07/05/2014 11:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Stravinsky Vaudeville with Claws: The Feather Gatherers

feather gatherers sample 1 from Normandy Sherwood on Vimeo.

work sample from a workshop of The Feather Gatherer's at Dixon Place

"Even though there's no God -- I mean, Especially because there's no God! There must be a Devil."
-Narrator, The Feather Gatherers

If the Devil had a band that doubled as a theater production company, that company might the The Drunkards Wife, for nothing this delightfully experimental could be considered holy. But then again, that depends on which gods you revere. DIY theater makers, Normandy Sherwood and Craig Flanigan, have long been tinkering with history and music, reframing old tales in new exciting ways. Their latest co-authored collaboration The Feather Gatherers "a visionary tale of seduction and abandonment . . . A fictional Stravinsky vaudeville set in 1960's Serbia channeling Yugoslavian Black Wave film" premiere's in the 2014 Ice Factory at the New Ohio Theater July 9-12th.

Your work involves extensive fantastical world creation which includes theater, music and more. What kind of world have you created for the Feather Gatherers?

CF: Action and spectacle! Lots of dances. The show is fast-paced -- there are big emotions, there is silliness. There are fabulous costumes, as anyone who has seen any of Normandy's past shows can attest.

The band for this show is onstage. A seven-piece ensemble. There's no recorded playback. It's very intimate to have all the music live with the show; the musicians and actors play off one another, and that gives them leeway to play with pacing and dynamics.

You will hear some of our very favorite music ~ tunes by Igor Stravinsky, folk songs from Eastern Europe, original music, and scenic improvisations. We have an amazing band on this show. They navigate all these styles as if they were one ~ folky in the best sense, but precise.

The show has big ideas, but abounds in pratfalls. We tried to walk that line between smart and dumb, and accept occasional missteps on either side. It's super knowing, but strangely, still earnest.

So, this play is a feast of history and anachronism. You mention earlier that the show channels Stravinsky, vaudeville, the 1960s, Serbia and Yugoslavian Black Wave film. What inspired you to write about these things?

NS: We loved the music for L' Histoire du Soldat-- who doesn't-- and especially loved the instrumentation that the score calls for -- a violin, a contrabass, a bassoon, a clarinet, a trumpet, a trombone and percussion. (Notice: no chord instrument.) The story is that Stravinsky was trying to design an orchestra small enough to tour in the lean years after WW1 -- a practical project many contemporary artists can relate to! -- but the instrumentation is also like that of a Klezmer band.

We were attracted to this double-ness -- an avant garde, forward looking score with a complex relationship to folk music. Even though there are no accordions (usually the backbone of our music) we thought it was something we had to engage with. Happily our accordionist, Tom Abbott, could switch to clarinet for this show.

CF: This was a brief period when Stravinsky was working through an idea of creating what he called "fairground entertainments" -- portable music, vivid stories, pantomime and costumes. He was also working through his conflicted ideas about "russianism". It seemed perfect for us.

NS: There's a kinship between this and The Drunkard's Wife -- understanding our own world by engaging with old forms. Our project and Stravinsky's were/are interested in escaping the present on some level. And then, last summer, our "someday" turned into "right now." Time collapsed! We immersed ourselves in modernism circa 1918.

CF: Which naturally led us to 1968.

NS: Because we see a resonance between these distinct eras-- and from the vantage point of our contemporary moment, a kind of nostalgia for a time when it seemed like rewriting a folktale could change something in the world.

CF: The music to l'Histoire still sounds modern, but the story has not aged well, and the piece is rarely performed as originally written. Usually only the "Suite" version is performed, which is a selection of the best tunes, but none of the text.

NS: We were wary of the creaky Ramuz libretto and its moralistic ending. I translated Ramuz's text, and Craig started reading about the way the piece was created. It was apparently a difficult collaboration, the Histoire du Soldat--Ramuz and Stravinsky were at odds much of the time. We thought of that as kind of a challenge--that with our own collaboration we would create something we would want to see in conjunction with Stravinsky's score.

