Room for the Bigger Thing:
ELLEN MADDOW and PAUL ZIMET with Lizzie Olesker
The Talking Band has been making collaborative, experimental theater for over forty years, with a uniquely heightened theatrical awareness and a deeply musical sensibility. Their work spans dozens of theatrical pieces notable for their striking visual imagery, unexpected sound, and strong stylistic choices. Though varied in both form and content, each piece focuses on the discovery of what’s inside a written text, a song, an image, and an extended moment of a lived experience.
I first met Talking Band core members Paul Zimet (writer/director/actor), Ellen Maddow (composer/writer/actor), and Tina Shepard (director/actor) when I took their performance workshop decades ago, in the early 1980s. I remember coming away from that experience profoundly changed, with a new understanding of what theater can be, along with a set of tools to create it. I felt fortunate to work with them again as an actor in New Cities (at La Mama and on tour to Moscow and Chile) and later as a writer on The Necklace (Episodes 3 and 4, at the Ohio Theater) and more recently on Obskene (with Tina Shepard directing, at HERE). I’ve also been part of exploratory workshops over the years, focused on investigating a particular theatrical question or idea. Each time I work with the Talking Band, it feels like I’m returning to a kind of creative family. Like a family, their working process is both deeply familiar and continually mysterious.
It’s now thirty-five years later, and I’m once again in Ellen and Paul’s well-lived-in loft, where I’ve talked, eaten, worked, drank, and rehearsed many times. I cannot help but notice how we’ve changed, but also remained in some fundamental way the same. I deeply admire Ellen and Paul’s continual integration of their theater-making into their lives, and their tireless ability to produce new, challenging work—creating over fifty productions here in New York and touring internationally. They’ve lived and worked with a gentle yet fierce determination, and a radical endurance. They simply go on.
I sat down at their kitchen table on a recent Sunday afternoon to talk with Paul about his latest play that he’s also directing, The Room Sings, and with Ellen, who composed the music (and will also perform). It is set to open at La Mama in March.
Lizzie Olesker (Rail): In all of your plays, landscape is so important. So much of your work is rooted in a physical world that resonates with more meaning than simply being a setting. How was this true for your new play, The Room Sings?
Paul Zimet: Well, this play is based on a house we’ve had upstate for thirty-two years. It’s a very rural place—an old farmhouse that was built in 1900 or so. And the story we were told about the house is that the guy who built it left his family who were just three miles away to build this farm in the back country.
Rail: He left them completely?
Ellen Maddow: He was abandoning them, but he didn’t get very far, I guess, just down the road.
Zimet: So, the house has an accumulation of history that you can see in its structure, and the décor, and some of the things people have left there. There are moments that happened a long time ago, but are still very present.
Rail: The Room Sings seems to be a play about presence, but also about loss. One of the rooms in the house is actually a character witnessing the changes that occur in the house?
Zimet: Yes, the Room (played by Ellen) is a constant presence that comments on the passage of time, the seasons, and the changes that happen in the house itself.
The room is silent empty. Then
The Room Sings 1
Winter is hard
Porcupines shit in the cellar
Squirrels gnaw on the chairs
Rail: Time seems really important to the play—its relationship to the house and to the characters. We witness four separate, yet interconnected, stories that happen in different time periods, yes?
Zimet: I’ve always been really interested in time, on a micro scale and on a macro scale. Another play of mine, Imminence, was really about intimate, personal time and individual mortality sort of framed by geological time and tectonic movements. In The Room Sings there’s a sense of a landscape that goes on and on, whether people are there or not, and the seasons go on, too. I’ve always been struck with a sense that the natural elements, the animals—the deer, the beavers, and the bears—are going on as they always have. There’s this other time that sort of goes on without you.
Rail: And in the play, there are beavers that live in the pond by the house and do, in fact, carry on in their own way?
Zimet: Yes, the beavers actually have their own perspective on events taking place inside the house, which they share through a Sicilian puppet opera (puppets designed by Ralph Lee). We’ve been rehearsing with the beaver puppets and figuring out how they move, swim, etc.
Rail: So the animals are like the Room, bearing witness to what the human characters are doing. The Room changes, but also remains the same, like the house itself.
Zimet: Some of the Room’s songs are about the scars and scrapes, the various layers of wallpaper that have been put on it. There’s also a sense of what passes through the Room, like the chipmunks that live in the rafters or in the walls. The house remains, through all of the changes.
Rail: How did these ideas affect the music?
Maddow: The music and sound help create a sense of place; so I’m using a lot of recorded, found (sound) objects like footsteps, paper crinkling, owls, crickets, a fly buzzing on a windowsill, and lots of different kinds of frogs. The found sounds become part of the music, affecting the rhythm and the texture of each scene. Also, each different time period is reflected through sound. In the contemporary scene, I use a lot of NPR sounds. There’s also a 1940s scene between an aging brother and sister that’s very noir, and there’s a lot of Cab Calloway. In the 1960s, Mr. Ma and Oskar’s story unfolds like a Chinese ghost story, reflected in the score you hear throughout the scene.
