Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Writing Songs for Nero

At the opening night of WSC/Avant Bard's production of The Bacchae on Monday night, I had a powerful flashback to why I decided that my new play Nero/Pseudo about the fake emperor Nero who popped up in Greece in 69 AD needed music -- and glam rock music at that.

Rock and roll has always possessed obvious Dionysiac elements, from Elvis to the Beatles and on forward. Jim Morrison of the Doors struck this note explicitly, giving an explicit shoutout to Nietzsche's 1872 book The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. (I can't help but notice that Morrison and Nero were both born under the sign of Sagittarius, the "most philosophical of all the signs.")

Glam rock seemed to have an even stronger claim to being the music for the play, however. Glam's blurred sexuality, its radical swings between the bombastic and the fey, its ludicrous cosmologies, and the way that the music is balanced so exquisitely between alienation, longing and comraderie seemed perfect for a play about Nero -- or at least what we know of him centuries later.

Saying there should be music is one thing. Making it happen is quite another thing. What sort of glam songs should be in a play about a fake Emperor Nero? And what sort of songs will you hear if you come to WSC/Avant Bard's staged reading of the play at Artisphere on May 30?

After a lot of research, I was impressed by the fact that historians (then and now) seem to agree that Nero wrote a lot of his own material as well as playing the "classics." Indeed, Nero's most famous alleged performance was to accompany himself on the lyre as he sang his own poem The Fall of Troy (Troica) during the great fire of Rome in 64 AD.

I also discovered that a miniscule amount of Nero's poetry survived to the present day. In fact, there is only one fragment of more than one line that scholars definitely agree was penned by Nero. Three very obscure lines from his poem on the The Fall of Troy:

quique pererratam subductus Persida Tigris
deserit et longo terrarum tractus hiatu
reddit quaesitas iam non quaerentibus undas

I ended up finding a place for these lines in the play, very liberally translated and embellished, as:

From as far away as the Tigris
that river which descends beneath the earth
and even to the underworld
ferrying warriors up from Hades
until it reemerges once again on earth. 

(In Michael Dewar's article, "Nero on the Disappearing Tigris," which appeared in the The Classical Quarterly in 1991, the author says that the lines most likely describe a natural phenomenon noted by Strabo and Pliny in which the Tigris River disappears at lake Thospitis and remerges 22 miles later.)

So what could I do with so little of Nero's actual poetry to play with? I decided to rewrite The Fall of Troy for him -- a short cycle of songs that sets out the theme of the sack of Troy and then takes the story to its end, with the Greeks killing Hector's son Astyanax and Trojan princess Polyxena and taking the wives of the dead Trojans as their property. A few of the songs are written in the voice of a character in the story such as Ulysses or Cassandra. (Nero like to perform classical roles onstage, even the roles of women, wearing masks as he did so.) Other songs are more philosophical. They are Nero's view of the cosmos. But part of my aim with the cycle of songs was to let the audience get to know the emperor who's being impersonated.

I feel very fortunate that my musical collaborators Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers) and Jim Elkington (The Zincs, The Horse's Ha) found this project (and writing glam music to it) worth their time and energy and talent. I can't presume to speak for them, but the music that they wrote calls upon many moods of glam. (And since they'll both be performing with the actors at the staged reading, thay may have something to say about it themselves when we discuss the play afterwards at the talkback.)

But Langford and Elkington have graciously agreed to let you hear one of the demo versions of the songs for Nero/Pseudo as a sneak preview of the work in progress. The demo track I have selected is called "Hymn to Athena." It's a song that's sung in the voice of Cassandra. I hope it intrigues you enough to want to come see the WSC/Avant Bard staged reading of Nero/Pseudo at Artisphere in Rosslyn on May 30 at 8 p.m. and hear some more of the play.

The link to "Hymn to Athena" can be found here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Nero/Pseudo: Coming May 30 (One Night Only)

So here's a quick update on the staged reading of my new play, Nero/Pseudo, at Artisphere in Rosslyn at 8 p.m. on Wednesday May 30.

WHO and WHY? The staged reading is being hosted by WSC/Avant Bard as part of their Spring Repertory of The Bacchae by Euripides and The Tooth of Crime by Sam Shepard. (Tickets for the repertory available here.)

Since Nero/Pseudo is a mash up of classic Rome and glam rock, it slides into the strike zone of WSC/AvantBard's programming.

I am delighted not only by the fact that Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers, Three Johns) and Jim Elkington (the Zincs, the Horse's Ha) wrote music for the songs in the play, but that they will join us for the May 30 reading. They'll also be playing a gig at the Iota Club on Thursday, May 31.

(Chris Klimek at Washington City Paper gave the project some ink back in January.)

I am also delighted that Colin Hovde (artistic director of Theater Alliance) will direct the staged reading. He's also directing the latest offering from Theater Alliance -- a play by Nicholas Wardigo called Hum -- which opens on Monday, May 14. (Tickets for that production available here.)

The cast? Some excellent DC actors, including Bradley Smith, Kari Ginsburg*, Ian Armstrong, James Finley*, Mundy Spears*, Nathan Mendez and Heather Haney*. (Names with a star are members of the WSC/AvantBard acting company.)

The amazing Sara Barker (who's also a member of WSC/AvantBard's acting company) and Kyle Jean Fisher (WSC/AvantBard managing director) have made sure that everything's coming together just right.

WHAT and WHEN? So what can you expect? Well, it's a stage reading, so there won't be any costumes. The actors will have scripts. But we'll be singing the songs and giving the audience a sense of how the play moves and how the music integrates with the texty bits.

We'll start at 8 p.m. on May 30 and there will be a "talkback" after the reading if you'd like to stick around and tell us what you thought or ask questions.

In the next few days, I'll be blogging about WSC/AvantBard's Spring Rep and also giving a bit more information about the music in Nero/Pseudo. So stay tuned! And join us if you can!