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Drew Valins on the right // Photo: Michael Yeshion Photography

Iconic Character Vaněk Unleashed In The Havel Project

When I think of underground theatre, I think of gritty, non-glamorous shows waiting to be found. However, Alliance for New Music-Theatre is set to take ‘underground’ to the next level with their upcoming performances of Václav Havel’s Protest and Susan Galbraith’s Vaněk Unleashed. Their venue of choice – Dupont Underground, an abandoned streetcar station beneath Dupont Circle.

The first play of this double bill criticizes the communist regime that blanketed Czechoslovakia in 1948. Vaněk Unleashed then further develops Vaněk, a character from Protest, by giving him a voice in this spin-off, “absurdist musical fantasy.”
Drew Valins will portray Vaněk, as he transforms from a silent presence in Protest to a fully formed being in Vaněk Unleashed.

“[He] barely speaks. He’s very shy, so he doesn’t really step on toes,” Valins says. “[Galbraith] created a way to unleash Vaněk.”

Both plays concern themselves with communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, but Valins believes these shows are relevant to American audiences.

“When we started back in 2013, we felt like we kind of had to stretch to understand what it might be like to live in a totalitarian regime because that’s what these plays deal with,” he says. Over time, though, Valins realized that Havel’s plays continue to relate to America’s political climate.

Valins thinks of America as a country of division.

“People are suspicious of one another,” he continues. “No one really knows where to go for answers and that’s exactly the kind of world that Havel was writing about.”

From talking to Valins, I imagine the DC audience might see glimpses of themselves in these performances that will resonate in unexpected ways.

These performances will stand side by side, but their cultural influences seem entirely different. Valins describes Vaněk Unleashed as an “American response” to Czech theatre. For instance, in Protest Vaněk is a more emotionally reserved character, but in the spin-off it mirrors American theatre’s ability to dig underneath the silent character’s reserved exterior.

Havel’s plays were originally performed as “apartment performances” to deflect attention from his communist-ruled country, and the Alliance for New Music-Theater will attempt to mimic those hideaway performances in the Dupont Underground.

“We love the fact that its underground because Havel’s plays had to go underground or under the radar,” Valins says.

By meshing two cultures and honoring the original stagings, the Alliance for New Music-Theater has committed to celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and politically significant artists like Havel. Audiences will also witness a plethora of emotions onstage, in addition to various cultural influences, which is Valins’ favorite aspect of the production.

“I’m really excited about that fact that I get to sing. This character, Vaněk— the last thing you would expect him to do is sing. In Vaněk Unleashed, I get to go through every single human emotion. I get to go through joy, fear, anger. I break out in song. I dance. So it’s just a lot of joy. Ironically, that all happens while I’m in prison,” Valins says.

These performances deal with heavy issues, but as pieces of absurdist theatre, audience members are sure to be stunned by unexpected nuances.

If Valins could speak with Havel, he has a few things he would mention to the playwright. His message is poetic, meaningful, and quite fun, which I imagine is a precursor to his performance as Vaněk.

“Mr. Havel, you’re a terrible dancer, but thank you so much for your spirit. You’re a real inspiration in the way you hold yourself and enjoy life under pressure. And you’re just a cool person that I wish I could’ve known and rolled a cigarette with and had a smoke with. I wish you could see our stuff, and I think you would dig it.”

Valins’ passion for the upcoming performances makes me want to dive into the world of Havel that these actors will prepare for their audience – regardless of the playwright’s inability to dance.

“Havel wasn’t as concerned with artificial professionalism. He was concerned with enjoying the work, so [the cast and crew] puts in that spirit.”

New Music Theater will host performances of Protest and Vaněk Unleashed through November 17. All shows are presented by Alliance for New Music-Theatre in partnership with the Embassy of the Czech Republic. For more information on showtimes or ticket prices, visit here.

Dupont Underground: 19 Dupont Cir. NW, DC; www.dupontunderground.org

Anchuli Felicia King // Photo: Benita de Wit

Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl Explores Intra-Asian Racism

2019 has been a big year for playwright Anchuli Felicia King. The 25-year-old Thai-Australian will make her professional playwrighting debut not once, not twice, but three times this year with White Pearl. The corporate satire about the beauty industry is premiering in England and Australia before making its American debut at Studio Theatre this November.

To launch a professional career nearly simultaneously on three continents would be unusual for most playwrights, but for King, who grew up between Thailand, the Philippines and Australia and now divides her time between New York, London and Sydney, globalism is the name of the game.

“I’m basically a global citizen,” King told me last week.

We chatted by Skype as King rode a train to the Sydney Theatre Company, where the Australian production of her new play was in rehearsals.

White Pearl, which launched King’s international career, is set in the cultural melting pot of Singapore and features six characters of different Asian backgrounds who work for the fictional beauty startup Clearday. When someone leaks an ad for their skin-whitening cream, the Internet pounces, pronouncing the ad racist and prompting finger pointing among the six very different – but all Asian – women who lead the company. Someone’s getting fired, but who?

King started writing the play in 2016 while she was pursuing an MFA in dramaturgy at Columbia University.

“Ads started coming up on my newsfeed for skin-whitening products that were deemed to be racially insensitive,” she said. “Products like this were ubiquitous when I was growing up in Thailand and the Philippines, so it was fascinating to me that suddenly they were being held accountable to a global discourse around race.”

