Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist, composer, and producer Roarke Menzies knows about collaboration. For the past ten years, Menzies has been working with dancers, storytellers, choreographers, visual artists, and film directors, creating soundscapes and scores primarily using electronics, vocals, and his body. He’s been involved in projects at the Kitchen, the New Museum, Jacob’s Pillow, Abrons Arts Center, the Bushwick Starr, and the Vancouver Biennale in addition to composing music for a VICE web pilot and an award-winning educational app for children. But now Menzies, a self-described “sonic explorer,” is entering new territory, putting himself front and center with the release of his debut album, Shapes (October 13, Coup de Glotte). The record features six soundscapes, running in length from 2:11 (“Man in the Myler”) to 13:58 (“Music for Spatial Shift”), that take listeners on an ethereal journey through space and time, from the gentle, lilting “Those Pretty Lights” to the echoing, wind-strewn “Pulse Inflections.” Earlier this year, we did a twi-ny talk with Menzies and Rome about their show Philadelphia and Other Stories. Now we go it alone with Menzies, as he discusses sonic phenomena and the material world, his rather heady reading list, Aboriginal artist Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, and more.
twi-ny: We first met five years ago, when artist Nuala Clarke invited us, along with several others, to perform at her art opening, “You Delight Me,” on Shelter Island. How’s life been treating you since then?
Roarke Menzies: Yeah, that was a lovely event. Nuala contacted me out of the blue. We’d never met before. I was working on some music with my brother in LA and got an email from her asking me to participate. I think she’d found something of mine online.
I’ve been so lucky, in a lot of ways. I get approached to work on a lot of compelling projects, and between that and my other jobs [in performing arts management] I’m able to earn enough to support myself and pursue creative endeavors.
twi-ny: I’m really enjoying your debut album, Shapes, which takes listeners on a fascinating sonic journey. You wrote and play all the music as well as handle the production, recording, and mixing. How long did it take you to put it all together?
RM: That’s awesome. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. These are works that have developed slowly over the past several years. The earliest recorded material on there is from late 2009 and has been revisited and reworked a number of times. I’ve put a lot of thought and care into these tracks. It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely a labor of love.
twi-ny: You describe Shapes as both creating space and filling it up. Can you expand on that a little?
RM: I’m actually referring not just to the sounds on Shapes but to sound in general, and how we interpret sound phenomena in relation to our sense of space.
If you’re on an underground subway platform, every sound you hear reverberates in ways that inform your sense of that space. Even without visual cues, your mind can put together the cavernous space you’re in. That same effect can be simulated artificially using reverb. Sound designers and engineers make practical use of it all the time, in film or radio, for instance, creating the sense of size or the characteristics of the space you’re “in” using only sound. But that space doesn’t actually exist, at least not in the way “existence” is generally understood. It’s a fiction fabricated using particular signs and signals that your mind interprets as a space.
In other instances, the sheer “density,” “mass” or “volume” of a sound can create this feeling that it’s there in front of you — “a sound filled the room” — like you could just reach out and touch it in the same way you can touch a glass of whiskey or a person on the cheek. But sound doesn’t really behave that way either.
One of the curious aspects in working with sound as a material is that it’s not, in fact, material. And yet it seems to have this power to at times convince us of its materiality, even if just temporarily, and to completely change our sense of the material world around us. I’m interested in how those processes play out.
twi-ny: Where do you get your sonic inspirations? I have a feeling that when you traverse the city, you listen to all the cacophony and noise in a different way than the rest of us, gathering ideas for your work.
RM: I’m definitely a sound-obsessed person, and I’m often mesmerized and perplexed by the city’s sound culture. I do a lot of listening and a lot of reading. I find reading fuels my creative life like nothing else, whether articles, essays, books, blog posts, Wikipedia entries. Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 is a recent favorite, and I have a long reading list that I’m slowly working through of texts related to performance, sound and technocultural studies. I think the next will be Brandon LaBelle’s Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary.
twi-ny: That’s some heavy stuff. Shapes includes a tribute to the great La Monte Young. Who are some of your other musical influences?
RM: I feel like my influences are all over the place — Arvo Pärt, Portishead, Fluxus, Sam Cooke’s gospel recordings with the Soul Stirrers, Deerhunter’s Cryptograms, Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s soundtrack for Akira, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, the choral works of Morten Lauridsen, the rugged lands of early RZA, the pop masterpieces of Max Martin, the subterranean cityscapes of Burial, the codeine-soaked tapescapes of DJ Screw, the Courvoisier-soaked jiggyscapes of early 2000s Neptunes, etc. I’m a huge music appreciator.
twi-ny: Who do you listen to on your iPod?
