The banjo twangs. The worlds’ angriest cowboy. Everybody needs good neighbours.
2004. I wanted to create a one-man show. The story of two neighbours, living on opposite sides of the same wall. The same half an hour, in each of their lives, viewed from both sides of the wall that divides them.
Initial ideas were that the character would be called ‘The World’s Angriest Cowboy’. Being rather angry with the role of psychopathic global cop that Bush’s America was playing: this was, for me one of my works, fairly direct political satire. Of course I was more interested in exploring the motivations than the behaviours, and it had to be relevant to an audience of children.
The musical palette was initially going to be a contrast between violin and banjo music – an immediate sonic connotation with rural America (thankyou Deliverance) mixed with The Quintette Du Hot Club de France, nutty music that I really enjoyed.
But as I researched, I found that I could use solely banjo music. The violin dropped off the twig.
I delved into the joy that is bluegrass music, and found some treasure. The Stanley Brothers ‘Little Birdie’. Listening to the introduction may well have given me the idea to uses a ‘radio’ as an onstage source of both sound, and dramatic conflict. I investigated the rather crazed Western soundtracks of Morricone for the first time. I liked the cowboy pop-songs that he’d composed for each film, alongside the weirdo-banjo/orchestra pieces he’d created for the ‘tense’ bits. I can’t enjoy Westerns, even ironically. But some of the music’s great. It has to be when the movies are so boring.
Bluegrass took me to Appalachian music and the Classical/Crossover music of American bassist Edgar Meyer, in particular the album and the track ‘Short Trip Home’.
I also started to look into classical music played on the banjo. On the front of a music magazine I purchased there was a CD with Sandy Bull’s Carmina Burana Fantasy on it. It was serious music, but it made me smile instantly. You don’t have to look far into banjo virtuosos before you find Bela Fleck. This piece of his (and Debussy’s) I knew had to be in the show. Willie Nelson and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy also made an appearance. There were stories in these songs. Others seemed too complete, or too obvious to be re-purposed for a new context. Still others seemed perfect as music-alone, and felt like they’d be diminished by an attempt to re-frame them.
So with these and many more I’d assembled a field of possibilities for a soundtrack. I wrote the show up into a concept document, listening to these tunes all the while. This writing became a grant application, and I found out I’d been successful in getting small amount of money from the Australia Council to spend a week creatively developing the work. The team was Jonathon Oxlade (design) Andrew Cory (performance) and me (writing/direction). Brett Collery helped with compiling the soundtrack and Luke Monsour with capturing it on video.
I decided to take a risk and do the show in two halves, with a ‘time reversal’ enabling the linked actions of the same 20 minutes to be played out on both sides of the wall. This would also mean the soundtrack would be played twice. This provided very particular challenges for all of us. The ‘wall’ needed to be active, and perforated, offering opportunities for interaction with an unseen adversary. The actor needed to create and remember two characters, and actions that were intimately linked, yet separated by time. And it’s a very detailed puzzle for the writer. I’d researched children and memory and what I’d found indicated that kids in primary school, the target audience, could probably handle it.
Andrew claimed ‘not to be a musical person’, yet was able to throw together a virtuoso performance of a new work that was very much driven by music. Being able to ‘map’ each piece of music you’re working with in words that non-musicians can understand is vital in situations like this. It’s easier with songs, as they have verses and choruses you can quickly get more of a handle on than with classical music. With more chaotic stuff like The Legendary Stardust Cowboy it’s much harder.
Working at Metro Arts in Brisbane City, Jonathon sourced and built a dummy set, all cardboard. Even a cardboard radio. What a thing of beauty it was. The revolving stage I’d envisaged was replaced by another ingenious method which we couldn’t build in the time we had. Andrew improvised on the basis of the action-text I’d created, interacting with the music I’d assigned to each scene, and the play took shape. I’d write at night.
We worked hard, and played well together. My life was busy with a new job and a two-year old. Alongside exploring the pre-determined set-pieces I’d envisaged, there were discoveries also. A moment where one of the cowboys accidentally swallows a harmonica. He finds his breathing becomes musical, and accompanied himself with a Jaw-Harp on a nutty rendition of ‘Oh Susannah’. I liked that bit.The work-in-progress showing went well. The idea translated and the kids, and their grown-ups enjoyed it. An artistic director flew in from out of town. A good sign. Raised the stakes. But still I had difficulty getting the show produced. Maybe it was too complicated-seeming. Not didactic enough? Maybe everyone’s programs were already full. Maybe the show needed a producer who wasn’t me. The puzzle of both sides of the wall still needed tinkering to make the concept more ‘dramatic’, I think. I still want to do it one day.
In addition to filming the showing, Luke and I put together the promo (top of this blog post) composed of staged ‘shots’ from the show rather than ‘performed’ dramatic action. I think, in my keenness to ensure the concept ‘translated’ it actually makes the show seem rather lifeless. Theatre on video. Luke and I kept exploring how to make it not look crap. Here’s a snippet from the performance itself. The music is Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum played on banjo by Bela Fleck:
This excerpt is from the heart of the performance, depicting one side of the climactic ‘showdown’, and me wandering onstage to narrate the ‘time reversal’ at the core of the show. We had to explain to because we couldn’t perform it.
You can find the script for Next Door here.
Below are edited survey results from work in progress showing, February 7, 2004, responses from adults and children [ages indicated]
What was the play ‘about’?
- A cowboy, a mean one and a good one [age 6]
- Neighbour relations – similarities and differences
- 2 cowboys! The balance between privacy and loneliness
- There were two cowboys & they played each side – first the happy cowboy and then the angry cowboy