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The TLDR Version of Between a Rock and a Mosh Pit

Bryan Reesman • Feature • April 1, 2011

Left to right: Emmanuel Avellanet, Ashley Flanagan, Celina Carvajal, Gavin Creel, and Jo Lampert in American Repertory Theater’s Prometheus Bound.

Left to right: Emmanuel Avellanet, Ashley Flanagan, Celina Carvajal, Gavin Creel, and Jo Lampert in American Repertory Theater’s Prometheus Bound.

The complete transcript of our Serj Tankian & Steven Sater Prometheus Bound interview

[As I’ve said in other posts, thanks to the incredible generosity of Steven Sater and Serj Tankian, we had a lot of material that simply couldn’t fit in our April, 2011 story about their work creating Prometheus Bound. You can read the print version here, and you can watch videos of the entire interview here — but in case you wanted a transcript of the interview, we present the entire interview here. So here it is, the official “Too Long; Didn’t Read” version of the Steven Sater/Serj Tankian interview — because we like to cater to the completists. –Ed.]

Stage Directions: I’m curious as to how you two became collaborators.

Steven Sater: Prometheus Bound came from me. I’ve been immersed in Greek culture and literature for years. I read ancient Greek. I think it was in the midst of the war in Iraq, which I thought was such a terrible and unjust war and it brought up to me part of this play—just because you call a crime just doesn’t make it just, it’s still a crime. The play felt urgent to me at a time when I felt surrounded by a feeling of hopelessness and voicelessness in the culture, so I began working on this play and translating it from the Greek and trying to remake American English in the form of Greek to give the words that kind of power, almost the feeling of blood being turned into words that you get in the original play.

From the beginning I imagined this as a piece that would have incredible dance, music and spectacle, so when I had finished the translation I called my friend Diane Paulus. She read the translation and really loved it and was very excited about it. She and I share a fascination with how ancient Greek tragedies were once done and how much they really engaged the entire body politic and were really transformative and ecstatic experiences. She said, “I really hear music in this play. Your translation is so literal but feels so rock ‘n’ roll to me.” And I said, “I agree. I really think that rock ‘n’ roll is the language of our culture and has within it this cry of rebellion.” I said the other day that rock music has this cry against the deaf heavens which seems so pertinent to this play. Our top composer and musician that we talked about was Serj. Neither of us knew him.

I called my music publisher to talk to him about it and it turned out he not only represented Serj but was a friend of his, so he arranged a lunch for us. We met at this amazing vegan restaurant in L.A. called Real Food Daily and I think we just had a real meeting of the minds. There was a real feeling of solidarity just as friends and people who shared certain politics and an aesthetic view. Serj didn’t know the play. I told him the story and he was just captivated and shortly after that I sent him my translation of the play. I still have the e-mail that Serj sent me where he responded so powerfully to the play that he actually listed quotes from the text that really hit them hard and felt like truths. So that’s how we began. It’s been a pretty extraordinary journey ever since then. That was three and a half years ago.

A moment from Prometheus Bound at A.R.T., with (left to right): Gabe Ebert, Lea DeLaria, Michael Cunio, Celina Carvajal, and Gavin Creel. Credit: Marcus Stern

A moment from Prometheus Bound at A.R.T., with (left to right): Gabe Ebert, Lea DeLaria, Michael Cunio, Celina Carvajal, and Gavin Creel. Credit: Marcus Stern

So what is your side of the story, Serj?

Serj Tankian: It’s pretty much as he said it. We met up for a meal and talked about politics, talked about music, talked about what’s going on in the world and he started to talk to me about Prometheus. It sounded really intriguing. I really enjoyed throwing ideas around. Steven’s not just amazing with words, but he’s amazing with philosophy and I enjoyed that. We were theorizing upon stuff and just had this really awesome conversation. He gave me the script, then went back and read it. I thought it was really powerful. I’ve been dealing with the idea of civilization at its climax, if you will, and at the same time tyranny and injustice and all of the work that I’ve done in activism and here we are presented with a situation at the beginning of Greek democracy where Aeschylus felt the need to warn us about tyranny, even through the door of democracy. And here we are dealing with tyrannies. It was such a relevant story and it was so powerful and resonant, as far as the truths that were inherent in the script, that it really inspired me. I’m like, “Wow, I never thought about doing a musical, but if I ever did one, this would be the one.”

Excitement built up inside me, so we started communicating. The first song we did together wasn’t one that we intended to do for the musical. As soon as we became friends, he just sent me a lyric and said, “I just thought of you after our conversation and I came up with this. I’m not sure what it means, I’m not even sure if it’s for the musical, but here you go.” I work on a lot of different types of songs at the same time—I do a lot of music, not for specific projects, I just write all the time—so there was one piece that it just fit into. I thought I should demo his lyrics over this music and see what he thinks. I sent it to him and he said, “Wow, dude, what is that? It’s amazing.” And that was “The Hunger”.