RM: All that being said, there’s really not a lot of it on my iPhone. Other than work-related stuff and that U2 album we were all force-fed (I never bothered to listen to or erase it), all I’ve got on there at the moment is Cocteau Twins, Arthur Russell, Nico Muhly, Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, James Blake, a vintage Soweto compilation, and a few mixes from the UK music publication The Wire.
twi-ny: What about seeing live music?
RM: Recent highlights that come to mind include Tyondai Braxton’s new Hive project at the Kitchen, FKA Twigs’ Congregata for Red Bull Music Academy, a riveting set from Pharmakon at St. Vitus, the experimental synth duo Long Distance Poison at Pioneer Works, and an improvised set from saxophonist Colin Stetson, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Greg Fox (of Zs) at Outpost.
twi-ny: You also compose scores and soundscapes for Paul Rome’s story presentations, Jack Ferver’s multidisciplinary performances, and such choreographers as Adam Barruch and Meredith Glisson. How does your creative process differ for such diverse projects, or do you approach them all the same?
RM: My approach can be radically different, depending on the project and the working styles of the people involved. I try to learn the vocabulary and codes — “When they say this, they mean this” — then develop an understanding for what will best support the work.
twi-ny: You’ll be celebrating the release of your debut album, Shapes, with a party on October 10 at Bunna Cafe in Brooklyn, and you’ll be joined by Rome, Katie Mullins, and David Kammerer. What do you have planned for the event?
RM: I’m planning a very warm, intimate event. Bunna’s a great Ethiopian restaurant with a small stage. It’s a favorite spot of mine. We’ll likely open the evening with an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Then Paul will read a new story he’s been working on, David and Katie will each play a few new songs of theirs, and I’ll perform a short solo set. The performances will be relatively brief since the focus is really to celebrate with friends.
I actually have a really exciting last-minute addition to the night’s festivities. The Ghanaian xylophone virtuoso SK Kakraba is going to come to Bunna after his show at Bossa Nova Civic Club for an informal late night solo set. I have to thank my good friend Mike Visser (of Imaginary Tricks) for arranging that one. It's going to be a really special night.
twi-ny: What do you do when you take a break from music, if you ever take breaks from music?
RM: I definitely take lots of breaks. When I’m not at work or focusing on a specific project, I don’t like to be holed up in my studio for no reason. I like to get out and see things, or spend time with friends and loved ones.
I recently saw an incredible painting show at Salon 94 on the Bowery. It’s the first solo show in the US by an Australian Aboriginal artist named Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, who along with his family was living nomadically until they were “discovered” in the ’80s. [Ed. note: The show, “Maparntjarra,” continues at Salon 94 through October 24.] Apparently this guy is revered as an important leader and healer among Australian tribes and is also considered one of the most important innovators in contemporary indigenous art from Australia. All I can say is it was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had at a painting show, incredibly inspiring.
Numerous memorable pairs have portrayed Macbeth and Lady Macbeth onstage and onscreen over the years, in various interpretations, including Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, Orson Welles and Jeanette Nolan, Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada, Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston, and Liev Schreiber and Jennifer Ehle. Nick Bruder and Troy Ogilvie might not be quite the same household names, but they appeared as the ill-fated king and his devious wife in one of the most memorable and certainly unusual versions of Macbeth you’re ever likely to see, Sleep No More, in which the action unfolds throughout the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea. The two are back together again in Replacement Place, being presented by Patricia Noworol Dance Theater at New York Live Arts April 30 to May 2. Bruder, who won the 2011 Falstaff Award for Best Principal Performance in Sleep No More, and Ogilvie, a Juilliard graduate, New Jersey native, and Dance magazine “25 to Watch” pick in 2011, recently discussed working together and their personal and professional ideas of “place.”
twi-ny: Sleep No More has been quite a phenomenon. What was it like being part of that experience? Had you been involved in any type of interactive, participatory performances before?
Troy Ogilvie: Performing in Sleep No More was a gritty, fun, sexy ride. It was an ego trip as well as an exercise in vigilant attention. No, I had never been involved in a performance that was as immersive as SNM. My other nontraditional performance experiences were more “site specific,” as in an installation in a gallery or work done in the outdoors.