King asked her friends in Columbia’s Women of Color Collective about their experiences with whitening cream and discovered that the topic hit a nerve with women from all different backgrounds.

“It doesn’t matter what country you come from. You are being sold an idea of what beauty looks like that is so entrenched in your cultural ideology.”

In crafting a dark comedy about the beauty industry, King found the perfect backdrop in corporations – particularly millennial startup culture and the disconnect between the glossy, utopian ideals and the reality of the practices and what they are selling.

“There is this disjunct between surface and substance,” she said of startup companies. “Cosmetics companies specifically prey on and monetize women’s shame and insecurity.”

White Pearl brings the issue to life through six characters: all of them Asian women, but each from very distinct backgrounds and cultures. The Clearday CEO is a British Indian woman, while the other characters have roots in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand and Singapore.

“My goal with that was to poke holes at the idea that Asia is a monoculture and to explore the specificity of different places in Asia,” King said. “But the play also explores the ongoing cultural traumas and legacies that lead to tension between different Asian cultures and the racism that still happens in Asia.”

In choosing a director for this production, Studio tapped Desdemona Chiang. Born in Taiwan and raised in L.A., Chiang known for taking on projects that illuminate marginalized populations and challenge perceptions of the status quo.

“When I first read the script, it hit me really hard – especially when it discussed the racism of East Asian people,” Chiang told me in a recent conversation. “That hit a very raw spot for me because it was something I recognize sometimes within myself and sometimes in where I come from. I found that really discomforting so I said, ‘Great, that means I have to do this play.’”

I asked Chiang how she thought White Pearl would be perceived by American audiences – Asian and non-Asian – who are geographically and often psychologically further away from Singapore than a London or Sydney audience.

“What’s interesting about this story is that it deals with the same issues we have in America but through a different lens,” she explained. “We talk about racism, classism, beauty standards and implicit bias here, but usually through a black/white lens. To tackle the same issues through a different perspective is interesting.”

King agrees: “It’s fascinating to see how this play resonates differently with different audiences and specifically, different Asian communities in different countries.”

King hopes that the exploration of intra-Asian racism will be eye-opening for non-Asian audiences in America.

“There are also things in the play that are so true of the time we are living in and so universal that will resonate with any audience. At its heart, it’s an old-school black comedy and a satire so I hope the audience laughs a lot and through that, interrogates why they are laughing.”

White Pearl runs from November 6 to December 8 at Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre. Tickets start at $20. Learn more at www.studiotheatre.org.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

Still from Sell By // Photo: courtesy of Reel Affirmations

Reel Affirmations Provides Unique Perspectives Through Film

Prepare for a local film festival built on the stepping stones of inclusivity, diversity and acceptance.

This weekend brings the 26th annual Reel Affirmations Film Festival at the historic GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights. The festival is a nonprofit division of the The DC Center For The LGBT Community. This year’s rendition features 26 films from 11 countries on five continents, widening the scope of perspectives attendees will see. Films begin tonight and run through Sunday, October 27.

Films on the docket include: Treacle, Parking, Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life and Seahhorse, to list a few.

Kimberley Bush, the Director of Arts and Cultural Program at the DC Center, says the festival is vital provide diverse films for an equally diverse community, “because seeing ourselves on screen can be very empowering, very uplifting and we as a community need that.”

This film festival represents DC Center’s mission to “uplift, empower, support and celebrate the LGBTQ community.” The film festival offers a variety of different experiences by featuring film directors, authors and contributors from all across the globe.

The lineup features unique narratives, short films, documentaries and more, including different perspectives and outlooks within the LGBTQ community.

In today’s climate, there is not enough representation, which is important for the industry. Bush explained that there isn’t enough inclusivity within other film festivals as their scope on the subject is limited, under representing this community.

“People in the community who may be dealing with identity [need these festivals],” she says. “To ourselves on screen, in a group setting, and maybe even talk to the director, writer, producer of that film brings them more opportunities and affirmation that could enhance them long term.”

Bush says the side effects of the film festival has created a lasting impact on the community surrounding it. Inviting people to enter and walk out of the festival, has created a positive place to see people in your community and an open atmosphere to talk about real and honest epidemics facing the community today.

“Everything changes when they walk into a film screening and when they walk out,” she says. “It’s a totally different light. I see firsthand [at] our community film screenings and art gallery openings, how it’s important and integral to share our stories and share our visions with the community.”

Passes for the festival start at $40, with general admission tickets available for $14. For more information about the festival or the films, visit here.

Gala Hispanic Theatre: 3333 14th St. NW, DC; 202-234-7174; en.galatheatre.org

Guests interact with the 29Rooms: Expand Your Reality immersive art festival on Opening Night in Washington DC on October 18, 2019. // Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

29Rooms Opens Doors To New Experience in DC

“The sacrifices we make for art.” 

This is what I muttered to myself at 6:30 a.m. on Friday, October 21. I was slated to venture from my Alexandria duplex to DC’s Armory on a cultural adventure to Refinery29’s “29Rooms: Expand Your Reality” exhibit, currently enjoying its first national tour, concurrently making its DC debut. 

The women’s publication first unveiled the concept in 2015, giving attendees of New York Fashion Week an opportunity to walk through 29 distinct artistic experiences, ranging from vibrant and fuzzy to interactive and talkative. Fast forward four years, and the exhibition is on the road visiting cities like Atlanta, Dallas and DC, along with bigger U.S. cultural hubs like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. 

