April 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Musician and producer Dave Liang’s Shanghai Restoration Project marries Chinese instruments and jazz with Western beats and electronica, something that captures not only a fun, textured soundscape, but also the essence of Liang’s biography. Liang, a Chinese-American born in Kansas and raised in New York, pulled from his personal ancestry, as well as his own travels in China, to concoct the musical project.
Liang’s musical constant is his passion for variety, and that has structured his career as more of a journey than a pre-planned straight line.
“I love all different types of music,” Liang said during an interview this week. “I’d been exposed to all different types. On any given day, you could catch me listening to opera, but I could also be listening to an indie rock song or I’ll listen to an old Louis Armstrong ‘Hot 5s and 7s’ record. Is there a way I can do music where I can blend everything together and not be judged for it in a negative way?”
Liang started piano at about age 3, training in classical and improvisation and then moving into jazz in high school. While at Harvard, he served as a vocal arranger for an a cappela group and composer for the Hasty Pudding Show.
After college, he ended up in New York City, working at a consulting firm and pursuing music on the side. It was a period of reexamination for him.
“Evenings, I would play jazz piano once every week in various clubs in the city, but I didn’t find it as fulfilling as I thought I would,” he said, “and I think one of the reasons was that I was playing music that had already been written. Pretty much anybody could have stepped in my shoes and done that, and a lot of people were a lot better than I was. In New York, you quickly see where you stack up on the talent scale. I definitely was not the jazz pianist I thought I was, and it was good to learn that early.”
Liang quickly began to reconfigure his plans following 9-11 — he decided life was too short not to pursue music in some form — but it wasn’t until 2003 that a strange big break came along. He connected with an old school friend and got the opportunity to do production work for P Diddy’s Big Boy label, working with R&B artists.
“All of a sudden I went from classical jazz and chorale training to producing hip hop and R&B,” Liang said. “This was a great education because I don’t think anywhere else aside from hip-hop producers themselves can you really learn how to program drums.
“They do really learn how to create a beat that makes people want to move, regardless of background, and so there were definitely some secrets to the trade and definitely some things I observed, and I’m forever grateful to that experience.”
Liang’s experience convinced him this was a road he wanted to follow, but he also realized that production was a highly competitive business in which a producer had to define himself with some unique quality. This realization — combined with financial stress — coalesced into a huge survival-instinct moment when Liang had to figure out what it was he actually had to offer the world.
“I took a step back and recalled this moment that I had when I visited China for the first time in the late 1990s,” he said, “and I remembered there was this place called the Peace Hotel and there was this jazz band, these old Shanghai musicians. What’s really cool about this type of music is that it’s Western jazz combined with Chinese lyrics and occasionally Chinese instruments.
“I think that spoke to me more than any other music I had ever been exposed to because it basically defined my story as someone who is Chinese and also American.”
The memory set his creativity in motion, as well as other related experiences that he had not yet pieced together, such as growing up listening to his mother and grandfather play the zither and Chinese flute together. Despite his constant exposure, he said, he could never really relate to those sounds, but the combination of them with Western genres suddenly allowed him to listen to them with new ears, and the sound he heard was what would become the Shanghai Restoration Project.
“That sound was taking those Chinese instruments that I had grown up hearing but putting them in a context that I felt I, as an American, would understand,” he said. “So that meant a good beat and also, harmonically, something rooted in one of our many genres — whether it was jazz or whether it was electronica. That’s how it came to be. It’s a restoration of that 1930s fusion that I fell in love with. It’s a musical restoration, still combining East and West but in a modern context.”
Liang’s ideas were big, but, at the time, his resources were less so, and he had to watch costs. The way DJs make music is through pricey CDs of samples where you buy the license to use the samples freely in your work. Liang knew of some Chinese instrumental CDs floating around that he got hold of in order to craft his vision.
“It doesn’t sound as sexy a story as traversing rural China, but it does happen later, when I get more into it,” Liang said. “Obviously, as projects evolve, there’s more and more of a need to expand beyond the sample CDs, but for me, personally, I felt like as an artist a record would be more enriching if I could get deeper into China. For every record after the first one, I started going.”
