I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Every opera-play I see of John Moran and Bob McGrath’s corresponds to my own childhood fantasies of basement haunted houses and cartoons or horror films superimposed on days at elementary school. In the collaborations of Ridge Theater, Everyday Newt Burmatii (A Triology of Cyclic Existence) and Mathew in the School of Life the titled character is the only living consciousness trapped in a programmed environment, cloaked in a veil of innocence, knowing everything and knowing nothing. In Mathew the layers of sound make this especially true. When there is a sudden break in the stratum of room tone, it is like a sudden freedom, a reawakening.
In 1987, the former members of Pink, a downtown experimental theater group working with images from pop culture and the performance scene, became Ridge Theater, directed by Bob McGrath. In 1988, Phillip Glass introduced the composer-playwright John Moran to Ridge, and Moran’s first collaboration with Ridge, Jack Benny!, added lip-synching, another level of de-familiarizing, to Laurie Olinder’s designs and slides, music, films, and video. The actors moved their bodies and lips to the sounds of fifty or so configured and reconfigured episodes of the original television show. Each subsequent collaboration has included more complex sound manipulations,and their fourth and most recent opera, Mathew, uses Allen Ginsberg’s voice in the role of Justinius, as well as a library of personas from which the protagonist, Mathew, can choose. What is most surprising about this highly choreographed and specific work is that the individual artist generates much of the life for the finished production. These individuals include Laurie Olinder, Howard Thies, Elizabeth Evers, Fred Tietz, Bill Morrison, and 25-30 actors.
Since Jack Benny!, Ridge has collaborated on three more operas with John Moran, and most recently Mathew ran in October for four weeks at the Kitchen. I spoke to the director and the composer-playwright while they were in the throes of rehearsal.
Patricia Coleman How does Mathew in the School of Life connect thematically to your previous collaborative opera-plays?
John Moran All the characters I’ve ever written about are people who are dying—that’s the only thing they all have in common. Mathew’s the first character who is already dead and yet still trying to get rid of the life he had before. Bob and I aren’t experts on religion or spirituality, but for years now we’ve focused our work together on examining how it feels to be stuck in cycles and the illusion of being free.
Bob McGrath If I can be with this person everything will get better; if I get this job everything will be better; if I can win everything will be better …
PC Are your characters—Newt, Frankenstein, the Little Retarded Boy—stuck because they can’t get it right?
BM Newt is your life in this world, all of your illusions and expectations of yourself; Frankenstein is your death, the death of the ego; and the Retarded Boy is your rebirth.
JM The Little Retarded Boy was a literal education about compositional technique. He flips really fast through the channels of the different personalities going, “Okay, now, now okay. I finished this idea, now we’re gonna show you another, now watch, now watch.” That’s the rhythm, the music: and that’s a compositional idea that works. But it’s also an idea about life that works. What compels me to keep working are ideas that make music that does a trip on me. The stories are about compositional techniques.
PC How do you find physical equivalents for these techniques?
BM The Retarded Boy is a channeler. He is autistic, but there are parts of him which reflect how we all feel. We all feel alienated, we can all relate to that.
PC How does this relate to Robert Wilson’s work with Christopher Knowles who actually isautistic?
JM Everyone’s influenced by Robert Wilson, just like everyone’s influenced by Walt Disney.
BM Wilson’s theater has a measured quality, while our work is really kinetic and more overt—like a Warner Brothers cartoon.
PC Your pieces seem so unified. Viewers have remarked on the way in which you seem to answer one another. Can you explain your creative approach?
JM Bob and I watch lots of movies together. We go on about our separate lives, get interested in things, and a certain number of our ideas seem to collide. We naturally get really excited about the same pieces.
BM It’s very organic and it was from the word go. In 1988, John came in with Jack Benny!which was effortless for me and the actors to perform. It happened as if it was always meant to happen. Only once in a while would a few actors start to apply completely erroneous psychological questions to the work.
JM Method acting doesn’t really work with our stuff.
PC Why not?
BM Psychological approaches fit in certain characters, but it’s not the pervasive aspect. We don’t want to be bound by psychological approaches in the way that traditional American theater is. Our work is more performance oriented. It’s not new; Brecht and Beckett did it. It’s formalistic alienation.
PC It’s “strange” in the Brechtian sense. How do you make things strange?
BM By casting a guy as a girl, theatrical devices, multi-media—every available means.
PC In Mathew, as in Newt Burman, you have several actors playing one role; there are three Mathews and three Lucys. Do the actors find an accord in the expressions of the pre-existent character and mirror one another, or do they approach the same persona from a variety of perspectives?
BM There is a preconceived idea, but I see what each actor brings to the role. Each performance is a bit different.
PC Were you trained as a Method actor?
