Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Final Five!

So we're finally at the final five shows in the WSC Avant Bard production of Nero/Pseudo and tickets are going fast. Let's just say the The Shop at Fort Fringe will have the feel of the amphitheatre for these last few shows of our run.

There's also been some terrific news about my musical collaborators Jon Langford and Jim Elkington as we head into the home stretch.

Langford capped off a successful nationwide tour for his new Skull Orchard record Here Be Monsters with an article in early May in the granddaddy of all rock publications: Rolling Stone (below).

Elkington is also in the news, picking up a coveted gig as the guitarist on Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy's June solo tour

I collaborated with two pretty amazing musicians.

And I was also very honored that my friend Hussein Ibish found time to do an interview with me about the show. We talked political rupture, Bowie and Roxy, and the contemporary resonances of the show's mash up of the classical world and the glitter of glam rock. (Warning: slight spoiler alert.)

Find out more about the play at WSC Avant Bard. Tickets are on sale here.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Nero/Pseudo: Gods and Emperors

As part of my blogging about Nero/Pseudo, I have also asked Alan Katz -- the dramaturg of the show -- to share some of his wisdom and wit about the ancient world. This is his third look inside the world of the play. Check out his his first two posts on the world of the Greek taberna and on Nero and graffiti as well.)

Every people have gods to suit their circumstances
-- Henry David Thoreau

When I am dramaturging plays that are from or are set in the ancient world, one of the most difficult concepts to communicate is the ancient view of religion and gods. The problem is that the modern mind has been poisoned against “paganism” by a fire hose of monotheistic religions that have burned, tortured, bought, and conquered their way into domination of the modern mind (Did I say poisoned? I meant “gently influenced.”). Ancient Greek and Roman deities had functions that were significantly different from the way we envision divine beings today.

This isn't to say that ancient Greeks and Romans had no concept of monotheism. For Greeks going all the way back to Plato, various philosophical writings implied or proposed the existence of a single god as we would think of it. This god often came in the form of The One (Τὸ Ἕν for the Grecophiles keeping score at home) who is seen as the creator of the universe: the first cause from which all other causes and effects derive. A god in the “set it and forget it” mold of creators, what today would be called “Deism.” But this view was not wholly satisfactory for many ancient peoples. Behind this dissatisfaction is the reason that humans worship gods at all: we need to think that someone is in control of the things that we cannot control. There’s a reason that some of the first gods that humans created were gods of big natural elements like the Sun and storms, having a god that is in charge of incomprehensible elements gives humans a sense of control over those elements. As society expanded, so did the pantheon, so Romans had many gods for even the human-created woes of the world. In Nero/Pseudo, Richard expresses this attitude beautifully when news from Rome foils the plans of Chrysis and Stratocles, and Stratocles blames Chrysis. She says “Blame Mercury, not me!” Mercury (dealing with man-made phenomena like travel, medicine, news and merchants) was not the lowest god of the pantheon, but he was also not the highest. Gods of phenomena that were bigger and more mysterious were considered more important, with some subservient to others through “family trees,” creating a sort of mini-society of gods. Romans also had a sense of the hierarchy of deities (usually placing Jupiter at the top) in a way which reflected the hierarchy of their society.

That the gods reflect society and that religion was an essential part of the state are the keys to understanding the ancient view of religion. The cult of each god had followers because the worship of that deity helped a wide swath of people feel like they had a place in society: Merchants worshiping Mercury, soldiers worshiping Mars, mothers and wives worshiping Juno. Gods (and the stories of them in lore) told their followers how they should behave, what virtues they should value and what vices to avoid. If you wonder why ancient Greek and Roman gods always act so damn human in myths and don’t have the same insistence on infallibility that certain monotheistic gods have, this modelling for human behavior is one great explanation. The vast pantheon of gods and myths associated with them had lessons for everyone in almost any situation, much like the saints and their stories in the Catholic Church.

Not only were there many gods that addressed the behavior of people and their place in society, but each major gods had aspects, expressed through different names (called epithets), that brought diverse occupations and locations into the “mainstream pantheon.” Individual cities have their own versions of the main gods, so a city or tribe might have their own Zeus with different aesthetic representations or purposes than other Zeuses. More importantly, because the main gods covered so many aspects of life and nature, each god had incarnations that reflected that gods function. For example, Apollo was not only god of the Sun, but also a god of music, and his incarnation Apollo Citharoedus (“plays the cithara”) is seen on many statues carrying his stringed instrument. Nero was often depicted as Apollo Citharoedus, since he also played the instrument and was a god. Wait, what?