CF: In reinventing this narrative, we dialed the story back to its roots and started over. We made a couple simple decisions at the beginning, then let the material take us where it had to go. We started with the original folk tale that inspired l'Histoire: the good Soldier, the helpful Devil (the Great Enabler), the Narrator earnest in his task, and added the intervention of the pathetic Orphan (herself a familiar folk-story type).

You can look at Feather Gatherers as the story of a Narrator, who is telling the story of a Soldier. Who trades his violin to the Devil in exchange for wealth untold.

But it's never as easy as just telling a story, is it? Meanings and allusions proliferate. They pry at every crack in the Narrator's facade. The great failure of the Histoire libretto is the decision to "universalize" the story. Any alert storyteller learns that particularizing a story makes it more powerful. It's details that tell ! Vagueness breeds vagueness, but detail calls up specific associations -- And this story is so rich in associations.

For another thing, the folk music Stravinsky claimed to base these melodies on never actually existed -- the Narrator is forced to reach back into his own musical upbringing to supply the resonance. -- Interestingly, the makers of this show (21st century Americans and Slavs) grew up with Slavic folk music in ways that Stravinsky never did. Stravinsky's "russianisms" purport to be ethnographic but are ultimately personal -- and we engage fully with that.

Or you can say this the story of the Devil. Partly the rollicking Gogol devil of Evenings Near Dikanka. Partly the Daemon Lover. Partly the most subtle of all the beasts. But always a slave to the desires of others. Everyone conjures her own Devil.

NS: For me the way in was an Orphan who creeps into the story-- who lurks around the sidelines until she finds an opportunity to intervene and redirect the narrative. This was the original Feather Gatherer (The Feather Gatherers, who give the show its title, are the marginal, communitarian group who become the heroes of the show). Once she existed, she allowed us to reinvent -- we threw out the Ramuz and followed her creepy call.

She suggested to us some of the anachronistic juxtapostions you mention. She has a kind of DIY ethic--"I'm an orphan, no one will write me music for my songs--I have to sing them quiet, to myself, with music I invent myself"--and is very self righteous but also very sincere. She got us thinking about the films of Dusan Makaveyev (Yugoslavian "Black Wave" filmmaker) --his films glorify revolutionaries, activists and communitarian groups. They evince a desire to find a new way of living, a hopefulness, and are at the same time bitterly satirical-- for instance, the commune the heroine visits in Sweet Movie is the only place here she is not treated as a commodity, but at the same time it is really gross! The orphan character became both something out of a melodrama and also this utopian communitarian. And so she needed a posse: The Feather Gatherers.

CF: The Feather Gatherers of our show make a virtue of their poverty, and embrace their dispossession. They take their name from the gypsies in an Aleksander Petrovic film -- which is really very Brooklyn of them.

Everyone in the play is poor. Being poor, they understand that they should long for riches. That's a given. But is it the only possibility? And what's in that gap between what's given and what's possible -- as Herbert Marcuse put it. And what are riches, exactly.

An early Drunkard's Wife review called us "A village wedding and the 1968 Paris student riots rolled into one." How flattering is that? But at that point it was more aspirational than descriptive. With this show, bringing the folk and anarchist/situationist strands together, I feel like we're finally starting to close the gap for real.

Tell me about your music backgrounds? How did you begin making music? Telling stories?

CF: One day I picked up a guitar and that was it. Didn't want to do anything else ever. My first band, God Is My Co-Pilot, made albums and toured non-stop for a long time, then and one thing led to another, which led to The Drunkard's Wife.

NS: I always told stories, but for a long time, in my twenties, I had this mistaken idea that I wasn't interested in narrative, especially linear narrative. But actually, I think that all along I was just really interested in resistance to narrative--why we reject some narratives and accept others. How narratives fail us. I'm actually obsessed with how stories are told, and who gets to tell them, and especially how we get to tell them.

