Photo: Duhon Photography
Photo: Duhon Photography

Ari Shapiro Considers All Things

“I got into journalism on a fluke. I was finishing college and I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up.”

Drinking from a refillable coffee cup and donning a black polo on the patio of Big Bear Cafe in DC’s Bloomingdale neighborhood,
Ari Shapiro is explaining that even though he didn’t practice journalism during his formative years, he has since crafted a career as one of the most recognizable voices on National Public Radio (NPR).

“I applied to a million things and thought an NPR internship would be cool,” he tells me. “I got rejected for the NPR internship, and pretty much everything else I applied for, too.”

What once sounded like a cool idea would eventually lead to an esteemed career as a rotating co-host for flagship news program
All Things Considered, a position he’s held for the last three years. The 39-year-old journalist’s voice is heard by 14.7 million listeners on weeks where he’s featured.

Despite his penchant for journalistic storytelling, Shapiro is far from just a news radio rock star; he’s a singer as well. After an evening hang  at his home in 2008 with members of Portland-based Pink Martini – a self-described United Nations house band of 1962 meets Lawrence Welk on acid – ended in a sing-along, he was invited to provide vocals for the band in the studio and then live, a collaboration that’s continued over the years. He’s set to guest perform with the band at The Anthem on October 7.

A man as handsome and sultry sounding as Shapiro talking about rejection seems ludicrous at first; as you look at him and hear him speak, you can’t imagine him being less than successful at anything.

“Part of it is that rejection is a part of success. The repetition of rejection is what will eventually lead to success. That’s a necessary step along the way.”

 

All Things Considered is comprised of four hosts sharing duties on a bi-weekly basis.

Shapiro’s on-air days starts at about 8:30 a.m. after a bike ride to the office (he has never owned a car). An editorial meeting at 9:30 a.m. follows, where he pitches three fully formed ideas: an angle on national news, a “page two” story and another he describes as “joy, surprise and uplift.” He then begins working with editors and producers to craft introductions, develop interview questions and review edited versions of earlier conversations – all this before going live at 4 p.m.

Shapiro delivers stories with calm and candor, even when his guests get hostile or fiery, or the interviews venture into weird territory. These authentic interactions are largely absent in print media; the back and forth between the interviewer and interviewee often gets lost when the quotes are broken up and words hit the page.

“That’s one of the things I love about radio,” he says. “There’s something so intimate and nuanced about hearing a person’s voice that I don’t think comes across as effectively in print and even on television. There’s just something about hearing a person talk that I think goes around the defenses we all put up and the judgments we automatically make about people when we see them. It accesses something that is so fundamental to the human experience. There is no form of communication older than audio storytelling.”

One host is on call until 10 p.m. each night to provide updates for the West Coast feed as news breaks. The evening before our coffee-charged conversation, Shapiro was in the NPR offices lending his voice to updates on houses catching fire in Massachusetts, Hurricane Florence’s landfall and the prospects of Jeff Bezos’s second Amazon headquarters. Like a healthy diet of all things in variation, the diversity of stories keeps Shapiro enthusiastic about the program.

“The thing that really appeals to me is the mix. It’s not that, ‘Oh, I get to do an interview about the thing I really love.’ It’s that I get to keep doing interviews about different things all the time, and it goes back to that idea of being curious and learning and finding out more about the world.”

While Shapiro’s work no longer focuses solely on hard news, he’s still a nationally renowned journalist in a political atmosphere that has become hostile to some in the media. And though he’s not appreciative of President Trump’s tirades against the Free Press, he thinks the outbursts have helped provoke a sense of transparency in newsrooms nationwide.

“I’ve seen an evolution where I now think more news organizations and journalists are saying, ‘Actually, we have to do a better job than we’ve done in the past of explaining what we do, how we do it [and] how it’s important to democracy,’ and I don’t think those are bad things. That’s something we should have been doing for a long time, and the attacks on the media have woken us up to the fact that we can’t just assume people know why a free press is important and what the role of the media in democracy is.”

Shapiro mentions a reporting trip to Michigan scheduled in mid-October for midterms. He says the Midwest state represents a convergence of several ideas rolling around in his head: the state recently turning red, the auto industry and tariffs, and an intriguing place to reflect on the decade since the nation’s financial collapse. When I press him to project even further in to the future, he hesitates a little.

“In my career, I’ve never known what I wanted the next step to be. I’ve always felt like as long as I’m happy where I am and can forecast at least a year into the future, I’m in a good place. It feels like I’ve only just started. [All Things Considered host] Robert Siegel, who retired last year, hosted the show for 30 years, so I’m definitely not looking to move on anytime soon.”

 

Shapiro’s parents both spent their lives in academia.

His father was a computer science professor from San Francisco and his mother a communications professor from Chicago. In an educator-led household just outside of Portland, Shapiro was raised in environment that embraced curiosity. Imagination and discovery were not relegated to a classroom or strictly tethered to homework; instead, a willingness to experience the world in full was embraced and shared.

“There was a sense that the more you know about the world, the more interesting the world becomes, and you can learn anything you’re curious about. [My parents] were always grading papers or developing lesson plans. It wasn’t you clock out of work at the end of the day and you get to enjoy your life. The work is integrated into your life. I feel like that’s true of what I do now.”

Despite his piqued curiosity under the influence of his parents, broadcast journalism wasn’t an obvious path for a young Shapiro. He wasn’t sitting in his bedroom with a tape recorder working on a faux talk show or jotting down questions about the world he wanted to investigate.

“NPR was on in my house all the time, and in the car. I actually never did any journalism when I was in high school or college. I didn’t take a journalism class. I didn’t write for the school paper.”

Instead, Shapiro majored in English at Yale, where he learned how to “read and write and think.”

“I think that’s the value of a liberal arts education, whether you major in English or history or psychology, or anything else. It’s not so much that now I can understand Shakespeare or Dante, it’s that I can read a complicated text, make sense out of it and explain what the important thing is. That’s a skill I use when I’m reading a Supreme Court opinion or a report from a think tank.”