Woe is me! I think I am becoming a god!
-- Roman Emperor Vespasian while dying

Wait, what? Nero was a god? Today, it is more likely that a political leader will be portrayed as Nero than as a god. But Nero was portrayed as a god all the time by both his propaganda and by common people who ascribed to the “imperial cult.” The imperial cult began with Julius Caesar, whose dictatorship made the Roman emperor the embodiment of the state. Either just before or just after Julius’ death (probably after, but it is hard to tell since sources are, well, 2000 goddamn years old), he was called Divus Julius, with giant statues erected to him, his birthday made into a public festival, and Augustus, his successor, even building a temple to him. The Roman Senate declared him an official god after his death at the strong (read: violent) urging of the populace.This official deification was very important. He was the first historical figure to be deified and put into the same pantheon as the other gods of the Romans. He became the patron of the imperial order that stabilized Rome after the civil wars that followed his death.  Augustus took advantage of the populace’s fervor and found the imperial cult useful in establishing control. He would portray himself as godlike without ever coming out and saying that he was a god. (People would be all “Hey, Augustus, are you, like, a god or something?” and he would be all, “No, no, I’m just another senator who sends people to be crucified, but I only do that to people who ask too many questions.”)

While officially turning into a god was reserved for an emperor post-mortem, the emperor was practically a god in life and was crucial to the state religion because now the state had its own representative in the pantheon. And now everyone was forced to treat the emperor basically like a god, making sacrifices to him, criminalizing open dissent, and reliance only on the emperor’s self-control to prevent a megalomaniacal dictatorship. Some of the emperors had that restraint. Tiberius and Claudius were efficient administrators, but not beloved of the populace or too big in the head.

Speaking of big in the head, perhaps now is the best time to talk about Caligula and Nero. Caligula was Nero’s uncle and,  famously, fucking nuts. He took the imperial cult more seriously than any of his predecessors, and often portrayed himself as the incarnation of several different gods. Most devastating to his reign, however, was his deep and abiding love of pissing off anyone who had a significant amount of power.

Nero was an emperor in Caligula school.  He not only portrayed himself as a god, but all evidence shows that he firmly believed that he was one. He didn't want to wait until after death to enjoy being a god, so Nero did all of the god-like things he wanted to do, like make senators commit suicide, set up elaborate spectacles that showed him bringing the sun to earth, and take the stage to play the greatest heroes of legend. There was no equivocation about Nero’s god-status; he mandated that people address him as Apollo because of his music playing ability, that coins displayed him as Jupiter, and that he was a charioteer equal to Sol (who drove the Sun around in his chariot). This is the equivalent of having a president who portrays himself as the world’s greatest rockstar, NASCAR driver, and king of all religions and governments.

It’s no surprise then, that the Roman world went as nuts as he was when he died, leaving the greatest power vacuum in the past hundred years or more. None of the elites (who had been seriously repressed by Nero) had the charisma or the claim to fill that vacuum, and the common people who had loved and worshipped Nero couldn't believe he was dead.

He couldn't be dead; not a god like Nero. After all, Nero had survived so many conspiracies and assassination attempts that this must just be another false alarm. Nero must have escaped this time. Maybe he would do what he did as emperor and disguise himself, playing his music in taverns to get by. And, as Nero/Pseudo opens, there is a mysterious stranger from far off who enters the Taverna Imperial, offering to play the songs of Nero, who else could it be?

(Image: The Apotheosis of Claudius, via Creative Commons.)

Nero/Pseudo is now open at The Shop at Fort Fringe. Find out more about the play at WSC Avant Bard. Tickets are now on sale. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Nero/Pseudo: The Playwright Answers

I hope readers of Balkans via Bohemia have enjoyed meeting the cast and members of the creative team behind WSC Avant Bard's world premiere of Nero/Pseudo.

I am extraordinarily proud of the show you'll see officially starting with tonight's opening -- and I'm sure that my intrepid and talented collaborators Jim Elkington and Jon Langford will be proud as well. Our director, Patrick Pearson, and musical director John-Michael d'Haviland, have done an amazing job with a piece that stretches out the concept of the traditional musical. And our cast? Bradley Foster Smith, Gillian Shelly, Lee Liebeskind, Alani Kravitz, Ryan Alan Jones and Brian McDermott rock!

I wrote a program note for the show so I won't recapitulate that here. (Come see the show and read it!) But I do want to acknowledge a few people who have helped make Nero/Pseudo happen.

Plays don't have to be produced. At many moments, people help the playwright keep the momentum. Actor Gwen Grastorf, writer Jim McNeill and director Jessica Lefkow gave the play constructively critical early readings. And one of D.C.'s finest actors -- Sara Barker -- took the play to WSC Avant Bard and helped convince artistic director Christopher Henley to do a reading at Artisphere in May 2012. Sara is the guardian angel of Nero/Pseudo. Period.

That reading was a tremendous success -- thanks to the Colin Stanley Hovde's expert direction and the talents of not only Bradley Foster Smith but also Kari Ginsburg, John Tweel, Nathaniel Mendez, Mundy Spears, James Finley and Heather Haney reading stage directions.

The momentum only grew thanks to the indefatigable Kathleen Warnock -- who convinced Paul Adams and the Emerging Artists Theatre to give the play a New York City Reading in February 2013.

That's where the amazing Melisa Annis comes in. Melisa took the whole reading on her shoulders and cast a terrific group of actors: Nesha Ward, David Omar Davila, Shad Olsen, Allyson Pace, Christianne Greiert, Ashley Grombol, Deanna Henson and Michael Cortez. That reading led to the addition of new songs and a tighter faster snappier script.