“When I heard we were coming to DC it was an exciting surprise,” says DC native Olivia Fagon, Refinery29’s creative director. “Most of our team is from New York, so there was a little bit of mystery as to what it would mean to bring it here. I think for me, I was super excited to tap local artists who are from DC.”

The DC Armory stop runs through October 27, giving residents of the nation’s capital a chance to walk into, and throughout, rooms created by artists such as Kali Uchis, Yvette Mayorga, Dan Lam and NNEKKAA, and others. As part of this year’s rendition, 29Rooms has added what they’re calling “The Art Park,” an initiative intended to highlight local artists from the cities on the tour, including a stairway toward your dreams created by local illustrator Trap Bob, aka Tenbeete Solomon

Artist Tenbeete Solomon poses at the 29Rooms: Expand Your Reality immersive art festival Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

“I’ve always wanted to work with 29Rooms,” Solomon says. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for forever. My mind went to something expansive. I loved being able to explore with different mediums, because I don’t have the capacity to do these major rollouts, but it’s great to partner with people who have the same ideas and same values.” 

The team behind Refinery29 initially wanted a flat graphic, but she wanted something more engaging. When they suggested a staircase, Solomon approached the canvas thinking about its physicality from all sides, and though she wanted it to feel different than her illustrative works, it would still feel distinctly Trap Bob.

“It’s a weird thing to put a design on,” Solomon says. “I want to make sure each part is like its own piece, but still work together. I do hands a lot, it’s very relatable and something I love to do. They’re the perfect things. It’s my way to reach out to everybody and bringing that idea with the ‘follow your dreams’ theme, which is very, very close to me and my experience. It worked with the idea of climbing the stairs. Just the idea of elevating yourself and literally taking steps to get to where you want to get to. If I didn’t take those steps early in my career, there’s no way I’d be here talking about it.” 

For more local flair, Refinery29 tapped Howard University master of fine arts graduate Jamea Richmond-Edwards to construct a DC-centric full-scale billboard to welcome guests into the gallery. The murals are exclusive to the respective city’s art scene, to highlight the local community. 

Artist Jamea Richmond-Edwards poses at the 29Rooms: Expand Your Reality immersive art festival. // Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

Upon walking past the “Traveling Billboard” and into the main area, you’ll notice the lighting in the Armory is dark, giving each room and piece a spotlight effect. This is apt, as all hold a unique point of view worthy of said spotlight. And no matter which you stumble into, they all are connected by the theme of a woman’s experience in several facets of society and empowerment, echoing that of the publication’s mission.

“It was amazing to bring this brand that is not only pro-female, but very intersectional,” Fagan says. “We’re looking at women from all kinds of points of view. There’s a lot of political undertones in the event as well and those aren’t necessarily supposed to resonate specifically to DC, but I think whatever city we take it to, it makes a strong statement.”

Giving a tour, Fagan identifies a few rooms as fan favorites including “Dream Doorways,” a display with several (you guessed it) doors leading to stunning visuals that could make you question whether you’re on psychedelics; “A Conversation With Your Inner Child,” an interactive room which allows you to tap into the dreams and desires of a younger you; and “29 Questions,” a collection of tables and chairs meant to evoke discussions among strangers congregating throughout the exhibit.  

The different perspectives from a diverse set of artists is meant to represent and reflect those same qualities in the audience of the attendees. For Fagan, the doors are open for everyone, and she hopes people are as excited to explore the rooms to find their own favorites. 

“We always welcome that,” Fagan says. “I think Refinery has perceptions around it: people know us as a women’s publication, people know us for having certain types of values. I think as much as we can attract people in, and then surprise them with something they may not have thought of in a certain way, it’s always a gift if we can. If we’re creating a space where our values are just resonating with that audience already, that’s great too.” 

Gallery times are 1:30-10:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday and 10:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. on Friday-Sunday. Tickets start at $29 and guarantee access for one 2.5 hour session. For more information about 29Rooms, visit here.

DC Armory: 2001 E Capitol St. SE, DC; www.29rooms.com

Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

Photo: courtesy of the Kennedy Center

A Footloose Conversation with Isabelle McCalla

The movie Footloose evokes memories of a young Kevin Bacon angrily dancing next to that iconic yellow Volkswagen Bug. Maybe you think of the popular Kenny Loggins’ song of the same name? The music, clothing and cinematography all scream 1980s. So why is this story continually rewatched and remade? After speaking with Broadway Center Stage: Footloose star Isabelle McCalla, it’s clear this narrative is still extremely relevant.

The Kennedy Center is bringing Footloose to DC with a star-studded cast. Among them is McCalla, who in addition to playing the role of Ariel in this production, has played Princess Jasmine in Aladdin on Broadway and originated the role of Alyssa on Broadway’s The Prom. Like her character Ariel, McCalla is no stranger to standing up for what she believes in. She and her The Prom co-star, Caitlin Kinnunen, shared the first same-sex kiss in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade history. Before seeing her on stage, read on to learn more about her history with the material, performing in DC and more. 

On Tap: The movie Footloose came out in 1984, the musical was introduced in 1998, and the movie was then remade in 2011, what do you think is so compelling about the story that makes it able to span decades?
Isabelle McCalla: I think it’s really a story of communication, or the lack thereof, and people with different ideologies who don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s a story of people who listen and understand someone who walks in a different pair of shoes. So I think that has transcended and we do it with musical comedy, and that’s what’s so incredible. 