Nick Bruder: I cannot express how much I’ve learned from working with punchdrunk and Sleep No More. Mainly, I’m always going to know more about the character and the work than the audience will. And that’s okay. It’s my job to know more. If I have a clear perspective and perform with the understanding that I developed this weird alchemical-like process that actually opens up room and context for the audience to engage with — that’s imperative in Sleep No More, since it’s more likely that an audience member will catch a character’s story from unordered snippets. But this still holds true to a linear performance as well. As for other work, I’ve done a bunch of other immersive or audience-integrated work. In Los Angeles I worked with visual artist Brody Condon on two of his durational performance pieces consisting of wearing a full suit of armor and slowly falling into the floor à la a video game character’s death. Whew.
twi-ny: You played Lady Macbeth and Macbeth in Sleep No More, although you never did so at the same time. Now that you’re both in Replacement Place, do you wonder what it would have been like to have played the devious husband and wife together in Chelsea?
TO: Actually, we did fight, plot, conspire, tease, and descend into madness together for over a year as “husband” and “wife.”
twi-ny: Oops. Sorry about that.
NB: Hah. We actually ended both of our runs with Sleep No More as each other’s Macbeths. And I couldn’t think of anything better.
TO: Our bond that developed at SNM spilled over into our life outside the McKittrick Hotel, and we are always dreaming up ways to continue to work with one another.
twi-ny: Troy, you’ve worked with such choreographers as Sidra Bell, Andrea Miller, Idan Sharabi, Austin McCormick, and Margie Gillis. Do you find yourself working any differently with different choreographers, and specifically with Patricia Noworol? Do the different choreographers test you in different ways, both physically and mentally?
TO: Yes. Every choreographer has their boundary that they are — to use your word — testing. There’s something that has to stretch in the dancer in order to accommodate the weakened border, something that has to stretch but not break. The stretch is a pleasure, the skill is knowing when the boundary can be re-formed and its new shape celebrated. That moment has to do with the specific chemistry between choreographer and dancer. Patricia has a lot of openness in her process, which can be frustrating but in the end is absolutely freeing and brilliant. Anything is an option, which is a relief and a stress, but it’s exactly where I want to be right now. Pat has a great sense of timing, texture, and emotional build that we can’t wait to share with audiences.
twi-ny: Nick, you’ve appeared in opera at the Met, in a dance piece at BAC, in a mobile production at the McKittrick Hotel, in Shakespeare at the Harman Center, and now you will be at NYLA for Replacement Place. How does the concept of place inform how you approach a performance?
NB: Logistically, each site where performance is presented has its benefits: audience capacity, how close they are to the performers, size of the space, etc. Even the type of audience they attract. When one is performing in so many venues, it can begin to get exhausting adapting a changing performance approach. So I have to be confident that my understanding of character and all the tools I have collected, and some that I’ve thrown away throughout the years, can aid in helping the piece I’m in to be applicable to the venue. This may sound too heady, but I think a formula of audience + performers + space = something that happened in a place. Thinking about that, I hope, relieves the pressure of me having to adapt properly to the site and let the space and work influence the type of place it is to become.
twi-ny: Troy, in September 2012 you wrote in Dance magazine, “I dance because it is fun. I dance because I love to perform. I dance because I always have. These clichés were all accurate at one point, but none apply today.” Do you still feel the same way?
TO: Yes, but wow, so dramatic! I mean, yes, “fun,” “love,” and “always” are not the words I would use to describe my relationship to dance, but not because it is not-fun, not-love, and not-always. I have less confusion about it now, so there’s more room to actually work and less time spent on proving myself.
twi-ny: Replacement Place features quite an eccentric collection of collaborators, from the two of you to AJ “the Animal” Jonez to electro-cellist Chris Lancaster and designer Vita Tzykun. What have the rehearsals been like? The online videos have been rather tantalizing.
TO: Rehearsals have been a blast. AJ, Chris, and Vita are experts in their fields and are also so generous with their information. We all trust each other and have fun trying on each others’ shoes — sometimes literally. I am really so pleased to be working with this group; kudos for Pat for throwing us all in a room together!
NB: They’ve been like a super-condensed story of the universe. A big bang of inspiration happens which sets ideas in motion which then leads to cool and amazing organisms to exist and grow and diversify with sunshine feeding and warming all the beautiful animals and plants when all of a sudden a little dark rain cloud comes overhead and starts spilling out its watery guts until you notice that it’s actually a black hole that is sucking you and everything you know into its gullet while you lose hope by the minute only to spit you out on the other side with a new big bang and then you’re like hmm . . . must have been a wormhole. Pretty typical artistic process. It’s awesome.
twi-ny: Whew is right. In regard to place, do each of you have somewhere you go in order to get away from it all?
TO: No. I try to be here as much as possible.
NB: I’m always in the thick of it.
