR: Philadelphia was the first story we completed for this project and it has a lot of the themes embedded in it. Certain aspects of that narrative are autobiographical: I went to Philadelphia a few years ago on New Year’s to see an automaton I read about in the New York Times. Although it’s only momentarily alluded to in the story, Philadelphia has this incredible parade called Mummers on New Year’s Day, which I was completely unaware of. When I left New York in the morning, everyone I passed on the street looked depleted and sad, presumably hung over from New Year’s Eve, but the moment I arrived in Philly, which took less than two hours to get to, everyone appeared upbeat and cheerful. People were friendly and drinking on the street. It was a surreal experience. I felt inspired, and gradually the idea for writing a series of stories around traveling took shape. It seemed like an effective way to explore relationships and memories and time without it feeling forced.
Cities, generally, I think, especially ones you don’t know intimately, can possess a certain allure — just hearing the name “Philadelphia” or “Memphis” or “Grand Rapids,” etc. You know that if you went there you’d encounter this whole separate ecosystem of lives and habits and restaurants and relationships. Sometimes actually visiting these places can feel disconcertingly familiar or disappointingly mundane, yet something exotic and mysterious remains. There’s all this potential.
twi-ny: Your work has a kind of analog feel in the digital age. What attracted you to this kind of staging? Just the term “radio play” is very old-fashioned, very Beckett.
RM: The physical and visual staging, even the placing of the work on a stage, is meant to frame the audio/aural experience. We dress the room in spare furnishings and lamplights, but in a lot of ways the “setting” of the work is similar to some of Beckett’s works, in that it sort of takes place “in your head” (the character’s and/or the audience’s).
It’s funny you bring up Beckett. My dad is a theater director and acting coach in LA, and he’s also a huge Beckett fan. I only found out recently, last year maybe, that one of the experiences that got him really into theater, and Beckett in particular, was acting in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape back when he was twentysomething. I’m not terribly familiar with Beckett’s body of work, and I hadn’t heard of that one before. It turns out Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-person play in which a man sits at a desk with a reel-to-reel tape player (it was written in the ’50s) that he uses to play back and record various memories from his life. I was really struck not only by the similarities between the Beckett play and my work with Paul but also by the similarities between what my dad was doing in his twenties and what I’m now doing in mine.
PR: Creating work for the stage, translating the type of literature I’m drawn to into something performative, has never been motivated by a conscious desire to do something old-fashioned. This is my way of bringing storytelling to an audience in a format that I feel is conducive to close listening. Since I was a kid, close listening, whether it was a bedtime story from my dad or a record by Miles Davis, has remained incredibly important to me. I find it sustains me somehow in a way that’s both intellectually stimulating and cathartic. I can’t deny that there’s something particularly inspiring and charming to me about the radio play, the unadorned and ingenious methods used and the way it requires the audience to rely on her or his imagination. I don’t consider Philadelphia and Other Stories a radio play in the traditional sense, but it certainly draws from that tradition. I think there’s a lot of potential to marry the old and the new, analog and digital, in thoughtful and fluid directions.
RM: There’s been some writing and theorizing about the relatively recent dominance of “visual culture” over “aural culture.” I guess it’s pretty obvious when you look at the ubiquity of televisions or flatscreens, graphic user interfaces or, more recently, touch screens and mobile devices. But an “unforeseen” aspect of this visual overstimulation is that the auditory faculties seem to be underappreciated. People relate this to recent technological advances, but some argue that it started with the transition of power from oral to written word as the more dominant use of language. You can also consider architecture, the built environment, where thin walls create visual privacy but are next to useless with regard to aural privacy or noise pollution. I think part of the reason Philadelphia and Other Stories feels anachronistic is because it’s an audiocentric work. But I think that’s all the more appropriate, since it deals with memory and retrospection, with presence being out of time.
twi-ny: What’s next for the two of you?
RM: It's a pretty busy season for me. Jack Ferver will be bringing Chambre, a new work of his that I soundtracked, to the American Dance Institute in DC on February 20-21. I’m finishing another commission for Adam Barruch for a piece he’s making on River North Dance Chicago. That’s premiering at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago on March 28. Then I’m also finishing up some music for a feature that’ll premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. (It hasn’t been announced yet, so I can’t name names.) From there, I’m hoping to focus on an audio work I’ve got planned.
PR: I’d really like to make some audio recordings with Roarke of our projects. I also want to collaborate again with the filmmaker Natalie Leite. A few years ago, she and I did a film short based on a short story of mine [The Game]. We’ve been discussing some ideas for a new feature. Somewhere inside me the elements of a second novel are brewing.