The Talking Band
Here’s how The Talking Band describes their next show, in one sentence: “Sluice and Suzy Q—well past their youth—perform a subterranean pop music concert accompanied by backup singers and a rock band: The Peripherals.”
Dixon Place’s welcoming underground theatre will be the site of this subterranean show, which is also called The Peripherals and opens there on May 3. Hot Obie-winning director Ken Rus Schmoll will be at its helm, and the cast members include Talking Band co-founders Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet along with an amazingly gifted young woman named Kamala Sankaram (who I saw earlier this year in a steampunk opera that she wrote called Miranda). Take my advice: if you are a fan of challenging, inventive theatre, put this on your calendar right now.
Challenge and invention, you see, are the hallmarks of The Talking Band’s work. Its three co-founders, Maddow, Zimet and Tina Shepard, are polymaths with passion for theatre and its possibilities and a rich, deep curiosity about the world and ITS possibilities. All three are actors—you can count on at least one and maybe two or all three of them appearing in any Talking Band show. Shepard and Zimet are also directors (and teachers); Zimet and Maddow are also playwrights (quick plug: some of their recent works are available on Indie Theater Now, the online digital library that I founded and curate). And Maddow is also a composer, creating and performing music for the Talking Band shows, none of which can be described as a “musical” in the conventional sense of the term, but all of which are very very musical indeed.
So these three remarkable artists are the core of The Talking Band; lots of theatre companies endowed with that kind of depth of intellect and artistry stop there, creating work for, by, and of themselves. But here’s The Talking Band difference: these three collaborators are always in search of new collaborators. What makes their work fresh and distinctive is that they constantly seek stimulation in the form of young and/or different partners to create with. They mine the best and brightest of the indie theater world; and they look beyond its borders, to whatever disciplines and ideas currently fascinate them. The result is theatre that engages with its world in a truly active way. This work is never meta for its own sake, never self-absorbed or reflexive. The Talking Band is always focused outward, and eager to pull its audience in.
I met the Talking Band, and fell instantly in love with their aesthetic and their work, when I saw Zimet’s play Imminence in 2008. In this remarkable piece, written in collaboration with experimental American composer Peter Gordon, the troupe explored the nature of time and human beings’ tiny place within it; I wrote in my review that it reminded me of Our Town, “except it feels less like watching it and more like living in it.”
This was followed by Flip Side, written by Maddow, which looks at the modern urban world by contrasting two complementary worlds, one where the pace is too busy and too fast, and another where everyone is stymied by loss and missed opportunity. This play had a unique development process in that it started with the creation of its set by designer Anna Kiraly, and then, inspired by this composition, Maddow and composer “Blue” Gene Tyranny created the play and score.
Then came Radnevsky’s Real Magic, created by Zimet with magician Peter Samelson, which uses the tools of the magician—deflection and misdirection—to tell a story about magic and how it relates to other disparate disciplines, from acting to politics… and New Islands Archipelago, again by Zimet, set on a netherworldly cruise and featuring performances by actors like Todd d’Amour and Bianca Leigh… and Panic! Euphoria! Blackout!, a wild vaudevillian look at the free market, written by Maddow.
In between came their most celebrated recent artistic partnership, with performance artist/cabaret star Taylor Mac. I was sitting right behind Taylor at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa the night he saw his first Talking Band show, so I can honestly say I was there at the moment this particular collaboration was born. Taylor recruited all three of the Talking Band co-founders to be part of his magnum opus The Lily’s Revenge, with Shepard and Maddow acting in the piece and Zimet directing the first of its five acts. This led to The Walk Across America for Mother Earth, written by Taylor Mac, directed by Zimet, and produced at La MaMa in 2011 by The Talking Band.
And if the Band’s foray into the world of burlesque, via Mac and his collaborators Julie Atlas Muz and James “Tigger!” Ferguson, among others, surprised anyone, then their most recent production—a revival of Sidney Goldfarb’s Hot Lunch Apostles (first performed in the early 1980s)—reminded us that The Talking Band is no stranger to that branch of show business.
Really, the only thing you can expect for sure when you show up at a Talking Band event is that something really interesting is about to happen to you; it’s impossible, for me anyway, to leave one of these shows unchanged. The Talking Band take their mission statement (“Illuminating the extraordinary dimensions of ordinary life”) very seriously. They shine a lot of light of what’s fundamental in our lives, and that’s why I would never dream of missing one of their shows.Published on May 1, 2012