October 6, 2014
Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet at the Bushwick Starr
October is a good month for ghost stories, and writer/composer/performer Dave Malloy (of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 fame) has a story for you—four stories, in fact, interwoven over the span of seven centuries in the new immersive show Ghost Quartet. To tell these chilling tales, Malloy combines forces with Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, and Brent Arnold (their new band is also called Ghost Quartet) at the Bushwick Starr October 8th through November 1st. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg spoke with Malloy about simultaneously writing a show and starting a band, how whiskey is used not just for drinking but in the storytelling, and the influences for some of the scary music.
Culturadar: How scary is this show?
Dave Malloy: We are trying to be careful not to fall into all the clichés. We decided early on: No nursery rhymes, no toy pianos. There are a couple places where we are indulging in those clichés a little bit, but I don’t think the piece is a scary piece, just a piece about ghosts. We also use ghosts metaphorically, so it’s actually people dealing with regret, who they used to be, or what they’ve done in their past, and they’re looking at the ghosts of themselves.
CR: How did you choose the four stories?
DM: My first draft of the script actually had about a dozen stories. I was taking from everything. The one thing they all had in common was that when I was researching the show I was just looking into stories about two women, and the ones that kept coming up were Scheherazade and Dunyazad from Arabian Nights, and the Grimm’s fairy tale of Rose Red and Snow White. I was also looking at Wicked and Frozen, so the whole gauntlet. Now we have four narratives that are a few centuries apart: One’s in 14th century Persia, one’s an Edgar Allen Poe story, one’s a German fairy tale, and one is a contemporary piece that came from a New York Post photo of a guy about to be hit by a subway train about a year and a half ago. The cover just said, “Doomed,” and I remember being so terrified of that photo when it came out and appalled that they had run it.
CR: Your shows always have a communal element. How did you determine what that communal element would be for this show?
DM: This is essentially a ghost story, so we started from the camp fire. Unfortunately, we can’t literally have a camp fire, but the audience is seated in a circle and we’re sitting in that circle with everyone else. There’s a center space that we sometimes go into, but for most of the show it’s an empty space where the fire would be. And this is a bourbon show, we decided. There’s a lot of whisky involved. All of the stories deal with drinking in their own way as well. There’s often been alcohol in the shows I’ve done, but this is the first time I’ve addressed it, trying to make the audience a little complicit. But it’s still very much for fun.
CR: How does the theatricality enhance the music?
DM: We brought in a director, Annie Tippe, who’s been amazing about honoring the fact that it’s a music concert but also finding the delicious moments when someone can step out from behind their instrument into the center and become more theatrical. We’re doing a very odd hybrid between what a theater show is and what a music concert is, so we’ve been playing with different performance styles. Some of the transitions are very smooth the way they would be in theater, and some of the transitions are very clunky the way they would be at a rock concert.
CR: When you were writing the show, did you start with the music?
DM: The idea was always musical first and the theatricality of it was the second layer. It came about from having worked with these other three musicians and just loving them as musicians. We were all playing Risk one night, and I looked around the room and I said, “Oh my god, we should do a show. The four of us should become a little ensemble and should make a show.” All four of us write dark and gloomy and depressing and sad music, so we decided we should be writing a ghost story.
CR: Had you all worked together before?
DM: We’d all worked together in various incarnations, but this is the first time the four of us have worked together. Through the process of making a show we’ve also been making a band and learning how we are as a band together.
CR: Is it challenging to have the musicians before knowing what you want for the instrumentation?
DM: Quite the contrary. It’s actually such a benefit. Instead of writing a show for a brass quintet and then hoping to find the right tuba player, I’m writing for three people whose musicality I know very well. I’ve always been a fan of casting the show first and then writing the music.
CR: The music has a lot of influences from different styles. Was that deliberate or did those emerge from the writing?
DM: They just emerged organically from the material. I’ve been a huge fan of fantasy, sci fi, and horror and the soundtracks that go to those things, like The Twilight Zone and Bernard Herrmann. For me, it was an opportunity to dig into that music. In a lot of ways, we’re playing with the idea of a concept album. In the show, rather than calling them acts we call them “sides.” We have side one, side two, side three, and side four. Thinking of the show as a concept album allows us a little more narrative freedom. It’s been a fun challenge to balance the desire for clear narrative with a desire for more pop concept album ambiguity. And we’re going to have a record release party after the show one night.
CR: Are you guys going to be doing more projects, more shows?
DM: We would love to tour the show. Ghost Quartet is also now the name of the ensemble and the show and the album. If we did another show and another album, then we’d be Ghost Quartet doing a completely different title.
CR: So your identity is tied to your first show.
DM: Yes, exactly. And we’re really hoping to tour this show in people’s living rooms and people’s lofts. All kinds of bizarre music venues.
CR: What would be your dream venue for this show?
DM: A dilapidated rundown church in the forest of Germany somewhere. It would be great to have candlelight everywhere and a campfire. Somewhere creepy and rundown and slightly Gothic would be great. An abandoned subway station would be another perfect place for it.
For more information on Ghost Quartet and to buy tickets, click here.
Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.
Posted at 9:37 PM