Chance Muehleck Gathers Up The Nerve Tank

April 17, 2009
Chance Muehleck

Chance Muehleck

For those of you who like your theatergoing a little more risky and adventurous, you need look no further than The Nerve Tank. Billing itself as “the exploratory and development wing” of its parent organization, LIVE Theater Company, The Nerve Tank creates theatrical performances through non-traditional rehearsal and composition methods with its tight-knit band of actors and designers. Their current production, A Gathering, epitomizes The Nerve Tank’s ethos perfectly: the piece is a dark, metaphysical thriller that questions identity and uses movement, spoken word, design elements, and a rotating cast of six actors to smash theatrical conventions.

With the show currently in the middle of a three month run at The Brooklyn Lyceum‘s downstairs theater – which is a 4,000 square foot former public bath – Chance Muehleck, co-founder of The Nerve Tank and author of A Gathering, visited the ol’ blog to chat about the show, the company, and what the heck it all means. Check it out…

I’d like to start by asking you what A Gathering is about and where the idea for it came from.

The idea came in a recycled thought. I had this raw, cavernous warehouse in mind, and was imagining who might live there. They would need to seem like extensions of the space. So I settled on three personas, and they started coughing up all this language. They became physical manifestations of things that were evoked by that stripped-down warehouse. Then it really got strange, because I began treating the narrative as a liability. I thought: What happens to a computer program when it gets infected? It goes haywire. There are different levels of infection in the piece; some of it is generated by the presence of an audience, and some by the nature of the space itself. I always considered A Gathering a performance first, something living and changeable, so that’s where my private work ended and the collaborative work began.

A Gathering is in the middle of a three-month run, which is an unusually long time for an Indie Theater show. How did you manage to secure such a long run and what made you want to do that?

The long run was both a marketing tactic and an aesthetic choice. The Brooklyn Lyceum is a great, unique space, but it’s not as well known in the Indie Theatre community as, say, The Brick or Collapsible Hole. We wanted to give audiences time to discover a very cool Brooklyn venue. The schedule is actually an extension of our residency—instead of rehearsing every Thursday, now we’re performing. And it gives the company time to discover things about the piece. I think there are things you can learn in three months that you simply can’t in three weeks. Questions that seemed resolved can resurface in different ways. And with A Gathering, which is so much about individual perception, those questions are essential.

The show features a rotating cast of actors, all of whom take turns doing the show. Could you elaborate on how that system works and why you chose to do the show that way?

Melanie Armer, the director and my co-conspirator, had to make some practical decisions based on our 16-week run. There are six actors and three characters, but rather than creating an understudy system, Melanie allowed each performer to find his or her own version of a role. Which means the show can be radically different depending on which configuration you’re seeing. And we have an amazing company that’s very much up for that challenge. So we’re approaching questions of identity in two ways: Within the text (where age, gender, and other signifiers are traded), and within the constructs of the show itself.

Your theater company, The Nerve Tank, is in residency at The Brooklyn Lyceum. What does that mean exactly and how did you score the residency?

The residency means many things for us. We can play, experiment, fail, fail better. We can develop work that uses the space to its best advantage. With A Gathering, we kind of just wanted to get out of its way. I think you can fuck up a perfectly good theatre by imposing too many elements on it. Our designers really understand this; they respond to each set of givens with open eyes and open ears. And we have the freedom to move into more elaborate, multimedia kinds of projects. Kismet had a lot to do with how the residency came to pass; we were looking for a home, and the Lyceum was looking for a company to help raise its visibility. We happened to contact them at the right time!

The Nerve Tank is the development wing of its parent theater company, LIVE Theater. Could you explain further the difference between the two and elaborate on their relationship to each other?

As it relates to The Nerve Tank, “parent” is the right analogy for LIVE. We produced some wonderful shows under LIVE, and may do so again. But it was founded with a traditionally text-based agenda. I started feeling that it couldn’t keep up with the directions we wanted to go. The Nerve Tank is a rapidly-growing, insatiably curious child, and as such requires our full attention. When we say it’s the developmental wing of LIVE, we mean that we create projects in a non-hierarchical way, rather than starting with The Play and ensuring that its message is codified and delivered. I guess that sounds nebulous, but there’s a great deal of rigor involved in the process. When so many things are on the table, you begin to see what’s truly essential for an engaged experience.

You and Melanie have been collaborators for a long time now. What do you two bring to each other’s work that no one else can?

This is a tricky one. It depends on the day. We’re both quite stubborn, but we tend to find things together that we wouldn’t have otherwise. There’s a scene in A Gathering that consists of five words. And one of them is a nonsense word. I usually attend rehearsal, but I was absent the day that scene was worked. What Melanie and the cast(s) came up with was astonishing to me. She built a physical vocabulary that enlarges the moment and touches many other aspects of the piece. So, while I wasn’t in the room, my text was, and so was the foundation we’d laid. It comes back to those old tropes: Trust and perspective. Or trust in perspective.

What do you have lined up next for yourself, The Nerve Tank, and LIVE?