When he was in second grade, Brooklyn-born dancer and choreographer Ronald K. Brown wanted to be Arthur Mitchell, the first African American to dance with the New York City Ballet and founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. In 1985, Brown, then only nineteen, formed his own troupe, which he named Evidence, a Dance Company, to honor family, ancestors, teachers, tradition, faith, and the African diaspora. From February 24 through March 1, Brown, who has also choreographed works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Muntu Dance Theater of Chicago, and Ballet Hispanico in addition to The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess on Broadway, will be celebrating his company’s thirtieth anniversary with a pair of special programs at the Joyce. Program A includes 2014’s The Subtle One, about experiencing the love of another, with live music by Selma composer Jason Moran and the Bandwagon; the gorgeous Grace, created for Alvin Ailey in 1999; and the excerpts “Exotica” and “March” from 1995’s Lessons, the latter set to the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., performed by Annique Roberts and Coral Dolphin. Program B comprises the Evidence premiere of 2014’s Why You Follow/Por Que Sigues, commissioned for Havana’s MalPaso Dance Company (who will be at the Joyce March 3-8); 1999’s Gatekeepers, a piece originally for Philadanco that delves into Native American mythology and African traditions; excerpts from 2007’s multimedia One Shot: Rhapsody in Black & White, inspired by Pittsburgh photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris; and the New York premiere of Brown’s 2014 solo piece, Through Time and Culture, which brings a unique perspective to his long career. A charming and engaging Guggenheim Fellow and dedicated Brooklynite who is currently an artist in residence at BRIC in Fort Greene, where Evidence will perform in November 2015, Brown recently discussed his life and career, particularly about these past ten years.
twi-ny: Back in 2005, we had lunch together and talked about your twentieth anniversary season. How has the last decade treated you and Evidence?
Ronald K. Brown: The time has been full since that conversation ten years ago. These past ten years have brought Evidence and me more than we could have imagined. In 2010, we had a U.S. State Department tour as a part of DanceMotion/USA and went to Senegal, Nigeria, and South Africa; we were gone for twenty-nine days, performed five times, and taught classes for all ages during our time away. We did have one day off in Grahamstown, South Africa, and were able to go on a safari and relax . . . but the work was great.
I choreographed my first work for Chicago’s Muntu Dance Theatre, and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which opened first at the American Repertory Theater and then on Broadway.
In November 2013, Evidence moved our offices to Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, so for the first time our rehearsals, summer workshops, and daily administrative operations are in the same building — down the hall. That feels great.
twi-ny: Back then, you said, “We have to find out what’s going on in the world. We can’t be disconnected and feel like we’re safe.” How does that relate to you and your work today?
RKB: One thing that I have also learned is that we have to make sure we are connected to those close to us . . . and then that opens up the capacity to be connected to the world. In one of our pieces, On Earth Together, we added dancers from the community in Brooklyn for performances a couple years ago, in South Bend, Indiana, last week, and right now in Pittsburgh. Creating a large cast, talking about grief and compassion, unlocks things that bring the cast closer together . . . and then we can share that compassion with the issues that are happening in the world. Just in talking about the work in South Bend, first an elder confessed that she had lost her husband a month prior. The next day a ten-year-old boy broke down; he had lost his granny two years prior. Then another elder confessed that she had recently lost her husband. And finally, on the last night, a mother and daughter who were in the cast mentioned to [associate artistic director] Arcell [Cabuag] that this particular night was the anniversary of them losing her other daughter. So here we are in this dance, On Earth Together, and the compassion and support was real onstage. Then we could talk about the other things that were going on in the world that were in the recent news.
I’m grateful for the openness of folks who come to the audition and the classes, not knowing that there will be a space to share themselves in a safe place.
twi-ny: From February 24 through March 1, you’ll be presenting your thirtieth anniversary season, at the Joyce. How did you go about choosing which of your pieces will be part of the two programs?
RKB: When we put a program together, we want the evening to have a flow that makes sense. That feels right. I also want to make sure there is a range in the work, things that are new but with something different added, like having The Subtle One being performed live with composer Jason Moran and his group the Bandwagon. I also want to make sure there is work that has not been seen in a while and again with an added surprise. This year the male duet “March” will be danced by two women.
twi-ny: What was the impetus behind creating your new solo piece, “Through Time and Culture”?
RKB: Through Time and Culture was commissioned last year by the American Dance Festival. I wanted to build a solo that demonstrated a sense of perseverance and pressing through, because of the support that family and teachers have given me.