OT: At the very heart of it, Footloose is about young people fighting for what they believe in. This is very relevant today, especially here in DC. Does performing at the nation’s capital have a different impact?
IM: Oh absolutely! We are in a very difficult time in our history where there is a lot of negative rhetoric going on and the people in charge aren’t necessarily representing their constituents. [Footloose] is about a time when the new generation has to do some toe stepping while standing up for what they believe in and it will resonate a lot with the people living in DC today.   

OT: What was your first experience with the film?
IM: I’ve actually never seen it!

OT: Really?
IM: Yeah, I somehow managed to go my entire life without seeing it. It helps keep it fresh for me in the role.

OT: What drew you to the character of Ariel?
IM: I like that she is very intelligent and able to play the various facets of her society. She knows exactly what roles she has to play with which type of people to get by. She has a hunger and thirst for knowledge, and she just wants to get out of her small town and make something of her life. That’s not something that many people in her community aspire to necessarily. That’s been fun to tap into. She’s very dynamic. It’s hard to find roles that are so versatile, in the sense that they can be vulnerable and demure yet so confident and sexy at the same time. Ariel is kinda the whole package there.

OT: Obviously, the narrative focuses on a small town that bans dancing. You originated the role of Alyssa in The Prom, a musical about a small town that shuts down a prom because Alyssa and her girlfriend want to attend. Are there any similarities between Ariel and Alyssa?
IM: There are similarities in that they both have broken relationships with their parents. They love their parents but for some reason or other, Ariel with her father and Alyssa with her mother, their parents have visions for their daughters that don’t line up with their daughters and who those characters actually are. It’s constantly a fight to just be seen for who they are by their parents. 

OT: If music and dancing had been banned from your town, what would you be doing today?
IM: Oh my god. I would have to move towns. I love singing and dancing, but I’d probably be an investigative journalist. That was always a dream of mine. 

While McCalla isn’t sure what’s next, her successful career thus far is an indication of great things to come. See her in Footloose this Wednesday through Monday, October 14. Showtimes vary, tickets $59-$175. For more information, click here.

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

Shelly Lynn Walsh, Peter Michael Jordan, Chris Clark, and Sarah Hinrichsen // Photo: Matthew Murphy

Parrot Heads Rejoice: Escape to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville at National Theatre

With a song catalog that features party staples such as “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Come Monday,” “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere” and the anthem “Margaritaville,” Jimmy Buffett is considered a musical legend and the poster child of the island escapism lifestyle.

That same fun, laid back attitude has been captured in Escape to Margaritaville, a musical based on the songs of Buffett, which made its Broadway debut in 2017 where it wowed critics and audiences alike.

The National Tour of Escape to Margaritaville will play the National Theatre starting tonight through October 13, under the direction of Amy Anders Corcoran.

With a book by Emmy Award winner Greg Garcia and Emmy nominee Mike O’Malley, and 20 classic and new tunes by Buffett, the show’s story follows Tully (played by Chris Clark), a part-time bartender and singer who falls for a career-minded tourist named Rachel (Sarah Hinrichsen). In the land of Margaritaville, people come to get away from it all, but often stay after discovering something they never expected.

Hinrichsen saw the show during its Broadway run two years ago and really fell in love with it, coming out of it singing the songs like most of the audience did.

“It’s just a fun show and it was a good time,” she says. “When you’re a performer, you always look if there’s a track you could play, and I thought Rachel was really interesting and something I would enjoy. In the month’s following, I would get texts from my friends saying that it would be a great part for me, so when the tour was casting, I went in.”

She describes Rachel as “a workaholic, who may come off as aggressive, but is really just so focused.” The character is passionate about a project she’s working on where she’s trying to power a light bulb with a potato and creating energy from a volcano that’s on the island.

“When she meets Tully, he teaches her about balance and how she can have a strong work life and also one of fun and letting go,” Hinrichsen says. “It lets people see that they can blend two important parts of their life and you can have it all.”

Although not a die-hard Buffett fan, the actress knew many of his popular songs and had eaten more than once at the Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant.

“So, I wasn’t a Parrot Head per se,” Hinrichsen says. “Our Tully though, Chris Clark, has this crazy story about how his dad went to a Jimmy Buffett concert two days after he was born because he couldn’t stay away. I’m not on that level, but I am definitely a big fan.”

During the musical, Hinrichsen gets to sing “It’s My Job,” and duet on “Three Chords,” an original tune created for the show where her character learns to play the guitar. She also takes part in numerous group numbers and other duets as well.

“The thing about his music is that it transports you to a place, and he’s such a storyteller that it really feels like a state of mind, like you’re on a beach or on an island,” she says. “You can’t sing these songs not smiling.”

The daughter of a director and actress, growing up in the Los Angeles theater scene, Hinrichsen jokes that she never had any other option but to become a performer and is thrilled to be doing her first national tour.

One of her favorite parts of Escape to Margaritaville comes early in Act 1 when the cast sings “Fins” and they encourage audience participation.

“As any Buffett fan knows, it’s a song where you put your hands in the air and show your ‘fins,’ and we always can tell the mood the audience is in based on the number of fins we see, and knowing they are with us,” she says. “It’s a night of fun and people shouldn’t be afraid to sing along and join in.”

The show also stars Shelly Lynn Walsh, Peter Michael Jordan, Rachel Lyn Fobbs, Patrick Cogan and Matthew James Sherrod.

