In the last installment of my long interview with Stew and Heidi Rodewald (here's part 1, and here's part 2), we talk more about Shakespeare, why Homer was a bluesman, and how the theater world, for all its hidebound traditions and protocols, ultimately gives them more freedom than the music world.
Stew: I do have an ego when it comes to music, but even then, I love what other people come up with. Where I don’t have an ego is in playwriting, I really don’t; I feel like it’s a fucking privilege and a joke that someone even calls me a playwright, that I get to write things down that people say. I feel like it’s hilarious. I feel like they’re gonna take me away to jail one day and say, "He’s got a Tony?" It’s a joke. I’m this guy that walked out of a rehearsal room, and suddenly I’m writing things and people are studying them and memorizing them. These people can memorize Hamlet, and I’m like, “Say this, man.”
American theatre is still a literature-based art, and I feel like it’s a performative art; I feel it’s like a form of music. A lot of people look at it like it's something about literature. And I just don’t think that. You know why it’s not literature? Because even someone like Edward Albee—Albee, most of his plays are more rock and roll than any rock musical that’s ever been onstage, period. Why? Because you feel like something weird is gonna happen; something maybe bad is gonna happen. You’re not sure what’s gonna happen. That’s the rock and roll thing: Is he so drunk that he’s gonna fall down? Is he gonna really grab that chick in the front row? Is he gonna start screaming forever and they’re going to have to stop him? Is James Brown really going unconscious and crazy?
Q: Anything could happen.
Stew: You can construct some plays where you’re really concerned that some shit might go down. I think we get so trapped in this idea that it’s literature. I think the words are music, actually. I really think if we look at it like music, it allows us to step off that. This insistence on understanding everything...Nobody understands what the hell Bob Dylan is talking about; nobody really knows.
Q: But when you're listening to him, you know what he means.
Heidi: Do you know how many times, looking at the lyrics in a script, people are like, "What?" And we're like, "Well, no, you gotta hear the song."
Q: One difference I've noted talking to musicians who work in theater is the way it's rehearsed, and of course then the performance schedule.
Stew: I never like the way theatre rehearsals run, being told when to break.
Heidi: But I gotta say, being in a rehearsal—it's such a luxury that we were in there and got to do that. How many bands aren’t at that point, to have somebody pay to get all these people in the room.
Stew: Yeah, the biggest luxury in theater for a rock musician is that people are sittin’ there and they’re not going anywhere until that break happens. That in itself was hilarious to me. I was like, "Wow, you mean, they’re just gonna come here and we can do anything we want? That’s cool." When we're dealing with musicians, you gotta keep 'em there. But our director, Joanna Settle, will be like, "Is this is a six out of one or eight out of whatever?" I can’t think that way. Sometimes a rock band rehearsal is an hour and a half, sometimes it’s six hours. You don’t know.
Heidi: We’re used to showing up and getting some coffee.
Stew: I think it’s a privilege to be able to survive from your art in America. But I do wish there was some flexibility in the way theater is created, so that the institutions could allow for chance and the kind of zaniness that can happen in a rock and roll rehearsal. For me it should be so loose, or there should be moments...Like a free day every week, a free rehearsal, everyone walk in and be free. You don’t how many times actors look at us and go, "We never get to do anything like this, where people just jam." Sometimes the first 45 minutes of our rehearsals would just be the musicians playing some crazy shit. That makes them feel like they’re in the play and not actors anymore. It’s nothing we invented. I was talking to some theater person once about this stuff, and they were saying, "All these ideas are so innovative," and I was saying, "They’re not innovative at all, they’re like 300 million years old. They’re just music ideas; they’re the way people make music." It might be new for theatre. I don’t think it’s new for theatre, either, actually.
I mean, come on, man. Shakespeare is the scariest thing for anybody who didn’t get trained in it. I never learned it in school, and every time it came up I was always scared, because I never understood what was going on. But once I started doing a little bit of reading and realizing that the milieu of a lot of his work—rough neighborhood, people standing, holding alcohol while watching the play, people hooting at the crowd, people hooting at the stage, men dressed as women—I’m like: We’ve played that club all of our lives. That’s where we grew up. Moliere and his boys and girls comin’ into a town at noon, and he’d be like, "Yeah, what’s the local gossip?" And then they would integrate into the show. That’s what bands do—when you come into town you ask, "What team’s playing?" So you go, “Hey, go Dodgers!” They’re gonna love it; they know you’re not from there. It always works; they know you don’t care, but it’s bonding, bonding—all these tricks.
The more I read about the old stuff—like, come on, man, The Odyssey. Thank God I bought a translation of The Odyssey that had a really long foreword, and they talked about how it used to be performed by some guy with a lute and some guy with a robe, who would show up and crash parties, and go, “Hey, we’ve got this tune called the fuckin’ Odyssey.” And then they would go and play and sing this fucking thing and get money. I’m like, that’s exactly what blues guys have been doing forever.
Heidi: They probably came up with their own thing every time.
Stew: The roots of it are closer to rock and roll, so I feel very close to theatre. I don’t necessarily feel close to what you call the professional theatre.
Q: I'll push back just a little on the theater-isn't-literature point. I mean, one of the great things about theater is that it's a place where words and meaning are still taken really seriously.
Stew: Which is amazing. For me, the sweetest thing and the greatest thing about us being adopted by this world was that they were kinda looking at us like—the rock people always thought we had witty words and everything, but the theatre people were the first to go, “Yeah, we want you to tell these stories. We hear these stories.”
Heidi: When we started at the Public Theatre, we were getting paid to show up and hang around and have Stew tell stories, and have us all sit around going, "What are we going to do?" It was this amazing freedom—theater gave us that. And then at Sundance Theater Institute, their whole thing is about risks. It’s crazy, because theater—as much as we’re saying everything’s all locked in, they were the ones who really appreciated the words and said, "Do whatever the hell you want to do."
Stew: They paid us a really big compliment and supported us in a way that we would never have been supported in the rock world. It’s not like we were spring chickens, which is a big deal in rock and roll. They heard the stories and took them seriously.
Heidi: One of the great quotes was at Sundance, what Oskar Eustis said after our first big presentation when everyone gives their notes. All he said was, “Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Stew: Everyone just closed their little notebooks after that. It was a very radical thing for him to do. He wasn’t even at the Public then. That was such a rock and roll note, to say, "Just let them do their fucking thing."
The dramaturg Janice Paran said something great; she said that with a lot of plays, the epiphanies are in the text, where the character realizes something, and she was like, "The epiphanies in this play are in the actual music, in the sound of the music." I was like, "Wow, I didn’t know that, but thanks for telling me! You’re right." That’s the beauty of dramaturgy, someone can show you a way to think about your own work. No one ever did that for any of our records.