Passing Strange
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Stew Interviewed by Madeleine Oldham

Why did you want to write a play?

I didn’t. Or, at least, I had no interest in writing a play where people would come and go and speak of Michelangelo, with entrances and exits and plot twists and such. I couldn’t have written that play even if I’d wanted to, because I don’t know how to write plays. What I wanted was to make something that took the electricity of a rock show and merged it with the rock and roll potential that exists within theatre. And by “rock show,” I don’t mean it in the “rockin’ Broadway musical” sense wherein unseen, uninspired pit musicians plow through “upbeat numbers” that someone with no genuine relationship to rock music wrote.

Annie [Dorsen] said it best: “When you hit a note on a guitar, it’s really the note…it’s not a metaphor.” I’m probably paraphrasing her badly, but that’s the best definition of rock and roll I’ve ever heard. We want to take the honesty of a club show, where the drummer is hung over and the bass player is pissed off and the singer has letters from the collection agency in his pocket, but there they are…serving you in a naked, honest and slightly dangerous way. Because, no matter how many tech rehearsals we do, this band is gonna be live and dangerous every night.

Having never been interested in theatre and having only seen a small handful of plays in my 45 years, before I got started I read some stuff about the old Greek play competitions. I also read a little bit about the vibe at [Shakespeare’s] Old Globe and—although I’m well out of my league here in commenting—it seems like those worlds were far more rock-and-roll than the stuffed-shirt vibe that scares most people away from theatre. Think about it: people standing around consuming alcohol, watching (and sometimes yelling at) men onstage dressed up as women. And the joint was in a sketchy neighborhood? Wait a minute, I recognize that dive! I’ve been playing there my entire life!

How’d you settle on the title Passing Strange?

Here’s my version of events: I opened a comic book version of Othello that Maria Goyanes at The Public Theater handed me, and I opened it to the passage where Othello talks about how he wooed Desdemona. It moved me as close to tears as anything I’d ever read in my life. In that scene, Othello reminded me of a guy in a rock band who got the girl by spinning his rock-and-roll war stories. I thought “that’s what the Youth in Passing Strange would do when he meets all these European girls.” He’d tell them a stack of tales from a land they’d never been to, and—like all storytellers—he’d, uh, embellish just a bit.

Obviously, the term “passing” has deep historical meaning for any African American my age or older. My grandmother was light enough to pass. But the kid in this play discovers there’s more to passing than just black folks passing for white. The term “passing” also has to do with time passing, of course.

How is writing a play like making an album or writing a song? What’s the biggest difference?

The best rock bands, in my view, tend to be very democratic. While each member may have a “role,” those roles tend to happily overlap and end up merging into an organic whole. Bands are essentially families that create. And so the creative family behind this play has operated more like a rock band than a team with rigidly defined duties.

For instance, Annie’s role in the creation of this piece was far beyond “directorial” or “dramaturgical.” She often reminded me of a good old-fashioned record producer who combines fundamental aesthetic input with a deep knowledge of the artist’s strengths. Also, she was wise enough to know that creating a fresh working model around the piece, our personalities and our respective sleeping habits would be better than trying to turn Heidi and me into “show folk” overnight.

Throughout this play’s development, the feeling has never left me that Heidi and I were still just writing one big song. For us, this play is a song big enough for people to run around in.

Every page of the script was subjected to the creative team’s input and nothing was considered precious or sacred—unless we all loved it! Some of the most important scenes, in fact, grew out of discussions Annie and I’d had about what needed to happen. And when there’s a major disagreement that Annie, Heidi and myself can’t get our heads around, [Jon] Spurney is called to weigh in.

Writing for actors’ voices is a bigger joy than writing for inanimate instruments because actors are instruments with minds. Writing for actors is turning into a terrible addiction.

Would you talk a little bit about your relationship with language—have you always had such a way with it?

Most of my approach to language probably comes from me, as a kid, mocking the crazy friends of my father. These were house painters, fry cooks and carpenters who seemed as low-brow as chitlins. And then suddenly, after the third beer, they’d recite Poe or Eliot word for word. That’s cuz they grew up in the age where you had to memorize poetry in elementary school. The first time I heard Eliot’s words was out of the mouth of a man in paint-splattered overalls. I was hooked. Eliot became my man. He was making music. I could bathe in the Four Quartets as a youth without having the foggiest notion what he was on about cuz it was just like Bach or Coltrane—it was music. The “meaning” behind Coltrane and Bach will hit you later, after much listening, but the sound hits you immediately. Besides, sound is meaning.