Liang began visiting China to record street sounds — people shouting and different dialects to use as percussive elements in the music and even as actual instruments. He was also approached by the Chinese government’s record label, China Records, to remix some of the old Shanghai jazz numbers that influenced him in the first place.
He also teamed up with American folk artist Abigail Washburn and traveled to western China following a devastating earthquake in order to create an awareness project. This saw the duo mix folk songs sung by Chinese children with the sounds of their environment — such as playing pingpong and rebuilding their homes. The Shanghai Restoration Project had officially become an adventure.
“You start with me using sample CDs and recording things out of my bathroom, and three or four years later, I’m rolling up my pant legs to go to the bathroom in the wilds of western China,” Liang said. “Every project now, I make it a point to take a trip or two over there. It started small and got more and more involved.”
His current project takes traditional Chinese children’s songs and modernizes them with beats and production, which he says is due out later this year. He partnered with a Canadian Montessori school called Yips that services the Markham District in Toronto, which is heavily Chinese. That neighborhood features an influx of new Mandarin-speaking residents coming over from Beijing and proved to be a natural place for Liang to mine for children’s songs he had never, ever heard, as well as a few old favorites from his own childhood.
“I probably knew maybe 25 percent of them, and that was one of the big joys of doing this project, I got to learn all these new Chinese songs,” he said. “Most of the words I knew, but some of them I didn’t so it was cool to be able to improve my linguistic ability a little bit, too — up to a second-grade level.”
Liang used his family gathering at Christmas to decide on which songs to use on the album.
“I went through this list with my grandma, my aunt and my uncle, and I wanted to get a pretty diverse sampling,” he said. “I wanted to get songs that somebody from my grandmother’s generation from the ‘20s and ‘30s would remember — old traditional songs — and I think most of them are. Only one or two were written after that. Running it by them, it was awesome just hearing them burst out into song, and it was on the ones they got the most excited about that I was like, OK, I think this is going to work.”
Liang interprets his music on stage less as a live band performance and more as a multi-media experience. His stage set-up features his keyboard playing and cohort Jamal Richardson controlling beats and musical backdrop. Vocals are pre-recorded, and the two treat tracks more like mash-ups, creating entirely new experiences from the various parts of any composition. This is matched with video of China created to work along with the tempos — a musical travelogue that Liang said has created nostalgia for those who have lived in China and longing in those who wish to go there.
It’s also completed the cycle that was begun in childhood, bringing his two worlds together in a way that Liang says benefits both.
“It also reflects my personal growth, as someone who was more American-inclined and not understanding China as well,” he said. “I feel like I understood it in context of my family and in bits and pieces, but now I make the point to really speak Chinese on a daily basis and to learn as much as I can about the culture because it helps strengthen what I do as an artist.
“Now I’m more interested in the story of my grandmother, the last living relative of that generation — hearing the stories of her in the ‘20s running all over the place in China and all the cities she lived in and actually being able to go to some of these cities and getting a sense for what it was like. It has been an interesting side effect and it’s great because I feel like my personal and professional development are locked into one.”
April 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
As Brooklyn memoirs go, Martin Lemelman’s graphic novel “Two Cents Plain” covers the kind of nostalgia you would expect — from egg creams to Jewish neighborhood antics — but nestles them in something deeper.
Lemelman does not offer a straightforward memoir but rather snatches of memory compiled in such a way that a vivid recollection is given to the reader. His boyhood is gathered from bits and pieces and put into a tapestry that creates something not comforting at all, except by virtue that it happened and it is his. The idea may be to embrace the past because the past is what happened, and why spend your life fretting over what never was?
In revealing his childhood, Lemelman exposes the forces at work — his battling mother and father, the shadow of Poland, the constantly evolving big city and the neighborhood that functioned as a further intimate landscape that stretched out from the second floor of the candy store Lemelman’s family owned.
Escapees from Poland following World War II, Lemelman’s parents attempted to make it in the new world without much agreement, moving from rural farm schemes to urban shop ones. Lemelman’s mother is stubborn and vaguely dictatorial, his father more of the same, and he and his brother operate in a world where the casual corruption of New York City cops means they get to take shop merchandise without permission. It’s almost a free for all without proper authority figures, and Lemelman is left to take stock of the whole experience and ask what exactly happened to him.