We’ve just determined that the next piece will be about the Bauhaus. It’s now called City on the Edge of the World, and we’re developing it with German dramaturge Lutz Kessler. It’s a dense, loaded subject that involves many different theories and personalities. The company is taking a retreat in June to do some research and formulate a working method. It’ll ultimately be a trans-national project: At the same time we’re working at the Lyceum, Lutz will rehearse with a group in Germany. The plan is to videotape our efforts and start a conversation that will become part of the performance. Next, for me, is a large glass of wine and some Celebrity Apprentice. How about you?

I’m going to hunker down with some Yankees baseball myself. But that glass of wine sounds good. Thanks.


The 1st Theater Bloggers Social

April 14, 2009
Ken Davenport

Ken Davenport

I’d like to take a moment to do my part in getting the word out about the 1st Theater Bloggers Social that’s happening next week. Yes, you read that right. Broadway producer and theater blogger Ken Davenport has taken it upon himself to organize this gathering in the hopes of starting some long-term conversations about the state of our art (and the art we blog about), and maybe plant the seeds for some long-term change for the better throughout the industry.

For those of you who haven’t already, I suggest checking out Ken’s blog. He’s a damn fine blogger who doles out frequent helpings of common sense with inspiring regularity. And, having also met him in person, I can tell you he’s a gentleman, as well, and very smart. So, this ought to be an event worth making time for.

There will be ample time to schmooze and network with your fellow bloggers, tips from a bona fide blog consultant, free munchies, and free tickets to some Broadway shows that very night. (Yeah, Ken knows how to pull some strings…) Here are the pertinent details, straight from Ken’s initial event announcement:


Thursday, April 23rd.
6 PM – 8 PM
Planet Hollywood
Broadway at 45th St.

To RSVP, comment to this blog with your name and the URL of your blog. Confirmation and final details will be emailed to you. Oh, and to qualify as a “Theater Blogger”, you should:

  • Have a blog devoted primarily to theater
  • Post regularly
  • Be an independent blogger (not sponsored/paid to blog by any organization)

I mean, honestly people: how often do you meet up with your fellow bloggers in person? And how often does a Broadway producer invite you to his party? Need I say more?

If you meet the aforementioned criteria, you can RSVP directly to Ken here.

Eisa Davis Makes a Mixtape

April 8, 2009
Eisa Davis

Eisa Davis

In case you haven’t noticed, actor-playwright Eisa Davis has been on quite a roll the past couple of seasons. Her play Bulrusher was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and she starred in both the Broadway and Off-Broadway productions of the hit musical Passing Strange, for which she won an OBIE Award. This week, theatergoers can experience both her acting and writing talents simultaneously when New Georges and the Hip-Hop Theater Festival launch the premiere of Eisa’s new play, Angela’s Mixtape, which spans three decades in telling the autobiographical story of the author’s radical Bay Area upbringing in a family that includes her famous aunt, the professor and activist Angela Davis (whose notoriety in the early 1970s reached such great heights that both John Lennon and The Rolling Stones wrote songs about her).  Eisa plays herself in a production that moves, according to the show’s press materials, “as smoothly as a DJ fading from song to song. Each track, each memory, has a built-in switch to the next, for theatrical momentum that keeps on building.”

On the eve of the play’s opening, Eisa visited the ol’ blog to talk about its origins, the challenges of playing herself, and, of course, her legendary aunt. Check it out, people…

This is obviously a very personal project for you. What inspired you to write it?

There were a few sparks. I wrote it in 2003 when the Hip-Hop Theater Festival asked me to present a reading of a new piece and this was the thing that fell out. Particularly because my mentor, the playwright Adrienne Kennedy, had urged me to write about Angela and my family. Another important reason was that I wanted to document how and why I’d evolved, as it seemed to be a specific story that many may not have seen before yet could identify with. And last but not least, I wanted to have a conversation with my family about some of these issues and as you’ll see in the play, that hasn’t always been the easiest process for me to initiate.

This is a memory play with the musical structure of a mixtape. Why did you choose that particular structure? And how does it specifical ly serve the narrative?

It’s always funny to answer questions about plays as if there was rational choice involved. I follow urges, needs…and then once the play is down on the page looking entirely alien from what I expected it to be, I get to work with brilliant directors and actors and hear back from friends, audience members (and in this case, family) to shape it into what the work itself wants to become. So the mixtape was the natural form for the content of play because it’s intensely personal, it’s idiosyncratic, it’s rhythmic, and it isn’t linear. Like a lot of plays, the narrative is about a kid trying to figure out how she fits in the world, and a mixtape seemed the perfect way to share her epistemology on her own terms.

I imagine that the task of playing yourself in a piece you’ve also written is a slippery slope. Why did you decide to do that? And what are the challenges you’ve faced, so far, in playing yourself?

I don’t know how to play myself. I really don’t. I’m six years old in parts of the play, and I don’t remember that. So I’ve tried to just feel like I did then. And I ask Liesl, the director, if it’s annoying. I wrote the play as a fun thing to do with my cousin Cecilie, who’s also an actress. But she and I don’t have to be in the play for it to land, thank goodness. We actually had a production in Atlanta last year with the actor Ayesha Ngaujah playing the character of Eisa. And it stood on its own. In this production in New York, Ayesha is playing my cousin Cecilie and I’m playing Eisa. One of the hardest challenges in the process has been delineating when I have to be an actor and when I have to be a writer, learning how to protect each from the other.

How aware were you of your aunt’s notoriety when you were growing up? And what kind of influence has she had on your life?