Escape to Margaritaville plays the National Theatre until October 13. Tickets are $54-$114. For more information, visit thenationaldc.com.

The National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.com

Photo: Josh Cheuse

Tales Of America: J.S. Ondara Intertwines Kenyan Roots and Americana Style on Debut Album

It seems counterintuitive that someone raised in Nairobi, Kenya could tell such compelling stories of the American experience through song. And yet J.S. Ondara does so with such skill on his first album Tales of America, released this February, that he’s seen high praise from the likes of NPR, Rolling Stone and Billboard. Raised on 90s alt-rock like Nirvana and Radiohead, the 27-year-old musician discovered great storytellers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young in high school, forever altering his musical style. In 2013, Ondara moved from Kenya to Minneapolis where he taught himself guitar and was eventually picked up by a label. We had the chance to ask Ondara about his roots, moving to the U.S. and why he never gave up on his goals before he plays Sixth & I on October 30.

On Tap: What was it like to move to the U.S. and pursue a career as a musician?
J.S. Ondara: It certainly wasn’t easy, but really, I was just too far from home. There was no looking back. If home was a bus fare away, perhaps I would have given up at some point. I never really had a choice.

OT: Who influences your sound?
JSO: I am mostly influenced by music from the 60s and 70s – songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison and Tim Buckley.

OT: What was it about Minneapolis’s music scene that drew you to that city, and how has it affected your music?
JSO: I was initially drawn to Minnesota after learning it was [Bob] Dylan’s home but the scene and the people of Minneapolis are why I chose to stay. The city has a lively music scene, but it also has a certain quietness about it that is essential for writing and growing without too much distraction.

OT: Why were you able to tell such a compelling American story with Tales of America despite having grown up in another country?
JSO: I suspect it is because I was making observations about America as an outsider with no bias other than to draw a portrait of the America that I saw.

OT: What lead you to the Americana genre and why did you decide to make the album entirely acoustic?
JSO: As an avid fan of stories, I was drawn to the storytelling nature of folk music and I believe that’s why I found myself drawn to that kind of music. That said, the journey has just begun, and I most certainly intend to experiment with more sounds and arrangements as I make more records.

OT: What do you hope people will get out of listening to Tales of America?
JSO: I think art at its best is a mirror through which a society can observe itself and hence change course whenever necessary. I hope that people will see a mirror in Tales of America and gain insight into themselves.

OT: What can people expect from your DC show?
JSO: I am looking forward to playing some new songs live for the first time.

OT: Where do you go from here? What are some of your goals for the future?
JSO: I am currently working on my next record so the next step for me is to finish that and share it with the world. My goals change all the time, but this year my goal is to try to make it through 27 without dying unceremoniously.

Catch J.S. Ondara at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Wednesday, October 30. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $20. For more information on Ondara, go to www.jsondara.com.

Sixth & I: 600 I St. NW; 202-408-3100; www.sixthandi.org

The Collective Catharsis of Sleater-Kinney

Musician Annie Clark, perhaps better known as St. Vincent, posted a photo of herself in studio with the members of Sleater-Kinney this winter. It was revealed Clark was producing their album The Center Won’t Hold, released on August 16. The news circulated on the Internet for days among casual fans, die-hard riot grrrl listeners and other musicians.

Clark’s collaboration with the group signified new music was forthcoming, but there was something powerful about the women together in a studio – away from the world and in their own space of being, ready to create and share that world with others. Despite the buzz, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein says she created distance from the discourse of the viral tweet and the actual recording of the album.

“I think it’s always healthier to create a little bit of distance from online reaction and your real life,” she says of the buzz then, and perhaps even now, around the record. “I think using that as a litmus test or a way of buoying yourself can be tricky, because if you’re reliant upon that then you’re definitely at the vicissitudes of a lot of fickleness, usually.”

It’s not surprising to hear Brownstein say this. If you’re not familiar with her work in Sleater-Kinney, a seminal band out of the iconic Pacific Northwest punk and riot grrrl scene, perhaps you know her as co-creator and star of IFC’s hit show Portlandia, or for her appearances in the movie Carol or Amazon’s series Transparent. She wrote a memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, and is at work on another book – this time a collection of essays.

It’s easy to imagine that when you work across many mediums, it becomes essential to tune out the white noise of other people’s commentary – no matter how positive – in order to stay in tune with one’s own vision. She works diligently, but says it all comes back to writing. Still, balancing so many aspects of a creative personhood is no small feat.

“It all feels very holistic for me,” she says of her collective body of work. “It doesn’t feel like individual silos, but the different creative outlets are distinct enough that they allow me perspective and relief from one or the other. There is something that feels very energizing and kinetic about music that I’m drawn to, which then helps me appreciate the other thing.”

Within her career as a musician, Brownstein’s dynamic with bandmate Corin Tucker has evolved and rebalanced, too. One would expect a certain level of creative intimacy between people who have worked together for over 25 years, especially as both contribute guitar and vocals to the band.

While this is certainly true, Brownstein says she and Tucker drew more on their ideas as individuals to craft their new album. The result is an album that clearly takes great care in representing both bandmates’ talents and voices – and emphasizes who they are with and without Sleater-Kinney and each other.

“Corin and I really wanted to give stage to the other person and say, ‘Okay, what is your idea? Who are you as a songwriter?’ We are collaborators but we also are individuated, and we wanted to give each other moments to fully realize an idea and really take ownership over certain songs. I think there is, on one level, this sharing and giving. I think part of our growth and deepening as friends is saying, ‘Well, who are you without me? How can I use restraint to help you be more centered?’”

