An Interview With
The Songs of Robert
I was delighted to discover, when we met last summer, that you actually used our first anthology, Plays and Playwrights for the New Millennium, in a course you taught at college. (Thank you!) I'm curious about your students' reactions to the material you used. What's useful about an anthology like that one or the one your play is in, in terms of helping college students learn about English/drama?
I can't remember exactly how I found out about Plays and Playwrights, but at the time I had just been hired to teach playwriting at Appalachian State University (back in my hometown, of all places). I knew I wanted my students to read a lot of plays for the class, and I knew I wanted a healthy dose of contemporary stuff. I considered various anthologies, but most of them were too expensive, and none of them dared to go beyond the "classics" or "modern classics" format. Then I came across your first volume, Plays and Playwrights for the New Millennium, and read Kirk Wood Bromley's Midnight Brainwash Revival, which I have to say, was about the coolest play I'd read in a long time — and it was written in verse! something I'd been wrestling with in my own writing for years! Anyway, I required no further convincing. I used Plays and Playwrights as a kind of "supplementary text" for my Advanced Playwriting classes for several years running. What I liked about it first and foremost was the wide stylistic variety of the plays selected. It's sort of a theatrical bestiary; and this, combined with the high artistic quality and inventiveness of the works themselves, made the anthology a perfect tool for encouraging young writers to think outside the box in terms of subject matter and approach. The other thing I thought was really valuable was the sense that these plays were somehow "approachable" for young playwrights: for the most part, they were written by playwrights who were themselves either still "emerging," or simply choosing to work on the fringes of mainstream New York theatre. Young playwrights are probably no different from young artists in other media in that many of them imagine success in a fairly narrow and conventional way (i.e. being "rich and famous"); which of course leads to all manner of discouragement later on. The example of professional artists doing high-quality work on a smaller scale or in semi-obscurity can help students arrive at a more nuanced (and probably healthier) idea of what a life in the theatre might actually look like. (Photo by Shaleigh Comerford)
Your resume is probably one of the most eclectic of anybody we've ever published. Can you talk a little about how you realized that you were a poet, and then how you progressed in two directions in your career--first in the world of academia, and second in the world of theatre?
Ha! Good question. I guess it's true that from a certain point of view, my path through life looks pretty circuitous — if not to say hopelessly confused. Trying to make sense out of it — trying to hold it together in my mind as a coherent (if complicated) "destiny" — is something I still struggle with, at times with a real sense of endangerment. I'm not sure I can answer this question to anyone's satisfaction, least of all my own. A friend recently said to me that the reason I wasn't more successful was that I hadn't focused on any one career. As far as I could tell, she said this without irony. I suppose it's the curse of having parents who never saw fit to suppress any of my talents, whether real or imagined. Even as a kid, I was always off somewhere drawing, painting, writing (especially letters, oddly enough), or playing music (drums and guitar). Somehow I managed to keep all these balls in the air even through high school, when other people were starting to "specialize." For reasons I can't explain, the question of What I Wanted to Be never seems to have occurred to me. Then in my first semester of college at UNC-Chapel Hill, two things happened: I had an intense and very passionate intellectual awakening (for lack of a better term), and I discovered creative writing. These two experiences were entirely due to two of my professors there, one in Religious Studies and the other in poetry, each of whom in some sense "annointed" me as one of his own. So it was there, at UNC, and later on in graduate school at Cornell, that I began really to explore and try to live the idea that a real poet must also be a true scholar, and that poetry and philosophy spring from the same seed. I still believe this, by the way; I just no longer mistake academic professionalism for scholarship. Now here's the strange part: theatre. I could say that theatre was, for me, a natural outgrowth of my interest in poetry. But here too, I could point to a certain fortuitous experience that affected me more or less like a bolt from the blue: in the summer of 1998, I was teaching philosophy at the North Carolina Governor's School East, and the drama teacher asked me if his students could use some of my poems as text for a performance. I saw no harm in it. Before I quite understood what was happening, I found myself in the rehearsal hall every night, working with the students on something that, while it was certainly based upon my words, was also volatile and alive in a way I had never imagined my words could be. By the time I saw the final performance, I knew that writing for the stage was to be a major part of my life’s work.