A lot has changed for Shapiro since his initial NPR assignment as Nina Totenberg’s intern in 2001. Before injecting his voice into national conversations, he was charged with transcribing audio, providing research on Supreme Court cases and scheduling interviews.

“I remember the first time [Totenberg] let me do an interview for a story. It was about a medical marijuana case, and I was so nervous and stressed. I was preparing for days, and I went to do the interview and the guy was giving these really slow, vague, one-word answers. I finally realized he was totally stoned.”

 

Pink Martini started playing in the mid-90s, when Shapiro was a high school student pondering an alternate reality of the world after reading Guns, Germs and Steel.

Before he stood onstage as a member, Shapiro geeked out as a fan with X’s on his hands in Portland bars that no longer exist.

“I remember a show they did at the employee party for a bakery where a friend of mine worked,” he says. “Now they play at Carnegie Hall, and back then they would play anywhere, anytime, for any reason.”

After college, he became friends with the band to the point that Shapiro’s house was a customary stop when Pink Martini performed in the District. Members of Pink Martini and another Portland band, Blind Pilot, swung by his barbecue 10 years ago and ended up staying late night, circling his piano and singing together. People who never sang stood side-by-side with professional musicians, and everyone tackled song after song in unison until 3 a.m. The next day, Pink Martini’s founder Thomas Lauderdale told Shapiro his voice would be perfect for a song on the band’s next album.

“At first I thought it would never happen, and then I thought if it did happen, it would be like that one time I did that thing with Pink Martini.”

The radio personality was sure the song wouldn’t make the album after recording in Portland, but then it did. Lauderdale then encouraged him to perform live with the band in front of 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl.

“It was incredible,” Shapiro says. “Backstage they have big black-and-white photographs of the legendary acts who’ve performed there over the years, so you’re waiting to go on and you see Jimi Hendrix, Judy Garland and The Beatles all on that stage you’re about to walk onto.”

Four albums later, though not a permanent fixture in the band nor always on their tour schedule, the list of songs Shapiro performs with Pink Martini has expanded. And because the band produces music with lyrics in foreign languages, part of his prep is nailing the pronunciation.

“I write them down phonetically on a piece of paper and carry it around in my back pocket for weeks just drilling them into my head. For the [upcoming] shows, I’m trying to learn two new songs in Japanese and French so I’m literally walking around town murmuring Japanese words under my breath.”

With the opportunity to express himself sonically with Pink Martini, and other side projects like cabaret shows and guest performances at venues including the Kennedy Center, Shapiro tells me he has little interest in recording a solo album. The contrast between being onstage and on-air provides him with enough of a shake-up from journalism.

“Hosting a show like All Things Considered, it’s just you and your guest in a studio, whereas at a Pink Martini show, the audience is right there and you can hear them responding or not responding. You have an experience that is in real time, that is real engagement with them, that you don’t really get on the radio.”

I push him on the album, facetiously suggesting a mixtape or SoundCloud page. He playfully shrugs, but a man like Shapiro won’t outright say “No.” Besides, he’s already in a profession he didn’t expect, and moonlighting as a singer for a band he followed in high school. For him to completely rule anything out would be uncharacteristic.

“Never say never.”

Catch Shapiro with Pink Martini at The Anthem on Sunday, October 7. Doors at 6:30 p.m. and show at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased at www.theanthemdc.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @arishapiro, and learn more about All Things Considered at www.npr.org/programs/all-things-considered.

The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; 202-888-0020; www.theanthemdc.com

Photo by Teresa Castracane
Photo by Teresa Castracane

1st Stage Tysons Brings Big Show to Small Theatre with Hero’s Welcome

Tucked away in an almost hidden nook of Tysons is the decade-old, not-for-profit theatre company 1st Stage. In an area closely resembling an industrialized plaza, new patrons often feel lost. With no big marque or valet parking in sight, those accustomed to more theaters downtown may worry they’re in the wrong place, but upon reassurance, the theatre doesn’t disappoint.

Unintentionally masking the true décor of 1st Stage elevates the experience for theatergoers. After climbing the dated metal staircase and crossing the threshold to the 1st Stage, the magic hits. The air is thick and notes of artistic fortitude can be felt.

Aside from their modest architecture, competing as a small fish in an enormous theatrical pond is occasionally daunting.

“We [have] lost shows to other theaters because there were larger theaters that could offer more to playwrights, especially in terms of actual dollars” shares Alex Levy, Artistic Director. “Yes, we are competing but they’re [also] competing with larger theaters across the country: Broadway [or even] film. There is always someone bigger than you to whom you can lose a show or actor.”

Defying all odds, 1st Stage acquired the rights to Hero’s Welcome, written by seasoned Tony Award winner, Alan Ayckbourn. Having only been shown professionally twice — once in London and once in New York City — acquiring this dramedy was a particularly significant win for Levy. Hero’s Welcome now runs through October 7.

The story follows a series of events sparked by the return home of a war veteran and his new wife. Confronting past and present transgressions, the play features complexities in human decision making and the harmful impact of those ill-informed, life-altering choices.

Brilliantly funny, dark and quick paced, Ayckbourn’s work offers unending questions. While a number go unanswered in the runtime, a climactic conclusion formulates, offering a sigh of relief. It’s a work that leaves audiences desiring more.

Adding to the perfectly detailed and intricate storytelling is the prestigious acting.

“One of the things that I love about this place is that you will see great plays and you will see performers that you will see on those larger stages but you will be this close,” Levy gleams while demonstrating a few inches in distance with his hands.

Levy references Anne Bowles, who plays Kara. Prior to debuting at 1st Stage, Bowles appeared three times on Broadway, in Netflix’s House of Cards and CBS’ The Good Wife. With Hero’s Welcome, audience members “can see directly into her eyes and breathe with her in this space. That’s an experience you don’t always get the opportunity to have.”

The intimacy and presentations at 1st Stage are what keep the community coming back. Annually the creative researches and selects the season’s lineup for upcoming seasons based on cultural interests.

