By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
At this point in the conversation at the Japanese restaurant, a woman gets up from the sushi bar and comes over to our table to introduce herself. “I just have to tell you,” she gushes, “I’ve been listening to your stuff for years. I live in Seattle, and your music sounds so good up there, in the climate ...”
“KEXP?” Stew says, referring to the local Seattle independent-rock radio station.
“KEXP! That’s where I first heard you. Your songs sound really good in the rain. I couldn’t believe those songs came out of a sunny climate.”
“Central Casting!” Stew exclaims as she walks away. “The timing was perfect.”
Stew classifies Passing Strange as “autobiographical fiction,” meaning “everything in it is true,” even if it didn’t really happen that way. Like Stew, the Youth in the play grows up, leaves for New York, then Europe, where he confronts a new set of stereotypes and plays conveniently to his audience. One of the show’s funniest moments intercuts Davis, as the Mother, reporting news from home (“I ran into Sherry at the arts-and-crafts fair!”) with Breaker, as the Youth, trying to prove himself worthy of the company of a group of radical artists with his life story of oppression “under police occupation in the ghetto.” He “sits in a café/like Baldwin in the day,” a sufficiently romanticized vision of the black expatriate that you know Stew doesn’t take it seriously. At least, not anymore: The way the play tells it, the ideal is powerful enough to the Youth that he rejects home, ignores family, disappoints women. Then he looks back and wonders what he’s done. Was it right, he wonders, to put art above love? Above family?
“That’s probably the most true thing in it,” Stew reflects. “I had big regrets about some things. Confusing art for love, putting art first, and really having to deal with the consequences of that. I mean, in every single case, in my relationships to every single person I’ve ever been with, being able to make the art trumped everything.”
Both Stew and Rodewald credit their director, Annie Dorsen, with keeping them true to their sound and story. Dorsen joined them during their first workshop at the Public, and stayed for the journey — two seasons at Sundance, a residency at Stanford, a premiere at Berkeley Rep. As many a playwright has discovered, collaboratively workshopping your play sometimes turns out an Angels in America; more often, it swallows imaginations whole, and plays disappear. Stew and Rodewald were lucky. They read early on for legendary director George C. Wolfe, who encouraged them to stick to the vision they’d created. Robert Redford took them aside to talk to them about their work.
“At first we were like, ‘Oh my god, it’s Robert Redford,’ ” Stew admits. “But after a second, he was just this guy giving us advice.” And they had Dorsen.
“Annie kept urging us to be more of ourselves, to be the rock band that we actually are. At some point, I’d be writing a scene that would be some third-rate bad realist American Arthur Miller imitation, and she’d say, ‘You know, that’s not you.’ ”
“We had to step back a lot,” Rodewald says, “and remember who we are.”
At Sundance, they wrote from sundown to sunup (they are rock musicians, after all), and showed up at 11 a.m. to hear professional actors reading their words.
“It was like an addiction,” Stew says. “It was like somebody giving you a drug you’d never had. They spoiled us and humbled us by being so warm and supportive; it was something I’d really never known in the music biz.”
“The theater world was so different from what we were used to,” Rodewald adds. “Bands are always competing, always engaging in this phony, schmoozy, catty stuff.”
And theater people are not?
“No,” Stew says firmly. “The cool thing about theater is that nobody goes into it purely to make money. In rock & roll, even people who don’t think they’re going into it for money go into it to be famous.”
“In the theater,” Rodewald adds, “you get the feeling that everyone is working together, that they’re all in it because they love it.”
Once in a while, someone involved in the process would suggest something “that was a little straight for our taste,” Stew admits. “But the beauty of it was that we could just say we didn’t want to do that. It was so funny for us, because when the record company pays the producer, the record company pays the producer to make the record the record company wants you to make. So the producer often battles with the band and tries to clean up the sound and make a hit.”
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