In a recent interview, the Lisps spoke at length “in defense of the musical” and about the background for their work FUTURITY, currently playing at Walker. Bandmates César Alvarez, Sammy Tunis, and Eric Farber weigh in on the roles venues have played, why FUTURITY is an “outsider musical,” and how the performance helps to create peace.
I read that it took four years to develop FUTURITY. Can you talk a bit about that process, from idea germination to completion?
It started as an idea that percolated for a bit before we put it before an audience for my master’s thesis at Bard. That was in the summer of 2008, and at that point the idea had been around for almost a year. It had been a slow process of a lot of research and writing songs. And after I finished at Bard, we had gotten a call from this club, the Zipper Factory, in New York, and they had wanted us to play a show, so I told them, “We have a musical, can we play our musical?” They said, “Sure, that sounds great.” [laughs]
So really our first workshop was just a gig, which is the beginning of the non-traditional development of the show. We sort of side-stepped a lot of what people normally do when they’re workshopping musicals, in terms of table reads and closed workshops. We were out in the open with it from the very beginning. And [Senior Curator for Performing Arts] Philip [Bither] at the Walker saw that very first workshop, which was really a rag-tag…
It wasn’t! Well, it was rag-tag, but it was pretty much a fully staged show. We rehearsed for weeks, and there was choreography, and it was kind of a big show. It wasn’t just that we showed up…
There was just no budget.
Yeah, there was no budget. [laughs]
So it had a bit of that community theater vibe, but at the same time it had these complicated ideas about science and a sort-of sophisticated plot. So I think Philip really saw it as some sort of bizarre performance art at that stage, which I think was right on. As it kept moving, we started doing more concert versions and workshops, we did a lot of them at Joe’s Pub, which is a sort of cabaret-rock venue in New York, and as more people got involved we got our director Sarah Benson involved, and then Molly Rice the co-book writer, we did a more proper workshop with costumes and we raised some money—and that was at HERE Arts Center—and that’s when American Repertory Theater (ART) saw it and said we really want to bring this to our venue, which is a hybrid theater-club venue. So what was cool is that for the development of it, we were always just sharing it with our friends and family and our fans and out in the open about how it was developing. It was fun because a lot of people kind of just hitched onto the project along the way.
So have the venues played a role at all in changing the project, from Joe’s Pub to ART?
I think the biggest change has been at the Oberon [at ART] because it is such a multi-layered space. There’s a stage and then there’s a band stage, there’s an upper level and a downstairs level; you’re constantly moving when you see the show at the Oberon. We’ve always tailored the show to the space we’re in. What we did at Joe’s Pub was basically just a concert, but then, say, at Ars Nova, which is a lot bigger, we did a fully staged production. We’ve even staged this show at a bar in Louisville, Kentucky. I think part of why this show has been so successful is that we can stage it almost anywhere and in any sort of way. We can do a fully-staged production or just a concert or something in between.
We’ve never done this show at a normal proscenium theater. The Walker will be the first time we do that, which is funny, because it’s a contemporary art center, and it has a reputation for being so experimental, but then as we come to Walker we’re trying to figure out “how do we put this show in a normal theater space?” because we’ve never done that [laughs].
I was curious about Annie-B Parson’s role in the project and what it was like working with her because she was just at the Walker in November for the Big Dance Theater show Supernatural Wife.
The way this musical started was that it’s a musical made by people who don’t make musicals. And as we got more people on the creative team, we wanted to keep that feeling, and I think Sarah Benson, who is the artistic director of Soho Rep, is the perfect example of that. She’s a great and successful director who admittedly has never directed a musical [laughs]. When she wanted to work with Annie-B Parson I think it was that same idea; she’s an amazing choreographer who does tons of theatrical work, but isn’t someone who choreographs musicals per se. It’s the same with Emily Orling, our production designer, who came up with the whole visual language for the piece. She’s a visual artist not a set designer. It’s actually a huge part of how we’ve tried to keep the feeling of this piece as an outsider musical, which is what allows audience members of all different stripes to come to it and feel that they can enter into this piece even if they’re not familiar with tons of musicals. Because it was really made for them, in a way.
I think the word “outsider” is right. I’ve approached building these sonic sculptures, the kinetic percussion machines, from a completely uneducated and uninformed place… trying to tinker and find my way through and going on instinct. A lot of what the piece is about, and how the piece got raised, was really just on instinct and intuition. Following your gut always reveals something more pure and primitive then the standard, polished, commercial musical.
Also it links to the content of the musical itself, which is about someone trying to invent something who is totally ill-equipped to invent it. The piece is about imagination and the value of that attempt. Even though Julian has no resources to build a steam-powered artificial intelligence, there’s something intrinsically powerful and valuable about his impulse to do that. That’s the whole point of the piece, calculating the cost of war in imagination, and understanding the value of looking for the impossible. When we have outsiders working on this musical it’s the same process. And it’s the same valuation of the power of the imagination.