I knew that she had an aura about her, gave inspiring speeches, that there had been a trial and an international movement to free her and an acquittal. I knew that everyone else treated her as a woman of significance. But I didn’t really understand her in the way that other people saw her until I left home and went to college and studied her and the movement and philosophical schools she was part of. Her influence on my life is impossible to measure–my mother and I in particular are in a dynamic with her that is symbiotic. You know, it’s a two way street. It seems to me that Angela’s always taken pains to keep her public stature one thing, and her relationships another. This is not to say that she isn’t personal in her political engagement, as she is, very much. But any burden I’ve ever felt is something I’ve taken on myself.

What first drew you to playwriting? And what made you decide to pursue a career as both an actor and a writer?

I always acted and wrote little stories. They were inextricably connected in my mind. I would make up shows to do with Cecilie, as well as with any and all available children after dinner. My former stepfather is a filmmaker so I even started writing a screenplay when I was six–in which I was a character. Just kid fun, you know? But it continued to be something that I enjoyed and took refuge in. So these hobbies became how I make my living–but not without hesitation. I may have fantasized about being on Fame like every other kid in the 80s, but I didn’t really imagine that I’d have to (or want to) put in the work Debbie Allen was talking about in the immortal words “You want fame? Well fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat.” I had a lot of fear about pursuing an artistic life–because it would mean taking major risks daily. But being happy, and helping the people around you become happy, is worth any sacrifice, and creating live performances is what I love to do.

What’s up next for you after this?

This summer I’m working on another new play with director Liesl Tommy, who did both Angela’s Mixtape and The Good Negro at the Public. It’s called The History of Light. The Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia is putting it up. I’d really like to go on a surfing trip. Paying rent would be a good idea too.

Rising Phoenix’s Resident Power Duo

April 2, 2009
Julie Kline and Denis Butkus in "Birthday"

Julie Kline and Denis Butkus in "Birthday"

Rising Phoenix Repertory is not a company to rest on its laurels. Coming off the success of their Off-Broadway run of Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson’s Too Much Memory last December, one wouldn’t blame them for taking the rest of the winter off and fielding future commercial offers. Instead, they immediately set up shop once again at the Seventh Street Small Stage (a back room at the East Village hotspot Jimmy’s No. 43 which serves as RPR’s permanent theatrical home) and hit the ground running with a pair of new plays by Crystal Skillman. The first, Nobody, garnered rave reviews and sellout crowds in February. The second, Birthday, now playing until April 10th, is poised to follow in their footsteps of its predecessor: at least half of the show’s run is already sold out.

Birthday showcases the talents of RPR mainstays Denis Butkus and Julie Kline, both of whom are also Artistic Associates with the company. They have appeared together previously in RPR’s productions of Don’t Pet the Zookeeper by Napoleon Ellsworth and Skillman’s short play, The Ride, and are quickly establishing themselves as the company’s resident power duo.

In the midst of preparing for Birthday‘s opening, Denis and Julie visited the ol’ blog to talk about the play, the joys of working together, and their ongoing gig with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Check it out…

Let’s start with the basics: what can you tell us about the characters each of you are playing in Birthday?

Julie: My character is Leila – she’s an open-hearted, very sensitive, kinda hilarious girl reaching the end of her twenties and having just about the worst day of her life when she meets Kyle.  What I admire about her is although she’s been pounded emotionally, she deals with her pain by making fun of herself and reaching out to connect.  She’s like all of us – lonely, looking for love (sometimes in all the wrong places) but never gives up, and risks sharing the silly, intimate parts of herself with just about anybody who will listen.  Thankfully, Kyle is really good at listening.

Denis: My character’s name is Kyle. He’s a quiet guy who has retreated to the back room of a bar to find some solitude after a really bad day. It’s here that he meets Leila, a complete stranger and has an immediate connection with her. What I love about these two people is how they deal with the circumstances that have been dealt. They are both experiencing horrible things in their lives and are fighting to overcome them with hope, laughter and joy. Daniel [Talbott, the director of Birthday] put it best, in rehearsal, when he said, “Most characters are trying to avoid falling in the pit. These two are already in the pit and are using each other to climb out of it”

I understand these parts were written specifically for both of you by playwright Crystal Skillman. Does that information change how you approach and rehearse the role, or does your preparation remain the same regardless?

Julie: I think Leila and I are definitely similar, undoubtedly due to Crystal capturing some things about me and putting it in the play, which is a really wonderful gift.  It definitely makes it easier to find ways into the character, but I also have to remember that Leila is not me, and to make her simply me would be reductive.  I want to give her the full space she deserves. 