The narrative moves from the cloistered Jewish neighborhood to the combustible multi-ethnic one that saw strangers take the place of what amounted to extended family, and racial suspicion ignites threats and criminal activity among the populace. It was a disintegration of a place that was only really unified out of need, in order to combat the alienation that could bear down on immigrants.
With Lemelman’s sketchbook style art, “Two Cents Plain” comes off as immediate and visceral, in direct match to the off the cuff narrative delivery. The dangers of urban living haven’t changed all that much over the decades — on Lemelman’s page, they are presented as a pageant of similar prejudices and struggles, just with changing faces dealing with them.
April 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Mixing the adorable with the grotesque, painter Dave Cooper lures your eyes in and then challenges you to repulsion upon closer inspection. His figures are round and bubbly, with a cartoon-quality that ties them into Betty Boop-like figures from decades ago — much like Betty Boop, there’s something naughty beneath the innocence. Perverse, even.
Cooper’s paintings are collected in “Bent,” an oddly angular title given to such a round artist. Cooper got his start in comics but now concentrates on his gallery career — his background is apparent when looking at the imagery, since it pulls from a rich tradition and is not shy about expressing that.
Cooper’s work has been described as fetish-oriented, and, indeed, the sexual nature slaps you in the face — I think every figure is naked in it. But these aren’t attractive nudes anymore than they are necessarily repulsive ones — they’re just warped versions of nudes that might be alluring.
When they are brought together, though, Cooper doesn’t create anything erotic so much as desperate — what sexual moments appear in the collection aren’t presented delicately, nor with any positive emotion. The figures might be sated from their activities, but they are likely monsters of a sort who have reached satisfaction.
And in their couplings, both participants reflect each other — rounded, bug-eyed, bulging bubble people with skin blemishes and private parts that appear to almost be sad parodies of what genitalia is. But they all look strangely enraptured by the goings-on.
In his foreword, acclaimed movie director Guillermo del Toro casts Cooper as an artistic outsider fed on his own supply of creative nourishment — a visual dictionary of his own references, whose images are as much crimes as they are accomplishments.
This may well be true — but while de Toro tosses out early David Lynch by way of comparison, I see a lot more Bosch without the religious fuel. Cooper’s work is alien in the same way, and depicting some awful as a source of please.
Enter “Bent” at your own risk, but don’t shy away — a window to Cooper’s world might well be an uneasy mirror to your own, but nobody ever promised art-gazing would be easy.
April 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Watertown-based singer Eilen Jewell has made a name for herself in folk circles without compromising her views on diversity in sound in the genre — or amplification.
Her previous record “Butcher Holler” saw the singer and her band pay a rocking tribute to the queen of country music, Loretta Lynn. Jewell and the band had been fans of Lynn’s for quite a while, and the recording began life as a side project that they concocted in order to play smaller venues that they had outgrown. As their fan base had expanded, and the inclusion of a booking agent make gigs more complicated, they weren’t able to play the kinds of places where they got their start, and they still wanted to have a presence in the birthplace of their own roots.
“We missed those little pubs, so we decided one way around all the chaos would be if we appeared at the little pubs anonymously, so how would we do that?” Jewell said during an interview this week. “What occurred to us was that the most fun way would be if we started a side project of some kind, and the idea we came up with was a Loretta Lynn tribute band, and we named it Butcher Holler.”
The head of their record label caught one of the shows in Springfield and suggested an album be recorded. The band translated its live act onto record by focusing the tribute on songs that Lynn herself had penned.
Jewell’s delivery of Lynn’s words — always sincere and funny, sometimes corny — over the band’s rampaging country-style rockabilly delivery transform the album into much more than a tribute. It’s more like a re-imagining of Loretta Lynn for a new century.
“For whatever reason, with Loretta Lynn’s material, I feel like I’m able to not take the lyrics too literally. They’re very specifically Loretta Lynn — they’re very autobiographical, or a lot of them are,” Jewell said. “For example, the line where she says ‘And I love that country ham’ — I’ve been a vegetarian all my life, but I don’t consider it to be lying, because I love the song so much that the song transcends the little particulars that the lines are about.”