What are you reading now?

I’m really a nonfiction person. Newspapers. New Yorker profiles of the living and dead (the dead seem more interesting somehow). Re-reading a Baldwin biography (the patron saint of this play). But embarrassingly enough, I’ve started reading plays for the first time in my life. Albee is really rather punk rock in my view—acidic, smart-ass. The treble is turned way up in his work.

Whom do you admire and why?

Dylan, cuz he’s older than rope and still serving musical subpoenas. I think, on principle, I like anyone over forty still doing their artistic thing. Of course, I’m biased, but I think Art begins at 40. Americans are so terrified of being old that they don’t wanna claim that reality. The young, exciting upstart with no scars reminds us of a time when we never had to think about our donut intake or death. She reminds us of a time when we didn’t have to think about consequences. As a country, we crave Art which infantilizes us because we’ve never been equipped psychologically to deal with the darkness. Dylan has never once asked us to look away from the darkness of consequences.

I also like Gore Vidal cuz he’s like “Fuck you—I haven’t mellowed. I’m still pissed and I’m more articulate than you and I’m 200 years old and did I say ‘fuck you’ yet?”

You’ve worked with Heidi Rodewald for a long time. Can you say a little bit about the nature of that collaboration?

Heidi wrote half of the music in Passing Strange. We are so close that we’re working even when we don’t look like we are. Our lives are a collaborative art project. We share the same approach to many things. Some years ago, when she had already been playing in the band and arranging and producing our records with me, I said “Hey, I need you to write some music for the next record,” and she quietly went and wrote two utterly standout tracks. I like that. I‘ve been in tons of bands where members beg to have a song on the album just for the sake of having one. Like they feel they deserve it. She waits till she‘s asked and then calmly serves you the subpoena and you‘re like, “Whoa!” I also have to say (and I think its cuz I grew up around strong women) that I like collaborating with women. I knew when we started this play that I would want Heidi to write half of the music. I think the play needed another strong musical voice and, sexist-new-age-goofy as this may sound, I think we do a yin-yang thing musically.

How do you write songs? Do you have a usual process, like writing music first, then the lyrics, or vice versa? Do you like to write in a particular space or at a particular time?

I write in my head, music and lyrics together—mostly when I’m on the bus. The first time I hear the new song is when I’m teaching it to the band. Heidi only writes when I’m out of the house—i.e., out of her hair. So, while I’m writing on the bus, she’s writing at home.

If you could only listen to five albums for the rest of your life, what would they be?

One recording of Bach’s fugues, a late-period Coltrane session, a complete recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, all Charlie Patton’s stuff and either Hex Induction Hour or Grotesque by The Fall.

Was your family supportive of your desire to be a musician?

Yes, because they thought I’d eventually get over it and become a lawyer.

Would you call yourself a grown-up, still a kid or somewhere in between?

I’m trying to grow up. It’s hard. Being an artist or an athlete is the easiest way to remain infantilized. The same things adults were yelling at you for doing at 15, they end up applauding you for at 45. Art is really a playground. It’s so easy to forget that art isn’t life when you’re dedicating your life to it.

You seem to write a lot about place in your work. How does the experience of your surroundings play into your creative mind?

For me, some chords actually mean Los Angeles. Just as some mean Berlin. Music and place are indistinguishable. I’d like to say I turn places into songs in order to understand them better. But sometimes I think I turn places into songs in order to mis-understand them better.

Have you experienced any communication gaps between music people and theatre people in this process?

I think theatre people may have experienced communication gaps with me far more than I’ve experienced gaps with them. They can’t use terms like “rising drama” and “second act climax” or whatever because I don’t know what those terms mean. Annie is cool enough to be conversant in the language of both theatre and rock and roll, so with us it’s never been a problem.

What’s next for you, after the run at The Public?

I wanna take everything we’ve learned here back to the nightclubs and cabarets we work in. I have this insane idea of forming a company of musicians and actors who’d put on crazy shows that could work in rock clubs and small theatres. Also, I’ll be shooting a small film from a script Heidi and I wrote.

Performing in the same space for a month, do you think you’re going to miss the variety of being on tour?

You mean the chaos of being on tour? Where every night is a different sound, lighting and load-in nightmare? Heidi and I won’t be missing that any time soon. This consistency / stability that the theatre environment provides will allow us to concentrate on more important things: like keeping the show fresh and wild.

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