“Excellence is always the first thing,” Levy says. “A lot of our audience come to our shows without knowing much. And what they trust in 1st Stage, which is a great honor and obligation, is that it’s going to be a great story.”

While it’s difficult to measure the impact of their productions, 1st Stage relies on faith when determining success and the future.

“One of the benefits is that I feel very little pressure to grab the hot, new show in New York whether it is good or bad just because it’s new,” Levy explains. “Our audience is interested in great stories. We look at the style and we look at the world around us and what conversations feel like they are relevant to when and where we are in the world. We tend to look at stories that are dealing with large human questions as opposed to subjects at the moment.”

Following Hero’s Welcome in 1st Stage’s season is A Civil War Christmas, written by Pulitzer Prize Winner Paula Vogel.

Hero’s Welcome runs through October 7 at 1st Stage at Tysons Corner. Tickets are $15-$39. For more information on the upcoming season and tickets visit their website at www.1ststagetysons.org.

1st Stage: 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA; 703-854 1856; www.1ststagetysons.org

Image: Courtesy of Records Collecting Dust
Image: Courtesy of Records Collecting Dust

Records Collecting Dust Sheds Light on Artists From Forgotten Era

Part of the appeal to old metal and punk records is the DIY attitude those bands put into recording the music. Instead of sounding pitch perfect and fresh out of a studio, these tracks could have been blaring live from a nearby garage, and that appeal is part of the authentic edginess.

Jason Blackmore is an integral part of this scene on the West Coast. When searching for a new project to deep dive into a few years ago, he resisted the notion of starting another band from scratch, and instead looked toward the past for inspiration. Though he had zero experience in film making, he embarked on a journey to document pieces of an era that helped shape him into a man. The result was the well received Records Collecting Dust, a collection of interviews with greats from the 1980s hardcore punk scene from the West Coast.

For Part II, Blackmore shifted regional focus and ventured east, highlighting Boston, New York and DC. Tonight at Black Cat, the film will be shown in the District for the first time, and it features 28 interviews with legends of the genre such as Ian MacKaye of Fugazi.

Tonight’s screening will also feature a Q&A with Dave Smalley, Dante Ferrando and Mark Haggerty. Before the play button is pressed, we got a chance to speak with Blackmore about his passion for the project, his DIY filmmaking and whether another one is on the horizon.

On Tap: When did you decide you wanted to make this documentary? And why did you focus on this specific genre of music?
Jason Blackmore: I’ve played in bands since the 80s, and was looking for a different avenue to express myself through music and came up with the film. I figured being located in San Diego, with almost no budget, it was a good place to start. There are a lot of folks from the Southern California area in the punk rock scene. My primary focus was always the 80s hardcore scene.

Yeah, in the future I could see myself covering different genres of music. I’m 48, so the hard core punk rock scene is very significant to me because it was the soundtrack to my adolescence and a lot of things happen when you’re 13, 14, 15. The people I’m talking to changed my life, and it’s my tip of the cap and love letter to those people.

OT: How did you know who you wanted to speak with, and what were some of the first steps with getting in touch with everyone?
JB: With the first film, I already knew some of the people just because of my history in music, and me living in San Diego. At that point in time, I had casually met a lot of the people, and became acquaintances and friends with some of these guys. Naturally, by the time I got to this one, some of the people had seen the first film and were eager to get on board and do an interview for the film, because they were aware of it.

OT: What was the response when you reached out?
JB: Oh yeah, it was great, absolutely. Just bringing up the topic of music, they were more than happy to talk about it, just music. By the time I got to the new one, people were thanking me because people were beginning to forget about this era. I had people thank me for making the film and documenting a period of time being lost; it’s a time capsule sort of thing. Maybe in 30-40 years, some people will see this film and learn something from it.

OT: Do you ever get intimidated talking to these musicians you respect so much?
JB: Honestly, you know, I’m more excited. It’s a little selfish, because I get to sit in these guys’ living rooms and talk about music and records. Who wouldn’t be excited? But yeah, there was a little nervousness at first. I was very honored to speak with all the people I could, and the fact that they opened the doors and allowed me in, I was very honored.  

OT: How many hours of footage did you have to sort through, and how difficult was it to figure out how you would shape the narrative?
JB: The first film was my first film ever and I have no background or education in this kind of thing. If you want to do something, do it, figure it out and go. So the first film was a learning process, and I asked too many questions and had so much footage and it was very painful. I asked 12 questions for the first film and I could only use half of them. For this film I asked less, and interviewed less, so I learned.

OT: Were there any huge differences from making the first and second film?
JB: Not especially. A lot of the people in that age range are speak of the same influences. A lot of Rolling Stones and Beatles, and that kind of stuff. Those bands are talked about a lot, so there are some recurring themes, but I definitely learned how to be more focused and ask less. I interviewed 28 people for the new film, down from 38 in the first. I learned the hard way, because we could have made an eight-hour film for the first one, but who’s going to watch that?

OT: Why decide to make a bonafide documentary, why not a web series or something along those lines?
JB: There’s all these different approaches to it, and it’s probably my age, because instead of making this an online series it seemed more official and more genuine to make a full documentary film. When you make an album, you put a lot of soul and passion into it, and that’s how I felt about making this film. To me, that is more real than watching something on your phone for five minutes. That’s the reason I’m booking in theaters. It will be available online, but for me growing up in the 70s and 80s, you’d go to the theater and see a film and I like that.

OT: Is there a part three on the horizon?
JB: Yeah, Part III would be the Midwest, but this has been the past six years of my life and I definitely want to hang out with my wife and not make a film at the moment. It’s very time-consuming. We’ll see what happens.

Doors for the event open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets to the screening are available here. For more information about the film, check out the website.

Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4527; www.blackcatdc.com

Artwork: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company
Artwork: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

STC Opens 2018 Season with Slapstick Farce The Comedy of Errors

The gang is back together may not be the first phrase that comes to mind when describing a collective of esteemed players teeming with talent who’ve reassembled for Shakespeare Theatre Company’s season opener. But when speaking with director Alan Paul about his casting decisions for The Comedy of Errors, it sounds more like a family reunion than a formal process.

