Theater In Conversation
JIM FINDLAY with Ivan Talijancic
Electic Lucifer: in the Church of Bruce Haack
If you have had any exposure to New York’s downtown theater scene, chances are you are familiar with Jim Findlay’s work. A collaborator par excellence (having worked with the Wooster Group, Bang on a Can, Ralph Lemon and many others), Findlay has in recent years also developed an original body of work that has been presented in many prominent experimental venues in New York and farther afield. He was a founder of Collapsible Giraffe and has co-founded Collapsible Hole, which recently regrouped in the basement of the historical Westbeth building in the West Village after losing its original space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In January 2018, Findlay is slated to unveil his latest opus, titled Electric Lucifer, an experimental rock opera based on the 1970s concept albums of the late Canadian electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack. This past November, while traveling in Europe, I had an intercontinental conversation with Findlay about this new work, via Messenger.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): Your new project, Electric Lucifer, is something that you have been working on for quite some time. For starters, can you talk about your impetus for creating this ambitious project?
Jim Findlay: It's both straightforward and convoluted, of course. I created a folder on my computer with that name in 2015. I first came across Bruce Haack's music somewhere between fifteen and twenty years ago. My brother had brought one of his records into a rehearsal, and we ended up using a song from it in a show at some point. This record was a new-ish compilation of his children's songs. So that was my introduction to the sort of silly and fun side of Haack. It was later on that I found this Electric Lucifer album which is more of an adult pop record that I loved at the time, but it was a while before I sort of had the vision of seeing it onstage. That came later in a sort of daydream. And that daydream I don't really remember anything about except that there was a vision of the piece on a proscenium stage with this arched neon pastel color scheme, and that was just sort of in my head for a while, like it had always been there, even.And that it was something that I felt like I had to make eventually. I had to move it from inside my head to outside.
Rail: What would you say it was that drew you to Haack's music? It seems like you had a visceral/intuitive reaction to it, but if you had to verbalize it—what would you say that would be?
Findlay: I'd say it was two things. On one side was the absurdity of its simplicity. And by that, I mean it's elemental in a way. Before I really started to learn about just how absolutely inventive it was, there was this sort of joyous… stupidity I'd call it, in the best absolute sense. In the sense that I aim for in my own work. A Dionysian stupidity that starts by reinventing the world from scratch. Another nicer word for it is childishness, probably. But personally, I feel like embracing stupidity is pretty liberating so I'll stick with it. The other side—well, wait, now I think there's three sides. So, the next side was learning about Haack's methods, and I felt a real kinship there. He was making instruments out of parts he was getting at the electronic surplus stores on Canal Street. You could probably call him a proto-circuit bender. And that sort of curiosity is also pretty central to my work, also not so incidentally based in naivety—or stupidity, again— of “here's two things that don't go together, what happens if we plug them into each other?” which has always been my way of working with technology. Third side, I dug the religious angle. I grew up in a relatively heavily religious family and spent a lot of time in churches. I'd say my interest in theater comes from church more than anywhere else.
Rail: I love the multiple dimensions that are going into the making of this work. How are you transposing them and interweaving them into your stage production? I was going to say "adaptation" but I'm not sure it's the right word.
Findlay: I think the best way I have of talking about that is to say that at the end of the day I'm always making something new. It's like pulling threads out of a gigantic ball of twine except the twine is made of all kinds of shit you weren't expecting and didn't know was going to arrive. And the only thing to do is just keep pulling the thread. Haack’s music led me to what he had to say about the record which was that it was about suffering and redemption, and that was a thread that I knew I couldn't resist, so that led to everywhere from Guantanamo to studies of the psychic and existential nature of both physical and mental pain to, like, Japanese punk rock, Butoh, and Einstürzende Neubauten, and then David Lynch and— it goes on and on. As far as adaptation is concerned, it took a little leap of freedom for me—and also for my big musical collaborator on this project, Philip White—when I stopped thinking about adapting it and started thinking about it as a collaboration between me, Philip, and Bruce, who, you know, just couldn't be here today. Or tomorrow. Or ever really—owing to the complication of his death in 1988.
Rail: A tiny obstacle…
Findlay: One that my experiences on my last project made much easier. [Smiles.] A fun way to put it, is that in my last project I tried to contact the dead. And this project was, well, I contacted them, next step is to just collaborate with them.
Rail: You are putting your newly acquired skills to work, so to speak.
Findlay: Very helpful. I do feel like Bruce is accessible to us somehow.
Rail: He really wants you to do this!
Findlay: I could say a little more about adaptation. In terms of figuring out how to have some interesting problems, the first one is sort of that the records (there was a sequel recorded in 1978) aren't a rock opera. They are really just concept records around a theme, and Bruce wasn't thinking in terms of even performing his music live, never mind with a theatrical element. He didn't, to my knowledge, ever actually do a concert of his electronic music because it was too difficult to move it from the studio apparatus to a stage at that point, before Kraftwerk and all the rest. And the way the songs are written – they are all sort of self-contained gems lovingly made in a studio environment – we had to really sort of put our own spin on what the Lucifer/Jesus story was and do a lot of work to tease out how a lot of disparate stuff could hold together in a loosely narrative way. So that's a lot of the work that we've done, both musically in moving stuff around so his ideas could talk to each other, and also so we had some arc to the spectacle.
It's been more dramaturgy than I'm used to indulging in.
Rail: You are taking some pretty kick-ass collaborators along for the ride. Can you talk a bit about their creative contributions to Electric Lucifer?
Findlay: My name is on this as the author, but it's truly a collaborative piece. The contributions from everyone are huge. I'm a pretty social creature, and I don't have much success being purposely in a room making work without other people there to activate me. And my process is pretty haphazard so not only are their contributions to the piece huge, their contributions to the pile of stuff that's not in the piece are also huge. I'm only an amateur musician so the first big hurdle with this piece was finding a musical collaborator, and that took a while, but I can't say enough about how fantastic it has been to work with Philip White and how crucial his work is to the whole project. We had to make a new title just to be able to credit what it is he is doing—“musical adaptation and additional original composition”—because what he has done with Bruce's music is miraculous. He digested Bruce's work whole and has created something that I think Bruce would be wowed by and really pleased with. And that musical element is all his vision developed in dialogue with the other stuff that's all feeding into it. It's embarrassing to gush in a way, or maybe just déclassé, but it goes from him to this amazing group of performers including Okwui Okpokwasili and Robert M. Johanson in the lead roles and the rest of the cast and creative team who I'm just lucky to be working with—and also amazing performers who've been involved along the way in previous workshops and made substantive contributions. It's a weird and lovely thing to have this killer row of bad-asses working together to bring Bruce's music to life in a live performance. I've only still gotten a taste of the pleasure it's going to be to rev the engine up at some point with the full band plus plus plus—I'm just so excited about it because I think there's an amazing amount of power and passion that is about to get unleashed on the world. Powerlove.
Rail: As you are gearing up for your world premiere in January—any famous last words for the Rail readers?
Findlay: I'll let Bruce answer, "It's time to get it on. It's time to get it on."