Steven Sater: That song was just released with Shirley Manson covering it. It was released on iTunes two days ago and now it’s a focal piece of the show. The direction that the song took informed in some sense decisions about the direction of the show. I think that when I began and when I first called Serj, and Diane and I were talking, I wasn’t necessarily setting out to create a musical; I did that with Spring Awakening. I wanted to create this Greek tragic experience, a real extraordinary meeting place for our culture in our play and I wanted to bring in music and dance. We talked about underscoring and we talked about choral pieces. I thought maybe there would be songs. There are these Daughters of the Aether—in the play, they are these beautiful winged girls who come in. Actual Greek tragedy was sung. It’s not a metrical system, it’s a pitch system. Entire Greek tragedies were sung. We have no record of those, but we know that. These girls are the chorus, so it made perfect sense to take their beautiful choral sections from Aeschylus and adapt them lyrically musically myself and to give them to Serj.

We began writing these pieces that were so beautiful and I tried taking sections of the dialogue to set almost oratorio-like and Serj sent one that was really beautiful. But I thought, “I don’t really like this.” The play started to feel removed for me. I love opera, but I wanted to bring in our culture in a bigger way. I wanted our play to have a bigger resonance to the society at large. Something about that first song we did captivated my attention and I began to think about how could we have a situation where we’re performing an ancient Greek play and we have this modern music. Not only that the music is modern, but lyrically it is modern and the sentiment is rooted in something that could be profoundly felt by a character in the play. But how would Diane be giving voice to that? The beginning of that thought—which then went on many permutations for a few years of conversations among the three of us, Diane included—ended up with the conceit we now have for our entire show, which is that this contemporary troupe of activists comes in to perform a play for you. They come in and sing an opening number, they set up the story of the titan Prometheus and then before you begin to stage this ancient play in order to incite the audience to a greater political awareness and a kind of activism. So then it makes sense that they could begin singing contemporary songs because some part of their troupe presumably has been writing these songs and setting this little ancient play that they’re going to present for you tonight with an agenda of how they are going to wake you up with it.

Diane Paulus, Steven Sater and Serj Tankian chose to produce Prometheus Bound in the Oberon theatre because most of it was a SRO space; they wanted to invoke the feeling of a mosh pit. Credit: Marcus Stern

Diane Paulus, Steven Sater and Serj Tankian chose to produce Prometheus Bound in the Oberon theatre because most of it was a SRO space; they wanted to invoke the feeling of a mosh pit. Credit: Marcus Stern

Stage Directions: Oberon is an unusual venue. This is an environment where most of the audience is standing. Was it originally something you planned to do with the show, or did that idea emerge when you decided to stage it here?

Serj Tankian: That was actually Diane’s input. Diane said, “We have a story with Prometheus Bound where in the past there have been numerous tries to make into a musical—unsuccessfully in most cases, because the guy’s tied to a rock—and we need to find ways of moving everything and immersing the audience in that movement. It would be way better do it in a place like the Oberon where there is all this motion and we can have the actors going all over the place around the audience, rather than a set theatre with seats and a stage.” At first we said, “Let’s go check out the place. This sounds exciting. How would this work?” We saw The Donkey Show and some of the other productions and thought, “Wow, this could be really crazy and amazing,” and it has turned out that way. I think there’s so much motion yet so much fluidity in the sounds and the presentation of the music and the words, that it is extremely captivating and engulfing for the audience and I credit Diane for that.

Steven Sater: We had a conversation where she called us both and said, “We could do this at the Main Stage at ART, we could do it at the Oberon or we could find a great site to do this.” We talked about the pros and cons of each, but she was excited as a director about doing it in this space. At the end of the day you want your director excited about how she’s going to do the show. Diane and I had also attended one of Serj’s concerts in New York—I’ve attended a few, but we attended one together—and we were upstairs looking down at the mosh pit. Diane was fascinated and riveted by the mosh pit and she said, “That seems to me this kind of Bacchic frenzy we want to awaken in the audience during our show.” We almost have a kind of mosh pit gathering around Prometheus, but if you think about it, it’s quite a remarkable thing because throughout time people have been gathering for public tortures and public executions. That’s what we’re watching. What kind of impulses does that awaken in us? What kind of rabid desire to watch the torment inflicted? What kind of horror repelling us? It calls up of a lot of conflicting emotions. Also, in the Oberon she’s been attracting a young audience, which is great for our show.

Serj, you’re used to creating albums, which are organic and a finished product. With theatre it’s a finished product, but it’s different every night. What has this process been like for you?

Serj Tankian: It’s been great. It’s funny you asked because last night I was sitting and watching the preview and listening to the music and thinking, “This is kind of like scoring a film because I’m sitting here, not performing.” But it’s also so much more alive because the only way to really feel it and hear it and be surrounded by the sound of it is to actually get a ticket and be there. It is such a unique thing and I was really appreciating that moment of, “Wow, I’ve never done this before and I really want to remember this moment.” It was very special. I’ve done some film scoring and obviously made records—that’s all great and you can distribute it more and get to far-off places, but this is really unique.