“It feels like a family of people,” he says. “I think the secret of the show is that when you get people that know each other, as well as this group knows each other and has that level of comfort and trust, it’s so much easier to be funny and collaborate.”

STC’s associate artistic director saw the remounting of this early Shakespeare comedy, also part of the company’s 2005-2006 season, as “a joyful way to bring back a lot of people that I have loved and that have been important to the audience.” Paul is particularly sentimental about the start of this season as it marks artistic director Michael Kahn’s last one with the company after 32 years. To him, it only seemed fitting to bring together some of the actors Kahn handpicked over the years to celebrate his storied career.

Paul’s production of The Comedy of Errors, at Lansburgh Theatre from September 25 to October 28, is a madcap comedy about identical twin brothers who have been separated. One brother goes on a seven-year journey to find the other, and ultimately all hell breaks loose in some absurd cases of mistaken identity. While meant to make you laugh, the director says the premise of the play is actually not funny.

“If you think about the need to find your other half, it’s an extraordinary way to begin the play,” he says. “There’s such a depth to it. I hope I capture something that is deep and real about what happens to these people, because I think the end of the play should make you cry. I just feel that underneath the comedy of this play is something really real that motivates it.”

Paul’s connection to the play goes one level deeper, as he too is a twin. He says the remarkable thing about twins is you’re always at the exact same level of development as another person. Even now as adults, he and his sister understand each other in a way that’s completely foreign to the outside world.

“It’s such an interesting play, and I think I understand it on a deep level because I’m a twin. The dramaturg [Dr. Drew Lichtenberg] who helped me put the script together is also a twin. So we have two sets of twins working on the show.”

Beyond the twin coincidences, another unique element of this remounting is Paul’s desire to make everyone in the play “a little bit more mature” than the last time around. He’s also drawing from his experience directing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for STC several years ago, as both plays are based on works by ancient Roman playwright Plautus and include elements of slapstick and even vaudevillian humor.

In Paul’s version of The Comedy of Errors, the players will navigate chaos in 1960s Greece. He’s asked composer and lyricist Michael Dansicker to write a half-dozen songs for the show; in the past month, they’ve been collaborating on a song for both the opening scene and the courtesan, as well as a big number for the different policemen in the show.

Perhaps the only part of the Bard’s comedy he’s not changing is his lead, Gregory Wooddell. The seasoned actor and STC-affiliated artist played the same role of Antipholus of Syracuse for the company more than a decade ago, but he says his approach this time around will be fresh.

“One of the reasons I’m drawn to doing the role again after 13 years is that I feel like I’ve grown as an actor,” Wooddell says. “I’m personally excited to attack it with a lot more experience and wisdom under my belt. I think I’ve got new ideas, and I think I can bring a greater clarity to the role and the language.”

He describes the play as a classic comedy, with a straightforward plotline that’s very accessible to an audience that might normally shy away from Shakespeare. The actor also loves the fact that he’s getting paid to tap into his silly side on a daily basis.

“It’s a treat to be able to work on a play like this where you get to show up for work and try to get people to laugh. But as wacky and madcap as it can get, we have a really accomplished cast that I can’t wait to work with.”

Wooddell and Paul both mention the bad rap the comedy sometimes gets, often disregarded as a lesser play for being one of Shakespeare’s earlier works.

“There’s a sensibility about the play that it’s unsophisticated, and I disagree with that,” Wooddell says.

Paul agrees, saying that the fifth act of The Comedy of Errors is just as perfect, whole and deep as the fifth act of Twelfth Night or The Tempest.

“I hope what I can evoke in the show besides the humor, which will be there, is that the play has elements of what you see later on in [Shakespeare’s] plays about families coming back together,” the director says. “It is about the need to belong to a family and what length you will go to make yourself whole by finding your family. That’s the whole thing and the whole satisfaction of it. It’s a theme that Shakespeare came back to all the time.”

From universal themes to a 90-minute, no-intermission run time, Paul is crafting a production to engage millennial theatergoers as much as any other audience. Most importantly, though, he’s hoping to give us a much-needed break from the outside world.

“For all of us that go home and turn the news on every night and have to grapple with the chaos of this modern world, I want to give the audience 90 minutes of just pure joy to forget about all the nonsense going on today and just have a good time.”

The Comedy of Errors runs from September 25 to October 28 at STC’s Lansburgh Theatre. Tickets are $44-$118.

Check www.shakespearetheatre.org for details about special nights and discounts.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Get Out Composer Michael Abels Joins NSO For Live Score

Capturing the right sound for a movie is essential to its quality. In every film you love, there are moments heightened through musical choices made by either the director or his composer.

In 2017, there was not a more lauded movie than Get Out. The Jordan Peele brainchild racked up accolades and acclaim throughout the year, including an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. The thriller-horror movie defied genres, and its subject matter tackled racial tension and societal issues.

For any movie involving elements of fear and the unknown, music is an imperative element to building tension. For Get Out, Peele enlisted orchestral composer Michael Abels – a man who had never scored a feature film – after discovering him on YouTube. Now that he’s successfully captured the sound of Peele’s vision, Abels is at work on the writer-director’s second thriller Us, set to come out in 2019.

But before moving on to the next picture, Abels is set to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) in a live performance of the Get Out score paired with a screening of the film at the Kennedy Center on September 20. On Tap had a chance to speak with him about how Peele tracked him down, the film’s legacy and his relationship with one of Hollywood’s rising stars before he leads the orchestra through this eerie soundtrack.

On Tap: With live music from the NSO accompanying the movie, what do you think the audience should expect from this performance?
Michael Abels: I think you just asked the question of the hour. I have no idea, and I’m thrilled to find out. One of the fun parts of doing a horror movie are the jump scares. There are a couple really great ones here. If everyone has seen the film, they probably won’t be as scared, but I really want that for the live audience. At the same time, I think the audience will be people who are fans of the film, and also fans of the music.

