Since last year’s Chutzpah! Festival, the Jewish Independent has been waiting to see Noah Drew’s Tiny Music. The read-through in 2013 was a unique experience of a work-in-progress, and it will be fun to compare that “teaser” with the production that takes to the Rothstein Theatre stage later this month as part of this year’s Chutzpah!
“This play has actually been slow-cooking for almost 10 years,” Drew told the Independent in an e-mail interview. “In 2004, the fabulous actor/writer Josh Epstein approached me about writing and composing a musical together. We jammed on ideas, and decided to adapt a short story by Sholem Aleichem called The Fiddle, which I’d been very fond of growing up. At my grandparents’ house, I used to listen to a record of the great Howard Da Silva reading Aleichem’s stories accompanied by a klezmer band, and The Fiddle was one of my favorites: a dark fable in which a boy who’s obsessed with music is forbidden to have anything to do with it, but can’t help himself, to his family’s ruin. Josh and I wrote a few songs and scenes about a boy in the Old Country who was born with unusually large and dexterous hands – a violin prodigy. Some of the material was great, but then, life happened – Josh booked a big show in Toronto and moved there, and shortly afterwards I got a full scholarship to do my MFA in acting at Temple University in Philadelphia, and also moved east. Every once in awhile, Josh and I would connect and talk about working on the show, but it never quite happened.
“Then, in 2010, I was visiting my friend Sarah Shugarman (a wonderful musician in Toronto) and ended up unearthing one of the songs I’d written for the Fiddle project. When I read her the lyrics, she was effusive in her praise and excitement, and encouraged me to reopen the piece. We talked about co-composing, but in the end the scheduling and geography didn’t cooperate (I had completed my degree and moved back to Vancouver by this point) so I decided to push forward with the project alone.”
At the heart of Tiny Music is Ezra, described in the Chutzpah! program as “an autistic man with an auditory-processing disorder that heightens his experience of the sounds around him.” About the writing of such a character, Drew explained that, around the time he re-committed himself to the play, he was “spending a fair amount of time with two members of my family – one adult and one child – who are on the autism spectrum. I also had a private acting student who was autistic. I noticed that all three of these individuals had certain challenges, particularities and special abilities when it came to focusing, and that all three seemed to have a very strong relationship to music. Music has always been incredibly important in my life also, and I was finding nice connections with my autistic family members through listening to and/or playing music together. I conceived of a contemporary version of the Sholem Aleichem story with an autistic man who hears in an extraordinary way at the play’s centre.”
Drew said he wrote a handful of songs and a first draft. “A two-day script workshop in Montreal in January 2013 led me to a second draft of the script, which was presented as a reading in the 2013 Chutzpah! Festival,” he said. “That reading was a bit of a whirlwind – we had only the one day to rehearse – but it was a good opportunity to see how the story was working (and where it wasn’t) and to hear a few of the songs with piano and voice. I learned from that reading that some aspects of the characters and story were really working, but others were a bit superficial and/or clunky.
“I went back into the writing process and, in October 2013, the show’s director/dramaturg Jamie Nesbitt and musical director Yawen Wang came out to Montreal to join me, sound designer Joe Browne and eight Concordia theatre and music students for a six-day workshop of the piece. That was a fantastic process! In addition to further developing the script and story, we got to explore the most important question of the piece stylistically: how can we make the songs, story, instrumental music and sound design all work together as a cohesive whole? We did some wonderful experiments, played around with ways of combining the elements and made discoveries such as: in this show, sometimes a sound cue or instrumental moment could actually replace dialogue. The script, music and sound all moved forward a couple of drafts. The characters were becoming more three-dimensional. The music was becoming more contemporary (‘less Sondheim and more Bjork’). The unique world of the show was coming into focus.”
Rethinking the storytelling
At this point, however, Drew and Nesbitt – co-founders of Jump Current, the producer of Tiny Music – noticed a “significant problem with the script.”
“Although the show is experienced from the perspective of an autistic individual, the storytelling mode was still quite ‘neurotypical,’” explained Drew. “Ezra had monologues in which he explained his situation and point of view to the audience in a very linear, chronological way. But the more I read and spoke to people about the range of autistic experiences, the more I realized that this linear way of speaking and thinking didn’t feel right. At Jamie’s urging, I took the script apart, and re-imagined it as a world in which time and memory are at times fluid, fragmented and unpredictable. Now, in the language, sound, music and staging, we are finding rhythms, patterns and textures that feel more true to who Ezra is. Rather than just describing and showing the story of this unique individual, we are figuring out how to invite the audience to share his visceral experience.”