Rail: Are you also creating a different visual texture related to each different thread of story?
Zimet: One of the things I’m really interested in is the shifting perspective. We looked at the work of photographer Barbara Probst who would shoot the same scene with simultaneous cameras from several different perspectives. In one of her series, there were twenty panels of this one moment, with some of the photos in black and white, some in color, some close up, and some far away. I am trying to do a similar thing by creating a simultaneity of different scenes, different moments all happening at once.
Maddow: So that they fold over one another—
Zimet: Yes, and we intercut back and forth between different scenes taking place in different rooms or areas, in different time periods.
Maddow: The rooms are like little units on platforms that move.
Zimet: Sometimes the actors will shift the angle of a room so that you see the same scene from a different perspective. Moments can move forward and recede.
Rail: It sounds like the physical movement of the rooms will create a sense of transformation over time and across stories.
Zimet: It should move like a film, with that kind of simultaneity, crosscutting.
Maddow: And the moving of the stuff becomes part of the show. And there might be certain things that carry through: an object like a coffee pot that you see in different time periods. Or there’s always a radio that changes to a different radio, but it will still be placed in the same spot.
Rail: The play is also about “stuff”—the accumulation of things, and the aging of things?
Maddow: It’s in the costumes, too. I’ll wear a suit as the Room, more like a man’s suit—
Rail: The Room is gender-fluid?
Maddow: Yes. And there’s a print on the suit’s fabric that’s similar to the wallpaper. But it’s crumbling, bits and pieces are falling off the suit, and maybe you can see another layer of “wallpaper” underneath.
Rail: Where did the characters and stories come from? Are they based on actual stories that you heard from people who lived near the house?
Zimet: I heard stories over the years, some more colorful than others. We knew there was a murder in the house—everyone told us this when we first bought it. It happened in the 1950s, and the neighbors said there was an old sea captain who lived in the house and killed his wife—or girlfriend—and then buried her in the beaver dam.
Maddow: It was in the Daily News, or something.
Zimet: But we bought the place from these two Italian guys from San Marino—in the play they became Al and Sal in 1987.
Maddow: Yeah, when we bought the place there were like ten espresso pots that they left in the kitchen, along with deer antlers, lots of bunk beds—it was a hunting lodge.
Rail: What about the language of the play and how it changes with each time period?
Zimet: I wanted there to be a different theatrical genre for each story thread. So, for example, in the story of a contemporary couple who are selling the house, I want those scenes to have a Chekhovian feeling with a sense of the characters leaving a place that they love.
Rail: Like The Cherry Orchard?
Zimet: Yes, they’re experiencing loss. And there’s also an elderly father in that story who brings a very strong sense of mortality that runs through the whole play. And in the Sal and Al scenes, I wanted to pick up the broader style of a Sicilian opera. So they’re a little bit too loud all the time.
Maddow: They might be a bit more stylized, with sideburns and little moustaches ’cause they’re in the 1980s.
Rail: How is the play resonating for you at this time, this moment in history?
Maddow: For me, it’s a very American story of people coming from all different places and inhabiting this world where their stories overlap. This is a narrative that’s often being denied right now.
Rail: I’m also thinking of the trajectory of all the theater work you’ve done, and how each year you generate something new, create a new production, and how amazing that is. What inspires you to your next project?
Zimet: Partly it’s my age. I think mortality is a big theme, and the passage of time is always in my work.
Maddow: For me, it’s always about creating some kind of utopia. I don’t know why, but it keeps coming up over and over again, like an alternative to the nuclear family, or a way that people experience community with each other.
Rail: A relational utopia?
Maddow: Yes, that’s right!
Zimet: For me, it’s important to have the long view, as well as the close view. It’s easy to get caught up in daily annoyances and tasks. But I want to keep a sense of bigger things happening over time—to be able to pull back and see how the passage of time influences and shapes you.
Rail: In a way, The Room Sings is about taking that long view.
Maddow: But also with the political climate right now, it’s just overwhelming how it grabs your attention all the time. I feel torn between never listening to the radio again and thinking I have to really know what’s coming at me. It’s time consuming and really stressful. But you feel like you really have to know what’s coming down the pike.
Rail: Staying aware of both what is close and also the long view?
Zimet: In the last couple of months, I’ve been taking a few minutes each day to stop. It’s not exactly meditating, but I try to just sit and really make room, so that the bigger thing might come in.
The Room Sings runs March 31 – April 16, 2017 at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theater (66 East 4th Street, between Bowery and 2nd Avenue).
LIZZIE OLESKER is a playwright living in Brooklyn.