Yesterday I posted an article on the Swim Pony facebook page.
I’m not going to summarize it. I just drove six hours home and I’m tired. But there’s a question in there about how we first fall into our art mediums. In it the author talks about feeling ashamed of his “middle brow” gateway into his art. How he felt ashamed about the kinds of things that first inspired him to jump into theater.
I can sympathize. You want to know what made me want to direct? There are of course many little leans along the way. But when I look at an experience that shaped my vision for spectacle, music, an inventive approach, was a show that I probably wouldn’t have realized. It’s a big ass musical. Andrew Lloyd Weber at that.
I admit it. Jesus Christ Superstar changed my life.
I was Herod’s wash girl in a community theater production the summer after my sophmore year of high school. It was hands down one of the best experiences of my life.
This production was probably the place I decided that high concept theater was for me. I watched the director of the production do so some things that at the time seemed like impossibly daring choices. I watched him convince us all to do these things. He asked us to dare. He asked us to try.
The overture would not simply be a chance to sit back and hear the strains of music to come, oh no. We performed a modern dance interpretation of the John the Baptist story as a prelude to the events to come. I gyrated both on my feet and on the ground in what amounted to a supped up burlap sack and watched as a temptress revealed a head on a plate.
We chorus members ran from the stage down the side halls of the building up to the balcony to breathlessly sing Hosana over top the audience’s heads and then back down to the main doors to fling ourselves down the aisles with hands filled with wheat stalks (is that what those were?) to wave back and forth…
The trembling bass of the guy they cast who a could barely get out “We need a more permanent solution to our problem.”
I can remember the exact vibrating anticipation sensation of my single line as I ran out screaming “Crucify him!”
We made great use of a giant army green colored parachute. I remember multiple of us chorus members scrunched inside it slowly oozing across the stage in an amoeba blob depositing Jesus for his next scene.
It returned in the penultimate moment to, you guessed it, parachute up and down as the entire cast held the edges. It billowed and filled the stage in gusts of wind, finally falling down its last time as the actor playing the title role ran under just in time to get his head in that tiny hole at the top.
The effect of him spread out across the stage, hands outstretched towards all of us, his followers, grasping at the edges of his robes needing him to sing to us and filling him with music at the same time. He looked at me in our second to last performance, paused, dropped his eyes for a moment and smiled.
God, I still love Jesus Christ Superstar.
I do not want to direct musicals. I spend most of my efforts trying really hard to resist my impulses towards cheese. But there are things that show did to me that I still carry with me.
I remember the passion with which the people around me attacked this project.
I remember watching my director deep in conversation with the actors, asking them questions, trying to think through a moment.
I remember hearing these crazy ideas to dance wildly or run down a hall or get under a parachute and feeling like we were discovering something.
There was an invitation to step into a new way of seeing. It didn’t matter if I liked the idea on first presentation. It was my job to try and occupy a concept that I’d never considered.
I’m still trying to do that today: trying to get my plays to be that big green parachute: fucking huge and full and trying to wrap up the whole place in themselves.