The Butcher Holler project is a central exhibit for Jewell’s belief that folk music isn’t just about acoustic guitar and mellow — something that has led to minor controversy for her. She started to get noticed as part of the acoustic folk scene in Cambridge, but her interests have seen her branch beyond those confines. Following her own muse has proved something purists don’t always understand.
“At first, I felt a little bit hurt by some people saying, ‘You can’t do that — your first record was acoustic; that’s what folk music is,’” she said. “That did sting a bit, but now it doesn’t bother me. I feel like I have to do what I feel compelled to do musically.
“I do think that there are a lot of people who just want folk music to be one particular thing or two particular things and not the others. I mean, I just don’t pay attention to that because if I started paying attention to what people were actually expecting of me or how they were defining folk music, I’d lose what I’m expecting of myself and what I think folk music is.”
Jewell’s vision of folk music is exactly what the title says: music of the folks. It’s the antidote to what you hear pre-programmed, placed and marketed by the major labels — it’s everything else that comes from a sincere place.
“I think folk music is much more broad than a lot of people give it credit for,” Jewell said. “I see it as an anti-pop, anti-top 40 radio — at least modern, current top 40 radio — pretty much anything that isn’t that. That’s how I feel. It’s the music of the people and not the people in the suits trying to manufacture taste, and with computers messing with the way that people sing. It’s honest music, and honest music happens across a lot of sub genres that I think are also folk music.”
Jewell’s philosophy is that the designations shouldn’t rule the musicians, rather the musicians should guide the designations, and the designations should be allowed to live and breathe alongside the musician.
“I really feel bad for any musician who feels they have to be confined to some specific designation, because I think music is so much bigger than that,” she said. “It’s really just about self-expression, and there’s so many ways to express yourself. It seems like, as an artist, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to just say there is one way of doing that. I try not to put limits on myself and my band and just try to let the song dictate what it wants to be, or let our music dictate what we feel like doing as a band together.”
Jewell’s own musical taste is embedded in her family background, with a love of early ‘60s rock like The Zombies and The Kinks, along with rockabilly like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley and, of course, Bob Dylan, who helped usher in more possibilities to sate her tireless musical curiosity.
“I remember when Bob Dylan’s Bootleg series came out. My dad bought it on tape, and we listened to that non-stop, and it really solidified my love for Bob Dylan,” she said. “I liked him before that, but I remember being in the backseat of the family Volvo station wagon and reading the liner notes and it made wonder: ‘Obviously Bob Dylan loves this Woody Guthrie guy, but who is this Woody Guthrie guy?’ It sparked that curiosity for early American roots music, and it hasn’t gone away since then. It’s only gotten worse.”
Jewell cannot separate music from the idea of movement because in her childhood, the bulk of her exposure to it came in family car trips.
“It’s funny, because my parents wouldn’t put on records or tapes or CDs in the house; they kept it really quiet,” she said. “But whenever we’d go on road trips, and my dad would get set up with one particular artist or one particular album, we’d just listen to it all the time and all day long in the car. If you grow up in Idaho, every road trip by definition has to be a very long road trip. It takes forever to get anywhere because everything’s so spread out. I was very much influenced by my father musically because I was a captive audience, I had no choice.”
Performing came later. As a kid, Jewell took piano lessons, but her experience with recitals was traumatic. Stage fright ruined the possibility of performance for a long, long time, and it wasn’t until her college years in Santa Fe, N.M., that the idea of being in front of an audience began to sneak its way into her life.
“It’s almost like I got tricked into playing live,” she said. “I’d been hanging out with this friend who had already been doing it for awhile and she was like, ‘Oh let’s hang out and play some music,’ and we’d work on some songs and we’d get them down really well, and they’d go really great and he’d say, ‘Don’t we have a good thing going on here?’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s really fun.’
“He would always somehow find a way to get me to do the song in front of people. First it would be ‘oh I’m going to be at the farmer’s market tomorrow; why don’t you come down and join me on these songs?’ and I thought, ‘Well, that sounds sca-ry, but it’s only the farmer’s market.’ Then it worked its way up to, ‘Come on, sing one song with me. I’ve got a gig at the bar. Come and join me on that.’”
After college, Jewell spent a summer basking in Venice Beach and then eventually ended up in Great Barrington at the invitation of a friend, getting a jump start at Club Helsinki.