Denis: Crystal really knows how to write for Jimmy’s. I’m always excited to read what she comes up with because she always uses the real Jimmy’s in her plays and because of that authenticity, they are always uniquely grounded in the space. I think I always approach the work we do at Jimmy’s in much the same way. It usually starts with lots of questions for Daniel and Crystal. From the answers and thoughts that they have, I start to form the character and we all get more specific about the story. We are always looking to tell the story in the most essential, human way. Sometimes that means cutting some text, other times adding a word here and there for clarity. When we started rehearsals my instinct was that Kyle should say a lot less then Crystal had originally written, especially at the beginning of the play. So we cut a few of his lines at the very beginning and at other moments throughout to add to the sense that these are two strangers who have never had a conversation, which infuses Kyle and Leila’s relationship with a really interesting sense of awkwardness. Overall, any work we do at Jimmy’s demands simplicity and hyper-naturalistic, almost cinematic, acting. We call it the “truth-box” and I think that really says everything about how we work there from the writing to the acting. If you are telling a lie, the audience is going to be the first to see through you as a faker. So we have to be really truthful with our imaginations and relaxed in our acting to pull it off. Most importantly, Julie and I we have to be really in tune with each other and respond in the moment. When we succeed in that, it is absolutely thrilling storytelling.
This is the third time you two have appeared in a two-hander together. What do you like about working with each other? And how do you two specifically work together in rehearsals?

Julie: Denis and Daniel both are the brothers I never had.  So it’s basically a big family love/teasing fest when we’re together.  With a lotta chai lattes thrown in. I feel so lucky to work with them.  Denis and I have gotten to know each other on and off stage for the past four years or so, and I’d say we have a definite understanding of each other as actors. There’s a real support there on stage, I know D’s gonna catch me regardless of what happens. (And at Jimmy’s, some crazy stuff can happen!) This is also exemplified by how Denis stepped into the main role in Don’t Pet the Zookeeper last summer three days before we opened and I never felt a second of fear!  He’s just solid.

Denis: Jules is such an open actress. Her ability to give herself over to a role is an amazing thing to watch in rehearsal and in performance. She’s also tenaciously intelligent and her questions often spur my own questions about whatever we are working on and give me a deeper understanding about the story we are trying to tell. I feel really lucky to be working with her, Daniel and Crystal. They are not only amazing artists but also very dear friends. We have a lot of fun in rehearsals. There is always a lot of swearing, teasing, dirty jokes, slacking off and overall debauchery. But there is also a lot of focused, hard work. We are very much like siblings and share the kind of shorthand communication that people who have spent a lot of time working and playing together have. Sometimes that is scary because we know each other so well and can get right to the root of things if we are off track. But that is often out of a deep care and concern for each other, which gives me the power to trust them and take to hart their thoughts. These two help me take risks in my work and that is what working at Jimmy’s is all about. Feeling the fear and using it to be better, rather then letting it shut you down.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that Samuel Beckett quote, “No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” And I think it encapsulates what we do as actors beautifully but it also applies to Rising Phoenix’s work at Jimmy’s. I have always felt that Jimmy’s is our home and if you can’t fail in your home, then where can you fail? As long as we are together we will keep picking ourselves up and trying to get it right again, the very next night.

How and when did you first meet each other? And how did you become involved with Rising Phoenix Rep?

Julie: Denis and I met through Daniel, and I met Daniel as a teenager back in the San Francisco Bay Area – I was 14, Daniel was 17. We acted together in a community theater production of The Diary of Anne Frank – I was Anne, he was Peter. And we’ve been friends with a shared theatre obsession ever since!

Denis: Julie and I first meet when she assistant directed Gift, a Mark Schultz play Rising Phoenix produced in the Fringe Festival a few summers ago. She had just moved to the city from Chicago and was childhood friends with Daniel in the Bay Area. My fiancée Sammy, Daniel and I all went to school together and since we graduated, we’ve been a part of Rising Phoenix along with a host of other fabulous artists.

The two of you, along with Birthday director Daniel Talbott, make up the literary department for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. How did the three of you land that gig, and what are your specific duties for Rattlestick?

Denis: I did a show at Rattlestick called St. Crispin’s Day in June of 2003. It was an important moment for me because I got my Equity card out of that gig. Since then, I have always had a special place in my heart for Rattlestick. David van Asselt, the Artistic Director, has always been very supportive of us and I see being a member of the Literary Department as a way to give back to him and his theater and as an extension of our work with Rising Phoenix. David is one of the most courageous producers of theater in the country. He takes a risk every time he produces a play. No matter if it is a young, unproduced playwright or a well-established heavy hitter, there is always the feeling that he is pushing the boundaries of what new work can be and I admire him for that.

We came into Rattlestick in the fall of 2008 and since then have spent the bulk of our time programming our two reading series and reading plays. Rattlestick still accepts unsolicited submissions so we are always up to our neck in reading. We do a private, developmental reading series where we work with playwrights eager to hear new work out loud in a private setting and we also have an Evening Reading Series where we give playwrights the chance to hear their work out loud for an invited audience. We act as a sounding board for David as he plans his season and keep up a correspondence with playwrights interested in working with the theater. It has given me much respect and admiration for the art of playwrighting. Not a playwright myself, I see now how incredibly competitive it can be trying to get a play produced and how often they have to deal with rejection head on. Actors get rejected all the time, usually silently. Playwrights have to deal with a steady stream of form rejection letters and groups of people scrutinizing their work. I think they have it a lot harder and that makes them all the more courageous for doing what they do.

Julie: Each of us had been connected to Rattlestick on our own – I was assistant director for Dexter Bullard on Lady this past fall, and Daniel’s play Slipping was part of the Dirty Works Series. It made sense for us to come on as a literary team together – we’ve been doing new play development together with RPR and that’s basically what we’re doing now at Rattlestick on a bit larger scale. We make connections to new playwrights, plan readings, and help David to plan his season. Rattlestick is an amazing place to be and family to be a part of. I deeply admire the way they conduct business and art, and the bold choices they make with the work they produce is something I think we aspire to at RPR. It’s a mentorship of sorts, and a wonderful one – we are learning so much and can apply this knowledge to our work with our company.

