by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
There is a moment in 24th Street Theatre’s production of Finegan Kruckemeyer’s Man Covets Bird when the two performers execute an exuberant dance choreographed and scored with body percussion. The men slap their chests and thighs in an increasingly complex tattoo of propulsive beats set against a background of factory sounds. Besides serving as a theatrical high point, the dance is emblematic of much of what makes this production unique.
There is the fact that it directly engages the children in the audience on one level, while appealing to the adults on another. Also, the dance, which is not indicated in the script, can be cited as a product of the truly democratic creative collaboration encouraged during the rehearsal process. Finally, there are two performers on the stage throughout, although this only seems unconventional if you know that the play was conceived as a one-man show.
With 75 commissioned works and productions spread over five continents, Tasmanian playwright Kruckemeyer is a certifiable star in the world of TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences). As 24th Street Theatre Executive Director Jay McAdams puts it, “He’s a very profound writer. There aren’t many playwrights that write for young audiences that are soulful enough to keep an adult’s attention.” This concept of a show designed for young audiences that doesn’t pander and works as theatrical art is at the heart of the mission for McAdams and Debbie Devine, 24th Street’s artistic director. They freely admit that they believe TYA is a misnomer and that what they produce is TAA (Theatre for All Audiences).
The original plan was to collaborate with Kruckemeyer on a world premiere play based on the historic building that houses 24th Street Theatre. But the birth of Kruckemeyer’s son pushed that project into the future, and after reading a number of his plays, McAdams and Devine settled on the American premiere of Man Covets Bird, an allegorical tale of the Man, who wakes one morning to find that he’s changed, that his parents have difficulty recognizing him. And, lest one think this is merely a retread of Kafka, the change has more to do with the Man growing up, and into his identity. One day a Bird floats down and lands on the Man. They instantly recognize that they are kindred spirits. “You smiled at the same time as me,” becomes a recurring flash of verbal recognition, as well as a musical leitmotiv.
It is shocking to discover that in a production imbued with music, Devine, who directs, was not initially excited about the songs.
“It’s a 28-page tone poem, basically, for a single voice,” she says. “And in it, are a few places in which Finegan indicated that the Man sings. Originally I said to him, ‘Do I have to do this?’ I wanted to do it without any music.”
Kruckemeyer wanted the songs and offered to license the music used in the Australian world premiere, where a trio of singer/instrumentalists handled the musical demands. Devine was even less interested in importing music from another production, so she went back to the play. Reading it again, she says, proved a revelation. “So then I realized, it’s a two-man show. Not a one-man show. And the other man needed to be the Bird, and have that metaphor that two men could love each other.”
With this new inspiration percolating, Devine quickly saw how naturally the Bird could fulfill the musical requirements. She also understood that she already knew the perfect man for the role. She turned to her friend and colleague at the Colburn School, Leeav Sofer. “I realized I knew Leeav. That he plays the clarinet. That the clarinet is the voice of the Bird. It became so clear to me. So I brought him in and I said, ‘Will you do it?’—No, I said, ‘You have to do it.’ And he agreed because he loved the writing, too.”
So with one creative thunderbolt, the one-man show doubled its cast size, the initially undesirable music became an integral concept, and, perhaps most unconventionally, the musician was cast before the actor.
Aside from a high school turn as Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors, Sofer had no acting credits, but he had plenty of experience playing in pits, leading choirs, scoring films and singing as the front man for his band, Mostly Kosher. He explains, “You know I perform as a bandleader — as a front singer. So I try to translate a lot of those skills for here. And I don’t have a lot of dialogue, so most of the time, when I’m opening my mouth, I’m singing to the audience and I’ve done that for many, many years.”
Devine started work with Sofer on creating the music for the songs indicated in the script. But, with the enthusiasm of the true convert, she also challenged him to explore ways to expand the use of music in the show. Sofer recalls the process and how truly collaborative it was. “[There were] many times where Debbie would be the one to say, ‘This means this here.’ And she would describe it to me in words. She’d be like, ‘Pick a color.’ And I’d play back that color.”
But even the best of teams will have misunderstandings, and sometimes it took slowing down and finding a common vocabulary, musical or verbal, to reach consensus. Sofer explains how they’d work through disagreements: “You know, sometimes I didn’t feel…. My immediate sense was not to put something there, and her’s was. So she’d ask me to translate whatever her words were into music. And that worked. Sometimes it was the other way around, and I’d be like, ‘Debbie, I feel like there should be stuff here.’ And she was like, ‘Let me hear it.’ And then, after, ‘Oh, yeah.’ The back and forth was really cool.”
Devine used communication, trust and guidance to spur Sofer on to building moments like the dance. “Debbie trusted me a lot,” he says, “and I’m so grateful for it. For example, the body percussion. That was a piece that I had to figure out. I promised her I’d choreograph it somehow. I don’t have any choreography background, but I’d been picking up body percussion lately, so I said I’d really love to find some geek-out moment where you let me do something like this.”
While theatre is always a collaborative art, Devine is obviously secure enough to truly allow that energy to flourish throughout the process. Andrew Huber, who plays the Man, felt it from the start.
“I came in and I had no idea what it was,” he says. “It was an audition my agent got for me. Then, when I got here and I was working on the sides with Debbie, she was pushing me and getting me out of my comfort zone. And I thought, ‘This is cool. I could use this.’ ”
Another selling point for Huber was the fact that Devine knew the exact significance of every moment in the script, but allowed the performers to find their own way.
“I had two more callbacks and it felt collaborative even then,” Huber says. “We were talking about things, and Leeav was there. It just felt right. One of those things where you go, ‘I hope they pick me, because this is dope.’ ”
Devine may have won the cast’s devotion, but I was curious about Kruckemeyer’s reaction to finding out that she planned to add a second performer to his play. “He asked me about it.” Devine says carefully. “I explained I really wanted to celebrate the love of two men. I wanted to have that be a component. You know, parents see it as the bird flying away. All of my gay friends can see the tenderness and the love. You bring your tears, your own tears to this. So, when he understood where we were going with it, and when he heard the music, then he was fine.”
Man and Bird act out their story on a deconstructed stage, devoid of any conventional scenic elements. The proverbial blank canvas, designed to kindle the imagination. And it’s obvious that both men establish an easy rapport with the children in the audience, who certainly remained rapt through the play’s 70 minute running time at the performance I attended. It is something of which Devine is justifiably proud.
“The other wonderful thing for me is that there’s no fourth wall,” she says. “So we’re really embedded into the audience. We work with the audience and have them feel, as much as they can, that they’re part of the storytelling process. They’re another character. And the play’s underlying theme really worked for us. That love can do it. That it really is about love. And when you lose your love, you don’t lose it forever. It’s there with you. It’s flying above you. Love will be with you forever. That’s what we’re hoping that we do.”