Isaac Butler is a spectacular being. He makes his own ice cream and his hair is made out of several cloud species. Isaac is a 2nd year MFA in non-fiction, but has an extensive background in theatre and directing. His awesome blog (not on tumblr, but it's cool) has been featured in important places, like the New York Times and the Guardian online. For the past couple weeks, he's been whizzing back and forth between Minneapolis and New York City to direct Brooklyn Babylon (watch the video, guys), an entirely new breed of play that is part live painting, part musical performance, part projected animation. Isaac's facebook statuses from all the airplanes were priceless. Priceless! Anyway,
Question Bundle #1:
How did you get involved with the project? Were you asked to be the director? This might sound silly, but what does your role as director entail for this particular "play"?
Brooklyn Babylon began with composer Darcy James Argue with whom I've been friends for years. Actually, we met through our writing. I recognized his partner (a kick ass political blogger) on the subway one day and met him through that. Then we started corresponding on each other's blogs. Then we became real life friends. I also used some of his music in a play I directed, and which I guess he enjoyed. Anyway, when he and BAM started talking about developing a show, he told me that he wanted me to be a part of it. Around the same time,Danijel Zezelj came on board as the visual artist and creator of the story we'd be telling. My job was actually both more and less than being the director. In the performance world as in the opera world, directors are often primary creators of the work. Their staging and design concepts are part of the process. I was brought on as the Directorial Consultant. What that meant was that while Danijel developed the story and Darcy the music, I was consulting with them, helping them figure out what narrative beats the audience would need, things like that. Once we actually got into the theater, my job became to realize Darcy and Danijel's intent in terms of what the shape, look and flow of the entire event would be. So once we got into the space, my role was more traditionally what a director does, which is to say being the person whose eye is on the whole project, working with the various designers to make a cohesive work. I also staged the beginning and the ending of the piece, which are the only times there are physical movements on stage.
What make this one different is that there were no actors. There were 18 musicians, Darcy conducting, Danijel on stage painting and a stop motion animated film going on. My job was to help facilitate the integration of these elements so that they told our story and also followed what Darcy and Danijel wanted aesthetically.
Bag of Questions #2:
Can you tell me a little about BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music)? Based on the reviews I read, it sounds like BAM is an important part of the contemporary arts community?
In the live performance world, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is an essential, major part of the ecosystem. They do two seasons. In the Fall (roughly from September to Christmas) BAM does the Next Wave festival, which brings in acts from all over the world to do one week runs of big crazy shows. Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's opera Einstein on the Beach was part of an early Next Wave, as was Laurie Anderson's United States I-IV. Many of Mark Morris's pieces have debuted there. They've had a long standing relationship with the composer Steve Reich and choreographers like Trisha Brown and Anna Teresa De Keersmacher. Basically, all of my childhood artistic heroes got their big breaks at BAM.
Next Wave is somewhat divided between bringing the latest projects of the people I call the BAM All Stars and debuting new work by people you might not have heard of. We were definitely in the latter camp, and we weren't the only ones. The week before we went up, there was a puppet show about Shackleton performed by a troop of relative newcomers called Phantom Limb. And often they'll bring groups that people don't know of here who are really big deals back in their home countries.
The other half of the year for the Spring Season, BAM brings in more traditional fare, often imports from Britain of new Shakespeare productions, things like that. The Patrick Stewart MacBeth that was on Broadway was at BAM first and then transferred, for example. So they also do this upper echelon of more traditional work.
Although I grew up in DC, my grandparents were huge fans of BAM and would take me to see things there. I remember most vividly seeing Mark Morris's "The Hard Nut" which is his hilarious take on the Nutcracker featuring sets designed by Charles Burns.
Tangle of Questions #3:
Why graphic art and music together? Why these particular artists (Darcy James Argue + Daniijel Zezelj) together?
