Go Deeper

Karen Getz on Disco and Dante’s Inferno

Posted April 11th, 2008

This April, local choreographer and director Karen Getz’s 2006 Live Arts smash hit, Suburban Love Songs, will return to Philly in a revival by 1812 Productions at the Plays & Players Theater. Disco Descending, the Saturday Night Fever-ish sequel to Suburban Love Songs, will make its world premiere at the 2008 Live Arts Festival. Festival staff member Janice Rowland sat down with Karen last week and they chatted about love, death, funk, and physical theater in these upcoming productions.

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This message was originally posted on 3/18/08.JR: What’s the basic story of Disco Descending and who are the performers?

KG: It’s a sequel to Suburban Love Songs. It’s 10 years later, opening at one of the character’s funerals. Through a series of dreamlike events, our characters are transported into Hell – loosely following the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I’m using most of the actors from Suburban Love Songs: Jen Childs, Dave Jadico, Mary Carpenter, Dawn Falato, Fred Siegel, and Mario Fabroni. Pete Pryor is a new addition. He’s Pluto, the king of Hell. I worked with him in Theatre Exile’s Hearts and Soles last year and we talked about him dancing in one of my pieces. I was excited by the idea because he’s an amazing physical actor and a fantastic improviser.

JR: How did you go from 1960s bossa nova to disco in Hell?

KG: Around the time of Suburban Love Songs production, I had overcommitted myself to four different projects (all in the 2006 Festival) and I got very sick. I was laid up from that and was reading Dante’s Inferno and some Ovid – very light reading! Around this same time, I lost three very important people in my life. It was very devastating, and I began to think about death, and how it’s a big component of life during middle-age. I decided to make Suburban part of a trilogy about middle age. Whereas Suburban deals with sexuality, Disco will deal with death.

The music of the 1970s is something I connect very well with – it grooves me. Some of the music was simply fabulous – Earth, Wind & Fire, lots of funk – and some is fabulously awful. I thought about the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice – and thought that a disco would be a perfect metaphor for Hell.

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JR: You use comic actors in these pieces instead of dancers. Why?

KG: I’m using a new language here –it’s not really clowning or mime. The dancing is funny – not because you’re watching the dancers struggle to conquer the moves, but because they interpret the moves differently as actors. They are natural and the audience connects with them. It’s a different experience from watching highly skilled dancers perform something you can’t do – which removes the audience slightly. This is more organic.

JR: How much of the dance is improvised?

KG: None. It’s all mine. I’m a control freak! (laughs) Seriously, it’s all set choreography. But I know how these actors move. I’ve improvised with most of them for years. I understand their rhythms and vocabulary, and I know how they package thought. In improv, you’ve got to have the ability to make quick decisions physically as well as verbally and that’s a part of these actors’ skill set that I think about when I make the work. In my choreography, I’ll create a general paint stroke. I know what’s happening emotionally, and the music inspires me. Funny movements will come from that. Then I choreograph the actual steps. But once I show it to these actors, they may interpret it differently. Their instincts are always funnier than what’s in my head. Then I just direct it as a whole, make adjustments and edits. It’s very synergistic.

JR: You call this a comic ballet. But is the style of dance actually ballet?

KG: A ballet is a story without words – it’s got a beginning and an end. I use the structure of a ballet and replace the vocabulary with popular dances. In Disco, we’re going to use a lot of Hustle, a lot of club dancing and those horrible/wonderful disco line dances. It’s important for me to create an accessible language for the characters to express their thoughts.

JR: So there’s no dialogue. Are there moments of silence or stillness?

KG: We have the equivalent of cinematic inner monologues – where you can get inside the head of the character. There’s a lot that can happen in stillness. In Disco, there will be one sung moment at the end – which I think will be quite moving. It’s a way to find humanity in our cold, sterile version of Hell.

JR: We deal with a lot of death in this. But this is going to be a funny piece, right?

KG: Yes. Yes. Yes. Human behavior is funny and everything’s fodder for humor! There are moments at funerals, wakes and shivas where humor comes out of the sadness. It’s just human nature. What’s important to me is that the humor comes not from mocking, but from honesty. It’s a way we can connect – laughing is something we all do. And it’s a great weapon against death! I think it’s very universal and something that the audience can connect to on a visceral level. Plus, it’s 1978…the clothing, the music, the lifestyle…it’s teeming with comic possibilities!!

I’ve been teaching improv for twenty years and something I always tell my students is to lay out the scene for the audience clearly, so they don’t have time to intellectualize. We just see that moment for what it is – something human and funny. That’s the kind of laughter I hope to draw. I love how laughter unites the performers with the audience. It is the biggest high I can find.

JR: Will the costume and design be more disco or more Greek myth?

KG: It’s a combination. I want the world of Hell to be cold, antiseptic, artificial, with the world of the living warmer and messier and very ‘70s. I’m using most of the same designers from Suburban: Cloe Fox will be doing costumes, Christopher Colucci is designing sound, and Stephen Keever is our Lighting Designer. This time Dave Jadico is designing the sets. They’re all wonderful collaborators – they get my humor, and they give texture and life to the ideas in my head. I’m very lucky to have them.

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JR: You also perform in these pieces. What’s it like to direct yourself?

KG: It’s tough! I use digital technology. I’ll tape rehearsal and throw myself in with the performers, and then I’ll come home and watch the videos. I give myself a lot of notes! I also rely on a really good assistant director – someone who understands dance and my humor.

Also, watching the digital tape helps me stay on top of everything. I can watch a moment over and over again and figure out what I need to change to make it work. My pieces need to be very clean and on the count. This isn’t movement theatre. I think because of the music and the lack of text, the audience wants to see the dance tight with the rhythm. That’s where the laughs are. That’s why there’s no room for improv.

JR: So when does the third installment of the trilogy take place?

KG: Gosh. Um, sometime before 1940 and after 1920!! I’m not sure yet. I know it’s an immigrant’s story: middle age as seen through the eyes of people who’ve lost their country and have to start all over again in the middle of their life. The characters are the parents of our couples from Suburban Love Songs and Disco Descending. I’ve got some images and ideas, but nothing very firm except the idea of traditional music verses American jazz, some suitcases, a lot of cigarette smoke, and some very funny tangos.

–Janice Rowland