OT: Jordan Peele said in an interview that he discovered you on YouTube. What was your initial reaction when he reached out to you?
MA: I’m a composer of concert music, live orchestras and performances, and somehow Jordan Peele saw one of them and had the Get Out producers hunt me down. I got a voicemail and I thought it was a prank. When I read the script, it was about 85 to 90 percent of the finished film, and it was amazing. He turned out to be about as great as he is in interviews – very funny and candid. He has a real understanding of people, and I admired that. I wanted him to be successful, and if he thought I could write the music to his film, I was on board.

OT: What were some of the initial requests Peele made for the sound of his vision?
MA: He saw a particular piece of mine called Urban Legends. It’s my most edgy sounding orchestral piece, and Jordan loves music that’s really out there. It goes with his love of horror and suspense. He’s a huge aficionado and fan of the genre – not in just how they’re directed, but of their music. In our first conversation, he said this music had to be scarier than shit, and it’s hard to mistake that clear direction. The second thing he mentioned was he wanted the African-American voice – both literally and figuratively – in the score. He heard this in my music and knew it was something I was comfortable doing – taking something that isn’t normally in a classical setting and putting it there and making it work. We talked about the character of the music, and it had to be clearly African American but not have the undercurrent of hope like in gospel and blues. He was looking for gospel horror that was scarier than shit.

OT: So, he wanted the music to be unsettling. How did you two collaborate and nail the sound of this movie?
MA: The film plays like a classic suspense film. Jordan had cited Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, and each of those films have a slow burn. You know something’s not right, and it’s slowly revealed to you. The score has to measure up. The first queue I did was the hypnotism scene, and it’s an iconic one. The audience has to get hypnotized and the music has to sneak in. Part of what a score does is inform the audience in a way that’s not on the screen. It does it in the subconscious.

OT: At what point in the process did you guys settle on “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” as the song that opens and closes the movie?
MA: Jordan likes to hear music in preproduction. It’s more expected that music is saved toward the end, not because it’s not important, but because it’s timed to the picture. Until a film is edited together, it doesn’t really exist in time. However, Jordan considers it as part of production design. I wrote “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” and a few others at the beginning to see what he liked. When he chose it as the main title, I was flattered.

OT: What was your initial reaction when you first read the plot of the film, and then again when you saw the completed picture?
MA: I thought it was good, but you want to feel that way. We thought it was like nothing else. Good films die at the box office every weekend, and if we knew why, fewer films would die. Personally, I had a sense some people would love it and others would find it polarizing. I was so proud of Jordan for taking so many risks with the film and hitting the ball completely out of the park.

OT: I really wanted Get Out to win Best Picture. I know winning an Academy Award wasn’t Peele’s ultimate goal, but I think in 10 years when people talk about cinema from 2017, they’ll point to Get Out as a breakthrough picture. Do you think the film will be remembered and revered as strongly as I do?
MA: I think it’s going to be studied in film schools. It’s a movie that will stand the test of time, and someday when people watch old movies they’ll say, “Hey, let’s watch Get Out.” My original goal was to score it and have Jordan feel like I did his work proud. I wanted to not get fired. That sounds kind of facetious, but in the context of being a film composer, it’s a significant thing to hope for. I think it’s a movie that will be held up as a great example of a genre-busting film, and [especially] when you add the fact it paved the way for Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting and BlacKkKlansman. Hollywood says it wants to be more diverse, and it’s flat-footed on following through, but all of this demonstrates there’s a whole creative world that hasn’t been mined at all. I hope it’s not a fad and is an actual sea change.

OT: You’re also working on his 2019 film Us. There are iconic duos of directors and composers such as Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer. Do you feel like you and Peele could end up like that, and does it feel like you kind of hit the lotto on your partnership with Peele?
MA: It’s so fun working for him. He never wants anything normal, and the notes that come back are like, “Take all of the normal shit out.” I can only hope [for a lasting partnership], but regardless of if that happens, my focus is one film at a time. The reason those relationships develop is because – and this is just my speculation – directors are mostly visual people, so when they’re talking with editors and cinematographers, there’s a shared language. With music, some directors aren’t as familiar with musical language, so they’re required to hand over this very important aspect of the film to someone they trust. If they find a person who’s able to realize their auditory vision, they’re really glad and they enjoy having that feeling of trust.

Watch Abels conduct the NSO on Thursday, September 20 at 8 p.m. at the NSO Pops: Get Out performance and screening in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. Tickets are $29-$99. Learn more at www.kennedy-center.org.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Small Mouth Sounds

Stage and Screen: September 2018

Through Sunday, September 23

Small Mouth Sounds
Six people sit in silence, escaping city noises and distractions in favor of necessary self-reflection. Cell phones? Not allowed. But then again, the retreat is led by a guru who can’t quite stick to the rules. Small Mouth Sounds serves as an adult edition of The Breakfast Club with a minimal set and sound. As you put your phone on silent and immerse yourself in the story, you might be surprised by your own self-reflection. Tickets are $51-$60. Round House Theatre: 4545 East-West Hwy. Bethesda, MD; www.roundhousetheatre.org

Monday, September 3 – Sunday, September 30

Gloria
As a journalist, writing about the lives of others becomes second nature. But when tragedy strikes a New York-based magazine, who gets to tell the story? After stories from iconic newsrooms have hit the big screen (Spotlight, The Post), Gloria acts out a contemporary journalism story – especially in light of the recent horror faced by staffers at the Capital Gazette. Tickets are $20-$41. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

Tuesday, September 4 – Sunday, September 23

Macbeth
Step away from the toil and trouble of daily life and get into the spooky season with this adaptation of Macbeth. Witches promise him a future of riches and royalty, but Macbeth is too hungry to wait. A hero turns into a murderer, and the psychological aftermath spirals him and others involved into madness. Under director Robert Richmond, the timeless tale takes on a more modern life with some newly added scenes. Folger’s production features music performed by the Folger Consort, and is adapted and amended by Sir William Davenant. Adapted or not, one lesson remains the same: don’t trust a witch. Tickets are $42-$79. Folger Theatre: 201 E. Capitol St. SE, DC; www.folger.edu

