the onion cellar, the lexington play, and What It's All About.
warning comrade, there are a lot of fecking pictures in this here blog. give it a bit to load — i’m just trying to share how truly magical the show was and if you couldn’t be there these photos are the only way that i have (for now).
i’ve been buried, i’ve let things get out of hand, but i feel wonderful.
my apartment is a fucking mess (i’ve been twittering random found objects as i unpack, it’s fascinating) and my inbox has over 1300 un-dealt-with emails, but i am becoming more and mor impressed with my ability to not sweat the small stuff. i have concluded: nothing is that important. and i have also concluded (as i emailed to zoe keating yesterday and she thought it was so perfect she twittered it: OFF IS THE NEW ON.)
i am going to be going on an actual phone/computer hiatus this coming week, starting sunday afternoon. yes. no email, no mac, no phone, no twitter, no electronic tit of love. nada.
only food, love, walks, maybe wine. it’s time.
i will probably experience some sort of extinction burst – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction_(psychology) – before the hiatus, so if you are following me, be prepared for a possible onslaught.
the play is over and i’m feeling a sort of post-partem bliss-emptiness.
about 3000+ attended, and the show was webcast and viewed on ustream saturday night by over 1,000 people.
since then it’s been viewed by almost 7,000 more folks, but i don’t encourage you to watch it there if you can hang on…..
pope is putting together a MUCH more beautiful edit for a DVD. this one was cut live and off the cut and therefore a lots of transitions are stumbly.
if you REALLY can’t wait and want to watch the live-cut stream, start at about 35:00 – the rest is just people finding seats…and a little drama.
no, that lady falling into the orchestra pit at 31:50 was NOT PLANNED. she was getting into the spirit of the pre-show circus and fell backwards into the abyss.
we stopped the show, she went to hospital and she’s doing fine. (oh the DRAMAAAA!) we’re very happy she’s ok.
if you didn’t see the show or the webcast: here’s an incredibly good and descriptive review:
there was a load of AMAZING press: including my very favorite, a spot on NPR’s “all things considered”, edited by avishay artsy (awesome last name!!!!)
he TOTALLY got what we were trying to do and did the piece so much justice in 7 minutes. thank you, avishay. you can listen to it right here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103939612
jeff mangum (the genius songwriter & performer behind the record) didn’t do an interview for the piece, but robert schneider (of neutral milk & apples in stereo) did, and what he has to say about the thread of art and inspiration is perfect. i was so happy that he was happy we were doing this. after the piece aired, jeff mangum’s wife (the filmmaker astra taylor) wrote a thank-you note avishay and said they were getting inundated with emails from friends & family. that just about made my life. we’ll send them a copy of the DVD when it’s complete….i think jeff would be really proud of what his music inspired in these kids, most of whom had never heard the album before the play existed.
now. deep thoughts.
it makes sense to start off at the beginning.
a few years ago some of you came to the production the dolls did at the american repertory theater (the ART) called “the onion cellar”.
i didn’t blog about it at the time, because it was just too close to home and it would have been unfair to all those currently involved, but it was a FUCKING NIGHTMARE.
long story short, the ART is one of the most respected alternative theater stages in the COUNTRY. the fact that it happens to be based in boston is a coincidence.
they’ve premiered endless plays by incredible people including david mamet, anton chekov, philip glass, things directed by robert wilson, etc etc the list goes on. they’re mega.
when i got a call from the artistic director, robert woodruff, in…2003? or 2004? i shat my pants.
this was like a, unknown little classical musician getting called out of the blue and being asked to truck down to new york to perform anything they wanted at carnegie hall. this was GIANT.
he told me we could do ANYTHING, anything at ALL. write an orignal piece, perform a work already in existence, ANYTHING, and the ART would pay for it and support it. it was like a dream.
my background, and the theater i’ve always felt most strongly about, is in workshopping original pieces from scratch. so i asked if we could do that. i already had a seed of an idea, based on a book by gunter grass calld the “tin drum”. the book includes a surreal chapter called “the onion cellar” in which emotionally locked-up post-war residents of a city in germany pay top dollar to go to a nightclub, cut onions, and then and only then can they release the floodgate of tears that is trapped inside of them. it was one of the most beautiful images i’d ever read and i’d wanted to put it onto the stage somehow or years. it seemed to relevant to being human.