It was that version of the play that WSC Avant Bard artistic director Tom Prewitt selected for this season. I am grateful that he has taken it from development to this production.

Throughout this process, the playwright has been asking the creative team three questions about antiquity and glam rock -- the twin foundations of the play. As we embark tonight, I will answer them as well:

Who is your favorite person/god from antiquity?

The character from antiquity and myth that has haunted me the most since childhood is Persephone. Abducted, tricked, forced to spend three to six months in the underworld each year. How is any of that her fault? And yet she lives the double life. The perpetual leavetakings and returns. It is a story that touches me deeply.

Then there is Bubo the mechanical owl from the first Clash of the Titans. Neither person nor god but always worth mentioning.

What's the strangest fact about the ancient world or glam rock that you've learned from this experience?

Our dramaturg Alan Katz told us all that the Greeks so often spun themselves into a ritual frenzy in which they tore apart and then ate fellow citizens who somehow found themselves in the way that they even had a word for it: Sparagmos.

If you were Emperor for a day, what would be your first decree?

An outright ban on the notion that corporations are people and that money is speech.

Nero/Pseudo opens at The Shop at Fort Fringe on Wednesday, May 7. Find out more about the play at WSC Avant Bard. Tickets are now on sale. 

Nero/Pseudo: Meet Composer Jon Langford

(Here at Balkans via Bohemia, I have been introducing readers to key members of the Nero/Pseudo creative team. Today you'll meet the legendary Jon Langford -- who along with Jim Elkington -- wrote the fabulously glamtastic music for Nero/Pseudo .)

In the mid-1980s, I discovered the work of the Mekons -- and the band's key ringleader Jon Langford. They'd already morphed from the DIY punk band that so entranced Lester Bangs into pioneers of alt-country via the 1984/85 miner's strike. (I think the first Mekons' record I bought was The Mekons Honky Tonkin' in 1987 and I worked my way backwards.)

And, of course, I followed the Mekons forward. I was in the generation of rock critics who championed the Mekons because no one was making music as smart, passionate and complex -- and yet it was also music rooted in the blood, sweat, jizz and tears that irrigate all great rock'n'roll. It was the era of Option magazine's "Mekons Watch" -- which treated the band with the same slavish overattention that Creem had treated the likes of Bebe Buell and The Ramones and Debbie Harry and other NYC stalwarts of the 70s. The Mekons were our heroes. (And still are, actually. Their last record, Ancient and Modern, ranks among their best.) They are the band that can get even the most jaded rock critic pogo-ing and singing along -- or weighing in tweedily.

I actually got to know Jon Langford when I came back from my year in Prague in 1991-1992 and eventually moved back to St. Louis. I was the arts editor of the Riverfront Times and in that role I was able to get our newspaper to run a music strip that he created with Colin B. Morton called "Great Pop Things." I went up to Chicago to meet him. (A bottle of Talisker was suggested by a mutual friend to break the ice. Or, wait. No ice. It's single malt. Just water please.) Since then we've been running into each other in various places through the years, and I've been supportive and written about a number of Langford's projects -- including the Waco Brothers and Skull Orchard.

When I had the idea to incorporate glam rock songs into Nero/Pseudo (it had started as a drama), I knew that Jon and his abiding love for glam rock made him the first and only choice. So I flew out to chilly Chicago in January 2011 to ask him if he'd do it. He eventually said yes and brought the amazing Jim Elkington along for our ride. And you can see the results of our work over the next month in Washington, DC.

I still have to pinch myself that I am collaborating with one of my personal heroes. Because aside from being talented, Jon is one of the kindest and funniest people who has ever donned a guitar. (His commencement speech at UIC last year is a stone classic.) And he just keeps going from strength to strength, as his new Skull Orchard record Here Be Monsters amply demonstrates. I'm so proud to work with him and so proud of what our mighty Langford/Elkington/Byrne triumvirate of words and music has accomplished thus far.

I asked Jon a few questions about glam rock and his personal relationship with the genre:

1) What's your earliest glam memory? When did glam first come to your attention?

T.Rex on the Top 40 countdown in my Mum's kitchen December 1971... something about "Jeepster" stirred me in a way no music had stirred me before... then Slade, then Bowie's "Starman," then Roxy Music... Glam took pop music back from the hippies and gave it to the wannabe football hooligans

2) What elements of glam rock did you find particularly appealing and/or useful when writing the music for the play?

We tried to capture the atmosphere of all the best stuff... Glitterband, Ziggy Stardust, Alvin Stardust, anything shiny really. There's an anthemic element that I really like.

3) Glam rock was predominantly British phenomenon. (To the extent that The Sweet were bigger in the US than even T. Rex.) And it didn't last all that long. Why has it remained such a memorable UK cultural export despite its brevity?

Music plunged into a sad trench of seriousness and virtuosity after glam... Punk reclaimed the goofy panto spirit and added swearing and spitting. No punk without glam and punk didn't last long either. The Roman Empire would have been better briefer methinks....

Nero/Pseudo previews open at The Shop at Fort Fringe on Friday May 2. Find out more about the play at WSC Avant Bard. Tickets are now on sale.