Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Question or, Really I just wanted to be Diane Keaton

Hi everyone! Off-off Broadway superstar, Kevin Townley, here! If you’ve never heard of me then you’ve just proved my point, so the laugh’s on you.

I am honored to have been included in the illustrious roster of guest bloggers here.

I’ve been listening to the new Laurie Anderson album, Homeland, a lot this week. In the track Another Day in America she references Kierkegaard’s idea that life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.

This resonated with me a lot the night I wrapped up a five-hour photoshoot with my dear friend and collaborator, Hanna Cheek, where we had to simulate sex and a stabbing in our underwear. As an isolated moment in time this made absolutely no sense at all, but in retrospect my whole life had been leading up to this moment.

I grew up in Boulder, CO, and after graduating from high school I had decided to pack my Teletubby luggage and move to New York City. To prepare myself for the move I decided to rent movies about swinging city life. I watched every Woody Allen movie (this was 1996, so they hadn’t nosedived yet) and dreamed of being invited to the lush dinner parties of Upper East-siders where we’d all be wearing high-waisted chinos, deriding Heidegger and listening to Bix Beiderbecke records. Really I just wanted to be Diane Keaton.

On one of the last days before I moved, I was at the Boulder Public Library, leafing through a big hardcover book called something like The Paramount Story, all about the film studio. On one page about midway through the book there was a huge black and white photograph of Diane Keaton smoking a cigarette on the steps of a brownstone, wearing a trench coat over a plaid button down shirt and tight jeans tucked into a pair of knee-high boots. It was a still from a movie called Looking for Mr. Goodbar and she was the coolest person I’d ever laid my eyes on. This movie seemed essential arsenal in my quest to become a sophisticated New Yorker and Diane Keaton. I rented it that night and was completely traumatized…for life you might say; the one poster in my house is an original one-sheet of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Those of you who have seen this troubled and troubling film will understand why; everyone else, go watch in on Netflix Watch Instantly (it’s not available on DVD).

The film was based on the best selling novel of the same name by Judith Rossner and tells the story of a young woman tangled up in a double life. The Netflix film description says:

Diane Keaton plays young teacher Theresa Dunn, whose initially innocent search to find the man of her dreams escalates into increasingly promiscuous and dangerous encounters with men she meets at bars. An outwardly caring nurturer living a banal existence by day, she thrives on the thrill of her evening trysts, which eventually involve drugs and violence. As she's spinning out of control, she vows to clean up -- but not before one final rendezvous.

Pretty grim stuff.

A few years ago I joined a rock band called Bambi as a singer and was asked to try my hand a writing lyrics. I had no idea what to write about, so I just decided to write about things that I liked: Jane Goodall, The Bride of Frankenstein and…Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

My good friend, Jimmie Marlowe, the band’s guitarist, took my lyrics summarizing the Goodbar story and turned them into a plaintive rock ballad inspired by Barry Manilow’s 'Mandy'. We performed it a lot over the next few years and it was always very popular at our shows. After completing an album we were all trying to decide what to work on next and Jimmie suggested we try our hand at a concept album. “Why not try adapting Looking for Mr. Goodbar into a concept album?” he suggested. The story resonated with all of us; we’d all had our share of wild nights in New York, made some fun but stupid choices and were all lucky enough to live to tell the tale. We spent the next few months tinkering around with the idea, making some headway, but, as with many artists, with no real deadline to keep us in check nothing concrete really came of it.

Then one day I got a call from Tom Ridgely, one of the co-founders of my theatre company, Waterwell, asking me if Bambi would like to collaborate with them on a project. “You guys are so theatrical already, it might be fun to put what you do into a more narrative structure; something that’s not quite a rock show and not quite theater.” I was excited by the idea and told him about our Goodbar project. There were a few moments of silence and then he said, “Well I’m not sure if that’s quite it, but let’s talk about it more.”