i wanted the director to be steven bogart. he had mentored me and he was what i knew would work. the ART rejected him pretty much out of hand. i got the impression they were aghast at the idea of a “high school” director working at the ART. i didn’t have any bargaining power (or, rather, i didn’t realize i did), so i asked if they had any directors in mind who were able to create a show from scratch with me. they had me meet with marcus stern, who seemed nice over coffee, and seemed to get it, and seemed to think that my fucked-up ideas of having a huge, epic, dark and living, breathing piece of theater that would be different every night and involve a huge amount of audience participation was just peachy. so i said i would work with him.
i could write a novel about how things went downhill from there. in essence, the play ended up being created by a committee that weren’t committed to the same vision. my vision for the play got ix-nayed pretty much out of the gate as soon as we started putting things into practice. i was told that having the audience involved was too risky. i wrote a long script, explaining what i wanted, a brilliant script that i loved that paralleled gunter grass’s recent revelation of his past in the waffen-SS to his literary creation of the onion cellar. the venue was going to become a figment of his own imagination – it all made perfect sense.
it was all rejected. meanwhile, the actors felt flummoxed and caught between the battling factions. nobody felt very comfortable.
the worst part was that this had NOTHING to do with the theater that i knew, the theater i grew up in with bogart, the theater i loved.
to me, theater was a place where people created ecstatically, got weird, looked in the dark places, joyfully, together, laughing, crying, screaming, taking massive risks and
supporting each other, constantly pushing, pushing, throwing caution to the wind and rolling around in the dirt, digging for truth. the experience at the ART felt so foreign and frightening. the actors showing up for work. the strict schedules. the rules (so. many. rules). the empty feeling all the time. the lack of that sense i always used to have in shows with bogart that EVERYBODY in the room was committed to this utopian vision of theater MOVING people, changing things, stating truths. that’s what i expected. it’s not what happened.
i remember leaving a rehearsal close to the end of the creation process of the onion cellar and calling my best friend anthony from the parking lots of the rehearsal space, sobbing. i don’t sob very much. “i don’t know what to do, i don’t know what to do”. i’d become so ashamed of the mess that the script had become by committee, and it’s sterility and lack of passion that i’d asked for my name to be taken off the book. the director and i were playing a weird game of hot potato where he’d finally given up on the process, saying “you know what? you do it” and i’d escatically stayed up all night working on the script only to come in the next day to find he’d changed his mind and wrestled back complete control. i felt awful, and i felt sorry for this director. maybe he didn’t believe me? maybe he’d thought i was actually exaggerating when i said i wanted a living art show that involved the real plunging into people’s psyches and problems and fears. but that’s what i’d wanted. something real, something terrible, something beautiful, something risky.
what we ended up with was something nice, something safe, something sterile. it was just lovely.
there was also the question of the subscribers. all of a sudden certain things just weren’t “going to fly” with the old folks who had season tickets to the theater. i was enraged. these people believed they WANTED art, that’s why they bought the so-called ticket. they SHOULD be shaken up, for fuck’s sake, i reasoned… or do you really want to just give them another matinee they can discuss politely over their thai dinner and chardonnay when it’s done?? and poor brian, who hadn’t wanted to do this fucking play in the first place, suffered in the extreme, and the show itself, which ended up being an unrecognizable abortion of the original idea (though not a bad show, for what it was), had to be performed, by him and me, for 40 nights in a row. like being trapped in a living hell on repeat. it was one of the final nails in the coffin of the band back then. we were barely speaking by the time the show was over. we’d hit the proverbial wall.
they were ugly times. not lots of happiness in that building. the actors were a mix of pros and students and the students probably only saw me as a miserable artist, who was always in a state of trying to keep her composure and keep her band together (failing on both counts most of the time) and the pro actors delivered with grace but nobody – as far as i could feel – felt connected deeply to the piece as a whole. i certainly didn’t. there were beautiful images, beautiful snapshots of emotion to be had, brian and i played our hearts out (we never didn’t) and….well, i suppose the piece held together. there were nights that it really worked. i kept myself occupied during the shows by drinking form the bar (very lucky we got that liquor lisence) and drawing sketches of the show as it progressed every night to give to the actors as parting gifts. i turned my brain off. i prayed silently for the day that i could heal this disaster.
lesson #1: don’t make your drummer do a play if you aren’t certain it’s going to be good.
lesson #2: don’t ever be certain something is going to be good, especially if you’re working with strangers.
lesson #3: don’t work with strangers. unless you’re really, really, really positive they get you.
i feel like karma stepped in and paid me back for lesson #3. i threw caution to the wind a decided to work on my record with ben folds knowing almost NOTHING about the guy.
it ended up being awesome. it could have been another nightmare. you just never know. onion cellar = 0, who killed amanda palmer = 1. probably better than the other way around.