“I credit the Berkshires as being the place where I realized what I wanted to do with my life was to play music,” she said. “Before that, I always thought “this is fun for now,” but the Berkshires was where I looked over there at Boston and thought I could go there and I could do something serious with music and really hunker down and make a go at the whole music world.”
Boston loomed large in Jewell’s musical imagination because of Cambridge — in the 1960s, second only to Greenwich Village as the center of the folk revival — and also because of her introduction to drummer Jason Beek
“He actually said when I met him, ‘I just love the way you sing. We should be in a band together.’ He was just getting started out with drumming. He said, ‘If you move to Boston, I can give you a place to stay. We’ll start a band, and I know all the best musicians in Boston — they’re looking to play with new people.’”
Beek became her roommate, then drummer, then manager, then husband. Together they formed the current band and, after making a big splash in the Cambridge music scene, have seized national attention. Their 2005 debut together, “Boundary Country,” led the band to much acclaim, followed by 2007’s “Letters from Sinners and Strangers.”
Their upcoming record, due this summer, promises to continue to blaze further trails in Jewell’s progression. The release incorporates plenty of rockabilly and western swing alongside more traditional folk styles that stretch back to her origins. Jewell paints it as an album of extremes.
“I feel like the heavy songs are heavier, and the really sparse mellow songs are really more sparse and more mellow,” she said.
It’s also an album of variety and, therefore, complexity, that speaks to Jewell’s idea that folk music — and music in general — shouldn’t be just one thing anymore than a person should. And it shouldn’t be predictable.
“I happened to start out very folk-acoustic, but I always wanted to see what else I could do. Maybe I’ll come back to that some day — or maybe not. We’ll see.”
April 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In the documentary film “Kings of Pastry,” the trend of revealing heartache competitions you never imagined existed — think about films like “Word Wars,” “Spellbound” and “Hands On A Hard Body” — continues in a more elevated realm: the world of the French pastry chef.
Deservedly, the world of cuisine has become viewed as a swaggering one, with the kitchen replacing both the Wild West and the confines of a gentleman’s club from the 1800s. It’s a world of structures, built on respect and tradition, titles and designations, while still promoting within that system a measured rebellious streak that allows the young upstarts to win the respect of the old guard.
Only in such a world could the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France — translated “Best Craftsmen in France” — competition exist.
Somewhere amidst the manliness, 16 pastry chefs converge each year to earn that title by aggressively concocting delicious and delightful cream puffs and wedding cakes served on ornate — or tacky, depending on your view — sugar sculptures before a jury of previous winners.
The difference between a good documentary of this sort and a bad one is pretty basic. A bad one acts like an outsider and frames the desires
and actions from exactly that viewpoint. In the end, the depiction of an absurd scenario is met with a snickering ridicule that might at times pretend to care but really doesn’t.
A good one — which this film is — draws you into the concerns of the participants despite how you might feel if you encountered such happenings in your own life. High-stakes pastry competitions within the elevated world of cuisine might be something I’d brush aside in my daily life, but as captured here, I was captivated.
The film centers on Chicago-based Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School, who travels back to his native France to take a stab at the competition, which his partner at the school has already mastered.
Once in France, the action expands to include two other competitors, including the sincere and humble Philippe Rigollot, in some ways the Everyman of the film who built himself up from days as a little kid spent helping his mom in her bakery job.
You get a perfect sense of what these gentlemen are up against as the film takes you through the pre-competition process, a period of training as intensive as that of Olympians, though maybe a hell of a lot more frustrating. Dishes that look like perfection to someone like me are picked apart by trainers — one curl of cream puff out of place, and the chef goes down for the count.
Equally, the competitors are required to concoct insanely intricate sugar sculptures for cake presentation that play like an edible Jenga. Once assembled, if placed on the table just ever-so-slightly wrong, the concoction crumbles apart, as does the chance of winning the Best Craftsman title.
The emotion throughout is genuine, as is the tension. Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker take you on a journey with the chefs that’s as intense as any athlete’s quest, and maybe even better, because it involves dessert.
