Monday, November 4, 2013

Working the Field: A Q&A with Jeremy Cone

When writer/composer Jeremy Cone first got in touch with me about his show, The Field, which will have a performance at Dixon Place on November 6th at 7:30 pm, I imagined a piece with honey-tongued twangs and a folksy flair as gentle as a Southern breeze through sun-warmed crops. For an urbanite, this didn't exactly sound like my cup of (sweet) tea at first. But while cadences of The Field echo hands working the land, there is also a very modern beat to the show, taking a rustic set piece and infiltrating it with universal themes of ambition, progress, and hope for fruit to come of hard labor.

To learn more about what exactly The Field was about, I talked to Jeremy about what influenced The Field, what the road has been like to Dixon Place, and how further developing The Field brought him to New York.

Me: Tell us a little bit about your background with music, writing and performance. What did you study in school? How did you realize that you wanted to be a part of all three?

Jeremy Cone: I grew up with a piano I was always playing around on. I was a hummer, and I made up a lot of songs. My parents played a lot of musicals on casette tapes in the car, or on road trips, and I liked the songs, but I also liked the stories they were a part of. I was in various plays and musicals at school and Temple growing up. At my high school, every year there was a cast-written play that gave students a chance to write our own lines and storylines. I really enjoyed creating and playing a part, and helping shape the plot of the show. I realized that was what I wanted to do, and what I could do. In college, I wrote and directed a few musicals. This was the first time combining music with the writing, and a bit of performing. I combined all three because there’s more than one way to tell a story. I could do more with multiple methods of storytelling. It was also fun writing stuff for other people, and I enjoyed working with friends and new people to create something. It was really special. I studied theatre and writing, but by doing these musicals, I learned how to execute my ideas, and that gave me the confidence to try it with The Field.

Me: What other artists inspire you?

Jeremy: Stephen Sondheim is one of the greatest lyricists.

I saw Roger Waters perform The Wall Live and it was amazing. It was a concert but also very theatrical. A new kind of musical theatre. I wanted to try something like that.

Dr. Seuss wrote some very wise, but simple words.

Sam Spence wrote glorious epic music for NFL films.

They've all been influential and inspirational.

Me: What is The Field? What is it about, and how would you describe it as a piece?

Jeremy: The Field is a modern musical myth about going out into “The Field,” working some land and growing life. It’s a story told through poetry, music, singing, folk tales, and projected pictures. The story follows someone trying to grow something where there is nothing. He sees a vision of Harvest Woman who says she’ll be real only when The Field is grown. So he works for her to someday appear, but there’s a Thief in The Field who steals his crops and prevents that reality from happening. He must fight the Thief, and keep growing.

Me: What was the writing process like for The Field? Are there challenges of writing something that needs to integrate so many different mediums?

Jeremy: I took a lot of walks to write it. That’s how I write. It’s like chasing ideas. I was living in Los Angeles, which is a wide open place. I saw it as an open field, and I wanted to grow something in it. I also wanted to grow a lot personally and artistically, so I put those feelings into words, and songs. I first performed them as poems at a bunch of LA open mics and poetry venues to see if the words resonated with people. I liked being free to do the poems, but I also wished people could hear the music, too. Luckily, I met someone at an open mic in Venice named Dakota who helped me record and perform the music.

“The Field is full of moving people.
Sometimes a good few stop.They assist me with my crop.
We swap time and memories.
Together we grow.
Working on the land.
My life by our hand.”

Me: There is a modern, sort of R&B/hip hop feel to a lot of your songs, which was a little bit of surprise to me since The Field seems to have roots in older traditions of working the land and building things with your hands. How did you develop the music style for The Field, especially in light of the subject matter?

Jeremy: I wanted to write something for my voice. My singing voice isn’t very good, plus I can say more words in a verse than someone could sing. So there’s more room to work with lyrically.

I feel like The Field is an old story told in a new way. “Working the land” is what our ancestors did. It’s what many people do today. There’s a universal truth to it. It’s also a metaphor. We’re all still working on some piece of land. Sometimes the piece of land is a job, a career, a relationship, an education, or a life. It could be anything. The work we do helps us grow. That’s a theme of The Field, and that’s why it’s set in modern times. 

Musically, there’s a lot of syncopation because I imagine someone striking the ground with a shovel, hoe, or pick-axe on the down-beat. I wanted to give it a blue grass feel, but also mix in folk music, for the story.

Me: What is it like performing your own work? How do you define your role in The Field on stage?

Jeremy: It’s surreal, and I’m really lucky every time I get to do it. It feels honest because it’s me saying my words, and telling my story. In many ways, I’m living the story. I’m working hard to grow The Field. Every rehearsal, every email, every event postcard. It’s funny to think something I wrote at 2 AM in LA, I’m now performing at 8 PM in New York City in front of a crowd. I always imagined doing this, and now I am. I planted the seeds, I’m doing the work, now The Field grows.

Onstage, I am The Man In The Field. That’s my character’s name.

Me: What has the road been like bringing the piece to Dixon Place, and where do you want to see it go afterward?

Jeremy: It’s been a journey. I began performing poems at open mics, and poetry spots in LA. I performed The Field for the first time with music in March 2013 in Venice, California. I performed it in New York City in June. That was a special show since that had many friends in it. Also some friends and family got to see my work. That show made me confident I could do it in New York. I wanted to be here, so I began submitting to various theaters across the city. Dixon Place accepted me, and I’m honored and thrilled to be doing this at such a great space.

I moved to NYC a month ago to keep growing The Field. I’ll be doing another show December 16th at Under St. Marks. I’m hoping to keep doing it live as a theatre show, and also as a music show. I aim to start putting out video content, and incorporating artwork. I also aim to record an album in the future. NYC is fertile ground for theatre, and I’m excited to see what grows here.

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