The West Comes To Town: Interview with creator Alex Bechtel
For the past several years, Alex Bechtel has been busy in Philadelphia wearing many theatrical hats: music director, actor, singer, composer, and co-creator and was in the inaugural class of the two-year program at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training. At the end of March he is premiering The West, his first full-scale production as the lead creator and producer, and with a cast of THIRTEEN no less.
The West is ensemble-devised musical theater, described as “an absurdist western music hall drama about the gun that killed Billy The Kid, the gun that didn’t, and truth and fiction in history, human relationships, and our day-to-day lives.” After having worked for so many other companies—1812 Productions, Walnut Street Theatre, 11th Hour Theatre Company, New Paradise Laboratories, Theatre Horizon, Applied Mechanics, People’s Light, Groundswell—The West is Alex’s moment of stepping out on his own. We caught up with Alex to learn more.
FringeArts: Why is the play called The West?
Alex Bechtel: When we made the initial short-form version of the piece, I wrote a song that was sung at the end called The West. So, when I decided to expand and remount the show, that song started to feel like what the play was about. Also, the play is called The West because half of the play follows the last days of Billy the Kid. And the notion of “the West” becomes a stand-in for what a lot of the characters in the play are dealing with: the possibility of something greater lying just outside of yourself, the feeling of manifest destiny, the urge to grab your fantasies by the reins and transform them into your reality.
FringeArts: Why did you think that now was the time to create your own project?
Alex Bechtel: I’ve always been primarily interested in creating new work. Many of the jobs I’ve had—either as MD, designer, or as actor—have been in premieres that are being devised and/or created during that production. And for a long time I’ve been striving to figure out just what kind of work I wanted to make. That’s one of the things that going through the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training [APT] taught me: what kind of work I wanted to do. APT is an intense immersion into the art of collaboration and I came out of those two years with a much deeper understanding of the work I wanted to make. When we made the initial, short-form version of The West as my final project at APT, I knew that this was a piece that I wanted to take further, so I felt like there was no time like the present.
Alex Bechtel: The piece began as my final project at APT. For the final projects, each person was given a phrase to prompt the creation of a short work of theater. My phrase was “The reason escapes me.” So, I picked a few people and we began playing around, improvising, picking that phrase apart to get at the heart of it. One of the things we did was talk about inexplicable interests. For example: “I’ve always been drawn to salsa music, but I have no idea why.” One of my inexplicable interests was Billy the Kid. I’ve been fascinated with Billy the Kid for a while; I’ve read a few biographies, I’ve seen a few movies. It’s never progressed to a full-on obsession, but it’s always been there and I’ve never really known why. The group and I talked about that, and then when we got up to do some improvs, Scott Sheppard and Nick Gillette improvised a scene in which they were auctioning off two guns—one, the gun that killed Billy the Kid, and the other, an identical gun made in the same factory, on the same day, that did not kill Billy the Kid. That is the scene that starts The West. It’s been expanded, worked on, but essentially it’s the same scene. When I saw them do it in that first improvisation, I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s the start of a play I’d want to see.” It was a very strong impulse, and I decided to honor it. We’ve thought about moving the scene, changing its place in the arc of the show, but we’ve always come around to where it is now—the beginning. It feels like one.
FringeArts: Is this your first major producing job of your own work? Were you a little frightened of having to juggle such a large cast?
Alex Bechtel: This is, indeed my first major producing job of my own work. And it is, indeed, major. And yeah, I will say that most of the challenges that I’ve faced over the last few months have been in wrangling such a large group of people without the budget to pay them enough to commit to a rehearsal schedule full-time. I really can’t complain—I got thirteen of the brightest, most talented emerging theater artists in Philly to create this piece with me over the course of two months, for almost no money. But because they are those kinds of people, there are other creative projects they’re also engaged in, there are restaurant jobs, there are performances, auditions—it’s been difficult getting people in the room. I understand, though—having been on the other side of that exchange. And I’m grateful that they’ve given me the time and artistry they have in this process. We’re making something great because of that.
And listen—everyone who works at a theatre in production/administration is a fucking bad-ass. I always sort of knew that, working as an actor and a designer, because things would happen smoothly and on time and I’d think “Wow. Awesome.” But no—having to be director-composer-production manager-fundraiser-advertising guy-box office on this project has made me realize that without those people theater would be screwed. So I learned that.
Alex Bechtel: Music is a big part of this piece, as I assume it will be in almost anything I create. I’m a music person—my grandfather plays traditional Greek and Turkish instruments, my mother and aunts all had a band when they were young, my dad is an incredible guitarist, my two brothers are a brilliant recording engineer and one of the finest guitarist/composers I know, respectively. I come from music. I play a bunch of instruments, and have written songs ever since I was about sixteen.
What I can tell you about the music in The West is that it’s the beginning of my exploration of the way music and song is used in theater. I don’t think it’s a radical experiment, in the case of The West, but it’s different enough from the way things tend to go traditionally that I have taken to furrow my brow when people call it a “musical.”
The play is scored, almost continuously, by a guitarist—Justin Rose. The guitar felt like the right instrument for the show. Occasionally, the lights will shift over to Justin and he’ll talk to us, and sing us a song. It’s something I’m curious about—how to lift up the musical idiom of the singer-songwriter in a bar and transplant it into a theatrical setting in a way that is neither completely a Brechtian break from the action nor incorporated into the dramatic action in the way it is in, say, Once. I’m excited about asking a theater audience to re-calibrate their attention to take in a song at the speed and duration that they would if they were sitting in a bar and listening to someone play a gig. I think interesting discoveries are to be made there.
FringeArts: What’s been the most surprising development that has come about in the making of The West?
Alex Bechtel: I realized, while making the show, that there is no merit in trying to make the show perfect. There are an infinite amount of versions of The West that we could make. So rather than trying to get it right, I’m going to do my best to make the version that we can make with this group of people, in this amount of time. Realizing that felt like a big deal. Also, the number “80” is incredibly fun to say.
Thanks Alex, have a great show.
Show photos: © Jacques-Jean Tiziou /www.jjtiziou.net
Wednesday, March 26: 8pm
Thursday, March 27: 8pm
Friday, March 28: 8pm
Saturday, March 29: 2pm & 8pm
Sunday, March 30: 2pm
Off Broad Street Theater
1636 Sansom Street
Lead Artist/Director Alex Bechtel Actor/Creators Scott Sheppard, Justin Rose, Nick Gillette, Ben Grinberg, Alice Yorke, Jenn Kidwell, Martha Stuckey, Olivia Jorgenson, Lauren Harries, Caitlin Antram, Dan Higbee, Katie Gould Assistant Director/Stage Manager Adam Kerbel Lighting Designer Dom Chacon Costume Designer Jillian Rose Keys Set Designer Radha Vakharia