At center is the message that everyone has a passion, and the better of us are willing to go beyond the necessary steps, to strip your psyche through sacrifice, in order to achieve the real fruits of it. It’s a lesson any of us can take to heart — especially, like I said, when it involves dessert.
April 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Igor Savitsky is the kind of cunning huckster I love to hear about, the sort of fellow who dealt in subversion rather than merely rebellion. It’s easy to collide with the system, but it’s very hard to redirect it against its own interests without it even suspecting.
Savitsky was a workaholic traveling Soviet Russia in a mad proposition to gather up dying culture from its very death bed and divert it to an out-of-the-way safe house. Eventually a new burst of energy would allow the work a life far beyond the political movement that is murdering it.
Savitsky’s claim to fame is the Nukus Museum of Art — or, properly, The State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan — which he built by diverting state funds through his connections. Located in the desert of Uzbekistan, it’s an off-the-beaten-path museum that was very nearly lost to time.
Its location is certainly metaphorically appropriate. The museum houses art that belonged conceptually “over there” in the framework of controlled Soviet philosophy. It was the secret output of the avant garde painters who found themselves either marginalized or swallowed up by the official Soviet policy dictating that all artwork needed to serve the positive promotion of the collective state.
The history of Savitsky, his museum and the artists whose work populate it are documented in the film “The Desert of Forbidden Art.”
The reason the Soviets worked so hard to suppress artwork may have been as much a distortion of a reasonable idea as the enactment of a horrible one. Art, particularly the avant garde, is the expression of the individual, a no-no in that oppressively collective society and the catalyst for misguided victims like Ayn Rand to turn reaction into philosophy. At the same time there’s a grain of possible populism that could be taken as valid — in such a society, what good is art if it does not speak to groups of people?
The Soviets took that simple question and muddied it by infusing propaganda as the standard by which it got judged. This created official art in a state/mandated version of what we have here in the United States operating as corporate entertainment — and, as with all mainstream bodies, it created a counter-culture that awaited its undoing like a snake in the grass.
“The Desert of Forbidden Art” traces the history of Savitsky’s efforts, certainly, but in doing so, serves several other purposes that keep it from ever becoming a dry, institutional biography.
Through readings of Savitsky’s words by Ben Kingsley, the man behind the museum comes alive, as do the artists he sought out, many represented by their children giving firsthand accounts and, of course, their actual work, little of which is very well known outside of the region.
Directors Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev also take great care in examining the history of Uzbekistan itself and its Muslim heritage, both past and future. Included is amazing archival footage about the emancipation of Muslim women by the Soviets — cue film of groovy girls covering their faces from men by baring their midriffs — as well as honest fears of the current radical Islamic attitudes against art.
The film also bookends the two monsters that eat individuals on opposite ends of modern history — the early 20th century Soviets, who pushed the art into closets, and the 21st century capitalist Americans, who are driven to buy up everything in the path, relegating the work to private collections, which are merely gilded closets.
“The Desert of Forbidden Art” is a work of vital importance in a lesser-examined corner of not just art history, but the history of rebellion and standing up. Savitsky’s museum remains a scrappy inspiration to the art rebels of future ages and to the notion that the lumbering political philosophies of parties may come and go — be it Worker or Tea — but the creative soul of passionate people will find a way to live on.
April 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Author/illustrator Mo Willems is a genuine superstar in the world of children’s entertainment — and the creative energy that got him to that level keeps churning out idiosyncratic wonders.
Willems will appear at the Eric Carle Museum, 125 West Bay Road, in Amherst, on Sunday, March 27, at 11:30 a.m. for a public discussion of his work.
Willems’ career is extremely multi-faceted, from his start as a six-time Emmy-winning writer and animator for “Sesame Street” to the creation of acclaimed TV shows like “The Off-Beats” and “Sheep In The Big City” and his three-time Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book career, including “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus” and “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale.”
Earlier this month, Willems saw the area debut of a stage musical version of “Knuffle Bunny” at the Academy of Music in Northampton, where he now lives with his family.
He had originally written the adaptation for the Kennedy Center, and was very hands-on in that production. Encountering the touring company made the experience completely different for Willems.
“In a weird way, it was more of a play because I had no contact with these guys until I saw the piece,” Willems said. “There’s something very romantic about being able to walk out of your door into a great theater, see a play that you wrote, and then go walk and get your dog license, and go home. It
was an awesome day.”