You both juggle busy careers in New York theater with your respective commitments to RPR. How do you each manage to balance the two?

Denis: I have always wanted to be a part of the theater and I find that wearing many hats (especially seemingly contradictory ones) helps me deepen my relationship to this very hard and incredibly rewarding art form. I don’t like to sit around doing nothing and I think that is a trap that a lot of actors fall into, I know I fell into it when I was first starting out, so I have learned to balance the commitments I make so that I can remaine an active participant in the community. I love new work and being a part of the developmental process with living artists as much as I love doing Shakespeare. I know it sounds cliché but for me everything is connected. If you want to survive in the theater and really thrive then you should put yourself in the producer’s shoes, the actor’s shoes, the playwright’s shoes and see what it takes, because it takes a tremendous amount of empathy, collaboration, tenacity and dedication to make it work. It is about being among a group of people, uniting around a story and finding a way to communicate that story to an audience. You have to put yourself out there and risk having your ego bruised when you make mistakes, that is the only way you learn where your strengths and weakness are and I think there is no better way to do this then by seeing as many perspectives as possible. It helps me be more open to the collaboration and practice my problem solving skills. Participating in the art of theater is really an act of giving; you have to be willing to give everything away (like your ego and your power) because what you gain in return is an invaluable lesson about human nature.

Julie: Since we’re all good friends within RPR, the company can be a flexible, changing thing. When one of us gets another theatre job, the rest of us just step in and take up the slack. We each do a bunch of different jobs within the company so everything gets covered, and we always support each other in our other ventures. In this way, RPR has become a source of real support for the work I do outside of the company. I personally want to do so many different things in the theatre, I can’t ever seem to pick just one, and RPR has allowed me the chance to work in all the different roles I love – actor, playwright, producer, director. For each project, I’m able to contribute in whichever role is needed to make the work happen. To me, that’s the definition of a company and is the kind of theatrical home I’ve always wanted.

Matt Sherwin’s 12:30 Grind

March 18, 2009
Matt Sherwin

Matt Sherwin

Singer-songwriter Matt Sherwin has been around and paid his dues. If one didn’t already know that from this native New Yorker’s longtime presence on New York City’s indie music scene – where he’s been performing and recording for over a decade now – then his new album, 12:30 Songs, will certainly put the world on alert. Showcasing his talent and versatility as a songwriter, Matt’s new album gives listeners a multitude of New York-ish stories and viewpoints gained by hard-won experience.

Amidst a batch of newly scheduled gigs to promote the album – including one this Friday night at the Lower East Side hotspot Pianos, which will feature the premiere of a music video for one of the album’s most notable cuts, “George Washington Slept Here” – Matt took some time to drop by the ol’ blog and talk about his music, his longtime band The Silent Killers, and the meaning of the album’s title. Good stuff, people. Check it out…

The album’s title, it seems, was partly inspired by the daily grind of a survival job. Could you talk a little more about that?

While I was writing material for 12:30 Songs, I was working in a day job in the Wall Street area.  And while the job really wasn’t bad…I wouldn’t necessarily call it the “daily grind” – I sometimes let myself feel bad about having it…that I was wasting my life, and that kind of thing.  So to make myself feel better about my predicament, I would set aside 45 minutes or so every day during lunch to work on my writing – so that I was treating writing like a job in and of itself, albeit a less time-consuming one.  I happened to take my lunch every day around 12:30, so that’s where that came from – though the title is also a bit of a nod to Randy Newman (his album 12 Songs) as well as the poet Frank O’Hara, two artists who’ve meant a lot to me. 

One of the songs, “Care,” was written twelve years ago. How come it’s only showing up on an album of yours now?

Well, around 75 percent of the song was written a decade ago, but I never felt the bridge section was working, and therefore never released it…That was part of the reason anyway.  I guess I also felt like I hadn’t earned it somehow – that I wasn’t grown up enough to really pull off the themes in the song, which deal with the loss of passion in a relationship over – as I’ve always imagined it – many years.  At the time I wrote it, I hadn’t even ever been in a consistent long-term relationship, so I don’t even know where the impetus to write it came from.  In any event, I always wanted to come back to the song, and after a few years I was able to come to terms with its themes, so I re-wrote a bridge I was really happy with, and that was it.

Another song, “George Washington Slept Here,” was inspired by your interest in the history of architecture. How so?

Ha, well that’s a slight exaggeration, but yes…I have this addiction to
The AIA Guide to New York City Architecture, and there’s a reference in there to “George Washington Slept Here architecture” – which refers to buildings of dubious historical authenticity, despite their claims to the contrary.  I just thought that was a fascinating phrase, and I knew I’d want to use it for something.  Then a few months later when I saw the Robert Redford movie The Candidate, which deals with the political corruption of this very moral man, I found myself thinking about the phrase again.  I guess it was this idea that no one is incorruptable I found interesting – and what if we took the country’s first great hero and exposed him as a total philanderer and bastard, and that might actually work on a number of levels.  So the song wound up having this real thought-out intricacy, but it initially came about in a totally random, stream-of-conscious way.