BM Yes, I went to two different schools. The first was completely theatrical, which applies to my work with John, and the other focused on intense Method acting, which I’m really glad I had. When a very talented performer, someone John and I want to use for a piece, starts to ask those questions, I use the Method to get him off of that. We had one guy in here who was not a trained actor, and he came in for the first two rehearsals with a notebook filled with questions. I said, “PUT THAT AWAY, THROW THAT OUT! It’s much easier and more fun than that.” You really have to approach the work with the highest discipline and the highest technique, but the way to embrace it in your mind is as though you were a kid doing a show in a garage.
PC How else do you get actors off the Method?
BM Each one in a different way. I push, prod, relax, console, berate, make fun of …
JM You do not. He’s trying to sound like a monster. He’s very nice. He makes people repeat stuff so many times in a row that when they’re fucking up they can’t help but see it themselves.
BM I drill.
PC Is there any period of discovery during the rehearsal process, or is it mostly through drilling that the actor assimilates to the work?
BM The whole rehearsal period is a process of discovery. The actors discover a great deal on their own. We don’t necessarily describe specific movements, but sometimes we describe the outcome we want. I couldn’t get this many people to work for me for practically nothing if they didn’t contribute quite a bit to the work. If you choose really good performers, then they could probably come up with much better things then you ever could. If you cast the right person and have the right ground plan it’s like an equation. It should work to its inevitable conclusion.
PC At what point do the actors learn the music and the words of John’s composition? And at what point the physicalities of their characters?
BM They don’t learn one before the other. The infrastructure is the music, the genesis of everything. We don’t use scripts.
PC Why not?
BM We don’t want it to be an intellectual process. It’s all geared to performance, to sound and movement.
PC How do you affect each other’s work?
BM When I first met John, a year after Ridge had begun, I was very deeply into Brecht, read everything he had ever written and everything written about him. I even dressed like him. John knocked that whole deck of cards over, the whole socio-political track, and then we were ready to go.
JM We met the second day I was in New York and we were doing our first opera together the second week.
BM A segment of Benny!
JM People didn’t get it for the longest time. They would come up to us and say, “So, you guys taped The Jack Benny Program and then you lip-synched it.” And we said, “Oh no, no, no, we reconstructed a whole new Jack Benny program.”
PC Was the premise that it was a new episode?
JM Yes. We attached all this philosophical stuff to it later. It was completely random that it was about The Jack Benny Program. At first I just loved their voices. I started making lots of samples and I used these tapes to make a piece, but it wasn’t going to be about Jack Benny. Then I found that so many samples were coming from the show that I thought, Hey, I’m gonna make a little Jack Benny skit. The Jack Benny Program started at midnight, and I’d wake up and run down to the basement and record it.
BM With a condenser mic.
JM And then I’d edit them onto tape. I would never consider making a new Three’s Company.We’d get our butts sued off. But we did Jack Benny and never got in the slightest trouble.
BM His daughter, who is in charge of the estate, came and just loved it. The Jack Benny Program centered its plot around Jack Benny being frustrated about not being able to get the show on. John’s plot is similar but with a surrealist psychedelic twist. What John brought to us, conceptually, is the technique of the samplers.
JM I had been experimenting with tapes and tape cutting, like Steve Reich and other composers and that was getting to be old hat. Suddenly this sampling technology came along and it was like an untapped world. People still ask, “How did they mic those sounds?” because they don’t believe that I put so many sound effects together.
BM People aren’t aware of the amount of labor John goes through to make this stuff. People think he’s sampling in somebody’s orchestra part, but he plays it all, note by note, on his synthesizer. When he puts in a door sound, he doesn’t go to the sound effects library, he takes ten door sounds and chooses little parts from each. John will work for a week and it will be brilliant; but it’s ten seconds of stage time, less.
JM Jack Benny! was 20 sounds per minute. And that was really complicated. Now it’s hundreds of sounds per minute. Two hundred sounds per minute. It’s safe to say that nobody gets the music.
BM And nobody gets some of the references. There are classical references to Wagner, Bach.
JM Theater critics have been very kind to us. But if we get a music review, they send these stuffy old shirts who are opera critics, who often say there wasn’t enough music, which is dumb. If they finally hear an orchestra reference, they think, Now here’s the music … They don’t get that the music is everywhere—the sound of the door is the percussion, the bird is a flute. I’m trying to express the subtle music of everyday moments.
PC What are your favorite sources for sounds?
JM I have huge collections. I like the Hollywood collections that they use for movies the best because they’re isolated.
BM People don’t realize that he makes them up. He doesn’t clip Bugs Bunny cartoons. He makes up his own Bugs Bunny cartoons.
PC What are your sources for physical movement?
BM It’s everything I’ve been exposed to. I’m a pop-culture guy who also has a classical training background. It can jump from Warner Brothers cartoons to Universal Pictures horror films to Botticelli paintings.
JM We were laughing the other day about how much Mathew is a reference to Terminator 2.
BM It’s like an abstracted summer action film.
PC How so?
BM Mathew gets pissed off and wastes everybody.
