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Music Engenders a Feeling: the Musical Inspirations of Ghost Rings

Posted September 1st, 2017

Next week theater maker Tina Satter and her New York-based ensemble Half Straddle will return to Philadelphia with Ghost Rings, part of the 2017 Fringe Festival. The show explores exceptionally close friendship, non-heteronormative romance, female families, and so much more. Oh yeah, and it’s a pop concert.

Half Straddle are no strangers to integrating original music into their shows, but with Ghost Rings, they decided to up the ante. “[Half Straddle composer] Chris Giarmo, and I had been discussing doing a project that really focused on singing,” Satter recently told the FringeArts Blog. “Chris had expressed that he wanted to experiment with making music out of our collaboration that was more challenging and really required very, very good singers to do it and I loved that challenge.” To help realize this goal, Satter looked to a variety of musical sources for inspiration. Whenever it struck, she’d pass the song to Giarmo, explaining what it was about the particular track that caught her attention, and he’d take that influence into consideration as he composed.

Satter was gracious enough to provide us with this short playlist with some of those inspirations. Though the sounds on the list may be varied, they are all bold in their vision, defiant in their aesthetic, and unapologetically female. The music of the show reflects the sonic diversity to some degree, and yet it’s all remarkably cohesive, unified by its absurdly talented band/performers—featuring Satter and Giarmo, and fronted by Erin Markey and, for this iteration, Amber Gray—and the hilarious and heart-wrenching narrative at its core, one that could only have been conveyed through such a theatrical song cycle. As Satter put it in an earlier interview, “Music engenders a feeling you can’t even name in your body, heart, and brain. Watching these people onstage not just creating narratives and drama but all this live melody really paired with the content of the show and our holistic approach to it from the earliest stages.”


“The Weakness in Me” by Joan Armatrading

She is the best. Hands down. The storytelling and direct shot of recognizable emotion in this song in particular is very inspiring always. Her music is a constant overarching thing to look to in making music, work, and life in general—so even if not direct at all in a given project we make—looking for our version of the emotional unlocking, storytelling, and melody for a given piece always starts with looking to Joan.

 

“The Eye” by Brandi Carlile

Cannot remember how I first came to this music. But I heard a song somewhere in the summer of 2015 and then looked up the singer. I had never heard of Brandi Carlile. But I started to get so into some of her songs, and was sending them compulsively to Chris saying there was something about this sound that felt like it could work in parts in our approach to Ghost Rings. Then I learned she was this out lesbian in country music and married to a woman and had kids with her, and it felt even more right that she was embedded in some way in this piece we were making in part about queer family-making.  “The Eye” in particular did influence our final song “Not Here”—both in the lyrics I wrote and Chris’s music approach to it. I think Chris’s incredible drag alter-ego, Kimberly Clark, now also covers some Brandi Carlile when she performs.

 

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Making Art in 2017: Tina Satter on Ghost Rings

Posted August 29th, 2017

Name: Tina Satter

Company: Half Straddle

Show in 2017 Festival: Ghost Rings

Past Festival shows: In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL

FringeArtsTell us about your show. 

Tina Satter: When I started Ghost Rings I had this very early writing of two girls discussing banal and existential questions. In this very early draft they each had an animal that operated as their “Private Inner Being”—one girl had a deer and the other had a seal—but I wanted to play with the idea that these weren’t actually cute, cuddly animals. They were kind of crass, and direct, and not necessarily mean, but didn’t always offer great advice. They sort of actually operated like “mean girls.” The deer in particular even wanted to talk about sex and stuff.

At the same time Half Straddle composer, Chris Giarmo, and I had been discussing doing a project that really focused on singing. We always have original music, scores, and often songs in our shows, and usually these are performed by a mix of untrained and trained singers. Chris had recently expressed that he wanted to experiment with making music out of our collaboration that was more challenging and really required very, very good singers to do it and I loved that challenge and idea. From the beginning, we were like, “Maybe it’s a fully sung-through piece?” but didn’t have any idea what that would mean for us. We also knew from the beginning we wanted to work on it with Erin Markey who has an incredible voice and stage presence, and we’d been collaborating with her for a while at that point. At the time I knew of the actor Kristen Sieh, who’s outstanding, but I didn’t know she was a singer. Then sometime in 2012 I saw her in a show where she sang and she suddenly seemed like the perfect person to play opposite Erin.

