Patty Hearst: The New Musical, 5Q4 Barton Bund
One of the best musicals of the season isn’t up for a Tony tonight. I can only think of one reason: It isn’t on Broadway.
The Blackbird is a non-Equity theater in Michigan that opened Patty Hearst: the New Musical in a tiny space in Ann Arbor that can be confused with a living room; it seats about 50 in a four-sided arena. Patty moves to Detroit for a limited engagement this week.
Barton Bund, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, and who directed the show as well, uses the space exceedingly well to tell the story of Patty Hearst, the kidnapped heiress who later joined her captors in revolutionary activity. Members of the Symbionese Liberation Army break through the front door, guns pointed, making us feel we are all at risk. While Patty’s fiancé escapes through an open window, they throw a plastic sheet over her, and before we settle in to enjoy a show, they come at us on all sides, enveloping us under the sheet and in the story, too.
Bund captures the tenor of the times, 1970′s Berkeley, California, where most of the bizarre story of Hearst’s involvement in the SLA unravels. His research is careful, and his language, largely taken from historical documents, is right on. When Patty wants to placate her captors, for instance, she lets them know that unlike her family, she voted for McGovern in the previous election. Turns out, the SLA gave their votes to Nixon “because fuck it, that’s why. Expedite the process. The People know he’s the enemy, they’ll be quicker to rise up against a pig like him.”
Songs that include Freedom, Bourgeois Bitch, by way of explanation, My Gay and Lesbian Army, from a character who finds the SLA too hetero and male-dominated and wants to start her own faction, and, when Patty voluntarily joins up, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, come out of source material, sometimes line for line, and evoke a 70′s musical sensibility; they always forward the action and develop character. In a group sex scene, characters fuck on a bed of stolen money, high after a bank heist, and sing The People’s Orgy.
Bund does more than recreate a time and circumstances, more than tell a strong story that keeps us on the edge of our seats, even though we know how it will end. He brings to the fore the complexity of feeling that anyone caught in those times experienced. Even those repelled by the thought of violence had to wonder: Was marching on, sitting in, and signing petitions enough? Were non-violent activists deluding themselves that change is possible without extreme measures?
Bund never glamorizes the terrorists–a man slugs his wife, people bicker over power in the group–but we see their humanity, too, convoluted as it might be. When some are burned alive, we feel for them. When Patty joins them in the work that is their passion, we understand. That made some uncomfortable–Why weren’t the bad guys always and entirely bad? Why was there comic relief in some tense scenes?
What makes this play so wonderful is that it is about more than what it is about. It taps the kind of insecurities we all have and talks to our need for community, something Hearst found in a group of terrorists after being torn from family and friends and forced to live in a closet, blindfolded, for weeks.
A far healthier sense of community is evident in the fine ensemble of actors who bring Patty and her captors before us. They are: Jamie Weeder (Patty), Christopher Joseph, Chelsea Sadler, Vanessa Sawson, Talia Glass, Emily Wilson-Tobin, Gayle Martin, Steven O’Brien, Joe Kathrien, Analea Lessenberry, Ruell Black, Max Hully, Danny Friedland.
Bund, who is also the founding artistic director of the Blackbird, is the real deal. His vision is authentic, his commitment to a small group of local artists genuine. Patty is infused with a spirit of collaboration, and Bund is quick to credit his actors and co-sound designer, William Myers, for their part in developing the work. But it’s clear as well that on this outing, he has done it all, and he has done it all brilliantly.
He’s also done a good job reporting experiences leading to this production in two blogs, one that he completed a year ago, another that he’s added to recently. I had just a few questions left for him.
DN: You’ve done a remarkable job of capturing a time and place. What was your research process?
BB: [I saw the movie years ago and was intrigued.] I was looking everywhere for her book and finally found it in a used bookstore in Maine when I was on a vacation there in 2006. …I found a lot of [political and] personal information, but it left a lot of questions unanswered, so my other research was catching as much video and as many other stories, Steve Weed’s [Heart's former finance's] account of the whole thing…The whole thing becomes more and more insane the more you get into it….There was an issue about the comedy, but the funniest stuff is the true stuff. Pretty much everything that’s said or talked about comes out of her testimony, her book-it would have been impossible for me to make this stuff up. They shared a toothbrush, they had these clumsy group orgies, they were addicted to TV and would train, then watch horror movies. They were in their young twenties and bumbling. The trial was an absolute circus.
I don’t want to make fun of the characters or judge them, whether we’re doing Shakespeare or a piece like this. When you’re creating theater from zero, you have to find a way of doing it without judging it….
These are young people who grew up just like me…I could have been led astray…When you get people together, the group mentality….I had revolutionary thoughts when we were under the Bush administration, I wasn’t sure how to deal with them…
DN: Are you involved in any direct political activity, or do you work through your art?
BB: I try to keep it to the art. In fantasy, the idea of running in and doing something…there was a time in the Bush years when I felt I needed to do something more political, but the way I think has very little to do with policy and more to do with people’s minds, and art is the place for me to do something.
Which is not to say art is part of a political agenda…. Your own thoughts and feelings are in there, but the event takes on a life of its own. The best thing to do was to get out of the way and let the characters do the talking….When I’m in rehearsal, I try to work in a way that’s very separate from the rest of my day. Of course, personal things come into it, but we have to free ourselves from our everyday concerns [and attitudes] and let the work go where it takes us. It’s bigger than just us. I recognize that everybody I talk to is going to feel differently about this story.
DN: You were dealing with a massive amount of research. How did you decide what to include?
BB: The key incidents became [those that showed] how she became one of them. She came to think of herself as a revolutionary and not about how she was kidnapped. What would motivate a person? Her parents had so botched things up…they gave up negotiating with the terrorists…the FBI left this poor girl to suffer when they could have solved this problem…we may have rushed the time she spent [locked in] a closet. We had to keep the story moving….
DN: How did the play change as you developed it?
BB: The workshop allowed me to process strong poltical feelings and personal fears. We had many different endings and moved so many things around. . Finally, we wanted to throw this out in the messiest way possible. Typically, you’re trying to clean things up…We wanted to ask questions, not to answer them.
DN: When composer Bart Bund collaborated with lyricist Bart Bund, which came first, the music or the lyrics? And just what is The World Famous Love Machine?
BB: I think it’s the lyrics that came first. Certain phrases [in their talk and writing] have a certain musicality to them…I took what they said [added to that and made it rhyme]. Patty sings about pizza. In the closet, she wasn’t thinking “Who am I?” She was thinking about missing home and food. I wrote the music on an acoustic guitar ahead of time, then Will Myers produced and mixed it.
The World Famous Love Machine is me and my laptop and Will Myers, who has been our sound designer…It’s an alias, an alter ego, maybe it’s me finding an artistic distance between myself and the work. That frees me up to do things I don’t think Bart would ever do…. I enjoy going into my den and manipulating sound and playing guitar.
Photos by Brian Carbine.
Credits: Brian Carbine, choreographer; Sarah Lucas, stage manager; Sara Eicher, costume designer; Gwen Lindsay, lighting designer; Heather Powers, assistant stage manager; The World Famous Love Machine, sound (Bund, sound design, guitars, beats, samples, percussions; William Myers, producer, mixing, mastering, beats, bass); Produced by the Blackbird Theatre, founding artistic director, Barton Bund; managing director Dana Sutton.
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