Thursday, September 6 – Sunday, September 16

DC Shorts Film Festival
Experience 10 days of film with more than 130 movie options at the 2018 DC Shorts Film Festival. These indie films from around the world are also competing for titles like Best Local DMV Film, Best Animation and Best International Narrative. You’ll watch up to nine films in each 90-minute screening session, so attending just one or two sessions will expose you to many new perspectives from talented filmmakers. After watching, mingle with fellow film buffs at the various festival parties with cocktails, food and music included. Tickets prices vary. DC Shorts Film Festival: Various locations around DC; www.festival.dcshorts.com

Friday, September 7

On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope Discussion
Politics and Prose hosts a conversation removed from the Twittersphere on politics, culture and the Black Lives Matter movement with activist DeRay Mckesson. He was there at a pivotal moment for modern day civil rights – 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri – and now all of his experiences are bound in his new book On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope. The book “offers a new framework and language for understanding the nature of oppression,” according to its summary. Share in the discussion or come to learn. Each event on Mckesson’s tour will feature a special guest. Tickets are $10 for students, $26-$28 for non-students. Book included in ticket price. GW’s Lisner Auditorium: 730 21st St. NW, DC; www.politics-prose.com

Saturday, September 15

Kevin Hart: The Irresponsible Tour
Work hard, laugh hard. Except Kevin Hart’s the one working to make you laugh. The actor and comedian is stopping in DC for The Irresponsible Tour with all-new material. Twitter users have applauded the show online, saying the show’s worth every dollar. Hart also has a new movie with Tiffany Haddish out this month, Night School, making you wonder if he ran his jokes with her and was influenced by a fellow comedic genius. Despite his stature – the punchline to many jokes – Hart is only getting bigger in the comedy world. Tickets are $34 and up. Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; www.kevinhartnation.com

Tuesday, September 18 – Sunday, November 11

Heisenberg
When 75-year-old Alex gets a surprise smooch from a comparatively younger stranger named Georgie, it’s not exactly what he expected when boarding the train on this average day. Even less expected was her finding him at his butcher shop sometime after the encounter. Georgie is confusing. Alex is confused. And so is the audience – left in suspense as the play’s runtime begins to unravel her true intentions. This unlikely duo with romantic relations is just another experiment conducted by Tony Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens. He’s just letting the audience in on his conclusive results. Tickets are $40-$89. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; www.sigtheatre.org

Friday, September 21 – Sunday, October 21

Born Yesterday
For DC natives, Born Yesterday may seem like an all-too-familiar story about gaining political power in the hub of the power hungry. But this satire set in the 1940s is more of a comedic retreat from the current stressful affairs, and the winnings don’t go to a who but to a what: the truth. Ford’s Theatre calls this production directed by Aaron Posner “political satire meets romantic comedy,” but all good stories are grounded in reality. Watch this for an entertaining mashup of unlikely allies and girl power to fight corruption. Tickets are $20-$62. Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; www.fords.org

Wednesday, September 26

Welcome to Night Vale Live Show
First-time visitors and regular listeners of the Night Vale podcast have a chance to experience a brand-new storyline with a live show tour. The alternate reality podcast production “promises to find unexpected ways to bring the audience into the performance,” according to the Welcome to Night Vale site. Live music by Disparition and special surprise guests will get you totally immersed in the mystery and spooky wonders of the small desert town brought to the Lincoln Theatre stage. In Night Vale, anything can happen. Prepare by tuning in to past episodes online. Tickets are $35. Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; www.thelincolndc.com

Photo: Margot Schulman
Photo: Margot Schulman

Signature Theatre Stirs Actors and Audiences with Passion

While an iconic work in the pantheon of Stephen Sondheim’s contributions to musical theatre, Passion is admittedly not an airy, feel-good musical. The hour-and-50-minute, one-act play asks much of its actors and its audiences as it tells the timeless story of wavering between the love of two different people.

The new production, at Signature Theatre through September 23, is staged to mirror a runway. The audience will be split down the middle, facing one another while absorbing the characters’ anguish as they’re torn between multiple outcomes throughout the play.

The musical, which made its debut in 1994 and holds the title of shortest-running show to win a Tony Award for Best Musical, is based on the recounting of an Italian author’s affair with an ailing woman while he served in the military. Giorgio (Claybourne Elder) swings from a dangerous pendulum between his carefully arranged relationship with his beautiful – and married – mistress Clara (Steffanie Leigh) and the allure of the reclusive, plain Fosca (Natascia Diaz).

Signature Theatre Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner brings an intimacy and fierce intensity to the production, challenging audiences to face themselves and their perceptions of physical beauty. Every decision feels very deliberate, from splitting the stage in half to emphasize Giorgio’s gravitation toward both women to the unmoving lens on his transformation over the course of the play as the actor never once leaves the stage.

“It’s very dynamic,” says Diaz (West Side Story, Threepenny Opera) of the play’s staging. “It already denotes one side and another – and being pulled in multiple directions. That is the dynamic. Giorgio is being pulled between these two women. It visually exists in a physical format that enhances that energy. Matthew is able to make things that are tangible and real, but it has this ethereal quality to it.”

At first blush, the intricacies of the story may seem dated. A sickly, homely Fosca isolates herself from her surroundings and lives vicariously through books. Giorgio takes a military post far away from his beautiful Clara, but the lovers stay connected through impassioned letters. Though Passion is set in the 19th century, the painful missteps of romance and navigating the concept of monogamy are still very much familiar to us in 2018. As Elder (Sunday in the Park with George, Bonnie and Clyde) prepared for his role, he too found the subject matter relatable.

“The novel was written in 1870 and as I read it, I thought to myself, ‘What a fascinating mediation on love and obsession, affection and passion,’” Elder says. “I’ve definitely found myself in the novel – like, ‘I have done that before, I have felt that way about a person before’ – which is very interesting. The feelings behind it all are every bit as contemporary as they would have been in the 1800s.”

Fosca is widely regarded as one of the most unlikeable characters in modern theatre, making it a complex role for any actor. But much like Elder, Diaz looked past the surface and found common ground with the young woman, physical and emotional afflictions and all. While preparing to take on what she called the largest role she’s ever played, Diaz says she grew to feel as though she knew Fosca.