I selected music that would allow me to show the connections of dances from around the world. The dance also is a way that I could breathe the stages of grief as I dealt with the transition of my father to join the ancestors a couple years ago, and my mother in 1996.
twi-ny: You travel around the world, adding elements of African movement to your work. Where have you been recently that has influenced your choreography?
RKB: My last two trips to Havana, in 2013 and 2014, definitely had an impact on the work. Seeing the social, folklore, and contemporary dance and work helped me understand more fully what I do, similar to seeing artists in Nigeria during that 2010 trip, where I saw B-Boys, breakdancers, folks improvising, traditional artists, young people showing Evidence some dances from Atlanta, and a choreographer who has been creating Contemporary African Dance for over fifteen years. All these moments helped me understand the expansion of the dance world and what is possible.
The lessons are really to continue to study and then go in to the studio to create, grateful to have an increased sense of freedom with more techniques and rhythms to call on.
twi-ny: You’ve now choreographed five pieces for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Is your approach to that different from how you choreograph for Evidence?
RKB: When I choreograph on Ailey, or any other company, for the most part I create something that is specifically for them. I generally have three weeks to set a work on Ailey; that first day I am teaching material so that I can identify two casts, and by Wednesday I need to provide a list of dancers selected for the piece. With such a set deadline up front, I come to the studio with some material to teach.
With Evidence on the first day . . . I have the title . . . some music . . . and perhaps some written text and images that I use to fuel the movement that will come once I get in the zone of discovery . . . in the moment and dance it out. This cannot happen with Ailey until I have cast it.
The great thing about Ailey is that the artistic staff there continues to give me time to clean up and clarify things in further rehearsals before the New York season and U.S. or European tours.
In Evidence, the dancers will let me know that I can continue to clarify and shape the piece and make changes to allow the piece to be . . . what it is meant to be, and as long as I am not taking time away from us rehearsing repertory. For the most part, Evidence agrees. . . . “Ron, finish the new work and we will do our homework for when you are ready to rehearse us in the older work.”
twi-ny: You mentioned earlier choreographing the Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess. Do you have any future plans for more Broadway productions?
RKB: This past fall Arcell Cabuag and I worked with director/writer Moises Kaufman on an Afro-Cuban musical version of Carmen. It premiered at the University of Miami, with four professional actors from New York and the other roles played by students form the theater department of U of M. I’m not sure what the life of the piece will be after that, ideally a regional theater further development of the work and hopefully a Broadway run. But that is the hope, who the creative team will be. . . .
A couple years ago I met with a company that commissions works for Broadway and I have begun thinking of some ideas and will begin writing something soon. I will look for collaborators when the time is right.
But right now, I’m focused on Evidence and our upcoming season at the Joyce, a project at Williams College, and a new work for Ailey in 2015. I am also talking to a company in Detroit about setting something. If someone comes to me with a fit for Broadway and it works out time-wise, I would consider it . . . but the commitment for Porgy and Bess was major. Incredible . . . but major. The Porgy national tour was also a wonderful revisit. But the timing made sense. Complicated, but it worked out.
twi-ny: You have a special relationship with Brooklyn. You were born and raised there, and your company has been based there from the beginning, becoming an integral part of the community. And you recently moved into the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Center for Arts and Culture. How has that move gone?
RKB: The move to Restoration in November 2013 was a nice move for Evidence. In December 2014 we had to move all of our costumes and props there as well.
It feels great to have a home. We have rehearsed at Restoration for over ten years. When the company is in rehearsal down the hall, I can take care of admin assignments and then go to the studio to rehearse, give notes, and go back to my admin hat.
A few years ago, when we moved our Summer Dance Workshop Series from Medgar Evers Preparatory School to Restoration, the staff at Restoration and Arcell both saw how much sense it made for Evidence to have our educational efforts also happen at BSRC. When our office was in Fort Greene, there was the additional chore of bringing the set-up supplies to another location. Now we just walk down the hall.
I think the dancers who come from all over to take our summer workshop and/or my weekly Tuesday-night class appreciate that Evidence has a home. I also appreciate that it was the first place I took a dance class when I was eight years old and where I competed in storytelling contests; mine was the collection of Anansi the Spider. (The contests took place in the atrium, what used to be an ice-skating rink.)
twi-ny: Brooklyn has changed significantly over the last thirty years. What would you consider the best and worst parts of that change?
RKB: I know that there is an effort to increase the presence of new business and create new corridor around Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza. The farmers market across the street from BSRC and some of the new businesses are wonderful assets to the community.