You’ve also got a couple of political/protest songs on the album, which is not your usual bailiwick. What prompted these?

I’m not a political person in the sense that I read The New York Times and watch Washington Week on a regular basis.  I do try to be aware of the issues, but then again I feel everyone’s more aware of politics than they are normally – which is one positive side-effect to the country slipping deeper and deeper into trouble.  Everyone’s affected, and everyone cares about what happens.  Maybe I didn’t really write more political songs until I felt there’d be an audience of people who’d actually care about what I had to say…I don’t know.  In any case, there’s something really, really exciting to sing songs like “George Washington” or “Walk in Single File” live and have everyone respond in an immediate way.  At those times, I feel like I’ve tapped into something everyone’s feeling, and it’s like nothing else.  Of course, I imagine people would respond much differently to those songs in more conservative parts of the country – I haven’t been able to experience that yet – but I’d like to think those songs would get a strong reaction, even if it’s negative.  Some reaction is always better than ambivalence, I believe.

You recorded with your longtime band. How long have you all been together and how did you all meet?

I’ve known a couple of the members for years – Tara since high school, I went to college with Carter, Ben I’ve known for about five or six.  Dave for four or so.  I’ve mostly met those guys through mutual friends or playing together with other musicians.  We played together as The Matt Sherwin Band for the first few years – and what’s interesting is in the last year or so, since we started calling ourselves The Silent Killers, I think we’ve become a much better band.  Of course there are a lot of reasons for that, but I do think there’s power in a name.

For the most part, you are a very personal songwriter. Who are some of your musical influences and inspirations?

Well, I think any form of art is personal, but the first album in particular had kind of a confessional ring to it, so I know what you mean.  I don’t really feel the second album has that aspect to it as much.   I’m not writing as myself all the time.  It was quite liberating to write a song like “George Washington,” which is in someone else’s voice, ostensibly Martha Washington.  You know, some of my favorite songwriters do that all the time – Randy Newman uses the “unreliable narrator” – where you don’t know if the narrator represents the author’s views, or the opposite (you often hope the opposite in his case because many of his characters are bigots and/or not such nice people).   I think that’s often a lot more interesting than some poor sap saying “look at what’s in my heart.”  I feel bad saying that, but for every Jackson Browne there are a thousand bad writers.  Speaking of which, I guess you could say he, and Randy Newman of course, were a big influence.  Who else?  Dylan, Lou Reed, The Beatles, Richard Thompson, Warren Zevon. A lot of the post-punk stuff from the 80s, which meant a lot to me during adolescence – particularly Bob Mould and Husker Du, The Replacements, The Minutemen.  Elvis Costello has always been huge – someone I could look to and say, there’s someone intelligent and articulate in popular music and not afraid to show it, cool!  He’s also someone whose career I can look to as a sort of model in the sense that he doesn’t let himself be pigeonholed – doing a rock album with The Attractions here, a classical album there.  People like Randy Newman, Joe Jackson, Duncan Sheik, who do something more ambitious than just the singer-songwriter thing are very inspirational to me.

Now that the album is out, what’s up next for you and the band?

I’m really proud of the album, though right now I feel it’s like the nervous new kid at school sitting by himself in the cafeteria, or something.  He just needs to be noticed, you know?  I’m doing what I can to get radio play, press, and that kind of thing – but I really hope that if someone likes the album, that they’ll let five people know, who in turn will let more people know, and so on – a chain mail kind of thing.  It’s just about getting noticed. As for the future, I’ve got lots of things I’d like to do – write a song cycle, record with a string quartet, but you know, it all depends…what’s that old expression: ’til the money runs out?  Or is it ’til the bank collects on my debt?  Well, as long as I’m building a following and people want to see me, I believe I’ll keep doing this.  I’ve thought many times about hanging it up and becoming a teacher, an architect, a funeral director (during a prolonged Six Feet Under phase), but I think if you’re really in this, you’re in it for the long haul.  And the nice thing about the whole music industry model becoming less about major labels, and more about independent musicians taking charge of their own careers, is that from where I am now I can go just about anywhere.  No one’s holding me down or telling me what kind of music to play.  It’s kind of exciting and terrifying – in this climate anything can happen.

Tartuffe at The Pearl Theatre Company

March 12, 2009


Aside from the recent interviews here on the ol’ blog, I’ve mostly been in the bunker lately. Why? Because I’m trying to learn my lines for the show I’m doing.

Did you know I was doing a show? You didn’t?! Well, in that case, here’s the information. I’m understudying Off-Broadway, and it’s been good fun so far, but I’m learning how to work a whole different set of acting muscles.

