Talking Performance Literature with Paul Rome and Roarke Menzies


Opening on December 18th at The Bushwick Starr is Philadelphia and Other Stories, the latest collaboration between Paul Rome and Roarke Menzies. Their work, both as individuals and as collaborators, has drawn our attention before: Joe Winkler reviewed their 2012 work Calypso, and I talked with Rome earlier this year about his novel We All Sleep in the Same Room. This time, I reached out to both via email to learn more about the project’s genesis, the blurred lines between fiction and metaphor, and what making literature for performance entails.

What was your collaborative process like on Philadelphia and Other Stories? Did it differ significantly from your previous collaborations?

RM: For the first show we worked on together, And Once Again, Paul basically came to me with a completed text and an idea for a show, and I helped him realize the production.  It was a relatively similar process with The You Trilogy, the audio series we did.

PR: With the next show, Calypso, I was inspired by the opportunity to work with distinct voices for contrast.  Roarke and I had talked about having him perform this time.  So I wrote a story in a chatty, colloquial, first-person voice that borrowed a lot from Roarke’s speech habits.  I also borrowed a lot of facts from Roarke’s life.  I wanted to toy with the ‘real’ versus ‘fictional’ divide in similar ways that I do with the stories I write for my own voice.

RM: Right.  A handful of people actually came away from that show thinking the stories I read were memoir, which was funny.  Calypso was also really the first time I did any substantive editing to Paul’s writing.  Before that my notes would mostly be about clarity or grammar, but with Calypso we were being billed as equal collaborators, plus we’d developed a really strong sense of trust by then, so we began to really talk out ideas about tone, style, plot, subtext, themes much more freely.  With Calypso, Paul still came to me with the completed texts, but much more than anything we’d worked on before that, the texts transformed significantly through the process of working together.

By the time we started what became Philadelphia and Other Stories, Paul had begun coming to me with works in progress, where the story (as far as plot) was there, but the language, style and structure was still being worked out.  In the title story, for example, the scenes unfold in an unusual order.  Paul and I worked together to find these very specific story structures that really shift the momentum and feel of the works.  It’s been a really intimate, involved process grounded in a lot of trust and a shared commitment to making every aspect of the production really work together.

We’ve also brought on some really talented collaborators.  Mark Jaynes, who’s part of the experimental theatre company Radiohole and a member of the band Not Blood Paint, is directing the production.  He’s kind of our outside eye to help guide the performances and chime in on decisions about lighting, production design, transitions, etc.  Rachel Levens is also on board as a dramaturg and production assistant to chime in on these elements and to help us make sure we’re considering all the various aspects of mounting the show.  We also have Katie Schottland delivering one of the stories, and two musicians, David Kammerer and Katie Mullins, each performing songs of theirs.  We’re really lucky to work with this team.

How did the two of you first come to work together?

PR: I just approached Roarke about it one day at the coffee shop.  He was a regular at the Wyckoff Starr, the place I manage.

RM: We’d been introduced by Paul’s girlfriend at the time.  She and I had gone to high school together back in Portland and, by coincidence, ran into each other at an event during Bushwick Open Studios in 2009.  Then Paul and I were those neighbors that always talk about hanging out but never do.

It wasn’t until And Once Again that we started collaborating and became friends.  It was 2010 and I think Paul had decided he was done with his novel for the time being.  He’d written this noir-ish, Joe Frank-inspired script for a staged radio play called And Once Again, about sort of a loner, jazz record collector.  Paul had also written all these musical themes and recorded them using his Casio keyboard, with all its brilliant, canned, stock sounds and cliché beat loops that evoke sort of a bizarro Muzak.

PR: The funny thing about my initially approaching Roarke is that I’d never actually heard any music he’d composed.  We’d just had a few good conversations and he seemed like an interesting guy.  The production was approaching and I think part of me wanted to run the material by someone who might give me an honest impression.