The worst parts are the multitude of condos going up surrounded by folks who cannot afford them. Improvements in neighborhoods for the people who live there is a beautiful thing, but when folks are displaced or outpriced . . . this is another thing. We all deserve healthy food choices and respectful neighbors.
twi-ny: Congratulations on your thirtieth anniversary. When you were a kid in Bed-Stuy, dancing at home, dressing up as Arthur Mitchell, did you ever think that things would turn out this way?
RKB: Thank you. I had no idea of how things would turn out. There are models of what is possible. Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham, Arthur Mitchell, Pearl Primus, but also my grandfather Ruben McFadgion. I remember two conversations I had with my Poppi; every summer we would drive down from Brooklyn to Raeford, North Carolina, where my grandfather (Poppi) was building a house.
I asked him, “Where are the plans for the house?” He responded, “I don’t need plans; I know what I want.”
This house is five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a basement the same length of the house, where we would roller skate (until he finished).
I asked, “Why is the house so big?” He said, “So you have somewhere to go.”
Flash forward: I’m in the house working on the laptop and he says, “You went to school for that? I would never be able to do that.”
My response: “No, Poppi, I did not go to school for this. . . . I think I have your genes.”
His response: “That’s right, Kevin . . . keep God first.” [ed note: Brown’s family calls him by his middle name, Kevin.]
I tell people, there is freedom in listening and obeying. I try to do that. . . . I had no idea things would turn out the way they did.
But the Most High did and does.
BROADWAY BY THE YEAR
The Town Hall
123 West 43rd St. between Sixth Ave. & Broadway
Sunday, February 23, Monday, March 30, Monday, May 11, and Monday, June 22, 8:00, $47-$57 per show, $180-$220 subscription for all four programs
In the December 31 edition of “The Siegel Column” for Theater Pizzazz!, the husband-and-wife team of Scott and Barbara Siegel examined the state of the Broadway musical, writing, “The current crop of new musicals — both brand new and new productions of revivals — are tanking left and right. What’s up?” Their theory? “Producers are banking too heavily on good reviews from the New York Times.” The Siegels know what of they speak; for years, they have been regulars on the city’s theater and music scene, covering Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway shows in addition to cabaret. Both are voting members of the Drama Desk, where Barbara chairs the nominating committee, so she has to see more than three hundred productions every season. Meanwhile, Scott hosts a multitude of music-related events in addition to attending hundreds of shows with his wife as well. “It’s like a rollercoaster going from show to show,” Barbara says, “but the ride is accompanied by a fantastic scoring of Broadway music.”
Scott’s signature event is “Broadway by the Year,” which is about to begin its fifteenth year at Town Hall. Since 2001, Scott has been pairing performers with musical numbers from a particular Broadway season, but for the fifteenth anniversary, he will be honoring quarter-centuries, paying homage to the Broadway musicals of 1916 to 1940 on February 23, followed by 1941 to 1965 on March 30, 1966 to 1990 on May 11, and 1991 to the present on June 22. The February 23 show will feature a host of Tony, Grammy, and Drama Desk winners and nominees, including Tonya Pinkins, Steve Ross, Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, John Easterlin, and Nancy Anderson. While preparing for this and other shows, Scott discussed theater, music, and the many hats he wears.
twi-ny: This year you’re celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of “Broadway by the Year.” Did you ever anticipate that it would be still going strong all this time later?
Scott Siegel: When the series got started, I could never have guessed that it would reach a fifteenth season and that we would be sponsored by Bank of America. Nor would I have guessed that last year we would have changed the format to have over one hundred stars over the course of our season — which we are boldly attempting to do again this year. Getting so many stars willing to commit their time to our shows is almost as great a testament to our staying power as the loyal subscriber base that makes the whole series possible.
twi-ny: How did it initially get started?
SS: That’s a long story. Suffice it to say that I had a concept that Town Hall embraced and they asked me to produce it for them. At that time, I was exclusively a writer/critic. I had not produced anything whatsoever before the very first “Broadway by the Year.” Believe me, having your first experience as a producer putting together a show in a 1,500-seat landmarked theater is pretty daunting. But at its very core, “Broadway by the Year,” while it may have more bells and whistles by way of production values, is still very much the same concept now as it was fifteen years ago. Essentially, I put the music first and foremost; the historical context that I provide from the stage is there only to set up the songs (and hopefully entertain a little bit, too).
twi-ny: For your fifteenth season, you’re hosting four presentations, each one representing twenty-five years. Do you have a particular favorite quarter-century?
SS: Generally, I prefer the twenties and thirties the most because that’s when there were so many great composers / lyricists at work. All that Berlin, Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Romberg, etc.
twi-ny: What was it like in the early years, when you were just starting out, to get stars to participate?