Meanwhile, I was honing and refining the writing between these two characters, then called Samantha and Kristen, and their Private Inner Beings (Seal-y and Deer). In the writing they had become these best friends who also have a deep romantic connection. As they grow one truly wants to have a baby with the other so she sets this intention that she is pregnant and it comes true. At the same I was going through all this stuff with my actual sister who I’d always been super close to, but there were pretty intense things she was going through and we were estranged. I couldn’t help putting really direct and personal writing about my sister in the show. It made sense in a way since I would be onstage drumming anyway.

So, I was working on how to make those two distinct aspects of text work together—and then I remembered that when we were really little my sister and I had a “band” with a friend—a fake band obviously, but for a moment in time we took it really seriously. That became this really perfect through-line for Ghost Rings—to re-create a band now as an adult and artist to frame these memories and new stories.

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The Making of Ghost Rings: Interview with Tina Satter

Posted August 8th, 2017

“There had to be a real patience and generosity on their part. But that kind respect and assuming the best intentions of all involved is always the key to a collaboration as full-on as this was.”

Tina Satter is the artistic director of the Obie-winning theater company Half Straddle. Her work has been described by The New York Times as a “vitalizing blend of coziness and estrangement, weirdness and familiarity.” Her new show, Ghost Rings, coming to the 2017 Fringe Festival, is no exception. Drawing from events of her own life, she uses the format and flow of a pop concert to create a work of theater. On stage the band is made up of two women singers, an additional musician, and Satter herself on drums. Also present are two puppet “Private Inner Beings,” Deer and Seal-y. As the two characters grow up, the show examines their intense relationship, and the oscillating dynamics within deep connections between two people. We had a conversation with Tina Satter about her inspiration for Ghost Rings and the process of putting it together.

FringeArts: Do you remember how the title Ghost Rings came into being? Do you remember where you were?

Tina Satter: Yes, in 2011, I was at a three-day silent writing retreat in upstate New York facilitated by the incredible playwright Erik Ehn. It was through the Pataphysics Playwriting Workshops. I generated some writing there that I’d had no pre-plan for, and it was taking shape in its earliest forms as a conversation between two young women, I didn’t know yet if they were sisters or friends or romantic partners —and in this early writing they were discussing basic things like borrowing a sweater, but then also asking each other dark existential questions—and in that first writing I remember having this thought that there was this kind of candy these girls would eat—I imagined it as pale purple circles and I called the candy Ghost Rings. And then I must have left the retreat titling all that early writing, draft, whatever it was, Ghost Rings, because when we showed the earliest versions of it at CATCH in June 2012, the whole thing was then called Ghost Rings.

FringeArts: Can you discuss the basic creative and narrative starting point for the show?

Tina Satter: Well, I had this very early writing of these two girls discussing these banal and existential questions, and in this very early draft they also each had these inner animals—one girl had a deer who was their corresponding inner animal, and the other had a seal. But I wanted to play with the idea that these weren’t actually cute, cuddly animals—but that they were kind of crass, and direct, and not necessarily mean, but maybe didn’t always offer great advice, that they sort of actually operate like “mean girls” and that the deer in particular wanted to talk about sex and stuff.

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A Couple Airwaves Removed from Reality: Interview with writer and director Tina Satter

Posted July 22nd, 2014

“It’s a slightly abstracted, theatricalized space, because it’s theater and I’m always interested in theater taking me beyond the edges of reality.”

In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Photo by Hunter Canning.

In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Photo by Hunter Canning.

Coming to this year’s Fringe Festival, In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL, brings an all female and genderqueer cast of football players, coaches, and cheerleaders on stage as part of the Presented Fringe. The play by Half Straddle combines the iconic imagery of football with the linguistic particularity of high school girls, all backed by a live brass band. Half Straddle is a New York City-based company that produces plays, performances, videos, and music written and directed by Tina Satter. We caught up with Tina to find out more about her In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL, which will be in the Festival Sept 17–19.

