I recently had the opportunity to interview the cast of Jean-Luc Lagarce’s “MusicHall” currently running at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. “Music Hall” is a remarkable and important play with rich themes and a brilliant cast. The responses from each cast member follow the questions.
• Theatre Reviews Limited: Jean-Luc Lagarce’s script is often challenging and demanding for the audience. Do you depend in any way on the audience to fuel your performance and is your performance in any way different because of the audience?
Jeffrey Binder's Answers (The Artiste): The audience in this show is almost literally another character on stage. I'm constantly speaking to them individually, as individuals, so I'd say yes - they absolutely influence the rhythm and tenor of the show, but they don't dominate it. Many are engaged, some wary, some warm, some downright hostile (I didn't come here for you to look at me and talk to me as if I'm really here, and what is going on, anyway, where is the story and why sir are you in a dress etc etc) and I'm constantly speaking to them and listening to them. That said, the journey is set and the artiste has things that she needs to say, so we may walk the the path in a different way, a different mood in spots or enjoying different things along the way every performance, but we still walk the path.
Michael Doonan (First Boy): Absolutely, the audience is the fourth character (well besides the stool maybe). Like any good scene partner they demand honesty and responsiveness from us. It's a different show every night, truly. And I can't say that about a lot of show's I've been in. I think it's a testament to the writing. It's just so flexible. I think of the text a poem sometimes because it's continually subjected to the collective feeling in the room. It's fun to perform because of that. However, that subjectivity makes people uncomfortable sometimes. The show is very much like looking at an abstract piece of art: every response to it becomes the correct one-because it's personal. I try to remember and honor that when people share their responses, which have been very positive and insightful. And change from audience to audience, and individual to individual. We're very happy about that.
Darren Hill (Second Boy): Do I depend on the audience to fuel my performance? No. Is my performance in any way different? Yes, every time, that’s the beauty and challenge of this piece. To me the audience is the fourth character (or fifth if you count the stool!). In a way they do fuel depending on their reaction to the piece, there have been a couple of times where we have had a room full of smirkers and that makes it very ironic to play.
• Theatre Reviews Limited: Was there any specific preparation for your roles in “Music Hall?”
Jeffrey: Spending four weeks constantly going over the lines - sounds silly but this text is dense and rhythmic but also needs to have an ease and flow... An effortlessness needed to be achieved, so the script had to be in my body and almost instinctual or the character wouldn't work. Plus the constant challenge of keeping an open mind and readiness for anything when working with someone like Zeljko - a willingness to explore different avenues of thought, action, and theme knowing we'd toss most of it out in service to making the play tighter, more relevant, and faceted.
Michael: We all took a good look at the text when we first started, trying to decrypt it and shape it. Not in any definitive way, as I said the text is very malleable-the meaning and logic of the ideas are a small part of performing the text. Zejlko early on encouraged us to play with the rate and rhythm of the words. While the text is king in this play-there are musical and movement elements that are written into the script that demanded their own specific preparations. For me, I worked with Wain to craft a version of a Josephine Baker standard for Harmonica-which I play in the show. I also did my own movement and dance investigations for both my character and for certain sections of the show.
Darren: We spent at least the first five days of rehearsal sitting around a table mining the script. On the page Lagarce leaves a lot to the actor and director to decipher. He is so ambiguous, that there were even discussions as to who am I talking to at this moment? But that’s the joy and depth of his writing. I couldn’t have done this without the table work.
• Theatre Reviews Limited: Does the reaction of the audience vary much from performance? If so, how?
Jeffrey: No doubt - it speaks to some people profoundly and some people... It's just not their thing. It's a different kind of theatre than most of what's out there and people have varying tastes and different expectations when they go to see a show. So some folks connect to the material and the journey profoundly and are ecstatic about it and some people get angry and hate everything about it. It's awesome either way - I love it if the play challenges you in some way and causes a reaction, even if you ultimately decide that you're offended by the way it challenges you. I mean really the show is on a fundamental level three guys talking to the audience about a life in the arts. Very little else - if that moves you to joy or tears or fury well wow, that's fantastic! That's a beautiful moment in the theatre. And something only live performance can do I think, because it's alive and in front of you and in this case interacting with you directly, it tends to get very personal one way or another.