SS: Wonderful question! I’ll tell you the secret. Provide singers with great material, a lot of support, a fun and rewarding experience, and they tell their friends. The very first concert had Jason Graae, Heather MacRae, and Sally Mayes — just those three. Not long after, I saw Liz Callaway at Joe’s Pub and went backstage to say hi and ask her to do the next “Broadway by the Year.” Before I could ask her, however, she said, ‘My friend Jason Graae just did one of your concerts and had a ball. Can I do one?’ Liz has been one of our regulars, appearing in one of the concerts almost every season since then. That’s how I got over one hundred stars last year and why I’ll get them this year :).
twi-ny: You also put together “Broadway Unplugged” and the Nightlife Awards, have written many books and columns, have led film seminars, had a radio show, are producing “Maxine Linehan: Beautiful Songs” at the Metropolitan Room — and still find the time to go to hundreds of Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway shows with your wife. You must be out nearly every night of the year.
SS: I’m exhausted just hearing all of that. Actually, the only time either of us takes a break is when we break down, getting sick. It really helps that we love what we do. And every day is different, so it never gets boring.
twi-ny: What would an actual break entail for you?
SS: We’re often asked that. On the rare times when we leave New York, it’s usually to do the same stuff we do here someplace else. A musical festival in Quebec City — things like that. We’re not the types to lie on a beach in the sun.
twi-ny: You and Barbara appeared on The Joe Franklin Show. What was that experience like?
SS: Barbara is the shy one. She didn’t appear on the show, but I did the TV show with Joe several times, and I was on his WOR radio show many times as well. Whenever Joe would see me, he would always greet me with “Mr. Siegel, make it legal,” and ask me if I knew who sang that song. I would always answer Sophie Tucker, and he would always pretend to be amazed that I knew that. Joe was a genuine New York character and I’m glad I had the chance to know him.
twi-ny: In your opinion, what’s the current state of the Broadway musical?
SS: Such a big question. For the most part, today’s Broadway musicals are tourist attractions; they have to be in order to be successful. A show can only run for about three months, at most, with the core New York theater audience. That’s why the more daring and interesting musicals are off-Broadway. When one of them takes off with great reviews and major buzz, it can move to Broadway and compete — like Fun Home, which is coming to Broadway from the Public. But it’s an uphill battle. I’m always impressed when a show without stars, just good music, a good book, and talented actors, can swim upstream and succeed, like Memphis and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. They are the wonderful exceptions to the rule.
twi-ny: What are some of your favorites that are playing right now?
SS: As for brand-new musicals that are running right now, I’m a fan of Honeymoon in Vegas. The music and lyrics are terrific — and the show is so beautifully crafted. It just works like an old-fashioned, well-made Broadway musical. I would say about Hamilton, at the Public, that it’s going to be considered one of the most important musicals of our era.
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.
MATCH (Stephen Belber, 2014)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Through January 20
In 2001, Stephen Belber turned his 2000 play, Tape, into a feature film starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, directed by Richard Linklater. He has now adapted his 2004 Broadway debut, Match, into a feature film starring Sir Patrick Stewart, Carla Gugino, and Matthew Lillard. The beautifully told story takes place in New York City, where married couple Lisa (Gugino) and Mike (Lillard) are interviewing dance teacher and choreographer Tobi Powell (Stewart) purportedly for her thesis, but their ulterior motives bring the three of them together in uncomfortable, unexpected ways, dredging up a long-buried past. Belber’s second film as writer and director — in 2009 he made Management, a romantic comedy with Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn, and Woody Harrelson — is an intimate, involving tale about family and the choices we make, led by superb performances by Stewart and Gugino, who are magical together. Belber discussed the film and other aspects of his career with twi-ny shortly after it opened at the IFC Center.
twi-ny: Nearly fifteen years ago, you adapted your play Tape into a film, directed by Richard Linklater, who just won a Golden Globe for Boyhood. Now you’ve adapted your 2004 play, Match, into a film. How did the transference of the two plays onto the big screen differ? Why did you choose to direct this time around?
