An interview with the cast of Doctor Vysarius
By Nate Ferguson, dramaturg
HOW IS THIS PROCESS DIFFERENT FROM YOUR USUAL WORK HERE?
Steven: On the one hand, musically, it's a question of pure fun and discovery in the act of making music for all of us; we started in the first scene just putting in the groundwork in terms of conventional dramatic work, but as things went on there's much more exploration in unexpected ways. But on the other, there's this laying-out--we're setting the right tone for the right emotions to hit the listener in a certain way. I was a soprano in a church choir as a child, but that was the extent of my musical training. So there's a lot of acting through my singing, that's where most of my experience is.
SP: For one, I haven’t acted much—I’ve done a lot of acting but nothing big-time, nothing Equity. But it reminds me of the times I’ve taken commercial acting, in that it’s the inverse. By which I mean, when you act for film, you have to be hyper-aware of how you look. With theatre it’s in between, you have to pay attention to how you’re presenting yourself but you also just have to be heard by the audience. And with this, I’m only thinking about my voice. Not just making sure people can understand what I’m saying, but how my voice comes out in the recordings. So I’m thinking a lot about my voice during this.
Emmy: This process has been really rejuvenating in providing collaboration; we're all figuring this out together. A lot of us do have some amount of musical training--some more than others--but that doesn't seem to have mattered a whole lot, because it's about how the story moves through music, if we can't hit a certain note, we see what other ways there are to communicate what that note represents. More about envisioning this world.
Dakota: There's something really particular about a certain moment that comes to mind here--where the Hail Mary is going on and there's this noisy guitar backing--I remember asking Steven, where are we in the story, and the answer was literary, but it completely informed my musical sense. Everything about the story informs the tempo I'm playing at. I'm not just evoking the tone of the moment, but making sure it works with what comes before.
Amanda: It's different at least for me because my role in particular is really technically challenging, as a musician. So in terms of acting, that comes down to how to fill out the sound in a way that honors the music. You can almost say that this is like translation, it's a play being translated into the language of music. So my role as an actor is to exist in that sound, since what Jeremy's done here has brought it into that new language. I only have one spoken line.
Jeremy: This question touches on why I've lately been integrating music into my playwriting in general. Scoring and notating something gives a more thorough and complete direction for performance than just playwriting on its own. It's really exciting to have that new level of control, in picking out melodies, in being able to have that emotional understanding. I don't think that we have the language to describe, exactly, what that understanding is, it's something fundamental, but it's really exciting to sit down and talk with Steven about what's going on in this or that scene. We'll have an hour or two-hour conversation, I'll go away, try something on the piano, and see how it works. It's wonderful to have that experience.
DOES THE MUSIC AFFECT YOUR PERFORMANCE SIGNIFICANTLY?
Steven: Well there's certainly a musical progression for Leopold. He begins the play in a very glam-rock mode. Very T-Rex, also very David Bowie, we basically start with Life on Mars. But as we move through the play that changes; it gets darker and more intense. (Maybe that's just a different mode of David Bowie.) So at the start here's a certain joyous sincerity in his love of the stars, and that all changes. You end up seeing a lot of different facets of Leopold encountering different people, and the music shifts for each attitude he takes towards each character. Significantly, the music stops when Vysarius enters the room--it just stops being Leopold's scene. We're shooting for the music to be just as much a tool for plot and theme as it is for emotional resonance. The best songs in any musical, the hit singles, I think are the ones that can live outside the context of the musical, because they talk directly to feeling.
SP: The music has been helping me feel out the character. Hearing the piano, the guitar, and the various pedals and manipulators, and everyone else’s voices—all of these are fueling the way in which I’m finding a way to fit my character’s voice in. Like a puzzle piece, it fits in alongside the others. I’m also very aware of my body, normally I’m not but doing this I’m super aware of my stomach and my chest. When you act, people are normally like ‘What does your character lead with? The head, the feet?’ I don’t normally buy into that, but this time it makes sense to me. The cardinal leads with his chest, it leads me to the tones I want to convey. And the Cardinal is blind! He leads his life by sound—so I’m even more aware. This play wouldn’t be what it is without the music. Honestly, every time I leave rehearsal, it’s like I leave church. Not that it’s holy or transcendent, but that I feel more grounded. It gives me a very different engagement with music, I never hear people playing the piano live, or singing live, and it’s huge, holy fucking cow, it’s amazing and kind of spiritual.
Emmy: So there's a lot of motifs hanging around both in the music and in the words--something will come back again and again. I keep getting surprised by that in the process. The music goes all over the place, it's a very interesting sound, this mesh of traditional operatic music, what I'd call church music, and that Bowie sound Steven really likes. There's confusion but not in a bad way, the complexity of that texture reverberates through the whole play. Even with Maximilian, there's notions of this role, this voice I do, having almost its own language. When I try to use it outside of lines from the play, it doesn't make any sense to me, I can't make these sounds in my mouth. But I think in its context, it lends a lot to this absurdity.