If you’re a fan of the classics, you should definitely come check this out.  It’s going to be a nice, solid production. Here’s the info…

The Pearl Theatre Company presents

by Moliere
Translated by Richard Wilbur

Rachel Botchan, Robin Leslie Brown, Bradford Cover, Dominic Cuskern, T J Edwards, Julie Ferrell, Carrie McCrossen, Sean McNall, Kila Packett, John William Schiffbauer, Carol Schultz, and Kraig Swartz

(and understudies Michael Criscuolo, Andrea Day, Sharon Maguire, and Garth Wells McArdle)

Directed by Gus Kaikkonen
Sets: Harry Feiner
Costumes: Sam Fleming
Lights: Stephen Petrilli
Sound: M.L. Dogg
Stage Manager: Lisa Ledwich
Dramaturge: Kate Farrington

Tickets: $45-$55 (all previews $25)
Previews begin March 17th
Opening Night: March 30th
Tuesdays – Sundays until April 19th

For schedule and tickets call the Pearl box office at 212-598-9802 or go online at

Jeremy Manasia Expresses Himself After Dark

March 9, 2009
Jeremy Manasia

Jeremy Manasia

Jazz pianist and composer Jeremy Manasia has already had quite an accomplished career. Having trained at New York’s prestigious Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (i.e. the school that inspired the movie Fame) and been a finalist for the Thelonius Monk Competition, he has since toured the world as a musician and played with such jazz luminaries as Charles Owens, Peter Bernstein, Ryan Kisor, Chris Potter, Marlena Shaw, Diane Schurr, and The Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Jeremy has also adopted the mantle of bandleader and recorded two albums of his own compositions. His latest one, After Dark, features Jeremy backed by two of New York’s finest jazz stalwarts, Barak Mori and Charles Ruggiero, and includes guest performances by two other notable jazzbos, Jane Monheit and Ian Hendrickson-Smith.

In the midst of a busy performance and teaching schedule (he’s a faculty member at Manhattan School of Music), Jeremy swung by the ol’ blog to talk about the roots of creativity, what it’s like to influence young minds, and his budding career as a film composer. Check it out…

(Editor’s Note: It should be stated, for the record, that Jeremy is also an old friend of this blog and its author. We went to high school together, way back in the day. FYI.)

Dude, I remember back in high school when you looked and dressed like a headbanger. You certainly didn’t look like someone who played jazz. How’d you first get interested in jazz?
High school and mom. I went to LaGuardia High School for piano, and as a piano major you need to take up a secondary instrument. I wanted to play saxophone, and was given the oboe. After a year I wanted out, and switched to double bass. This left a hole in my schedule, so I was tossed into the jazz history class (a senior level elective course) taught by Justin DiCioccio. This ultimately was an experience that would change the direction of my life forever.

My mom was also a jazz singer at this time, and was performing around New York City with very prominent jazz musicians like Harold Mabern, Ira Coleman and Bob Cranshaw. So all of a sudden I was surrounded by jazz everywhere. I also had a private piano teacher at the time, Peter Vianni, from Staten Island who was a jazz player and started to show me some voicing and improvisation techniques.

Yeah, I was a headbanger for a while. I came up on rock ‘n’ roll and folk music. Around the house I was hearing The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, The Stones, Bob Dylan, and also some early disco like Chaka Kahn and Donna Summer. Later on I became really influenced by The Beatles and John Lennon. I was really affected by John Lennon’s death, seeing how hard it hit everyone.

I naturally progressed into some more modern and harder rock, like Van Halen and Rush, and eventually got deep into the 80s metal scene, listening to bands like Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Judas Priest, long hair, leather jackets, and studs. After I was turned onto jazz, I went through a segue period where I was listening to artists like Pat Metheny and John Scofield.

When I look back at it all though, it does make sense, as all American music – rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, country, funk – it all comes from the blues.

Tell us about your new album, After Dark.

I’m really happy with my new record, After Dark. It has compositions of mine that span over a decade of my writing, and were carefully chosen for this date. The final track on the record, “Afterthought,” I actually wrote in college, more than 15 years ago. “Jerry’s Blues” is also an oldie, from around ’97, ’98. Most of the others are from the past two to five years.

I was really happy about the lineup on this record. Charles Ruggiero is one of my oldest friends, and someone whom I have played a lot of music with in my life. He was getting ready to move to L.A., where he is now, and I wanted to make sure we got this date in before he left. And Barak Mori was the obvious first choice for bassist, for the hookup he and Charles have, and his great vibe. Both of those guys took the music really seriously, and worked their butts off to play their best on this record. I could tell from the first rehearsal how good this was going to turn out, and how they were going to give their all in the studio. It made me make sure to kick it up a notch when we got in to the studio.

Ironically, we had done a quartet date with Ian Hendrickson-Smith the week before, in the same studio, with the same rhythm section. As it turned out, Ian was not going to use the material from that session, so I thought it would be a great idea to include one of the tracks on After Dark, and that’s how Ian, and “Soul Eyes,” made it on the record. Which also thrilled me, because Ian is also one of my older friends that I have made a lot of music with over the years.

The record was recorded by Glenn Forrest, who is an unknown master of his craft. He is an engineer of a dying breed; the ones who don’t look at computer screens, but LISTEN to the track as it is being made. He gives great care, and has great knowledge on how to get the best possible sounds, and always does. There is no one that I would have felt more comfortable in the studio, than with G-Bleuy. He is just the man, and made a great sounding record.

About six months after it was recorded, I ended up signing a deal with Posi-Tone records to release After Dark . Posi-Tone is a L.A. based jazz record company who have been putting out great records for the past few years. Once the wheels got rolling everything slowly came together. The Jane [Monheit] recording session, the cover art, Eric Reed wrote the liner notes, and Charles and Nick O’Toole (co-founder of Posi-Tone) mixed the record in L.A.