i feel like i needed to get that story out before i tell you how completely wonderful i feel about what just happened at lexington high school.
i don’t need to say much other than this: for a few months, i felt like i was making art with incredible people, and for the right reasons.
the proof is in the pudding, the show blew people away. the unity of vision, the risk-taking, the whole process being very committed and organic – THIS, THIS, THIS is how art should be made.
not in an office. not by a committee. not under pressure with mixed and strange agendas.
watching these high school kids creating something out of nothing and then turn their souls inside-out to bring this creation in front of an audience is WHAT it’s ABOUT for me.
it’s real. it’s true. that WORKS.
for those of you who have been asking about the process, the script was written using the music and lyrics of “in the aeroplane over the sea” by neutral milk hotel as inspiration.
there would be theatrical warm-ups and then small groups would take off and improvise on themes and lyrics. bogart steered the ship.
one of the initial exercises was to use rasa boxes to develop material and find meaning while the record played.
good material stayed. things that were good were noted.
characters started to appear. little by little, over long, sometimes frustrating and painful discussions, the show took shape. everybody played every role before the show was ultimately cast.
the show, which ended up being centered around anne frank’s experience in a death camp, was a like a pure dynamic of dark and light – anne using her own imagination to escape to a mind-circus she creates to combat the horrors she is seeing. the songs were incorporated in. alex parrish, this insanely talented kid who played guitar and sang, took over the lions share of the acoustic songs and i put together my own high school band (check that one off!) of drums, guitar, euphonium and trumpet. the band only had one rehearsal before we started runs of the show. the last week of the show i was rushing around the the army navy store buying costumes, grabbing last-minute make-up, stealing props from my parents house (mom: i’ll replace that bag of flour and i’m sorry i didn’t ask) and basically remembering what it feels like to be in a united front of creative mess. that is what i like. the crew, the stage managers, the assistants, everybody was committed to just MAKING the show GOOD. bogart was a fearless leader who everybody respected. we all saw how hard he worked and they matched his ethic, his risk.
the kids gave me a thank-you present, a book, at the set strike, in which they all wrote little letters. it turns out i hadn’t been paranoid: a handful of them really DID think, on day one, i was some obnoxious celebrity diva waltzing in on their territory with some fucked-up agenda. i had managed to convince them that i wasn’t. by the end, they accepted me as family. they even liked me. which was, in a sick way, a huge part of what i wanted and needed. that place was haunted, those halls were covered in thick, old insecure scars. i only wish everybody who had a fucked-up high school experience could go back and heal those old wounds through seeing the place with new eyes.
beth, who came along for production weekend, said she felt the same thing: “WHY DO I CARE ABOUT THESE TEENAGERS LIKING ME?” true that. hanging out in high school makes you as insecure as your old high s
chool self. why is that? it was driving us crazy. the answer, i mused, is that teenagers tend to divide the world into two categories: cool and not cool. no mater how old, nobody ever, ever wants to land in that second category.
someone i know, about two years ago, said something that really stung over a dinner we were eating.
when i told him about this project he said: “you could spend that time touring or making real art with real people. when are you going to leave high school and grow up, amanda?”
my answer: if the upshoot is that i get to make real art with real passionate people and do shit that makes people FEEL SOMETHING REAL?
this is What It’s About.
lesson #1: great art knows no age, no boundaries and no rules.
lesson #2: it’s all about intention.
lesson #3: do what you want.
(and lesson #4, because bill hicks said it best: PLAY FROM YOUR FUCKING HEART).
death and anne:
here’s the program (thank you len for scanning it):
all photos below by beth hommel (@bethofalltrades).
for the full flickr set, including the workshop process, go to:
backstage, getting ready:
warming up for the show:
rachel, looking weird:
heading to stage:
(by lee baron):
anne in the middle….
king of carrot flowers:
death and tightrope anne:
the sisters of mysticism (by lee baron):
the bensassi sisters:
the hairdresser scene:
(by lee baron):
(by lee baron):
the bensassi sisters amazing act:
ann and margo drag the body:
death of a movie star:
the papparazzi (by lee baron):
finale (two-headed boy part 2):
someone brought their copy of “in the aeroplane…” to be signed by the whole cast:
and possibly my favorite moment of the YEAR….when this dude, after the show, busted out his guitar and started playing “in the aeroplane over the sea”
on his guitar and the whole lobby stopped, watched, sang along, and gave him money 🙂
(that dude on the right with the moustache, by the way, is my old minister.)
(photo by tracy grauman)