Monday, August 15, 2011

You Ampersand Me: An Interview with Mariah MacCarthy and Brian Kirchner

Last night, I started off my Fringe marathon with Purple Rep (with Leta Tremblay)’s Ampersand, a modern gender-bending reinterpretation of Romeo & Juliet. With pop-rock tunes inspired by the likes of Lady Gaga and Amanda Palmer and Billy Idol, this show adds new layers to a seemingly familiar story and raises some interesting questions about sex in all its roles and incantations. There are 3 performances left at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, and you can get your tickets here. But before Ampersand had its first performance in the Fringe, composer Brian Kirchner and writer Mariah MacCarthy were generous enough to answer some questions about the show:

Me: What was the collaboration process like writing Ampersand?

Brian Kirchner: Compositionally, Ampersand was a largely experimental process. Mariah and I would shoot some ideas around, and then I’d record these fuzzy sounding demos on my phone and Mariah would give her approval or suggestions. Creatively, I tried to find the rhythm and emotion behind Mariah’s lyrics and form melodies from there. As time went on,Ampersand’s style began to take shape, and certain motifs and themes carried the piece into a distinct form. The cast adds another layer to the whole process. Each member has their own style and inflection, and I tried to embrace this and let the people shape the music rather than the other way around.

Mariah MacCarthy: The way I put it in our Kickstarter video is, I hand Brian a mess of words and say “Hey, make this sound pretty.” Throughout the process, I’ve gotten better at giving an actual shape to my songs, but there are still plenty of songs in the show that eschew traditional song structure. I also very rarely tell Brian what to do. I find that letting him just do his thing and give me whatever comes into his head usually yields the best results. Sometimes I’ll say “this one’s a power ballad” or “I was listening to Billy Idol when I wrote this one,” or I’ll listen to his demo and ask if it can be faster or something. But mostly we’re kind of autonomous, and that works beautifully for us.

Me: The music of Ampersand is described as being pop-folk. How do you define that sound, and how does it set the scene for the world where Ampersand takes place?

Brian: Mariah’s first discussions were about embracing modern pop-sensibilities with darker lyricism. So much so, we began with the ground work of interposing current pop hits from Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake into the show. Eventually though, we thought it’d be far more interesting to have the music be completely original and maintain the energy of these performers. My personal style is probably where the folk comes in. I write a lot of solo piano music and like to use lots of odd instruments on stage. Sometimes limitations are awesome for creativity. For example: instead of the standard musical orchestra, we’re now a small band of guitar, violin, piano and ukulele. This seems to work well with the raw tension of the script and its characters, and frankly I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Mariah: I struggled for awhile to put my finger on a name for our sound. It’s not pure folk, and to call it “rock” makes it sound louder and harsher than it is. I arrived at “pop-folk” because there’s one song that, to me, sounds exactly like Dar Williams. So I Wikipedia’d her and saw her described as a “pop-folk” singer and thought, “Ah-ha! That’s what we are.” There’s one moment where (at the time of this interview) everyone onstage is holding either a guitar or a ukulele, which is the “folk” end of our spectrum; but then there’s another number that Brian described as a “Gaga S&M aggressive tango,” which is definitely more “pop.” So “pop-folk” sums it all up, I think.

Me: What were some of the challenges of rewriting such a classic story? What do you most want to communicate with this interpretation/story?

Brian: I’ll let Mariah take this one. However, I should say that musically the songs attempt to recreate the self-reflection and heightened emotion of Shakespeare’s drama while moving Mariah’s unique script forward.

Mariah: First of all, Romeo is a girl. That wasn’t particularly challenging to change; she’s still just as brash and starry-eyed as Shakespeare’s Romeo, but she’s a girl. The challenge was in how to approach this famous relationship in a modern, more cynical context. I wanted to take kind of an unromantic approach to Romeo & Juliet. Not that there isn’t romance inAmpersand—there is tons of it!—but I don’t romanticize obsession and self-destruction. We’re too reverent of Romeo & Juliet, I think. I’ve heard so many people say, “They’re just kids but they’re so much wiser than the rivaling adults around them!” No, no they’re not. They kill themselves! How is that wise?

So once I’d established to myself that I wasn’t going to romanticize double suicide, or let Romeo off the hook for killing Juliet’s cousin, then the question became, how faithful do I have to be to the rest of the script? I haven’t kept any of Shakespeare’s language (though if you’re familiar with the original you can hear his influence), but did I have to keep the plot intact? Ultimately, I found satisfaction in my irreverence of the original, and I consider my blasphemy to be almost more of an homage than if I’d done a more “loyal” adaptation.

Me: In the trailer, there are a lot of very interesting physical scenes. What role does movement play in this piece?

Mariah: We are working with so many brilliant people, it blows my mind. What you see in the trailer are our rehearsals with fight director Teddy Lytle and choreographer Chris Shepard. Those excerpts are actually just from rehearsing two scenes out of the whole show! The dance clips are from the party where Romeo and Juliet meet, and the fight clips are from the confrontation between Tybalt, Mercutio, and Romeo (which, spoiler alert—but not really because this is pretty loyal to the original—does not end well). I write plays that teeter on “Dance Theater” sometimes, and while I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Ampersand as such, there is a healthy dose of movement: some tango, some dream ballet, and a fair amount of ass-kicking as well.

Me: What was the process like of raising money for the show through Kickstarter? What role has social media played in promoting your show?

Mariah: Oh God, our Kickstarter campaign was so nerve-wracking! And so amazing, because all these people came out of the woodwork and supported us—we had 108 donors when our campaign closed. I figured out in the last week of our month-long campaign that people responded to the promise of me making a fool of myself on camera. With just four days to go, I promised to videotape myself moonwalking if we hit $1500 by midnight that night (we were just barely over the $1000 mark), and we made it. So I did (video evidence is here), and then the next day I thought, how do I top that? Then I found out that one of my band members had a Mario costume, so I promised to videotape myself wearing that if we hit $2000 by that night, which we did. (The Mario video is here, and involves various silly dances including the Electric Slide and the Dougie.)

I should mention at this point that the Ampersand cast and crew is one of the most delightful rooms of people I’ve ever been in—and there are so many of them! Eleven cast members, and about as many creatives, all of them passionate and lovely and (fortunately for this production) persuasive! So when everyone reached out to their networks at the same time that these crazy videos were being created, it created a perfect storm of fundraising magic and we raised about $4000 in a week.

As the marketing brain for Purple Rep, the theater company presenting Ampersand (of which I am a co-founder), I always struggle with how personal or professional to be in our communications via twitter, facebook, and email. But no one cares about a generic marketing message. People care about people. So I allow Purple Rep’s online presence to be silly and personal and unique. When you’re an off-off-Broadway theater company and your marketing budget is tiny-to-nonexistent, social media can be your best friend, but it has to feel personal.

Me: What have been some of the biggest challenges of mounting a show with the Fringe? What have been some of the biggest rewards?

Mariah: So far, I love Fringe. I may change my mind when we get into tech, but right now, I love it. I am working with a godsend of a co-producer, Leta Tremblay, who handles all the Fringe paperwork and deadlines because she is wonderful. I love that, for the price of the Fringe participation fee (which, compared to renting your own space, is nothing), we get to play the beautiful Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa (by far the biggest space I’ve ever had my work in, which is both liberating and terrifying). I love their humorous-yet-idiot-proof emails. I love that there are Fringe junkies who hop from show to show during the festival. Right now, I’m a Fringe fan. Next week, after we’ve had five hours to rehearse a two-act musical and I’m hyperventilating, we’ll see how I really feel.

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