“I looked at the page and thought, ‘I could have written this,’ meaning that I understand her completely. I not only understand her, but I love her. It’s the strangest thing to play a character as large and as previously judged as this. It’s just like any other slander case. They don’t know her until they’ve read it and seen what’s at the center of her soul.”

The polarizing nature of Fosca lies not as much in her physical unattractiveness as it does in the fact that she embodies “pure, unadulterated feeling.” At the heart of the play, though, is Giorgio’s struggle between two women, two ways of life, his head and his heart.

The audience’s disdain for Fosca may be the initial visceral reaction, but the production holds another element that makes Giorgio’s role equally if not more so emotionally taxing. As the common thread that binds every character in Passion together, it makes sense to have Elder remain onstage for the entire performance – though the impressive feat does have its own physical and emotional challenges for the actor.

“What Giorgio learns in this play is astonishing and very profound,” Elder says. “I connect to it greatly and I find it very emotional, and therefore it’s hard. As actors, it costs something emotionally every time you do a play. You give a piece of yourself to it. I’m grateful this run is only a few months, because living in this for a long time would be very challenging. I would need a lot of therapy. It challenges me to really face myself.”

For audiences who are ready to experience a production that asks questions both timeless and timely, Signature is ready to take you on a journey in their intimate, inventive black-box space. You may learn something about yourself right alongside Giorgio.

Passion is not a show that gets done very often in regional theatre, because it’s not a big draw,” he continues. “It’s complicated, it’s emotional, it’s dark at times. It’s not a laugh-a-minute night out, so you need an audience that’s going to get excited and support it. I have absolutely no doubt that [Signature] is the best possible place to do this show. I feel very, very lucky to get to be a part of this.”

Stephen Sondheim’s Passion runs through September 23 at Signature Theatre. Tickets are $40-$104. Pride Night is September 7, Discussion Night is September 12 and Open Captioning will be held on September 16. Learn more at www.sigtheatre.org.

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org

Photo: Anna Moneymaker
Photo: Anna Moneymaker

Post Shift Theatre Shines Light on Service Industry Artists

When a group of workers in the service and hospitality industries gathered in the back of a Northeast DC distillery to perform a series of 10-minute plays the evening of August 27, it was with every intention of playing on the actor-waiter cliché.

Post Shift Theatre held their annual A Night of New Works at Republic Restoratives. Tickets sold for $10 each and the back of the bar was packed with viewers for both showings. This year’s theme for the plays was temperature – an idea chosen for its multiple meanings to different kinds of service workers.

“We spent a lot of time thinking of important words in the service industry and were really interested in ‘temperature’ because of all of the things that it could mean in a kitchen,” said artistic director Clancey Yovanovich.

“That kind of customization was something we wanted to hone in on and explore the entire spectrum of heat, from very cold to very hot, and what that means to people.”

The event included six 10-minute performances, ranging from comedic to serious in tone and dialogue. Some plays used the theme literally while others explored the idea of temperature in relationships both familial and romantic.

Each play was an interesting take on the idea of temperature and its multitude of meanings but the night could have used a little more cohesion, especially with the transitions from comedy to more serious and back again.

Despite that, actors were able to transform the large room, dominated by heavy machinery and a unique smell, into whichever setting their performance required – be it a hip bar, a cluttered home of recently divorced parents or an emergency room. Each performance managed to establish a setting with a clever, minimal use of props.

According to Yovanovich, Post Shift Theatre’s goal is to continue performing in more nontraditional spaces that emphasize the theatre company’s deliberate connection to the service industry.

“There’s so, so many artists secretly hiding in aprons in restaurants and we want to explore that too,” Yovanovich said.

These spaces do provide their own challenges, however. The performance would have benefited from some sort of microphone usage to amplify the actors’ voices above both the occasional intrusive sounds of distillery machinery and even above the lively and engaged audience members themselves. While most actors were able to project, some of the quieter moments were lost in a vast room that was probably not designed with performance in mind.

Regardless of the kinks, Post Shift provides entertainment for both fans of local theatre and supporters of those in the service industry, as well as representation for the artists who inhabit both worlds.

Keep up with the theatre company’s events and news on Post Shift Theatre’s Facebook page

Photo: Courtesy of Constellation Theatre Company
Photo: Courtesy of Constellation Theatre Company

This Melancholy Play Gives Complex Look at Sadness

Staring into the distance, Tilly, Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce‘s star asks, “Do you ever long to cry?”

The play is a can’t miss 100-minute contemplation of what makes us happy, sad and completely depressed, written by Pulitzer Prize Finalist and Tony Award nominee Sarah Ruhl. Under the direction of Nick Martin at Source Theatre, Ruhl’s work addresses a full spectrum of emotions with pure laughter and quick glances.

Tilly is a small-town banker who persistently broods. However, if you look closely, a glimpse of hope is found on her tear-stained face. Perfectly played by Billie Krishawn, Tilly finds despair at every turn, even when she falls in love with her tailor, Frank, charmingly played by John Austin.

The affection between Tilly and Frank is sublime, as the two confide their inner anxieties to one another. However, their romance is only one of numerous awkward attempts at the lead’s hand.

Because Tilly’s overtly beautiful and emotional nature is so enchanting, she unintentionally mesmerizes every onlooker with her exaggerated sighs and romanticized explanations of love.

Her first victim is Lorenzo, played by Christian Montgomery. Lorenzo is Tilly’s eccentric therapist who falls for her somber demeanor, confessing love within minutes of their second session. Montgomery candidly portrays a humorous Italian immigrant who finds solace in Tilly’s musings of sadness and despair; he pounces, causing her to flee.

Next to fall head over heels is Frances, the romantically involved lesbian physicist-turned-hairdresser, who is captivated by the heroine during an uneasy haircut. The character, convincingly played by Mary Myers, is drawn to Tilly’s unexplainable neediness and yearns to be her savior.