This is what makes Tiny Music not just a regular, run-of-the-mill musical.
A sound design musical
“I call Tiny Music a ‘sound design musical’ because I want the audience to spend 90 minutes really hearing through Ezra’s ears,” explained Drew. “For Ezra, tiny details of the sonic environment that might go unnoticed by most people are very vivid. Sometimes, these details might mesmerize him. At other moments, they might overwhelm him. And sometimes, he hears the patterns in things so vividly that mundane sounds coalesce and occur for him as music. So, the songs in Tiny Music don’t just happen because, hey, it’s a musical. Instead, we only have songs because either (a) it makes sense that another character would actually be singing to Ezra in a certain situation, or (b) Ezra’s internal experience of certain sound patterns ends up transforming non-musical sounds into a kind of song. And, there are many times in the show – even some pieces I’ve called a ‘number’ – when nobody actually sings. Instead, it’s more like the environment itself that sings … all the sounds on all the floors of the building he’s in combine to make a kind of ‘sound design song,’ or a the voice of a person who is just speaking warps and distorts in Ezra’s perception, becoming rhythmic and harmonic. Every sound can be a kind of music if you really listen.”
The producers: Jump Current
Tiny Music is but one of several projects that Jump Current is currently producing, despite its relatively recent appearance on the theatre scene. “Very close friends who have led kind of parallel lives for awhile now,” Drew and Nesbitt started the company last spring. Of the reasons for the collaboration, Drew said, “We’re both fairly well known in Canada as theatre designers (he for video projections and I for sound), but we both consider ourselves to be theatre artists in a much broader way than only design. In fact, we both are suspicious of the way that sometimes design tricks and flash can get in the way of real, organic moments of storytelling in the theatre. (Also, as it happens, Jamie and I are both married to yoga teachers who used to work as actors, who are now studying to be expressive arts therapists – go figure.)
“In 2012, Jamie got very involved in working on Tiny Music, and I started working as a dramaturg on a play he’s writing called Salamandra (which is based on the true story of his inheriting a 150-bedroom castle in Poland from his great-uncle, Poland’s former minister of war, and his great-aunt, a former Polish movie star). Because we were doing these two projects together, and because our views about theatre, politics and life are so aligned, we decided to start a company together.
“In addition to creating and producing works of theatre and media-based performance,” he continued, “Jump Current’s mission is to research, develop and champion uses of design and technology that illuminate live human-to-human connection, and counteract people’s sense of alienation from one another. We believe deeply that, although, of course, it’s true that we live in an age when technology can really separate people from direct, organic connection, there are ways that it can also facilitate a shared experience of wonder that can really unite people.”
Another project that Drew and Nesbitt are developing is The Riot Ballet, “which explores themes of crowd psychology, identity and protest – both peaceful and violent,” said Drew. “We recently participated in a two-week development process in Barcelona, which led to some really exciting material and ideas. The team is amazing – this project brings us together with fantastic theatre companies from Spain, Colombia, the U.S., and a dance company from Toronto. We’re aiming for a late 2015 or early 2016 première in the U.S., then dates in Canada and Europe.”
All of this is in addition to Drew being a tenure-track faculty member in the theatre department of Montreal’s Concordia University, his continued freelancing in sound design and his voice teaching work. One of his sound design projects, he told the Independent, is for Horseshoes and Hand Grenades’ production of This Stays in the Room, which will be performed at Gallery Gachet in Vancouver March 19-30.
About his full schedule, Drew said, “I feel very grateful that my years as a full-time freelancer and the demanding process of doing an MFA really helped me develop good time-management skills! But, when it’s all amazing, a busy life is a pleasure. Sometimes, when things get a little too intense, my wife and I look at each other and say, ‘At least it’s not boring!’ We’re usually smiling.”
Tiny Music takes place Feb. 25 and 26, 8 p.m., at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre. It stars Anton Lipovetsky, Susinn McFarlen, Caitriona Murphy and Bob Bossin, with musicians Yawen Wang (piano and accordion), Joe Browne (live electronics), Caitriona Murphy (violin), Mike Braverman (clarinet), Jodi Proznick (bass) and Jason Overy (drums). There is a post-performance talk-back on Feb. 25. For tickets, visit chutzpahfestival.com, call 604-257-5145 or 604-684-2787, or drop in to the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.