Michael Cunio and Gavin Creel in A.R.T.’s production of Prometheus Bound. Credit: Marcus Stern

Michael Cunio and Gavin Creel in A.R.T.’s production of Prometheus Bound. Credit: Marcus Stern

Do you both feed off of the energy during rehearsals? Does it help you tweak the material?

Steven Sater: Of course you do. You learn so much from the actors, you learn so much from the choreographers and designers. It’s a constant learning experience. I was part of a panel yesterday at Harvard with the director of the School of Humanities and with human rights activists and from what I was told in the audience about the opening song, it informed an hour and a half of what we had just been working on. We’re not even sure we’re resolved with it. We’re going to work on it again tomorrow night. So you learn. The audience teaches you something, too. It’s such an ongoing process because it’s alive and happening every night. It’s so refreshing in a way—in an era where we’re all searching the web to reach one another, to be in this public space and have this communal experience is powerful.

Serj, you’re used to courting controversy with your music. You had one video [“Boom!”] banned on MTV and another song [“Chop Suey”] was pulled from radio because of its controversial lyrics.

Serj Tankian: It’s incredible if you look at “Boom!” now. You’re like, “And why was it taken off?” It makes no sense. I think we realized working with Amnesty International as a partner on this project and talking about what Prometheus means to us, that Prometheus is that guy who spoke out and was condemned at a time when it wasn’t cool to speak out. I’ve definitely felt that on my skin, Steven’s felt that on his skin. We all have that in common. If you’ve sat in those shoes you know how it feels to be that guy and Prometheus is that guy. So I guess I have a direct connection with him in that sense.

Steven, you worked on Spring Awakening, which was a controversial story back in late 19th-century Germany. It was banned in England in the 1960s when Laurence Olivier tried to bring it on stage. I assume it was still controversial when it opened up on Broadway a few years ago?

Steven Sater: I will show you posters from around the country—because the show is on its second national tour now—with warnings for youth about this show. You would be frightened to see the posters going up about Spring Awakening right now in recent cities. It’s really amazing. We are so frightened of seeing our children as sexual creatures or allowing young people to have sexual identities. We’re as deaf to the cries of young people as we were 100 years ago. This play, from 2,500 years ago, could not resonate more strongly with what’s going on in Libya today as we speak, with what’s been going on in the Middle East these past months. I’ve said this before, but the most shocking fact about this play—and it is a shocking play—is that it was ever written or staged at all. As Serj was intimating, it is the most searing indictment of tyranny ever written, and it was written right at the birth of Western democracy. It’s a powerful indictment of the flaws of a democratic system and the play is so radical that the same Athens that gave Socrates hemlock to drink banned the father of Western drama, Aeschylus, as a heretic; exiled him from Athens. The play is radical. As I read the play, the play says that once we give over the rule to popular opinion, once policy is determined by popular opinion, there is that danger that justice is swayed by private interests, which is what we see everywhere around us.

Serj Tankian: Hello, Twenty First Century.

Left to right: Serj Tankian, Steven Sater and Diane Paulus, the core behind Prometheus Bound at American Repertory Theater. Credit: Kati Mitchell

Left to right: Serj Tankian, Steven Sater and Diane Paulus, the core behind Prometheus Bound at American Repertory Theater. Credit: Kati Mitchell

What was it like working with Diane Paulus on this production?

Steven Sater: First of all, I think Diane Paulus is about the most electrifying director out there. I think what she’s brought more than anything else—and she’s brought so many things—she’s brought her person to the story. This story is so personal for her, and she tells it so urgently. This story from 2,500 years ago and our collaboration means so much to her, that she’s brought out this drive and this force in all of the actors that this is an urgent tale to tell right now. She’s brought this staging that is so beautiful…we have such an A+ list design team it is remarkable.

Kevin Adams, who did the lighting for Spring Awakening and won the Tony three of the last four years for lighting design, came to our little theatre in Cambridge and his lighting is astonishing. The way he is painting in space is remarkable. We have a remarkable costume designer, Emily Rebholz, who just did Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson on Broadway. Our choreographer, Stephen Petronio, has never done a piece of theatre before. He’s had a dance company for 25 years and is one of the most esteemed modern choreographers, and he says the highlight of his whole career is working on this show. It’s amazing. There is also movement in every moment. I think vocal arranger AnnMarie Milazzo is a genius. She was the unsung hero of Spring Awakening and Next To Normal and she’s incredible. What she’s done with Serj’s music is astonishing. She’s opened up these eight voices and it’s nonstop musical arrangements. She’ll take a piece of his music and my lyrics and start tripping them out. She takes her own words and writes them in and I have to take all the words back and rewrite new words because she’s created this new piece of music in the middle of our piece of music. And Gavin Creel, our star, who was the star of Hair for Diane on Broadway. Lea DeLaria. Gabe Ebert, who must be the most talented young actor out there.

Serj Tankian: I’m so happy with the cast and band. They’re incredible. Honestly, when we first started this, I had no idea what to expect because this is my first musical. As we working on it and I saw the talent—I had a certain level of expectations that were here [places hand up by his face] and now they’re here [way above his head]. The show is way past everything that I would’ve imagined. I’m so happy and proud.

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