You are also a translator. I know you are fluent in German — what made you interested in learning that language? Are there other languages that you are fluent in? Have you thought about translating The Songs of Robert into German — what might such a translation be like?
Another show-stopper of a question! You know, my difficulty with these biographical questions is making me realize that my life doesn't exhibit a very clear dramatic structure. Have I been sleep-walking? Anyway: short answer: in high school, I fell in love with a German exchange student. Sounds good; but much to my consternation, she didn't do a whole lot in the way of returning my affections until a week or two before she was due to go back to Germany — where, like the practical and intelligent young woman she was, she promptly forgot about me and my eternal devotion. In strange defiance of this verdict, I vowed to learn German in college and embark upon an Odyssey of Wooing. I was probably the most highly motivated student the German Department at UNC had ever seen. While my efforts were ultimately futile with respect to the young lady in question, I did learn German really well; and over the years since, I've spent a lot of time over there, first as an exchange student, later as an artist-in-residence, and, often, just visiting friends. These friendships, and my relationship with the language and literature, have immeasurably deepened and enriched my life. (That sounds corny, as all simple truths do.)
I've never seriously thought of translating The Songs of Robert into German, and for two reasons: 1) not only is the play written in verse, but it's so thoroughly "regional" in both language and atmosphere, I doubt it could be translated at all. And 2) an effective translation would in any event require a translator who could write real poetry in German — something still far beyond my abilities.
Please talk a little about the Magnetic Theater. This is a new company in Asheville that you are involved with. What's your specific involvement with it, and what's coming up for you there in the near future?
The Magnetic Theatre is a dream coming true for me. For many years now, I've wanted to be part of a professional theatre company devoted to creating new works on a flexible, collaborative, ensemble basis. When I left academia in 2006, I moved here to Asheville, and began working intensely in theatre — mostly home-spun jobs producing my own work, which included plays as well as interdisciplinary performances with dancers and musicians. I also worked on my chops as a solo performer. Asheville, it turns out, is a pretty exciting place for the performing arts — in a scruffy kind of way. There are a lot of really talented, strange and gutsy people here, and the general feeling is that we're reaching "critical mass" in terms of audience as well. But Asheville is also small enough so that the artists all pretty much know each other; so it didn't take long for a group of us with similar goals and a compatible aesthetic to gravitate towards each other and start making plans. The Magnetic Theatre is the fruit of those discussions, experiments, and groundwork. The whole thing really is the brain-child of Steve Samuels, who directed me in The Songs of Robert, and who himself worked for many years with Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company there in New York. Steve is the Artistic Director, and I'm one of four Artistic Associates. Together, we'll be responsible for providing the theater with a constant stream of new play material, as well as doing a fair amount of the acting and directing. What makes it all possible, however, is that starting in September we're going to have our own space. The Magnetic Theatre will be the "resident company" in The Magnetic Field, a multi-use performance space, bar, and café located in Asheville's "River Arts District." The whole operation will be run by Chall Gray (who produced The Songs of Robert) and Jonathan Frappier. In other words: making theatre from scratch with one's friends: what more could you want?
The Songs of Robert was in many ways The Magnetic Theatre's inaugural production. The next MT production will also be a verse play of mine — sort of a companion-piece to The Songs of Robert — called Ruth. Again, Steve will direct and Chall will produce. That's coming up this July at NCStage here in Asheville. Once The Magnetic Field opens in September, there will be a couple of other shows before my next one comes up, probably in January, 2011. It's called Solstice. All this info (and so much more!) is on my website: johncrutchfield.com
You are obviously a skillful and knowledgeable musician as well as playwright and poet. How did your interest in music come about? Why was music important in the creation of The Songs of Robert?