Michael: It does, but difficult to name what those differences are. Partly because although there is a collective feeling/reaction to what you're giving and receiving from them, there are still individual energies that become prevalent, and at times distracting-BUT those same individuals add fuel to the our fire so to speak. That we illicit a reaction period, is for us very exciting and fulfilling.
Darren: Hugely! Some audiences are expecting a typical theatre experience. You sit down and expect to be entertained for the duration, you feel happy/ great you get up and go home. People are not expecting to be looked at, spoken to, challenged and asked questions, whether those are literal or metaphorically. When they experience this for the first time they seem to go into shock and freeze. This play does not ease up on such audiences and can leave them asking “That was amazing but what was it all about?”
• Theatre Reviews Limited: Is there a climax in the story and where would each of you place that “moment?”
Jeffrey: I think the place where it gets the most personal for the artiste is when she talks about her 'husband' and reveals the most about her past and her past with him... If she's to be believed anyway. I don't know if that's a climax but I think the play really turns there in a way that there's no going back to the way things were before.
Michael: 'What story?!' as Jeff's character proclaims in the show. In fact I think that might be the moment that could serve as our climax; emotionally at least. It's a very nuanced and evocative moment for us. It's a scene where inhibitions are cast aside and things come undone.
Darren: To me the climax is what we would call “The Drunken Scene”. It is a moment in the play were all three characters let go, we really see the struggle from within, the bare bones. When The Artiste breaks down from looking at herself in the mirror and says “When you’ve been through hell…” she is at her wits end and the care and beauty of the boys bringing her back with song “By the time I get to Phoenix…” is a beautiful moment to me.
• Theatre Reviews Limited: Would you consider “Music Hall” to be a tragedy of sorts and do you think there is a traditional catharsis for the audience at the end of the play?
Jeffrey: Oh wow - I don't think I want to answer that. I think it's up to you as an audience member to decide. I don't want to influence you with my own mundane thoughts about it - your own conclusions will probably be far more interesting anyway, and more relevant to you and your experience watching it.
Michael: It's maybe not tragic but there's a deep sense of dramatic irony that after all they've been through (which we present to the audience later on through a series of vignettes that hop through time and space and circumstance)they still choose to endure this lifestyle despite it's many drawbacks. I think in some ways people become lucky when they discover their passion, but misfortunes and difficulties always arise we feel trapped in a way because you begin to wonder what else you could do to be happy. But of course, as many actors feel I think, we are driven by our passion-we are unwilling and unable to do anything else. And so what is ironic is that-that passion which frees us also limits us. And to me that's actually pretty funny.
Darren: Great question! And tough to answer. Yes I would agree it is a tragedy. A tragedy that’s no one’s fault. It is just the way life is on the road, in the theatre world.
• Theatre Reviews Limited: Is there anything you feel is important about the performance or the script not covered in the above questions?
Jeffrey: Such interesting questions! I hope the play is something that stimulates your mind and heart and gets you talking after it finishes. That's my sincere hope.
Michael: I just want to say it's been an absolute honor to share the stage with Darren and Jeff. They continue to surprise me with their generosity both on and off the stage.
Darren: I hope not! I hope it leaves the audience with more questions, a glimpse into our world. A lot of friends of mine who are in the business who have seen the production love it because for them they can relate so for them I think there is a catharsis, an agreement. There is a definite rhythm and structure to the script that defines Lagarce. I am so grateful to Zeljko for wanting to bring Jean-Luc’s words to life and introducing me to what I honestly regard as one of the greatest writers of our time. There is a rawness and honesty in the writing that you very rarely find. Lagarce gives you so much but tells you so little about how to say it, there is even a stage direction “The Artiste looks at them, I think”, I love that. It tells me so much about the humility and brilliance of this man. The fact that Music Hall was the first play he wrote after discovering he had contracted AIDS impacts me as a performer to the meaning of some of the frustration and desperation we find in the piece. I am grateful to be a small part of his amazing work.
• Theatre Reviews Limited: Again, thank you for your responses. The run of “Music Hall” ends this Sunday May 12, 2015. I hope audiences will continue to allow you to challenge them throughout the run. I hope to see more of “Music Hall” in Manhattan in the not too distant future.
My Review of “Music Hall” can be found at http://theatrereviews.com/reviews/offbdwy-MusicHall.htm