Robbie Schaefer is best known for his acclaimed folk rock band Eddie From Ohio, but with his first play Light Years, kicking off tonight at Signature Theatre, the talented musician will expand his stage repertoire to include acting as well.
After years of recording albums and touring the United States with Eddie From Ohio, Schaefer told On Tap he found himself in a creative drought after the death of his father a couple of years ago. So the songwriter did what he always does when seeking catharsis – he set pen to paper and started to try to write songs. But the songs morphed into essays and before he knew it, Schaefer was penning a play.
The end result was Light Years. The play charts Schaefer’s journey from his childhood in India to the joys and struggles of growing up and moving to Northern Virginia, pursuing his passion and raising a family. Entwined throughout is his cherished relationship with his father – and his father’s haunted past.
Of course, Schaefer’s original compositions are a key part of this musical journey, described as “a deeply personal tale of immigration, musical gifts and the steadfast bond between father and son.” On Tap recently talked to Schaefer about his play, his relationship with his father and making the leap from a musical stage to a theatrical one.
On Tap: Your band Eddie From Ohio has been a popular act in the DC area for years. Where did the decision to write a play come from?
Robbie Schaefer: I did not make a decision – at least not at first – to write something for theatre. I was at a bit of a creative standstill in my life and I wasn’t feeling particular urgency toward the stuff I’d always done, which was write songs and record them. It just developed very organically in that way. At one point, I had written a handful of songs over the previous year and I’d written a few essays. I kind of had a light bulb moment when you see something that’s been right in front of your face, but you just haven’t seen it yet. I literally broke into a cold sweat because I realized, “Oh, I’m writing something for musical theatre.” The cold sweat was once you see it, you can’t unsee it, and then you’ve got to do something about it.
OT: Did you envision yourself in the lead role?
RS: [Laughs] I guess I’m self-absorbed enough that I always saw myself in it and in fact, when I first wrote the show, it was a one-man show. I saw it in a theatrical setting, not in a concert setting. That was the original vision.
OT: Can you talk about making the leap from performing live music, which you are obviously very comfortable with, to starring in a professional musical production?
RS: I am very comfortable performing and have done that most of my life. In theatre, it’s a completely different animal with a different set of tools, and it’s all very new to me. There’s a lot of rehearsal time and a lot more tinkering; a lot more revising happens during the writing process than it does when you are just writing songs for an album. It’s a more complex medium, at least for me. There are so many more cogs to the machine. You have tools in the toolbox. [For example], lighting can help you tell the story – just a shift in lighting.
OT: What is Light Years about?
RS: It’s highly autobiographical. Part of my creative standstill was due to the fact that my father had passed away during that time. The experience certainly struck me as pretty curious in the sense that if everything goes according to the plan of the universe, our parents are supposed to pass away before us. This is a part of being alive that is about as natural as can be. And yet, I was wholly unprepared for the seismic shift that brought about in me. I started to realize this was true in most people with their experience. This writing was absolutely part of my own grieving process and catharsis. This is how I get rid of my shit – my therapy. I write songs and figure it out. The show is very much about a father and son who love each other even if they don’t always understand each other, and maybe especially when they don’t understand each other. We each have a responsibility to take the baton and take one more step forward in the story of our family and the story of our community and the story of our country, even. We can use whatever tools we have at our disposal to give voice to the stuff that maybe the generation before didn’t have.
OT: What did you learn from the process of creating this musical?
RS: It’s still happening, just given that we’re still discovering the story a little bit in rehearsal. It’s not like it’s over when I finish writing. I don’t know why we as human beings wait to reconcile our relationships until they are over. Maybe it’s simply human nature that we need [to take] a few steps back – that kind of perspective to see what really happened, what it really meant to us. Or maybe it’s just safer from a little bit of distance. This has been very much a process for me of reconciling my relationship with my father. I don’t mean there was all this unfinished business between us, because there really wasn’t. There was a lot of love between us. This was not a caustic relationship, but our relationships with our parents are complicated. Through a little bit of removal, I was able to see the relationship more clearly and also who he was. He was not just my dad.
OT: What’s it been like to work with the professionals at Signature Theatre, who are so accomplished in what they do?
RS: I am just beside myself [and] thrilled to come here every day for the last month or so. I don’t even know that I really understood what I was getting myself into. It’s such a great operation and it all stems from Eric Schaeffer, who is the director of our show but also the artistic director of Signature. His appetite for risk and his optimism and curiosity artistically – and otherwise – filters down throughout this organization. While I haven’t worked in other theaters in this kind of an intimate way, I understand that not every theater feels like this. It’s at once highly professional with everybody top to bottom committed to what they are doing here and committed to telling stories, but I have literally not run into a single ego here. I’m learning a ton.
OT: What do you hope your audiences take away from your theatrical stage debut?
RS: I would just say that my hope is we’ve created something that people will walk away from feeling a little more alive and a little returned to themselves. I know that’s how we have all felt creating this.
Light Years runs tonight through March 4. For more information, visit Signature Theatre’s website here.
Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org