I don't come from a very musical family. My father had some classical records he never listened to, and my mother always talked about wanting to learn the auto-harp. That's about it. As kids, my sister and I listened to a top-40 radio station out of Charlotte, and at some point my parents started buying us 45's of our favorite songs; which in turn led to a battery-operated mono cassette-player and a tape of Men at Work's Business as Usual, which we played till it broke. Then came the age of the Sony Walkman. But I was so un-serious about actually making music that I didn't even bother to sign up for band in 6th grade, though all my friends did. The band teacher, Mr. Gaston, actually hunted me down and said, "Mrs. Breitenstein tells me you're a smart kid. Why didn't you sign up for band?" "Uh...dunno." "Well, how would you like to play the snare drum?" "Cool." I ended up playing drums for many years in various settings — concert band, a jazz big band, a jazz combo, rock and roll bands, a blues band, singer-songwriter type stuff, a junk band, and even (yes) a disco band. So I feel as though music has been an important part of my life for a long time, but I have little in the way of formal training. In a sense, this has freed me to experiment — and to fail. Both of the instruments that I play in The Songs of Robert — the steel resonator guitar and the open-back banjo — I taught myself literally for the show. The songs do very little in the way of "advancing the plot," but in my view they are essential to the atmosphere of the play — in both cultural and emotional terms. Also, I use them to control the pacing of the show — they give the audience a break from the intense language and physicality of the monologues. To be perfectly frank, I composed and/or arranged the material myself because I'm not good enough to do anyone else's versions. I will say, though, that since learning the "claw-hammer" style on the banjo, I've gotten really into old-time string band music. I play a couple of times a week at sessions here in Asheville, and even though I'm still a beginner, I've started to get invited to play real "gigs." So in a strange way, life imitates art.
You performed The Songs of Robert in the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival (where, happily, I saw you). What was that experience like? What made you decide to participate in the festival in the first place?
I'm probably like most theatre "provincials," in that I've tended to view New York as the place to be — or rather, to arrive. I say "view," because I don't actually think it's that simple. But I've wanted for a number of years to do a show in FringeNYC, ever since I came for the first time as an audience member in 2002. I saw some shows then that totally blew me away, and others that made me think, "So this is New York theatre? Did I miss something? Perhaps I'm insufficiently ironic." I applied to the festival a couple of times without success. This time I was smarter about it: I sent a DVD along with the script. I don't know for certain that this affected the outcome, but I have my suspicions. The plain truth is that most of my plays are kind of strange-looking on the page. I'm not sure the script of The Songs of Robert really gives the reader a very clear idea of what the show is; and that's unfortunate, given the way plays are selected for most new play festivals and other development opportunities. Anyway, I viewed the chance to perform The Songs of Robert in New York as a kind of professional and artistic experiment: I wanted to see how audiences unfamiliar with the cultural world of the play would respond to it. This meant that the stakes were, at least in my mind, pretty low. Moreover, as a way-out-of-towner, I was certainly at a disadvantage in terms of marketing and promotion, and my audiences were consequently small. But that didn't really bother me. I've performed for some very small audiences before, and in a show like The Songs of Robert, that intimacy can be turned to advantage. I can dial down the "acting," and relate in a more authentic way to individual audience members — all three of them! The real challenges of doing the festival were mostly unrelated to the performance itself: the grueling drive from Asheville, the heat of Manhattan in August, schlepping my banjo and gear on the subway, sleeping on a flotation device on the floor of a friend-of-a-friend's non-air-conditioned studio, my ignorance about where to find affordable, healthy food. But in the end, I was surprised and delighted with the whole thing. The audiences, however small, seemed really to connect with the basic emotional premise of the show, and to appreciate it. The reviews were immediate and very positive-- and then came your publishing offer and the Judges' Award for Outstanding Solo Show. All of this was completely unexpected.
Is The Songs of Robert in any way autobiographical?
For some reason, this show provokes that question more than anything else I've written. At risk of sounding sophisticated, I'll say yes and no. The basic emotional premise of the show is no less true for me personally than it is for most people. Is there anyone over the age of fifteen who hasn't experienced unrequited love? But the details of the story are by and large invented. Likewise, the characters, including Robert himself, are the creations of my own heat-oppressed brain — albeit to varying degrees inspired by certain people I knew growing up in the mountains of North Carolina. In the interest of generosity, I suppose I should say that Robert does represent a certain aspect of myself — or a certain configuration of aspects. But he isn't "me." You may find this hard to believe, but I was actually pretty popular in high school. I mean, for heaven's sakes, I played soccer and had a mullet! Besides, I think it's more important for a play to be true than for it to be factual. In its representation of a certain kind of place and a certain kind of experience, a fragile and yearning experience, the play seems true to me, and that's enough.
Interview with John Crutchfield was conducted by Martin Denton April 2010