JM We originally thought of Mathew as a film. It’s structured like a film, the scenes cut as fast as film—20, 30 seconds long.
BM And that’s long sometimes.
PC You always had this montage thing.
BM We had been working as a theater company with film and multi-media when John arrived with this sonic conceptualism and the recurring theme about someone on a spiritual quest moving towards, or away from, spiritual enlightenment.
PC If the musical themes make John’s compositions operatic, how do you define your staging as operatic?
BM In the vernacular: it’s very big, grandiose, epic. It comes from the music. The visuals correspond to the sounds. There is a certain visual element to each character which corresponds to a sound element of each character. They both tell a story.
JM Bob is the one who makes it happen in a hands-on way. I flew in from Nebraska with this Jack Benny! script with instructions like: Now this giant staircase comes down and everybody runs up to it and flies away … Anybody can dream up big huge wild scenes, but to actually know how to make that happen on a stage and to know what to choose from those scenes and to make sure the audience gets it is much more complicated. Ideas are a dime a dozen.
BM The stuff we do is a mixture of high and low art. What we strive for, and what is in some ways successful, is that our work is accessible. As weird as it is, it’s theatrical.
PC What is your definition of theatricality?
BM Whenever something is really beautiful in the theater you describe it as cinematic. Whenever something is beautiful on film, you describe it as theatrical.
PC Why do you think that is true?
JM Because you need comparison. You want to give something to people to compare themselves to, so you try to speak in incredibly universal ways about every moment. These are the moments I look for when I’m making a sequence, a personality.
PC A sentence will sound familiar, and yet be intercepted by something extraordinary. The audience may not even notice. For instance, Lucy in Mathew asks Fred if he would “care for the sound of bacon?”
JM In conversation you second guess what someone’s going to say and sentences trail off. People hardly let people finish their sentences. In theater, when you learn to act, they teach you to come in about four words before someone’s finished their sentence or else it sounds stiff and unnatural. Especially in an argument. That’s when I notice that words don’t even make any sense. You know what they’re saying by the melody.
BM It’s moods rather than the actual content and substance.
JM There’s no substance to this work. There’s no specific idea or sentence you’re going to walk out and go, “That’s it.”
BM “War is hell.”
JM I have no idea what Jack Benny! meant, but I could relate to the music of his voice.
PC What is the palette for Mathew and how is it different from the other plays?
JM Every piece has the same palette and is unique unto itself, but if you broke down the sounds, you’d find a lot of repetition from opera to opera. Mathew is the biggest palette we ever worked with. Mathew is like a tune. You’re not watching this unfold as a story. You’re seeing a myth the way it would be on a tomb wall. It’s stiff and it’s choppy.
PC When you say written on a tomb, do you mean written in hieroglyphics?
JM I’ve always wanted to design automated tombs. They would be buried in the ground and different images of the person’s life would be projected from different places. An Egyptian tomb, but a high-tech one, that would run on its own power. The only audience would be the ashes in the center. And projections would relate this private myth of the person’s life enclosed in the tomb. That’s what Mathew leads up to. The story that you see leads up to this tomb.
BM What we do is take ideas and concepts that Disneyland would never touch, instill them with flesh and blood, people, and make them scarier. They take robots, plastic and wood, and try to make them human. We take humans and try to make them plastic and wood.
PC What would you be doing if your collaboration hadn’t formed?
JM It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have survived without Ridge Theater.
BM And the inverse would be true for Ridge. My direction, no pun intended, is very rigid. I want everything to be ultra-specific. I want it to work like a machine. That’s how John writes—we’re caught in a machine of Karma or human emotions. I want the whole piece to look like a Rube Goldberg machine, the people are cogs and spinning wheels, so all the movement has to be very specific. I don’t want to leave anything to chance.
JM It would be hard to write Mathew and take it to a group of strangers. I know who I’m writing for. One of the things Bob and I do first is talk in a general way about the piece. Bob is casting. We’re imagining characters and the way they’ll look, what kind of environment and dramatic situation it’ll be … Then I run home, write five scenes and give them back to Bob. It goes back and forth. It’s so specific to this group. And the designer’s style has had a big influence over the years on the style of the work. When I first met Ridge, we used to argue all the time. Everything felt like a battle. Over the years it has become something very different. The value of working together and trusting people artistically is that we know how everyone works, and that has freed me up artistically. It used to be like this: I’d see a performer doing something that I didn’t think was correct for a role and I’d run down onto the stage and talk to them about it. But I’m not the director, I’m the composer, and that was inappropriate. I didn’t understand that if I left it alone and continued talking to Bob about the general mood that eventually it would get there. Sometimes it’ll be different from what I’d imagined, but it’ll end up becoming what it’s supposed to be. The advice I would give any young artist is when you find people you connect with, strive to work as closely with them as possible. You don’t have to do every single thing with them … but grab it, because it doesn’t come along that often.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee