Interview with 600 HIGHWAYMEN's Michael Silverstone Apr 27, 2016

by Erin

600 HIGHWAYMEN co-director Michael Silverstone talks with OtB Communications Director Erin Jorgensen on theater, ways of viewing theater, and the making of Employee of the Year.

EJ: Um - so - I wanted to talk a little bit about - I know you guys started, I mean you both studied theater, obviously -

MS: Mmm-hmmm.

EJ: - but then you worked in a prison, and worked in churches and worked in non-traditional theater spaces. And I was wondering, since now you guys have had some success in the theater circuit if you could talk a little bit about pros and cons, like what it's like working in those spaces versus the theater circuit? For you guys AND for audiences. Just like a general vibe. You know?

MS: Well, when Abby and I first started making shows together, no one was really asking us to do them. And we chose the church - well, we didn't *choose* the church, it was more that they allowed us to work there – but one of the big reasons the church was so significant was that they gave us access not because we wrote a great project proposal or something, they just let us use the space because we were nice and they were generous. And that was a big deal for us. They didn’t ask us many questions, and we sort of lucked out and made a home there for five or six years.

And the fact that it wasn’t a normal theater or rehearsal space, that gave us complete freedom. We got to invent all the rules for ourselves.

We weren’t inheriting or getting stuck with someone else’s set of priorities. We didn’t have a curtain. We didn’t have lights. It was just this big multipurpose room with things in it, and that meant we had to work to define it for ourselves. The other thing is that the church was shared with other people, so we were often rehearsing alongside piano lessons or a birthday party being setup or even getting ready for a funeral once. And that really influenced us. We started to see the whole picture. Not that we then starting making chaotic projects, but more that we started to think of the space as human. We started thinking about a type of humanness, both to the theatrical form and a certain aesthetic. It wouldn’t be possible to transform the church basement into something else, but we could learn to be in it. We could learn to see it deeper. And I think we got more comfortable with that than anything else. When we were rehearsing, I remember that the phone used to ring all the time. It was a little annoying at first, but we started to really love what it did to the room. Things suddenly became very heightened, and you became aware of the fragility of the whole thing. And that’s something we tried to keep. So our first few shows that we performed away from the church, we used to install a phone on a theater wall, and we’d ring it at some point during the show. We did it in Biff’s monologue in Death of a Salesman, and it made no sense and complete sense at the same time. It brought everyone together and cracked any feeling of being transported. The actors asked us why it was happening, but we always sort of avoided talking about it.

Anyway I’m not sure transporting audiences is that much of a good thing, I think its more important to be real about things.

And then with the phone, we got to the point where we were just using it because it was something we did in our shows. We were always hanging a phone on the wall in tech and getting it to ring. And then we recognized that as being a sort of self-aware coolness, and then it became clear that we had to let it go. That’s a kind of self-awareness that really bothers me. And I think that if we hadn’t had the church, where we really had to think about the whole experience, I wouldn’t have recognized that the phone had become a trope that weren’t even really thinking about, we were just doing it. That idea is sort of what started the conversation, that having to invent our own theatricality gave us reason to figure out what we believe in and care about. Um - I'm not quite answering the question.

EJ: No, it's good. That's fine. It's a good conversation.

MS: Just thinking about it now. The deeper you get into what you do and the more you become a "professional," it becomes, you know, more and more difficult to actually be tapped in. Right now I’m experiencing that it’s harder than before to make shows. The early shows were easier to put out there, but now the whole thing is more complex. You have to work harder to listen in.

And that’s why it's very tempting to just create shows that look or feel like your last one. But that’s not who we are and that’s not why we do this.

It might sounds selfish, but Abby and I  are first and foremost doing this, putting ourselves through the process, for ourselves.

We’re trying to make something that feels important to us. Or we’re trying to prove something to ourselves.

EJ: What you're saying is really interesting. And I was just thinking, since we were talking about celebrity - I mean, it's on a much smaller scale! - but you know, it's a pretty small world, the theater, contemporary art world, in the U.S. and like, worldwide, so, I'm just curious, I don't have any experience with it, but if that's something you guys are thinking about, like, oh fuck! how can we get back to - not like, purity or whatever - but you know, there's not so many expectations, no one cares, you can do whatever you want. And now it's like, oh, we're in Under the Radar, now we're performing here…

MS: It just takes more - you have to be very focused on your own ideas and try not to distract yourself by… I'm easily distracted, and I didn't use to be that way.

I think one thing that's really helpful is there's two of us. If it was just one person, I think it would be harder. I think we’re pretty hard on each other. A lot of our ideas are sort of built on the conflict between the two of us. It’s not a conscious thing, but we do put that conflict and together in the same piece. And I think bringing those differences together is what creates danger and tension, which I think our shows have a lot of. Not fake, heightened tension. Like real tension. And I do think: what would it be like if I were making shows by myself? I think they’d be not so interesting.

Honestly, the best thing for us is to be someplace together with people we don’t know, to put some things into the room. That’s been so great about being in residence at OtB all month. It was a great way for us to be working, and with lots of people we don’t know. And I think that’s always been important for our process. Figuring it out from a lot of newness. Especially when you don’t know people. I’m sure you feel this way, as a Seattle-ite who sees how the community works. Its easy to define your identity, or the identity of your work, in relation to the what others are doing, or in relation to what you’ve done before. And that feels like a trap anywhere you are. So coming here to work has been great. Its when you start drinking the Kool-Aid and the reference points become so thin and close and start to involve your own work and your own history, that’s when you are stuck. So to come here and work in a new space with new people, that’s been really exciting. And yes, I’m plugging On the Boards. 'Cause it's a great place! I mean - Abby and I have been saying that, you know, if we could come here every year for a month, it would be great.

EJ: Well…it has its pros and cons. Spend a few years here and tell me what you think. (laughing)

MS: (laughing) No – the best part of touring a show is seeing the work meet the audience. As a matter of fact, we've taken Employee of the Year to a one or two places where I don't think the connection happened at all! I don't think the audience quite understood what we were doing. But it was really important for me to be sitting in the audience and to feel the disconnect. It was frustrating to feel the show go by without penetrating, but it meant that I was able to sort of go home that night and re-defend the show for myself. I had to remember what I believe in with the show, and why I think it’s important. And I think that helps my sort of musculature, to constantly be reminded of what I care about. Defending it because a very active thing.

EJ: You kind of touched on something that I was curious about you guys - like - how can I frame this? I didn't study traditional theater at all, and I have a problem like - identifying with or enjoying straight plays. I totally just don't get it. But I really enjoy theater, like yours, that's more abstract, I guess - and I'm wondering, like what…advice, maybe, you would give to traditional theater-goers, like maybe those are the people who saw Employee of the Year and didn't get it. You know what I mean? Like you come in, and you're like, oh, I'm in a theater! And here's all the cues! So you kind of have expectations about what you're about to see. And when it's something different, maybe it's hard to get people on board. Versus people who have like no clue, like me, who are in a theater and think it's supposed to be…do you know what I'm saying? I think a lot of people might be really interested in this, but they kind of don't have a way in. Or they think they have a way in, but it's like completely opposite to what you guys are doing.

MS: Well, I think - that's a really good question. I think that for myself as an audience member, I like a lot of room to exist with a piece on my own. To find my own way with what's happening in front of me. I like to feel that there’s room for me to fit inside, to sort of define my own relationship to the piece. So that's why I think that the shows that we're making – you know …this is a hard question!

EJ: I know what you mean, I think…I mean, seeing so many things here, I really enjoy when artists are like, well, we're gonna give you 50%. But you gotta come up with the other 50.

MS: I really think - in my own personal life, my own personality, I don't like to be controlled.

And it's the same in the theater, I want so sit there, and I want to be in a space with live elements and I want to figure it out for myself.

I think somebody might see Employee of the Year and look at the choreography, or look at the blocking, and say, “What the fuck? They're just standing and talking! And now she just has her arm up!” But for us, this is actually a lot.

Or, I don’t know if it's a lot, but it’s at least how I like to look at things, and that simplicity gives me the freedom I need. And so I guess I would encourage somebody who has that point of view, sort of like "what the fuck, they're just standing there" to soften the focus, and sort of - that's such a hippy-dippy thing to say – “soften the focus”…uh, you know, to sort of be a little bit more relaxed in what you need the piece to deliver.

EJ: Right.

MS: Because for me, what’s up there is enough. It might be challenging your idea of what you think is enough, but for me it works. I'm proud of the piece because it's what we care about. That's been the best part of making shows together. You know, before all this, I wanted to be a Broadway director. But I always knew that I had kind of a queerer eye than what would be allowed. Queer is a loaded term, but it's the best way to say it. And I do think it would be cool if we could direct a Broadway play. But in terms of right now, to be able to watch something of your own making hit an audience, it’s basically a dream come true. Not because I worked really hard and I want you to know it, but because THIS THING is what I believe in. And then if somebody doesn't like it, to actually go through the process that I was talking about, to say, but I really do, and here's why.... I'm babbling!

EJ: It's really good, it's really interesting. You reminded me of something I read somewhere, and I can't remember who said it, but talking about critique, when you're like "oh they're *just* xyz" - he was like you have to take out the word "just," you're not allowed to say "just" anymore. So "she has her arm up in the air" has a whole different meaning. It has a whole different meaning. You can't dismiss it.

MS: Being in a room with simplicity is really threatening to some, and it’s hard to deal with the silence or the stillness. Right? The manner and speed at which I move through my life actually goes against what I want to be doing in the theater. And I feel that contradiction all the time,  which makes my agenda in the theater even more urgent. I don’t like the idea of an “agenda”, but you get what I mean.

I don't know what the audiences are like here, but I assume everybody knows whatever happens at OtB is going to be different, right?

EJ: Yeah, yeah…they're pretty much down. I just feel like there's so many more people who could get something out of it, but it's hard to get them to join the club, you know?

MS: I mean, that's a field issue, right? You put a show in a space not just for the people who would already come see the show, but you also are trying to open the doors to the people who wouldn’t see the show. When I think from that angle, I feel really lucky to be a maker and not a producer.

EJ: Yeah. It's a problem. Um…this is good! Maybe I can just ask you one more question, maybe you can talk a little bit about working with the girls or how you started…I think people would be interested in hearing that.

MS: So Abby and I wanted to make a journey story, sort of like a journey myth, and we wanted to do it with three extended families performing onstage together. We had started working with families in some of our other shows - we had a father and son in This Great Country, also a young girl and her grandmother in Everyone was Chanting your Name. And that same girl and her mother in The Record, along with a bunch of parent/child combos. We had a woman perform with her 6 six year old. Anyway, we wanted to see if we could go even further with it, if we could get these giant extended families onstage. And we were thinking about journey stories and Joseph Campbell, and we were really excited to make it happen. But we didn’t get the grant for the project.

EJ: (laughing) I think so many stories end that way. Or they go somewhere else.

MS: It was the first experience I think where not getting the grant felt like a big setback, because it meant we needed to scale down, which is like being told to “settle down” or something. Except we did keep going, we reinvented it. We had two presenters who were going to present the show, who were co-commissioning it, and they really left us alone. So we knew we wanted it to be a life story, but there were so many examples of how we didn’t want it to be, we were trying to find our own way into it. And we were actually really struggling. We couldn’t figure the piece out, and at this point, we weren’t working with the girls. Abby and I were going up to the Catskills to Mount Tremper Arts to work on the project in the dead of winter. Abby was writing most of it, and I was sort of trying to figure it out.

It was very cold and very isolated and there was just a lot of blank space, and somewhere along the way, we realized that it needed to be told by children.

I think it was when we saw Days of Heaven, which is a Terrence Malick film. And there's a young girl narrator. And for some reason, there was something about the way that she was speaking, it was just - there was something about it. The style of her speech, something clicked on our end.

So we went home and assembled, kind of fast, these workshops with kids where we recorded the text that we had, and then we put the text on iPods so they could listen and recite. Because there were different levels of reading comprehension, and at that point we didn't want to see someone struggle with the text, we wanted to see a human body saying the words. And it just felt like the next step with the project.

So…we found these five girls, and we started rehearsing with them. And even though we thought, “oh great. Now this is going to be easy”, a lot of the material that we wrote didn’t work at all coming from them. Even though we wrote it thinking of it as being said by the girls.

We had to go through the process of getting close to the girls, to who they are and how they’re different from each other. It was too bare of a piece for us to get away with being superficial, and even though we didn’t ever really *collaborate* on the writing with the girls, it also doesn’t feel like we set it on them, either. The show isn’t about the girls, but it sort of is at the same time. The writing was sort of like intuitive fictional autobiography. It was like that thing of inventing a lie to get to the truth.

There was a lot of learning in the rehearsal process. And by learning, I mean big challenges. The timeline was slow. The writing and performance style were hard to calibrate. And we took a lot of snack breaks. And we had a lot of conversations with the girls. And Abby and I really had to create a way of working with them. We knew we wanted the show to be really rigorous, rigorous for adult performers, even. And so it was a big push to do that.

And in the beginning, we didn’t know if the girls could even get through it! Our first showing in the summer up at Mount Tremper, I’ve never been so nervous in my life. My friend Lucy had to take me on a walk just before the show to air me out. And then the audience showed up, and the girls performed, and they got through it. I think we all felt it worked. A lot of what worked was simply seeing the girls get through it. It was as if their plates were so full as they were performing, and so their involvement and dedication to the steps they needed to take to get through it is the thing that allowed us to SEE the girls. Which was always the point, even if we didn’t know it. Watching the early performances, you really were aware that at any given moment they could fall. And that really felt right.

Also, what Abby and I both fell in love with, and the girls would probably hate it if they knew this, was all the hiccups along the way. They’d be performing, and they’d get something stuck in their throat and they’d have to clear it. Or they’d need to pull at their shirt. Or the mosquito bite on their foot would really itch, and so they’d itch it throughout the show. It was that sort of humanness that really made the show.

EJ: They were really young.

MS: Really, really young! When they first started out, the first time we put them onstage, the feeling in the audience was like…holy shit! They're gonna pee their pants. But now the girls are a lot older. And once they started getting “better”, Abby and I had a little panic. We thought something was lost in them getting better at it. We thought that them being more comfortable and less in a working state would make the audience too comfortable with the experience, and we didn’t want that.

But now, the girls understand the piece more. They are more mature, they're very smart, they're very sophisticated - they're very smart, it's incredible. They have a stronger grasp of it. And they understand the story of it and the emotions of it. And what's been really cool is to watch those synapses happen, watch that learning happen. Because of scheduling and touring with kids, we’ve had to really stagger when we’ve been able to perform the show. This is nerve-wracking for the two of us because there’s always the question of what will work now that they’ve changed since we’ve seen them. But its also cool, we’ll do it once, and then we see the girls two or three months later. And each time we'd see them, it's like…wow! Its not that they are growing into the piece, but the gap between them and the piece is gradually getting smaller. They’re really different from when we first started.

EJ: They're so different.

MS: It's really cool. And On The Boards is currently our last go at it.

EJ: This one is the end?

MS: Yeah. This is it. We think.

EJ: It's interesting hearing how that came about, I think. It really works…I mean, I saw it on video -

MS: You saw the first production. That was when we first started doing it.

EJ: It was really affecting, though. Even on video. I mean I was just watching it so I could write, like PR blurbs, but yeah, I was like, I'm having feelings about this. What's happening?! 

MS: It was fun for us to write it, because a lot of the things the character goes through, we've never been through. We talk a lot about how distant it was for the girls, but for us, too – it was us trying things on, too. What will it be like to have a child, what will it be to lose a parent, what is that going to feel like? What are we searching for? You know, a lot of these big questions, I feel that Abby and I were able to think about through the girls. The rehearsals were incredibly difficult. Abby and I were rewriting it every single day, and this was sort of because we were rewriting or revising our views on the matter, for ourselves. And then with the choreography, getting it calibrated just right - and you know it's tough if you're that age! And you know, they need bathroom breaks, and there were a lot of tears, and there was a lot of emotion, and at so many points along the way, it seemed as if it could all just fall apart. And we were really lucky to be working with David Cale, who is a writer and performer we really admire. He was writing songs for the show, but he was also like the Patron Saint of the project and process. Abby and I would get really nervous about what we were doing, and he kept repeating to us, “it’s good. Keep going.” It was really encouraging. And with the parents, we all sort of agreed to see it through to the first audience. And we really lucked out that everyone was together at the first show up at Mount Tremper. I think it was after that first show that we all stood around and it was like, “Oh. We have to keep going.” And we kept working.