RM: I wasn’t sure what to expect.  But I was really impressed with his writing, and saw tons of potential in the format.  It really just kind of ‘clicked’ in a lot of ways.  I ended up helping him finish the score, mixing the music, running the sound board and coaching his performance.

What about these particular stories made performance the best fit for them?

PR: I think literature generally benefits greatly from being read aloud.  So often there’s subtle humor and nuance to be found buried in the text.   The recent Moby Dick Marathon reading exemplified this.  With these stories, which revolve around road trips, I was, once again, interested in exploring the first person-present tense.  There’s something both private eye and quasi-journalistic about the form.  I picture Agent Cooper talking to Diane in Twin Peaks.  There’s an immediacy that pairs well with performance.  At the same time, there’s a paradoxical self-consciousness that, for me, is directly related to traveling.  The audience or listener remains in the present with the character(s) as they travel even as memories come back to them.  The flashbacks in this show are often where the emotional heart of the story lies.  I like the mental image of a road trip where everyone from the character’s former relationships, all of the exes, are along for the ride.

RM: At one point in the development of this show, I started recording certain conversations of ours.  I would also sometimes take transcription from Paul.  Sometimes, especially if a given scene is written in a conversational tone, it’s easier just to have someone actually talk out the scene, so you get all those idiosyncrasies of speech, rather than trying to create a contrived naturalism.  Using transcription in the context of contemporary performance has become quite fashionable in certain circles.  I just collaborated on a show at Bard College with the performer Jack Ferver, who delivered the transcript of Lady Gaga’s deposition from when she was sued by her former personal assistant.  Then there’s the work of Anna Deveare Smith, or Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, each of whom use transcriptions of interviews to construct full-length performances.

The title suggests an anthology; did you have the structure in mind from the outset, or was it reordered over time?

RM: A little bit of both.  We started working on the material for Philadelphia and Other Stories basically right after Calypso.  At the time we’d been talking about making an ‘album’ together, where it would be short form audio fiction paired with music and ambient sound works.  That’s how we first started talking about Philadelphia.  And Paul wanted to make it a series of stories about traveling, where each story was the name of the destination.  So we knew that much already.  We actually had a really solid draft of the title story, as well as some pretty complete music sketches done by the end of fall 2012.  But then Paul sold his book, so we put this project on hold for a while.

PR: The inherently circular nature of a trip (assuming the characters make it home) offers an appealing structure to me: the narrative can both start and end en media res.  I feel like we’ve just begun to explore all the possibilities.  There are seven different stories told during the evening, but only the first and the last follow the same characters.  This allows the intervening stories to inform the way you frame the other narratives.  They’re all in conversation, in a way.  But unlike a single long-form piece, there’s not necessarily this grand resolution or closure.  As is so often the case in life, things are unresolved.  But, hopefully, they all resonate.  The goal is always to create something that lingers.

Paul, where do you see this particular work fitting in with your fiction?

PR: There’s clearly a huge interest in performative or audio fiction as evidenced by the popularity of This American Life and the radio medium.  I’m a big fan.  I love the way people tell stories at a bar or over coffee when they’re genuinely excited by what they’re saying, and they start getting increasingly worked up about it and nostalgic, and associations are flying, and tenses are getting jumbled, and you just go there with them.  At the same time, I love and respect the solitude of reading.  With reading, I value the sense of intimacy, however illusory, one has with the author.

Ultimately, my hope is that these stories don’t have to belong to a single medium.  Working with Roarke, and putting on shows, has undoubtedly had an influence on my writing.  I don’t plan to stop doing either.  I would, however, very much like to see the text of Philadelphia in print form.  At the end of the day, it’s all part of my fiction.

I know some authors write purely for themselves or else exclusively for other writers or readers who are well-versed and avid consumers of “literary-fiction.” There’s nothing wrong with this mentality, but I can’t relate to it.  Three of my most trusted critics are a paramedic, a nutritionist and a gemologist.  Performing offers a way to reach different audiences.

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