How do you write as a team?

CF: The two of us have collaborated on many projects, in many different media ~ but always in clear roles; actor/director, singer/guitar player, music/words, words/music, designer/builder, etc.

On the Feather Gatherers script, the roles were up for grabs -- it's first writing we have done together in a completely co-operative way.

NS: Practically, this worked out to us passing the draft back and forth and talking about it obsessively for many months. I did the translation of the Ramuz, threw it out, and then started writing the first draft last summer while at Yaddo. When I came back we both worked on it. I have done a lot of writing in collaboration, both with National Theater of the United States of America [NTUSA] and with others, but this is the first collaborative writing I've done where I really can't remember who wrote what first, most of the time.

Circling back to your mentions of the film influences on The Feather Gatherer's-- is there film in this?

CF: I misread the question at first as "Is there a film in this?", to which the answer is YES! this show should so be a movie. Producers, directors: call us.
But is there film in it, like projections? Nope. Not even any pre-recorded music or sounds -- it's all live without a net.

NS: We revere out filmic patron saints though! Makaveyev we talked about before, but the films of Sergei Parajanov, the Soviet-era Georgian/Ukrainian/Armenian director, have also been important to us in creating Feather Gatherers, especially visually. In the sixties and seventies, Parajanov made these spectacular films based on folklore from different regions of the USSR. For this show we kept returning to his film Ashik Kerib which is his version of Azerbaijani folkore. It is a bonanza of textiles!

CF: Apropos of that, I didn't know until we were well into this project that, bizarrely, the Soldier was voiced by Dusan Makaveyev in an animated cartoon version of this story...

Speaking of creating characters . . . you're both well known for world creation, not only with music and playwrighting, but also as designers. I assume you are designing the show as well? What design elements can we expect to see?

NS: You can expect a lot of fabrics--the set is primarily made of fabric--curtains and backdrops, carpets! Some of these have been lovingly loaned to us from my other company, The NTUSA. We want the set to look like the inside of a yurt!

And here is a preview of the costumes.


Claw Glove by Normandy Sherwood.

NS: I just finished making a prop for this show that is "a mound of rotting flowers with bodies composting in it." It's so literal and creepy that I'm not even sure we'll use it in the show! But maybe. You have to come and see.

Any newly built instruments?

NS: The Feather Gatherers of the show are a ragtag bunch of semi-itinerant rain makers, sin eaters, subsistence farmers, and instrument builders . One of their projects is to build a new fiddle for the Soldier ~ and they choose to build a Stroh-Violin ! The heart of the stroh-fiddle is the sound reproducer from an old gramophone -- in this case, the reproducer is one that Craig picked up at a street market in Transylvania a long time ago. Transylvania, as you may already know, is the one place we know of where stroh-violins are still manufactured -- the woman who sold Craig the reproducer knew just what it was for, and extolled its virtues for the purpose.

CF: Please cross your fingers, and hope that I finish the Cigar-Box Ütögardon in time for the production as well...

What does Richard Taruskin think of this show?

NS&CF: We've invited him. Let's wait and see!

NORMANDY SHERWOOD is theater maker: playwright, costumer, director, performer. Her plays have been presented at many theaters, including The Kitchen and Skidmore college. In addition creating work with the Drunkard's Wife, she is a co-artistic director of the National Theater of the United States of America. She is also one of 5 curators of Little Theatre at Dixon Place and she teaches in the Expository Writing Program at NYU. She has an MFA in playwriting from Brooklyn College.

CRAIG FLANAGIN was guitarist in No Wave legends God Is My Co-Pilot and Runt. He designs and builds electro-acoustic instruments, and recently made a machine for recording Edison Cylinders. He writes and directs plays, often in collaboration with Normandy Sherwood, with whom he ran the LIC theater space the Uncanny Valley. Their company is called The Drunkard's Wife.

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