After Dark is the record I always wanted to make, with some of my best friends, playing a variety of different compositions of mine, and a couple of standard compositions.

"After Dark"

"After Dark"

Jane Monheit does some guest vocals on the album. How’d you get her on board?

Jane’s husband and drummer, Rick, is old friends with the drummer on my record, Charles. They have all been great friends for a long time. And I have known them as well, just not as close as Charles. After we had recorded the music for After Dark, Charles really loved a song I wrote, then called “Chrisantics,” dedicated to my old teacher, Chris Anderson. Charles said, “I’m going to write lyrics to that song, and get Jane to sing it…” And lo and behold, “When You Smile” was born, and Jane did it. She was really amazing to work with, very professional, and just an amazing singer. The melody on “When You Smile” has a very large range and is very difficult to sing, but it just fit like a glove to Jane. I’m really happy and grateful to have her on the record, it really adds a nice special touch.
As a musician, who are some of your influences and inspirations?

An artist’s influences and inspirations fluctuate throughout the course of his/her life, and I can certainly say that what influences me today is drastically different from what did 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

That being said, the music that pulled me completely into jazz-dom was John Coltrane and his pianist McCoy Tyner. That was the first jazz that I really fell in love with. Albums like Crescent, Live at Birdland, and Coltrane were records I wore out and listened to multiple times daily.

After the fall into jazz-dom, I started expanding my listening and became influenced by pianists Sonny Clark, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland. This was during college, and I spent a lot of time with the great Blue Note records of the 50s and 60s by Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon etc., that frequently had these pianists on them, as well as McCoy, and Herbie Hancock.

During the years that I was studying in Holland, my musical influences started to really expand, and at the same time that I was being turned onto Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, I was really learning a lot from listening and transcribing Bud Powell and studying with Barry Harris, and Dutch pianist Franz Elsan. Also around this time I was exposed to the piano music of Maurice Ravel, which has made a lasting effect on my life.

Through the years there have been so many varied musical influences, from Stevie Wonder and Donnie Hathaway to Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn to Duke Ellington and Thad Jones, to Robert Johnson and Ghanayan drumming. Nowadays, things other than music are greatly influencing the way I approach music. The work and philosophy of Jackson Pollock is very close to me right now, dealing with art and creativity coming from the unconscious. Also my zen practice is very influential to learning how to completely and fully express myself through art in a sincere way.
What, if anything, are you trying to achieve or communicate with your work?

I’m trying to achieve a state of total and pure expression. Ravel said that the real aim, the ultimate concern, is fullness and sincerity of expression. It is a personal struggle and spiritual path to allow myself to be honest and open in my expression, despite all of the inner critical voices. I believe a human’s greatest joy in life is to creatively express themselves, in any shape or form. There is always an open door in front of us every moment of our lives to be completely sincere in our expression, whether telling someone to screw off, showing kindness, creating art, anything. It is our greatest desire to be ourselves, fully, without any inhibitions. And I know that the people who have affected me the most have been the ones who have lived their lives in this way.

Nelson Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” This is my path as an artist and as a person. And I find that the older I get, the more and more simple the message becomes. There are no limits to the imagination, and less is usually more. So there is this search for the boundless simplification. Like when you hear a tune like “Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington, or “Don’t Let Me Down” by John Lennon. They are so simple, yet you have to ask yourself, “Where did they FIND THAT!” Duke Ellington said that every day he is looking for a melody. He’s never sure where or when he will find it. But from the moment he wakes up to the moment he falls asleep, he is searching, constantly looking.

You also teach budding musicians. How’d you first get into that and what do you like about it?

Teaching is a way of directly giving back all that I am thankful for having received from music. It is really a position of service, of giving and guiding.

Also, teaching is quite frequently an experience of looking into a mirror, and can be very challenging, while maintaining integrity for what you teach, with staying open enough for a teaching to enter yourself. I constantly learn from my students.

Teaching constantly challenges me to remind myself who I am, and to maintain the integrity of who I am and allow openness for this other person, this other expression that may be drastically different from myself.

The job of a teacher is to open someone up to the creative expression in the abstract that is within them. Yes, there are definitely techniques, and formalities that must be worked on and learned, and mastered. And these are tools that are acquired to be a vessel that can freely express him/her self, beyond the technique.

At the right moments, a teacher also needs to know when to give a kick in the ass, to keep the student straight. Because what we are dealing with here, is pretty serious business, actually. When you start talking about true sincere expression with no limits, you are treading on sacred ground. Ground that has been tread on by many past masters, who have shown us the many ways. So it is important to be able to see when a student may be being lazy, or goofing off, and provide a good ass kicking.

Don’t get me wrong, it is all about fun, and reaching a point of real good feeling, warm groovy goodness. But that stuff is the most serious stuff there is, and can’t be taken for granted. We should be serious about having a good time, and making that warm groovy goodness with, and for, everyone we contact.
On top of everything else, you’re a budding film composer. Why film music?

Because I love movies. That simple.

As a child, movie music greatly affected me, probably more than I even realize. I would really get lost in movies, and hearing the music (when it is done well) brings you right back there. C’mon, Star Wars, Raiders, Superman… awesome music.

And also, the musician these days needs to have a little more versatility, besides just being a player. I love to write, I love the movies, and I get great joy out of putting music to a scene. It’s like being a child again.