Brownstein notes that this ability to sit back and embrace the ebb and flow of a collaborative relationship is new, but doesn’t necessarily mean it is their new normal as far as producing work. She says there are more tools in the toolbox they’ve been adding to since their early days.

They have always come back to their willingness to speak truth to power and be political, harkening back to their unwavering voice in the early aughts of the riot grrrl and punk scenes that made a space for questioning, correcting and acceptance.

The Center Won’t Hold deals with themes of love, anxiety, technology and more. But standout moments include the album’s closer “Broken,” wherein Tucker calls out an explicit thank you to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against the abuse at the hands of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh: “She, she, she stood up for us / When she testified / Me, me too, my body cried out / When she spoke those lines.”

The notable gratitude to Blasey Ford as opposed to condemnation of Kavanaugh seems a powerful choice here, too. They grant power to her, someone who was made to feel powerless. The song feels like a tonic in an era fraught with devastating and sometimes triggering stories of assault rampant in the news.

I ask Brownstein if she and Tucker are ever exhausted by the prospect of carrying a torch for these issues, singing things like this every night. She’s quick to remind me that even the ability to ask this question is a privilege that she and I both possess – and have to reconcile with as we move through a time rife in unrest and injustice.

“It’s a question for all of us trying to balance a sense of vigilance – of being present, empathetic, available to the people who we love. But also, that kind of self-care sometimes requires distancing from a certain level of toxicity. It’s a privilege to be able to create any psychic distance from trauma or chaos. Ideally, everyone would be able to have that balance where you can take a step back and take care of yourself, your family and your loved ones [and] be more of a participant in culture or protest or however you are able to go about life.”

She says that as a musician and as a person, she is working to find that same balance. But her hope – along with the many others, myself included, who have found comfort in her band – lies in music.

“What’s nice about art or music is just getting in a room with a bunch of people and having a sense of collective relief or collective catharsis or hopefully, collective joy.”

There is certainly a prevailing sense of collective joy that Brownstein and Tucker cultivated on The Center Won’t Hold. In trying times, the album itself serves a dual purpose of respite and protest for all who seek both.

Experience it live when Sleater-Kinney play The Anthem on Friday, October 25. Tickets begin at $37.50. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. For more info on Sleater-Kinney and The Center Won’t Hold, visit www.sleater-kinney.com.

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

Photo: Tony Powell

Right to Be Forgotten Sparks Healthy Debate

To err is human. To forgive? Well, that is a lot harder with the Internet around, cataloging our every misstep and reminding us years later of actions we might rather forget.

Derril Lark was 17 when he developed a crush on a girl at school. Awkward and nerdy, he followed her around for three months, causing her stress and trauma before a school official intervened and Lark stopped. That was the end of it until a blog turned Lark into a meme, exaggerating his offenses and making him the posterchild for a male predator. Lark is not free of blame, but neither is the monster that the Internet makes him out to be.

This is the premise of Sharyn Rothstein’s new play Right to be Forgotten, with a world premiere coming to Arena Stage on October 11. When Rothstein, whose previous writing credits include numerous plays and USA Network’s Suits, started researching in 2014, the European Union had just granted its citizens the right to ask tech companies to remove search results related to their name – aptly named the Right to be Forgotten.

“I was so taken by the name of the law itself,” Rothstein says. “It’s so striking and the opposite of what we usually want. I mean, who wants to be forgotten?”

The more Rothstein investigated the issue, the more its complexities surfaced. Who decides what lives online and who should have the power to remove potentially damaging content? Tech companies? The government? You?

“This is a clear case of the technology we’ve created not always working with humanity,” Rothstein continues. “Mistakes we make when we were young that we hopefully learn and grow from can now follow us for the rest of our lives and define us.”

The issue is an especially sticky one in the United States, where the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech is a foundational part of our national identity and where, to date, tech companies have faced minimal government regulations. Where does society draw the line between protecting people’s right to privacy and the right to free speech?

“A lot of discussion comes down to: could we ever have a Right to be Forgotten law in this country that wouldn’t violate the First Amendment?” Rothstein asks hypothetically.

It was these issues that attracted Seema Sueko, deputy artistic director at Arena Stage, to the play.

“As soon as I read it, I knew it was the right match for Arena,” she says. “It deals with such big, complex issues around democracy, freedom of speech and privacy.”

Sueko’s gut told her that she needed to direct the play.

“I love shows that I don’t have all the answers to at a first read.”

Rothstein channels the intricacies of the topic into the fictional story of Lark, who is not meant to be a completely sympathetic protagonist.

“He did a bad thing,” Rothstein says. “There’s no getting around that. But I hope this show highlights all the complexities of both his predicament being stuck as the monster for all time, and the girl that he followed being stuck by the Internet as a victim for all time.”

John Austin, last seen at Arena Stage in Kleptocracy, plays Lark.

“Derril has internalized a lot of guilt for his actions,” Austin says of his character. “He lives with this constant uncertainty of what’s true and what’s untrue because once something is put online, it becomes its own reality.”

Rothstein and Sueko think Right to be Forgotten will generate heated conversations as audiences leave the theater.

“My goal will be that the audience bounces back and forth in their opinion and that they can see, hear and feel the arguments on all sides,” Sueko says.