Dakota: What's exciting about working on this piece is that my sensibilities as a musician--and as a playwright in some sense--are in some way being utilized as an emotional foley, is the best way to put it. I'm improvising a lot of this based on where the scene is emotionally, even underscoring the atmosphere of the space that we're in.
Amanda: The way I'm seeing it specifically is that the music, at least the music I sing, is almost a channel to another world, this world that Vysarius inhabits. It's unapproachable almost, it's totally bizarre. But in terms of the music driving the story, it feels like that almost belongs to Leopold more than the Valet, that's where the music is working on a character level, it communicates a singular desire. But really, that means that the music is working on a character level for everyone, that's what it's doing, it's indicating the way each character moves through the world.
Jeremy: It's changed in significant ways, especially as we begin to see what the story of this play actually is. Just a couple weeks before we finished recording, actually, we finally cracked open the final moment of the play. So now it feels like we can hold everything in our hands--and Steven and I already went in with a deep understanding of what this form is, we love concept albums, Jesus Christ Superstar is very dear to us. So it's operatic in some ways, it's musical theatre in some ways, and completely its own thing in some ways too. Being all on the same page in that regard has really adapted our understanding of what this play is. It blossoms in a way that seeing something on stage couldn't do.
WHERE DO YOU WANT THE AUDIENCE TO PAY ATTENTION?
Steven: A question that's come up when workshopping this play previously is "What is Doctor Vysarius?" And I have an answer to that, the play tries to answer that--he's a prosecuting angel, essentially. But I think as a consequence of what I last said, the thing about hit singles in musicals, as I push towards that goal the questions of story become less important, and changes the focus to the loss, the longing, the misdirected love and not seeing the love right in front of you. Think Leopold's love for the heavens, compared to Porkeo's love for Leopold. Even the Emperor and Vysarius, that fascination that just leaves Porkeo behind.
SP: I think part of the reason why I personally have never been drawn to musicals or opera, and this show is somewhere in that space, but I usually can never understand what people are saying and I get frustrated. This is different, though—I think the audience should really make sure they’re listening to what’s being said, what’s being sung. You can easily get lost in the music, and the music’s great, but Steven’s words are just as important as the music is. The words themselves are beautiful.
Emmy: This idea that the play is vertical rather than horizontal; it has one thing happen but it builds on that theme and mood rather than just a series of events leading into each other. I really want people to immerse themselves in the mood of the sound. The music has become so important to how I understand the play now. The words are supporting that, Steven has this really decadent word choice that really lends itself to lyrics. Even if you're not picking up every little nuance, you can feel it out.
Dakota: Listen for where motifs and phrases re-emerge, and especially when they're getting recontextualized. That's one of the biggest pleasures of the text also being a score, how dialogue and melody are completely analogous. A lot of ideas and thoughts will re-emerge in new settings, both in the music and in the words.
Amanda: It's less of an experience of figuring out the plot, figuring out what's happening, and more that you should listen to the various figures in the story. Listen to how they're singing, how their music is written, what drives them comes out of that. You should be open to encountering these characters in that way--not listening for any single moment but having that different attitude towards a play.
Jeremy: Well, the play, as something that might be put on stage in front of the audience, is sort of unstageable in a really delicious way. In the last scene, all of everything that ever was about human understanding sits up on the stage. That's at least how I read that final gesture. And I think what's really beautiful is that it prepares an audience for that experience to live within the imagination first and foremost. That in so many ways is where that huge understanding can actually live. There's no way that a director could make an angel fall from the heavens in the way it's written--such a complicated stage picture to assemble. And together, we've walked through this, and in constructing the shape of the final experience, it starts to draw the audience's attention away from narrative and towards the ecstatic poetry of that moment.
HOW HAS THE PROCESS CHANGED YOUR VIEW OF THIS PLAY?
Steven: It's kind of everything I've been saying to you, about the emotions of the music breaking free from the plot. But that's also kind of always been there; this started life as a radio play, and I've gone back and forth on this as a radio play or a libretto or a play with songs. This is all to say, it never shifted fully back from when I engaged more with the music, and part of that it that it's a very 'vertical' play. There's not much plot; I could tell you the plot in a minute--it's a scenario that gets turned over and over under the microscope. More like a big cluster chord than a sustained melody. So rather than changing, it's coming more fully into what it wants to be.
SP: The thing is, this play is hard to summarize in just a couple words; but something important here is that—this was there before—the Valet and Vysarius are visitors from another space, another planet almost. They are very distant. And the fact that Vysarius never speaks where people are singing is important, and the fact that the Valet is always singing, and always singing operatically, never speaks, I think hearing this version of the play really helps me understand the work. It helps me understand it much more than when Valet just spoke.
