May 7, 2013

Your Band-ness Is Showing: A Chat With The Lisps' César Alvarez, Part 1

Like Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Passing Strange, The Lisps’ Futurity features the band that wrote the show onstage performing the show, and as such it provided Exhibit A—literally, as it was the cover image—for my big feature on the band-musicals trend in last month’s American Theatre.

Unlike the semi-autobiographical Passing Strange, though, Futurity is a sort of science fiction parable about a Civil War soldier who invents a machine that could end war. The Brooklyn-based Lisps, led by César Alvarez and Sammy Tunis, staged a seat-of-their-pants workshop version of the show at the now-shuttered Zipper Factory in midtown in 2009; a run at Joe’s Pub and a workshop at HERE Arts Center followed, and led to the professional presentation last year of a new version with a book by Molly Rice and direction by Soho Rep’s Sarah Benson, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center.

The same day I sat for my audience with Stew & Heidi, I had a long chat with Alvarez about his show, about the ways he and his band have bridged music-making and theater-making, about technology low and high, and about The Lisps’ work in another production: Foundry Theatre’s sensational revival of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan (which the Public recently announced will be part of its 2013-2014 season). Though there was a lot of César in the American Theatre story, there was much more that didn't make it into print, and I wanted to share more of our conversation.

So, as I did with Stew and Heidi, I'll post an edited version of my talk with Alvarez in installments over the next few days (a special shout-out to Georgina Escobar for doing the transcription as part of her stint as an AT editorial intern). We began by talking about the genesis of Futurity. (And if you want to skip ahead, here are parts 2 and 3.)

Q: So had you worked in the theater before Futurity? Had you written a musical before?

César: It was my first musical. I had done a good amount of sound design and music for plays before that but stuff that was just low-budget, you know, this and that.

And Sammy [Tunis], actually, is an actress. We dated for a while and formed our band and then we broke up but kept the band going. Theater was her world and I kinda brought her over to the band world. So when I wrote the musical it was like the convergence of the two different fields.

Our band always had a very theatrical feel; we wore costumes. And ever since when we first started, people were always saying, “You should write a musical,” and we were always thinking, “Oh, ha-ha, very funny.” And then I came up with the concept for Futurity, which was essentially about a Civil War soldier who was a science fiction writer—that was the idea, and it turned into a Civil War soldier who was an aspiring inventor. That was originally the idea for a concept album, but the minute I started writing it, I thought, You know, this really needs to be more than a concept album, it should be a performance.

Q: How did you go about finding a place to perform it?

César: Originally I wrote it for my thesis, and so we spent all summer writing and working on these songs and the band just willingly went along with me. They thought I was crazy. And we did a little version of it which was basically nine songs and about 14 pages of text. It was more like an oratorio with haikus in the middle than a musical. And the month I finished grad school, we got a call from the Zipper Factory, which is now defunct, and they said, “We love your band, do you guys wanna play a show?” And I said, “Well. What about our musical? Can we do it two nights?” And they said, “All right.” And with my credit card, I spent $1,200 and we did a fully staged musical with costumes and everything; it was a completely ragtag affair. It was basically community theater; I mean, it was just my friends, even a cousin of mine who was 16 at the time. It was a completely “outsider” musical.

That Zipper Factory gig started the ball rolling that eventually led us to getting the attention of really big people like [agent] Morgan Jenness and [Soho Rep artistic director] Sarah Benson. Also at that very first performance was Philip Bither of Walker Center, who also started that ball rolling. When he saw it, to him it looked like performance art, because that’s his frame.

Q: You had some heavy hitters at your little outsider musical.

César: Paul Chan is really the reason Philip showed up. Paul is a conceptual artist who does theatre; he did Waiting for Godot in New Orleans. I knew him from Bard, and when he heard about this piece it sounded interesting to him because to him it sounded like contemporary performance: a band writing a musical about a Civil War science fiction writer.

Then we did four nights at Joe’s Pub. From there, Sarah Benson got involved, and so did Molly Rice, our bookwriter, and we ended up doing another workshop at HERE Arts Center, and from there American Repertory Theater came and they said we really wanted to do this. Also Walker Center at that point really wanted to bring us, but they are presenters, not really producers, so they needed someone to help build it; ART became that someone.

Now we are moving towards a New York production, and Soho Rep and Sara Benson are part of the group that is helping us figure it out. I can’t say when or where, but it’s definitely—we’re gonna be in New York.

Q: Well, Soho Rep just produced Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times at the that maybe where you’re looking?

César: We can’t say, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that we don’t fit in Soho Rep; it’s a 70-seat theater. So it’s gonna be somewhere else. But Sarah, who runs Soho Rep, really believes in the piece and wants it to have a New York life.

Q: I’ll be seeing Good Person of Szechwan this weekend, are you in it with The Lisps?

César: I actually am not in the show; I removed myself from the band to be the composer. The rest of the band is “the band.” It was a big choice because we’ve never done anything like that. But with a show that is this complicated it really was the right choice. I got to work with the director, Lear deBessonet, and Danny Mefford, the choreographer, and really articulate the music in the way we really wanted to rather than me standing up on stage going, “How does that sound?”

When Lear asked me to write the music, I read what Brecht had to say about music, and thinking about what the show really needed, I felt like having a band as an autonomous unit in the context of the show is actually really important, and it helped us tell the story in a way that Brecht would have intended.

And Futurity was really Brechtian in that sense, too—our “band-ness” was on display throughout the entire piece and that was part of the concept, that you’re not being transported into this naturalistic world, you’re constantly noticing that, “Oh, this is a band telling me a story.”

Q: But it’s not a story about a band.

César: Right. Also, it’s part of our band’s aesthetic that we always write songs about fictional worlds and stories and made-up characters, science fiction.

Q: Has writing for the theater changed the way you write music?

César: Totally. I’ve become completely fascinated with the ability of music to tell stories. I’ve always done that with my music, but now that I’ve been working in the theatre I feel very drawn to the process and toward the whole way that people work together to tell stories. It’s much more exciting to me in a way than just getting on our tour van and driving around the country playing at bars.

So yes, it’s totally changed my interests and my trajectory toward what I’m doing with my career. I’m really interested in continuing to push the way that music is viewed in a theatrical context. Right now I’m working on an immersive science-fictional electronic music-theatre work that is set in space, so it’s a musical that merges the experience of theatre with video game; I’m interested in seeing how we can use the music form or the form of a musical to interact the sort of transforming way that we’re experiencing culture.

Next: Why doing theater beats the indie-rock route, and where the hell are you supposed to rehearse a rock musical?

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