I’ve read a little bit about the literary influences for the piece, William Gibson’s novel The Difference Engine, which features FUTURITY character Ada Lovelace. But the utopian, sci-fi premise of FUTURITY also reminds me a bit of one of my favorite novels, Gob’s Grief by Chris Adrian. Do you know that book?
I don’t know it.
It’s really great; it’s about this Civil War veteran who tries to build a machine to bring back all the Civil War dead. You should check it out. Walt Whitman is a character in the novel. It’s a similar blend of historical magical realism.
Well, Walt Whitman was a resource for this piece because he was a poet who went to war, who went and served in medical units, and he experienced as a poet the horror of the Civil War and wrote about it. And then his brother was a veteran—I think he died—and for some of Julian’s letters we used Walt Whitman’s brother’s letters as a reference.
To look at what Walt Whitman wrote about the Civil War, it gives you goosebumps. To think about one of the greatest American poets witnessing that horror and then how that process plays out in his mind is definitely interesting and relevant to this piece.
Going back to Eric, and talking about a sort of outsider approach, how did the percussive brain evolve through different performances and different places, and are you still adding to the brain?
Totally. I’ve got a pile of things in my basement that are sort of half-done or don’t quite fit. The exciting thing about this project is that things break and I discover new things and I’m always looking for new things. And actually since we’ve been at ART, I’ve been playing that stuff so much through rehearsals and shows. It’s gotten a lot of beatings. A lot of wear and tear. I’ve had to look for new stuff over the past weeks, and that’s been exciting. Every day I have to come into the theater and make sure all the nuts and bolts are tightened and everything is in working order. As far as the development of the project over the course of the last few years, the impetus for building the machine and its sort of mechanical assemblages, it really came from the place logistically of trying to play that stuff as one person. I found that some things sound better with a knitting needle, some things sound better with a hammer. All the while I just want to be holding my drum sticks because at the center of it is simply a traditional drum set. Building the machine came from trying to mount the correct implement with each individual piece. Instead of picking up a metal rod to scrape a tractor seat, I built a handle for it, a hand-cranked handle out of an old meat grinder. So I can keep holding onto my drumsticks and do that quickly. I’ve used different sorts of pulleys and rope mechanisms to expedite the performance so I don’t have to worry about the implement and I can think in real time.
And then what’s exciting is you see Eric do it and it looks like someone is operating a machine. It’s a choreography of a mechanism.
I worked in collaboration over the summer with ART’s scene shop to build four larger pieces that—for the ART production—are scattered around the room. One thing that’s exciting is we’ve opened up the pre-show to allow theater-goers to actually play them, which creates a dialogue with them about the piece and imagination. It gets their juices flowing. Me and two other cast members are always out there during pre-show, and a lot of people come up to me and ask about where the pieces come from and ask me to show them how it works. I feel like that has been one of the most wonderful things about this production, getting to talk to people before the show about it.
A lot of times people will come up to me and say, “What does this thing do?” And I’ll say, “Oh, it creates peace!” [Laughs] People look at me totally perplexed, like, this doesn’t create peace, and I’ll say “Try it! It will change your life.” And I’ll say it with utter conviction and it’s actually something I believe. Thinking about the possibilities of things, instead of wasting things away and letting them die—I’m thinking about the way that technology develops and grows obsolete—I think that thinking about the possibility of obsolete technology rather than just discarding it for the next new greatest thing, having that eye towards the world can actually change our perspective and the ways we interact with the contents of our world. It can lead towards sustainability.
I’ve talked with a lot of younger kids, we’ve done a couple school groups, 7th and 8th graders, it gets them thinking about where their iPhone comes from, what the possibilities are of developing technologies in the future that have an eye towards re-purposing and rethinking objects and our relationship to them, so that’s exciting.
And it sounds like maybe the whole approach of FUTURITY is rethinking the obsolescence of the musical, or what it means for a band to re-purpose it and not let it die and have it somehow be relevant again.
Yeah, and everything in the piece is a metaphor for the piece in a way. The piece itself is a machine that creates peace. The piece itself is a dialogue about the meanings, the cost, and the reasons for war, and our relationship to that vis à vis technology. And war has always had an intimate relationship with technology, and the question becomes: how can we start building our relationship with technology around peace? And around communication and understanding with one another? I have lofty ideas about music, and beyond that art and culture, as sort of machines that create peace. Music is the opposite of war. It’s an organization and vibration of harmony. It creates harmoniousness in the world. And that’s the kind of higher value of the piece, to elevate peoples’ ideas about who they are and their relationship to the world. I think the point of all art in a way, is to lift the human spirit.