The two later reunite with Joan, Frances’ partner. Joan, a nurse played by Lilian Oben, is hesitant, yet instantly taken as well. She attempts to soothe Tilly while insuring Frances keeps her distance.

In the latter half of the production, a pivotal shift occurs at Tilly’s birthday party, where oddly enough Lorenzo, Frances and Joan take part in a game of Duck, Duck, Goose. Neurotically laughing like children high on sugar, Tilly’s grim outlook is spent and she swells with euphoria.

Unfamiliar with the newly elated Tilly, the ensemble begins to revert. Grieving the figurative loss of their depressed friend, Frances, Frank and Lorenzo grow hopeless. They comically fight over bottled tears and ultimately decline further into their own pits of despair before they discover their own true happiness.

The marks of melancholy, though suggested in the title, seem less a farce, and instead realistically compelling, proving a witty take on mental illness in the glamorized 1950s. The satirical moments are most evident and appreciated in the many humorous interactions as they each vie for Tilly’s love.

Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce is showing at Constellation Theatre Company’s Source through September 2. Tickets are $19-$45.

Source: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; 202-204-7741; www.constellationtheatre.org

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Stage and Screen: August 2018

THROUGH SUNDAY, AUGUST 5

The Story of the Gun
Politics aside, what is the history with America and guns? Mike Daisey offers a comedy-tinged performance about the controversial conversation. The New York Times-designated “master storyteller” won’t be lecturing you on a specific partisan point. While we’re used to hearing repetitive rhetoric on the gun debate, Daisey’s performative aspect to this topic should offer a fresh conversation to help us all get to the root of America’s polarizing relationship to guns. The show is only available for a week, but this conversation will forever be a hot topic. Tickets are $20-$66. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

THROUGH SUNDAY, AUGUST 26

The Color Purple
Based on the 1982 book by Alice Walker, this story has won awards as a novel, film and musical. Witness the heart-wrenching story of Celie, who is separated from her sister and children for most of her life but finds a way to stay hopeful and in the end, triumphant. Set in early 1900s Georgia, The Color Purple is told through jazz, gospel, ragtime and blues, and explores different family and relationship dynamics. Don’t miss out on the production awarded with a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. Tickets are $69-$149. The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

FRIDAY, AUGUST 3

Hey Frase! A Live Podcast Taping
Ever listen to a great podcast and wish you were in on the fun? Hosts Sarah Fraser and Paul Wharton are joined by guests Danni Starr and comedian Rob Maher for this special live taping of Hey Frase! They’ll be trying their hand at standup while recording a hilarious conversation you can relive later on, including their thoughts on pop culture in DC and beyond. Starr is a radio host on 93.9 WKYS and TLC, and Maher has performed with Kevin Hart and is a regular favorite at DC Improv. Tickets are $25-$30. AMP by Strathmore: 11810 Grand Park Ave. Bethesda, MD; www.ampbystrathmore.com

FRIDAY, AUGUST 10 – SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 2

Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce
This refreshing comedy about love isn’t about your typical, gorgeous lead. Yes, everyone is in love with her. But no, it’s not because she’s a bubbly, model-like star. Tilly’s sadness is what makes her so irresistible – no wonder even her therapist can’t get enough. Unfortunately for her admirers, Tilly’s emotions turn topsy-turvy as she discovers true joy. Moving beyond physical affections, Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play will show you a surreal kind of love. Tickets are $19-$45. Constellation Theatre Company at Source Theatre: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; www.constellationtheatrecompany.com

TUESDAY, AUGUST 14

Happy Birthday, LIT!
Recover from your Monday blues with lots of laughs from Laugh Index Theatre (LIT) as they celebrate eight seasons of bringing comedy variety shows and improv to DC audiences. Catch a preview of their new cast as well as performances from their original, seven-year-old comedy team, Hot & Sweaty. Performances will range in comedic style from stand-up to sketches, and even musical improv. LIT boasts eight original teams, and more than 60 overall members dedicated to keeping it funny in the nation’s capital. Show your support for local comedy, and if you like what you see, sign up for a workshop. Tickets are $8-$10. Source Theatre: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; www.laughindextheatre.com

TUESDAY, AUGUST 14 – SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 23

Passion
After their (yes, passionate) love is deterred by military duty, Giorgio and Clara’s relationship must survive through solely letters during the mid-1800s in Italy. Of course, the handsome soldier can’t avoid admiration even away at camp – his colonel’s cousin, Fosca, stays there too. While longing for Clara, Giorgio befriends Fosca, who suffers from seizures and spends her time solitary, living through the characters in novels. You’ll quickly learn that this isn’t a story about two young people destined to be together. The feeling of passion is a shifting force that can border obsession. This musical explores love and sickness – sometimes to the point that there is no difference. Tickets are $40-$89. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; www.sigtheatre.org

THURSDAY, AUGUST 16 – SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 15

In The Closet
Presented by Rainbow Theatre Project, this world-premiere production crosses time but not necessarily space as we witness the lives of four gay men from various years. This metaphysical comedy delves into the unique stories of an old man, a middle-aged man, and younger men who are “where all gay men begin, in the closet,” according to the DC Arts Center’s description. By playwright Sigmund Fuchs, this production of In The Closet will start up the center’s August season. Tickets are $30-$35. DC Arts Center: 2438 18th St. NW, DC; www.dcartscenter.org

SUNDAY, AUGUST 26

Bollywood Boulevard
Bollywood films are known for their grand song scenes. In one moment, the stubborn heroine will catch herself eyeing the hero in some mundane – but sweet – action (teaching a child, for example). The next scene finds them both atop a snow-capped mountain as they sing about their mutual, unrequited love. These made-for-movie songs quickly become top hits for weddings and sing-along car rides, and now they’re live onstage with Bollywood Boulevard. The upbeat dance styles against vibrant lights and stage sets will have the whole audience clapping and swaying along. This “journey through Hindi cinema” is based on music and dance from different eras of Bollywood, from 20th-century classics to modern day. Tickets are $25-$55. Wolf Trap’s Filene Center: 1551 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; www.wolftrap.org