But the play studiously avoids taking a stand on whether or not the U.S. should enact Right to be Forgotten protections.

“I take every stand in the play,” Rothstein laughs, noting that her characters have strong opinions on all sides of the debate. “What I hope is that the audience comes out of this play having thought about this issue that I don’t think enough of us have thought about in this country.”

Don’t miss Right to be Forgotten at Arena Stage from October 11 to November 10. Tickets start at $40-$95. Learn more at www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC;202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Greta Kline (second from left) and Frankie Cosmos // Photos: courtesy of Frankie Cosmos

Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Kline Talks Addiction to Newness, Stupid Lyrics and Close It Quietly

When Greta Kline joins the stage with the rest of Frankie Cosmos this Friday at Black Cat, she won’t want to be Greta Kline. Whoa, whoa, that actually sounds harsh, but I promise I’m not writing that in the way you’re reading it so let me clarify:

*clears throat*

What I’m saying is, she’s currently in search of a stage persona, an alter-ego. Think of Corey Taylor putting on one of his several Slipknot masks or Beyonce channeling Sasha Fierce, or even Tyler, the Creator throwing on a silver wig during his IGOR tour. She’s in search of a different outlet, a way to avoid giving all of herself on a nightly basis. Frankly (ha, rhymes with Frankie ((as in Frankie Cosmos)), when she’s describing this to me over the phone before the band’s latest album Close It Quietly has even come out, it sounds like an exhausting position to be in, constantly opening yourself up. Throw in the fact that the band is insanely prolific, three albums in four years prolific, and you being to see how touring so much could become cumbersome. Perhaps this is the real reason why superheroes put on masks and capes. Yeah, they say it’s because they want to protect their loved ones, but maybe it’s actually because being yourself, your true self at home and at work and during your side gig is too much to offer. What if Batman’s cowl and cape is actually just a result of this truth: being Bruce Wayne all the time is a lot of freaking work. I don’t know, and neither does Greta, probably, I mean I didn’t ask her this stuff when we spoke. However, she is an indie rock superhero.

While I didn’t ask her about comics or Batman, I did get a chance to speak to the singer, songwriter before her show at the Black Cat this Friday, ranging from her fascination with marbles and that ability to churn out an incredible amount of songs. Oh, and we of course chatted about the latest record, a 21-song indie rock epic which represented a slight departure from their previous works, but still contained the existential mid-20s drama you’d expect from the group. It’s soothing, powerful and fun. So read on and get excited to see whatever alter-ego Kline comes up for the band’s set at Black Cat.

On Tap: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musician with as many alter egos as you on their Wikipedia page, it’s like that scene in Rocky when they’re reading all of Apollo’s nicknames. Do you have a favorite?


Greta Kline: Ah man, it’s my addiction to newness. I need a new band name all the time. It’s easier than being one person forever. Definitely Frankie Cosmos is the one that stuck, it feels like the band and it feels like me. I relate it to what we’re doing, that’s why I haven’t changed it. I’m still constantly coming up with band names, but you can’t just make a new band, because people will get confused. I just like names, the ideas. When I was doing the bandcamp, and I didn’t have a band, it was just a way to pretend that I have a band. It’s easier than being yourself. 

Even GRETA feels weird, whenever, whenever someone calls me Greta. More often, people come up to me and call me Frankie, I guess. A lot of it’s Frankie Cosmos, I thought it was funny to have other names. It’s fun. It’s like you’re getting to escape yourself. It’s like having a wrestling name. Something that I want to do this album cycle, is be a different person on stage. One of the things that exhausts me on touring is giving my soul in an earnest way, and being purely me. I don’t know, it can be nice, but I want to have an option to be a performer on stage. I want to take on a performer character. Greta isn’t a performer, Greta is shy and anxious, and for awhile “we’re Frankie Cosmos” was enough of a mask, so I don’t know being different in some way might make it easier. I wore some wigs in our latest music video, I don’t know. I haven’t put enough thought into it.

OT: This is your third album in four years, are you exhausted yet? It feels like you might be?
GK: You know, to me it’s not that much. It’s not that much [to be] making albums. What’s exhausting is touring. Getting time to make an album is the break, that’s the fun part, that’s the creative part. [When] we can really do the work, I don’t even think about it. We’re not exhausted by anything at all, it’s so exciting. I have a little bit of an addiction to newness, I always like my newest song the best, and that’s making an album, it’s a way to enjoy that. 

OT: You’re exceptionally prolific, do you find that songwriting come easy to you?
GK: Sometimes, yeah, it definitely something that’s fun for me. I never really force myself to write a song. I think the hard time I have is finishing songs. The idea part of it is something that just happens, and the other part is setting apart time to work on it. When I’m writing songs, it’s when I feel the most in touch with myself and everything. 

OT: You compared this record to changes people make when they rearrange your room or get a flashy haircut, it’s still your stuff or your hair, but it’s different. What sort of spurred this sentiment, and how were you able to turn the record around so quickly? Was this reshuffle something you had in mind already?
Greta Kline: I mean, I guess it does feel easy and natural; we just want to make music. We don’t think about how it’s too soon to put out records. We definitely started thinking about making this album before we put out Vessel (2018). I mean we didn’t record it until this winter, so it feels pretty fresh. Yeah, that line about your hair and rearranging your room, I really like that image, I feel like it makes sense. My bandmate Luke [Pyenson] said we sort of give ourselves room to mess around, even it if doesn’t sound the same. 