When Willems was asked to create a Knuffle Bunny musical, his initial response was that it was such a bad idea that he couldn’t resist.
“The idea of writing a musical about a character who can’t speak seemed somewhat oxymoronic and I gravitate toward bad ideas,” he said. “Once you get past not good to bad, then there’s a whole super bad that kind of turns into awesome. Most of my ideas have been super bad, that’s where I come from.”
For Willems, the challenge of adapting his picture book into a stage production had a lot to do with taking advantage of a different medium and figuring out how to take advantage of its dictates while still remaining faithful to the source work.
“A musical is a whole different ball of wax,” Willems said. “In some ways, you’re starting from scratch because you have the architecture of a plot, you know what the beginning is and you know who the main characters are.”
“In the musical, we put in a lot of fantasy elements — there’s a giant brassiere that attacks the dad, and a huge shirt, and a laundry battle scene and all these other things that you wouldn’t have in the book. The book is fairly realistic in its presentation, so that was part of it.”
Willems was also grateful for the time he was allowed to perfect the work, something he was not accustomed to in previous efforts.
“I’ve written a lot of songs and I’ve written a lot of dialogue,” said Willems, “but it was all pretty much television and in television you don’t often have the opportunity to revise because there just isn’t time. Here, in theater, there’s no money, but there’s an incredible amount of time, so I was able to spend a long time working on the piece.”
“I was also able to go and hang out with the actors and workshop and rewrite and refigure things out as I was with them. That was an extraordinary luxury and I really enjoyed that.”
Willems said it seemed like the right time for such a move, and has noticed a trend among his contemporaries to transform their books into plays or performances. He proclaims it a renaissance and hopes that it will transform the view of performers and creators in children’s stage entertainment.
“If you say ‘I write children’s books,’ most people will say, ‘aw, that’s awesome,’ but if you say, ‘I write children’s plays,’ they go ‘Ooooh,’ and worry that you’ll start juggling,” he said.
One thing that pleases Willems about the musical is the unique quality of the experience that he thinks is offered through stage productions. Any given performance is a one-time experience, it’s special and it also requires a bit of work on the part of an audience just by that very
“Kids don’t watch movies anymore, they watch scenes from movies and they watch them over and over again,” Willems said. “Here’s something that can’t be repeated. That performance in Northampton will never happen again. And I think that because we are so used to being able to have whatever we want at our fingertips, it becomes more interesting.”
“Try to explain to your kids that when “Star Wars” came out, it was the first time anyone saw a movie more than once. The thought of going to see the same movie twice was insane. And if a television show reran, people were angry. They never wanted to see the same thing twice. That is not the case today. Now we find the little things we like and we watch them to death.”
Willems saw the child of one of his friends immediately proclaim that he wanted to see the play again. The answer was, “You can’t,” and that reality caused the play to resonate in ways that little else does for a child in this day and age.
“It’s not like you can’t because we don’t love you, or you can’t because we don’t want you to, you can’t,” said Willems. “The point is that that kid spent the next six months singing the songs from that musical because he remembered it in a way that he would not remember any other form of pop culture.”
In some ways the stage production represents a return to his roots in some ways. Very early on, Willems was a stand-up and sketch comedy performer in New York City, what he describes as “weird downtown theater stuff.” It’s his television work, though, that gives him perspective in contrast to his adventures in publishing, where he has met with wild success for coming at things as sincerely as he did with his animation. It’s all about how scores can be interpreted differently depending on the playing field.
“It’s a question of numbers. I had a television series that at the time was very unique in that they let me do whatever I wanted to do and it was a very personal thing. It was very silly and my sense of humor.”
“Three or four hundred thousand people would watch that show and it was a failure. It was very expensive, not that I was getting the money, but there were a lot of animators needed, it was a big, big risk. Very quickly they said ‘Not enough people are watching this show. This is a crazy individual show, it’s too expensive, you’re out of here.’ “
By contrast, Willems has been a phenomenon in the world of children’s books. He puts it down to the differences in investment that allowed a publisher to take an initial leap on an untested author with a singular vision — the potential audience translated into success in the publishing world.