You'd have to ask Darcy that to get the real reason, as it was his idea, but he wanted to do something that told a story, something he'd never done with his music. He also didn't want the show to get too clogged with extraneous stuff. He wanted a simple pairing of elements that could go together and feel intentional rather than random. He and I are also huge comic book readers (I've taught comic books at the U and I'm teaching them again at the Loft in the spring). He had this notion that maybe by playing narrative driven music and showing images, a story could emerge. Once Danijel-- who makes his living as a comic book artist-- got involved, the idea became much more solidified. So they decided there would be a stop motion animated film playing the whole time, but rather than having a lot of moving pictures, the stop motion was actually of each image's construction. (This excerpt (above) is worth 1000 words on this subject). This was then combined with live painting of a cityscape that went on behind the film.
So while I can speak less to where the idea came from for Darcy, I feel very confident making sweeping claims about why it worked, given that whether or not it would work was the gamble we were taking. Scott McCloud has this theory that comic books work in part because your brain is connecting the dots between the various panels. You see The Hulk winding up his fist and then in the next panel you see the punch already completed as Wolverine goes flying across a Canadian meadow and your mind fills in the action of the punch instantaneously, without you even realizing it. He calls this phenomenon "closure," a term he adapts from Gestalt Psychology. One of the issues with adapting comics into films is that film basically doesn't use closure at all, and the imaginative process of closure is one of the most pleasurable forms of imaginative work around.
In other words, the white space between the panels (called the gutter) is where a lot of the art actually is, just like in the white space surrounding paragraphs in many lyric essays. What Darcy and Danijel's idea allowed us to do is to translate this idea of closure to a live performance medium. We also translated into our vocabulary the tension between words and images that lies at the heart of comics, only in our case it was with music. The music informed the story and the story informed the music and both inform the audience's interpretation of what's going on.
Puddle of Questions #4:
So you have all this experience being an awesome director man, and yet, you do this writing thing, too. Why write, too? Does writing inform your directing, vice versa?
I started as a writer with blogging. I was one of the first theater bloggers in New York, actually. And my writing has always influenced my directing and vice versa. Actually, the most influential single thing on my directing has nothing to do with theater, it's an interview Laura Miller did with David Foster Wallace in Salon.com around when Infinite Jest came out. That interview and the aesthetic rallying cry that Wallace shouts, one in which we take the real life human concerns and beating heart of mainstream work and marry it to the rigor and sense of play of experimentalism is a cry that both Darcy and I heard. I'm pretty sure that when we first started becoming friends, we talked about that interview all the time as we felt it defined a certain part of both of our artistic missions.
Now, I feel like my writing helps my directing and vice versa because honestly, at heart I am a narrativist. Storytelling in its various forms is what interests me as an artist (although as an audience member and reader, I can derive great pleasure out of non-narrative work and in general dislike narrative dance). I now feel like the training in writing I've been getting at the U helps me understand story and story telling better, which helps me tell stories better in both modes. Many of the issues facing writing of the various genres have their analogues within theater. Like at what point does formal experimentalism just become playing to a new, smaller coterie audience? How much do you care about the audience/reader's perception of your work? How do the questions of narrative, formal difficulty, theme etc. change when you're doing a live performance piece, when the piece can't be "re-read" by the audience, when you've got one shot? How do the different structural choices available to you effect meaning?
To give one example: During Brooklyn Babylon, one of my chief concerns was teaching the audience how to watch the piece at the very beginning. So there's this prologue that's just instrumental, and we wanted to stage it in such a way that it layers the different tasks of viewership and brings the audience into it. So the musicians came from all over the place-- including down the aisles of the house-- and once they were all in place about halfway through the song, Danijel started the live painting. So now the audience knows "okay, there's music and there's painting, gotta focus on both of those." During all of this as well, theatrical lighting is starting to be introduced, so they know there's going to be theatrical lighting. Then towards the end of the song, Darcy entered to take his place as the conductor. So now its "okay, there's music, there's this conductor, there's painting." Finally, at the last second, the screen for the movie descended and the stop motion animated film began, but not until the audience had already gotten accustomed to focusing on the music and all the other stuff going on around them. I think this idea very much comes from thinking about what the first chapter of a book has to do. Or the first paragraph of an essay. Or the first handful of lines of a poem (assuming the poem is longer than a handful of lines). We were working to establish the theatrical version of the contract with the reader, in other words. I don't actually think the audience is sitting there saying to themselves "ah, I get it now!" the hope is that it works on a more subliminal level than that.