I never think about what [the music is] going to sound compared to the other albums. We had more time and more equipment, but it’s still us arranging the songs and me writing them. There are some different tones on it. I keep thinking about the modular synth on a couple tracks, that feels like a big change. Yeah, it feels like a pretty different album to me. 

It’s more organic. We had room to play, so we did. We felt about that on the last album too. We had a marimba on a track, crazy keyboard sounds and it’s in the moment. We’re not thinking about what it’s going to mean in the concept of the album until it’s done. All I think about is what it feels like when I’m singing it or playing it. I know it’s a good take if it feels good, but sometimes it doesn’t sound good even if it does feel good. You have to sort of do it.

The hard part for me is thinking about the album as a whole and talking about it. I always think about this quote, “If I could explain it all, I wouldn’t need the song.” Writing the bio doesn’t come as naturally to me as sitting and making it with my friends. 

OT: How did you all come up with the title Close It Quietly?
GK: It sounds so stupid to say it. It’s kind of meaningless. Every time we make an album, I know the name the whole time. This was different — the album was done and we didn’t know what to call it. I didn’t want it to have a title track and it was a weirdly hard album to name. One day I was like F-it, I was going to name it like I would on my bandcamp demo. It was just going to be something that I say today, then I told someone about my gate, to close it quietly, and that’s the album title. Since thinking about it, it could be a lot of things. It could be a chapter, a relationship and the album sort of closes quietly, we all just fade out. 

OT: So it was kind of profound and universal after the fact?
GK: Never A day goes back that I don’t say something profound [laughs]. I really wanted to call the album I have to do the dishes.

I kind of like that, it’s funny to give a pedestal to stupidity.

OT: The short songs, how do you know when to cap off an idea? I feel like most artists hover around the 2-4 minute range, but you have a ton of songs that are like 45 seconds.
GK: I mean, I guess you just know. If I force it to be longer than it needs to be, it’ll get scrapped. The fun part is coming up with a melody and doing something new, I don’t want to repeat the same lyrics and melodies longer than I have to. Once in awhile, I’ll write a song where it takes more time to say what I want to say, or to explain the feeling. I like short songs, and I think it’s about having a short attention span and liking something that’s new. I like that we play dirty songs instead of thirteen longer songs. I don’t know, sometimes it gets boring. The songs that make it longer have to feel right. 

OT: Lately it feels like a ton of artists are doing this thing with less than 10 tracks, whether that’s because of the listener’s attention span or whatever. Close It Quietly has 21 tracks, and I kind of love that you zigged while a lot of musicians are zagging. Was there any consideration to condense the album? Is it hard to put a track list in order when it’s 20+ songs?
GK: On all the records we cut songs, so this is the condensed version. It is hard to order it, it’s always hard to put in order. I never think about it as an album. I always think of every song as a single. I think the last two albums, Luke has decided what the first track is going to be, that’s the easy part. We think about it like Side A and Side B, which doesn’t translate to Spotify, obviously. It’s a weird process, we all just sat and listened to a first draft of the order, and we made notes. If I put it in whatever order I want, it would be meaningless, so my bandmates are definitely helpful. I have a hard time thinking of an album as a whole, I can’t think of how they relate to one another when I’m in them.  

OT: Let’s talk about marbles since their heavily featured in the album artwork. How many did you own as a kid, are these pictures in the album art just your marbles? What is the significance of them?
GK: I think it’s sort of like, well we almost called the album marbles. It’s just the idea that these are my marbles, and you could lose your marbles. The song “Marbles” is sort of a love song, and I just have a feeling about how marbles have a personal meaning to me. I had this image come to me in the album art, I wanted to take a photo, and I described it to Lauren [Martin], and she drew it as I imagined it, and that became the art.

A marble is this tiny thing and it holds this depth and you could look at it forever. I definitely played with marbles as a kid. It was fun to just get a bunch of marbles, take the photos. It was trippy because I was looking at them with a magnifying glass. They just kind of take you out of the real world for a second. 

OT: Last question, you asked what the stupidest Frankie Cosmos lyric was on Twitter a few months ago, so I’m wondering what your opinion is on that question, and also what’s the stupidest lyric you’ve ever heard? I know, I know, this is on the spot.

GK: I think I tweeted that to be self deprecating, but I got some really funny responses. There are so many stupid ones. Sometimes you hear a lyric and it’s so dumb, but I kind of like that, it’s funny to give a pedestal to stupidity. I really like when songwritiers use cliches in a way that’s moving, and you’re turning it on it’s head by using it, that’s my favorite kind of stupid lyric. In Frankie Cosmos some of them are just stupid and funny. 

I think that there is a lot of emotion in the silly off the cuff sort of thought. One person wrote “I drank bad coffee, I hope that you call me.” First of all that takes me right back to the moment when I wrote it and I know what coffee I was drinking and who I was hoping to call me. There’s a pureness that takes you straight to your stupid emotions. It’s deep, but you don’t have to put it in some poetic way. I think sometimes the best lyrics that i get really excited about come from letting myself spew out. Letting loose and not worrying about being stupid; it represents how you feel. It can mean something bigger than the stupid thing that it says. 

See Great Kline and the rest of Frankie Cosmos at Black Cat DC on Friday, September 27. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets $20. For information on the show, click here.

Black Cat DC: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4490; www.blackcatdc.com