Before we could really discuss other options, Tom called to let me know that our friend Freedome from the City Parks Foundation had contacted him wondering if Waterwell had any ideas to pitch for SummerStage’s 25th Anniversary season. Goodbar was a go. We held an eight-song presentation for Freedome and he booked us. “I don’t know what you guys are doing, but I love you and trust you. See you in August.”

If we were going to crack open our hearts and skulls for this project we were aiming for a life beyond August, but this was the lighted rag we needed under our asses to kick this project into gear and completed.

I really had no idea why we were choosing to re-imagine this old chestnut from the ‘70s, aside from a dark teenage fixation. If we were going to expend the required amount of time and energy into hauling this project into being, there ought to be a reason. To paraphrase Victor Hugo, material that is not universal and timeless isn’t really worth exploring.

Whenever Waterwell embarks on a new project we try to find a central question that we can continuously come back to in order to make sure we’re on the right track. For Goodbar I had stumbled upon a proverb that the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, used in a lecture I’d head: “Death is certain; the time of death is uncertain; what is the most important thing?”

We all reread Judith Rossner’s strange third-person-omniscient novel, fired up my old VHS copy of the movie and wrote fifteen new songs in under eight months.

As is often the case when you collaborate with a bunch of creative kooks, the project you each hold so dearly begins to take on a life of its own, dictating to you what it wants to be and your job is to hold on; not too loosely and not too tight.

One thing we all seemed to agree on was that we did not want this to be Looking for Mr. Goodbar: The Musical! Any source material from the ‘70s has the potential to become a kitsch-fest, and there was something deep, dark and timeless about the material, which kept calling us back to it. Plus, we’d all seen our share of Off-Broadway and Broadway “rock musicals” which had missed the mark; just more showtunes played on the electric guitar, sung by trained conservatory voices with stick-on faux-hawks. We had something more along the lines of Kte Baush’s Hounds of Love or The Who’s Tommy in mind.

Bambi is an actual rock band and we wanted to revisit the lost art of the concept album. What we aim at is closer to a classical oratorio than anything else; something with deep, resonant themes that‘s all music all the time; no contrived scenes, just rock and roll with enough abstracted holes in between songs so the audience can fill in the blanks with themselves.

We did want to be true to the story though, which had a few plot points and six main characters, so we enlisted the help of the stellar video artist, Alex Koch. We decided that we’d need a feature-length video element to help us clarify the story and characters we’re portraying. It seemed a logical next step to enlist the help of actor friends to appear in the video and through a few crafty emails we were able to get Ira Glass, Bobby Cannavale, Dave Hill and other New York notables to lend their time and talents to the project.

For the roles of the main character, Theresa, and her killer Gary, however, Hanna and I decided to step up to the plate. We figured if we were going to take on such dark material we ought to put our money where our mouths were. This meant recreating the final, blood-curdling murder scene.

So I grew a creeper moustache and met Hanna and the crew at a friend’s apartment this past Sunday night. In keeping with the story, I simulated a sex scene with my dear friend, tied her up with a phone cord and stabbed her to death (Hanna’s currently alive and well performing another show in Canada). The cameraman suggested that he shoot the actual stabbing from her perspective. He didn’t want to get fake blood on his nice shirt though, so he stripped down to his undies (I was already in mine) and I straddled him with a switchblade in hand while our director, Arian Moayed, stood by, flinging fake blood at me from a jam jar with a tablespoon as I pretended to stab him to death.

My life is weird.

We still have a few weeks of rehearsal; choreographing and staging the show, which will premier at East River Park on August 20th.

It’s interesting to see how little seeds unknowingly planted in the past begin to spring up years and years later.

The show will continue to grow and change, and who, really, can say what will happen to our baby? Who can really spend too much time worrying about what will happen next when we’re all having such an amazingly fulfilling time creating something together?

Death is certain; the time of death is uncertain; what is the most important thing?

No comments:

Post a Comment