“I made a book, it costs very, very little to make a book, in terms of what the publisher has to put out,” he said. “You make a television series, even a cheap cable show, and you’re well into the tens of millions. You make a book, you’re maybe into the hundreds of thousands, I don’t know, but very little money for a company of that size.
“One of the great things about children’s book publishing is that by buying a successful book, you are in fact helping to finance an unsuccessful author. I was nobody, but they were making money off other authors and they said ‘Well, let’s just take some of that profit and throw some spaghetti on the wall.’ My stuff was very, very personal, very idiosyncratic, but you know if 300,000 people buy a book, you’ve got a massive hit. It’s a question of numbers and a question of being able to take those risks.”
Willems’ first book effort — not published until 15 years after he wrote it and following his success with children’s books — was a travelogue built around the idea that he did a cartoon a day while traveling the world. It draws on cartooning as an inspiration, a field that Willems credits as that of some of his earliest work and one for which he has great admiration. At 14, his first professional job was doing a comic strip called “Surrealty” in the local real estate weekly, and he did comic strips in his high school and college newspapers.
“I’ve always aspired to do comics, and that’s what I wanted to do when I was a kid. When I was 5 I wrote Charles Schulz and said ‘Can I have your job when you’re dead?’ ” said Willems.
Over time, he’s written for comic books and Mad Magazine, he took over Hilary Price’s comic strip “Rhymes With Orange” for a week and most recently contributed a comic to a trial weekly comics page put out by the hipster literary magazine McSweeny’s. Williams calls it all “dabbling” and says that he comes to his cartooning work as a fan.
Willems says that there is no magic formula to his success in children’s books and chalks it up to hard work. The book itself — and what’s behind it — is the one aspect of a project that is entirely in his hands. He puts as much into a picture book as he does anything else he works on, and that’s the business plan he’ll continue with.
“When my first book came out, I thought no one would buy it, I didn’t think I’d make a single sale. And then when one person bought it, I figured if one person is going to buy it, then probably everyone will. Those were my options. There were only two options and it wasn’t for me to decide. All I can control is making the best book I can. It’s the only thing in my control.”
April 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
If you’re interested in the best new science fiction series currently viewable and you’ve been looking for it on TV, then you’ve been stumbling around the wrong medium. Its name is “Ark” and it consists of nine short webisodes on Hulu.com that were released in 2010 and serve to seize back the genre as one that doesn’t tell the usual stories, nor in the usual way.
With segments that run from around four to nine minutes each, “Ark” tells the story of two people, played by Renee O’Connor and Adam Cardon, who wake up to find themselves on a space ship — and they don’t know why. What follows the intro is a frenzied, tense unfolding of the mystery that leaves off at a major cliffhanger that will have you gasping for a second series.
The action is punctuated by a great sense of design and a creative way of letting everything unfold. I can only imagine this was on the cheap when compared to the typical Hollywood venture. It’s the work of director Trey Stokes, also a puppeteer and amusement park ride designer, but it looks better than most of what you’ll ever see because it relies less on splash and more on technique, little snips of video and cryptic editing, as the two characters deal with the mystery they’ve been handed.
One odd aspect is that the story plays like a vague remake of the 1970s Canadian science fiction show “The Starlost” — itself unfairly maligned — which involved members of an Amish-type community rebelling against religious tyranny. They discover that their “world” is merely a biosphere on a giant spaceship hurtling to its doom toward a sun.
There are aspects of the plot and even the design — particularly the area of the ship the two characters wake up in and the outside of the ship itself, not to mention various portals and tunnels contained. If this is an intentional inspiration, it’s a great one and the writer Robbie Thompson makes brilliant use of it.
One thing’s for certain, while the major television networks waste their time on dull spectacles like “V,” this is where the future lies for science fiction television. Too often ruined by mainstream production — and too often rendered toothless by a fandom that focuses its obsession with quality too much on visuals and too little on scriptwriting — “Ark” speaks to the power of what can be accomplished in our digital age aside from the mainstream.
For all the big profile shows that have scrambled to be the new “Lost,” “Ark” has beat them all to the punch by understanding that what’s needed in the genre is originality and spirit more than flashy effects and retreads that don’t bother to do any actual retreading.