FringeArts: Why is the show title In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL?

Tina Satter: I was calling the show just “FOOTBALL” for a while because it was about football and that worked for me. Then I was trying to work more on the script and push further into it and I was struggling. Jess Barbagallo, who plays the quarterback in the show, told me that they had overheard these young cool-looking girls having this awesome conversation where they referenced something being “downstairs in the pony palace…” Neither of us knew what that meant at all, but the concept of girls discussing a “pony palace” totally opened up the conceptual premise of the show to capture this more intangible special athlete-girl world of the play that I wanted to feel slightly off to the side of real life.

I made “pony palace” the name of their locker room in the play as well. I was able to then create the script and overall concept I was looking for. And then it seemed really important that the wonderful, weird phrase/idea of “Pony Palace” was actually reflected in the title of the show

FringeArts: How did your experience with sports in high school and college inform this play?

Tina Satter: My main sport I played all throughout high school and at Bowdoin College on a Division III team was field hockey. I totally drew from my experience of working really hard with, laughing with, riding buses with, losing with and feeling utterly devastated, and then winning with these groups of girls with whom I had been on these teams all these years. The coded language you have. This incredible sense of effort and honor towards something that, at the end of it all, you know is just a sport, a game, but that really signifies a kind of personal integrity and group effort and belief in something bigger than yourself that, even at that time, and definitely after, I found very inspiring.

So I took all the feelings, memories, and dynamics of playing field hockey and put them onto this idea of a team playing football instead of field hockey. There was something about the larger iconic significance of football that seemed to be what I wanted to use as opposed to field hockey, which is much more obscure in the U.S. I also wanted to use the idea of girls just totally playing without comment in this sport that, the vast majority of the time, only males are allowed to play on a competitive level.

FringeArts: How did the work evolve from your writing of it to your directing of it?

Tina Satter: I don’t think of the plays I am making as just scripts that can be filled out by someone else in a directorial capacity. They are these whole conceptual worlds and feelings that I am just as invested in as I am in the characters and narratives. There is almost not a difference between the writing and directing, because I ultimately have this idea of how every molecule of it should feel, especially the overall rhythm. Of course I’m constantly taking advice, ideas, and in-the-moment inspiration in the rehearsal room from my incredible performers and design collaborators, and adjusting my ideas.

In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Photo by Hunter Canning.

In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Photo by Hunter Canning.

FringeArts: What is the setting of this piece and how does it appeal to your imagination and artistic sensibilities?

Tina Satter: The setting is a high school football team that exists a couple airwaves removed from reality. It’s a slightly abstracted, theatricalized space, because it’s theater and I’m always interested in theater taking me beyond the edges of reality into a liminal and exciting space in subtle unexpected ways. I want it to feel like something we’ve never quite seen or felt before. To me, that’s a huge part of making something.

So in this case it’s an all-female high school football team that plays football with all the recognizable signifiers—the football uniforms, the sports language, the athletic posturing—but then all edged-out with this kind of made-up, tweaked valley girl speak and poeticized sense of what athletics and the team mean. In the play we see a snapshot of their season as they play several games and have interactions on and off the field that are related to football, to their adolescent sense of the banal, and to bigger things in the act of self-discovery.

FringeArts: Why football?

Tina Satter: It’s the iconic, totally American, very, very male sport that feels universal, but that’s also something only men can play. That’s totally weird when you actually think about it. This thing that just men play, that mostly men watch—not entirely, but primarily—so it’s really this highly segmented gender thing. I wanted to play with that.

But to me, initially it was not a political act to make the play at all, because my first draw was the awesome uniforms and the language and the toughness to the sport and getting to poeticize all that in my world and with the performers I work with. I wanted to make a kind of sports play. That was my main driving factor—an artistic interest in the framework of this particularly iconic tough sport and the aesthetics and language it allowed me to play with. But the fact that it does then become political is great by me. 

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