Stephen Belber: Up to the point when I adapted Tape, I’d written exactly one screenplay, and so I basically just put the text into final draft. (In fact, I didn’t even do that; someone else did; I’m not even sure final draft was around then) Rick Linklater and I briefly talked about breaking it out of the motel but decided it would diffuse the necessary claustrophobic feel. When I adapted Match, I’d just finished directing my first film and so I was able to approach the whole thing more globally, knowing more of what it takes to make a film, yet I also specifically wanted to reduce the scope of my next project to almost pure character interaction; I was less interested in more classic film “splendor.” That said, I did try to open up the screenplay a bit, but only when it felt justified and organic; otherwise I just doubled-down on my actors, who I was more than confident were strong enough to convey the “cinematic landscape” of emotion that I was going for. I think the reason I decided to direct was due to my memory of having watched Tape amidst a crowd at Sundance in 2001 and thinking to myself, “There is a thirst for this kind of small, ‘emotional thriller’ movie” — and wanting to try that for myself.
twi-ny: When it debuted on Broadway, Match starred Frank Langella, Ray Liotta, and Jane Adams. How did you approach casting for the film version?
Stephen Belber: Frank was attached to play the role of Tobi for a while, but when we finally found the financing, he was unavailable for our time window, so the fortune of then being able to find Patrick was immense. I couldn’t have been happier. I also knew that I wanted the movie to be different from the play. I wanted it to be more of an even three-hander; I wanted the role of Lisa to be almost the strongest of the three, in terms of her ability to force these two semi-blinded individuals together. I’d long known and admired Carla for her dominant stage work in New York, so she was an early choice of mine. Matthew I knew less well, but when I met him and perceived his rare mix of strength and vulnerability, as well as the simply excellent person that he is, I knew I’d found the type of actor I love to work with.
twi-ny: The film depicts the deep bond between Tobi and New York, echoing the bond that has clearly developed between Patrick and the city. When he and Carla go up to his Inwood rooftop, I immediately thought of the video that went viral a few summers ago of Stewart and his soon-to-be wife, Sunny Ozell, goofing around on their Brooklyn rooftop. Can you talk about that connection, and its importance to the film? You were born in DC; what are some of your favorite things about New York?
Stephen Belber: Well, to begin with, I do love New York City, but specifically, when I discovered the uniqueness and beauty of Inwood, it was one of those moments when New York reveals itself to you in a lovely and unexpected way. (Granted, the roof scene is technically Washington Heights and we shot the rest of the film in Crown Heights.) But more so, the character of Tobi, perhaps not unlike Patrick, has decamped to New York relatively late in life — and fallen in love with its excitement and ever-present vivacity. Funnily enough, my father recently moved back to NYC after forty years in DC, and he now goes on incessantly about how great a place it is to be old, and not just because of all the food delivery services. There’s something about the constant life of the city that surrounds you, ambushes and assaults you, but undeniably keeps you in the present; it fills you with a sense of aliveness, awareness, and acute feeling. It’s very different than Phoenix.
twi-ny: Stewart’s character is inspired by dancer, choreographer, and longtime Juilliard ballet teacher Alphonse Poulin, who attended the opening night of the play on Broadway. Has he seen the film? What has been his reaction to your exploration of at least part of his life, first onstage, then in the movies?
Stephen Belber: Alphy has been incredibly supportive of this entire project. I think the play made him happy, and yet it was a broader comedy than the film; it had a heightened, almost farcical reality, theatrically speaking, and I think that I, as the writer, consequently short-changed some of the complexity and humanity of the Tobi character. On film, heightened reality tends to be harder to pull off; the intimacy of a film close-up almost insists on a naturalism and dramatic “realness,” in which farce doesn’t fly. At the same time, I’d become aware of wanting a more dramatic and grounded version of this character and this story.
twi-ny: You are a Juilliard grad yourself, and the play begins at the beautiful Glorya Kaufman Dance Studio there. What was your Juilliard experience like? How has it helped shape your career?
Stephen Belber: My two years as a writer at Juilliard were vital and extremely happy ones. It’s the first time I truly took myself seriously as a writer. I feel at home there to this day. (Even if everyone else looks at me like an odd guy peering into piano rehearsal rooms.)
twi-ny: On February 6, Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is being released in theaters, in conjunction with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the passage of the Hate Crime Statistics Act, which was modified in 2009 by the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. You examined the murder of Matthew Shepard in The Laramie Project Cycle, which played at BAM two years ago. What kind of progress, if any, do you think has been made in America in regard to hate crimes?
Stephen Belber: Not enough. Certainly there’s progress, legislatively as well as in a national “moral” sense. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who continue to misunderstand why these laws are important. This, to me, implies a lack of ability to put one’s self in another person’s shoes, to truly feel what it is to be “other” in this country. We are still coming up way short in that regard.
twi-ny: Do you have any plans to bring any of your other plays to the big screen?
Stephen Belber: Myself and Matthew Lillard are discussing a screen adaptation of my 2008 play, Fault Lines. Matt would direct. I would love this to happen.