Emmy: There's this impulse audiences have in America to meet things with realism from the get-go, and in a conventional play we have to retrain ourselves to not think of reality when reality doesn't matter to a play, but for musical and opera, that leap gets much easier to make. The music positions us to get a lot more emotionally available to the play, to open up to it. And at least for me, having Steven playing Leopold feels like it's changed how I experienced the play compared to the writer not reading it. When you see a creator engage with a production, beyond stepping away, it's something different.
Dakota: For lack of a better term, the first thing that comes to mind is the main idea. This idea of searching for knowledge that we shouldn't know, even if it brings you to a horrible end, that question has, through the music, become much more present and immediate as a direct conflict for the characters and for the listener. What does it mean to unearth God's secrets? To see the hand that God is playing with? What does that mean to us? It's all much more present and powerful now.
Amanda: My understanding of everything in this play has been shaped by the music at this point. This whole process even added totally new songs, and I'm coming into this not knowing previous versions through workshop, so it's felt like the songs have emerged out of us building these characters.
WHY THESE WORDS NOW?
Steven: Well, there again it's just like I said, this play is almost 10 years old. And every time I've opened it up again and worked on it has coincided with a period of some kind of loss or heartbreak for me. Which is strange, you get the sense the play demands blood. Or I'm the portrait of the play rotting in the attic while the play grows in beauty out in the world. And the reason, very plainly, of "why now" is the simple fact of the situation at hand. In a normal world this wouldn't have been my NPF play, I would have done a regular play on stage. But that's not to say that artistically, that would have been a better scenario. This play is the right thing for us to be doing now, the most productive we could ever be in these circumstances. Though as to a more broad 'now'--last Spring, when NPF was cancelled but we still got to talk with the guest artists, I chose not to send them the play I intended to do then, I sent them Vysarius. And this has come up in a lot of those feedback sessions that people see it as kind of a Trump play in a way. You know, with the fatuous child emperor, because it presents this gilded baroque world--back to Bowie, "an age of grand illusion." But that was written long before Trump was a serious contender for office, which means, I suppose, it comes out of my reaction to having to live in a world where that sort of thing happens, this continuous distraction. Everyone is looking in the wrong place for the wrong solutions. And the loss and the heartbreak of the play have probably moved very far forward because of the sad situation we're living in--an astronomer who loves what he can't touch.
SP: This play’s about many things—doubt, advances in science, people not wanting to be privy to those advances, about knowledge of things outside of you and denying that knowledge, ostracizing people for either of those. Being afraid of going beyond what you know, and doing that anyway—kind of hypnotized by this radically different world. The play is deeply torn; not ambivalent but simultaneously encouraging you to reach out but also showing that there’s a natural fear that comes with learning about the beyond. In French, les tenebres - the darkness, the depths, the shadows… it’s only ever plural, except it’s not, it’s also just the broad idea of these things. Darkness in this play is plural, it’s knowledge and lack of knowledge at once. And shining light on that darkness is something in-between; it’s not applauding or vilifying that.
Emmy: Why in this way, too, because here the plating is as important as what's on the plate. While the prose is always a treat, again even without music it's inherently musical, and that makes this easy to envision it as song. But the words themselves obviously are saying something--they're urging you to be grateful for what you have, to see what is there and not be blindsided by a longing for what you don't know, for things that are bigger than you. There's merit in that, but at some point, Icarus flies too close to the sun--and we hurt the people around us who we see as smaller than the big pursuits.
Dakota: I almost feel like inverting that question slightly--not "why these words now" but "what do these words mean now?" So for me it's not quite what motivates the words being spoken now, but what hearing the words means to someone in this moment. Revisiting this play after two years, it's recontextualized 'now.' The text is informing my sense of now, rather than the now informing my sense of the text.
Amanda: The emotional center of this play lies in wanting to be understood, in wanting to communicate something and all the pain and loneliness that can exist when doing that. Especially for Leopold and Porkeo--for Porkeo it's love and Leopold it's the understanding of the universe--it's that longing to be heard. I feel that it's very centered in what's happening in the world, this yearning we all have to be understood by each other feels heightened while we're physically distant.
Jeremy: I think the process with which we've approached this work answers that question. My work this past semester has been grappling with how theatre can exist in this situation. And I think this process does that as well. Interestingly, we arrived at an answer by prioritizing our connection as collaborators first and foremost. Which is why it was necessary for us to make this work with friends. It's all people that we collectively care about. That's communicated by what we've recorded--I don't think it's mystical or ephemeral, you can't point to any single location and say 'this is that,' but it is clear that the voices and instruments that are being recorded come from a place of love for one another, for all the people working on this. That feels like exactly what we should be directing our focus to in this moment.