'Patty Hearst' out of captivity, on stage
By D. A. Blackburn
The revolution will not be televised, but if you're anywhere in
Southeast Michigan, it will unfold on a stage near you. "Patty
Hearst: The New Musical," the latest offering of the currently
nomadic Blackbird Theatre, will grace two area stages - the \Sh\aut
Gallery and Cabaret in Ann Arbor and the Boll Family YMCA in Detroit
- making one of the spring season's most intriguing and unique world
premiere productions accessible to the masses.
The musical, written, composed and directed by the Blackbird's
founding artistic director Barton Bund (also a regular contributor to
EncoreMichigan.com), chronicles the disturbingly unusual story of
heiress Patty Hearst, who, in 1974, was abducted in a failed
extortion attempt by a group of California radicals known as the
Symbionese Liberation Army. Hearst notoriously became sympathetic to
the group's cause, and was eventually tried in connection to various
crimes perpetrated by the SLA.
To this day, the question remains: Was she history's highest profile
victim of Stockholm Syndrome, or merely the picture of privilege
turned revolutionary by a group of impoverished and misguided radicals?
Bund's production is a genuinely unique offering -- a fine blend of
comedy and history, which covers a great deal of ground without ever
taking itself too seriously. Musically, "Patty Hearst" draws heavily
from 1970s-era funk and pop to set a decidedly intense background.
Bund's lyrics are, likewise, fairly light, but deliver a potent
message. And throughout its three acts, the production manages to
produce more than a few catchy, memorable tunes.
Where "Patty Hearst" falters musically is in the casting, as
performers uniformly lack the musicality to keep things moving
forward on pitch.
But that said, opening night did yield a few shining moments of vocal
competence, and Bund's appealing musical vision for the work is
consistently apparent. Specifically, his ensemble numbers reveal a
deep, thoughtful reverence to the production's musical influences as
well as the messages the songs convey.
Though vocally imperfect, the Blackbird's large cast is genuinely
satisfying in other respects. The acting is quite good, with Jamie
Weeder and Christopher Joseph turning in the production's most
memorable performances as Patty Hearst and Cinque, respectively.
Gayle Martin's Yolanda and Steven O'Brien's Teko, too, leave a fine
impression for their intensity in very colorful characterizations.
Bund's direction keeps the work moving at a steady, brisk clip, and
coupled with his script, succeeds in illustrating the Stockholm
Syndrome theory in a very powerful way. Despite the gruff language
and radical world views of his SLA characters, they are easily
likeable, and equally easy to empathize with, though their
motivations and cause could be more deeply explored.
Choreography by Brian Carbine is also a highlight of the Blackbird's
"Patty Hearst," and across the board, performers navigate his
intricate and energetic blocking with grace -- no small task, given
the extreme spatial limitations of the \Sh\aut Gallery. Nestled in
Ann Arbor's Kerrytown district, the gallery is an exceptionally
intimate space for this type of production, and while the Blackbird
has managed to make it work, the show's move to the roomier stage in
Detroit will likely benefit all involved.
This is specifically true for lighting designer Gwen Lindsay, who has
been greatly limited by the space, and as such, forced to light the
work in what feel like all-or-nothing extremes.
While "Patty Hearst: The New Musical" is not a finely polished gem in
its current form, the work makes for a very engaging evening of
theater. It is funny, intense and overflowing with the type of
creative energy that ensures a future for a new work. Cast to
showcase its music a bit more effectively, this production would
definitely be must-see theater. But even as is, it's well worth a look.
'Patty Hearst: The New Musical'
Blackbird Theatre at the \Sh\aut Gallery and Cabaret, 325 Braun Ct.,
Ann Arbor, Through June 3-12; then Boll Family YMCA Theatre, 1401
Broadway St., Detroit, June 17-26. Contains language, violence,
sexuality and adult content for mature audiences only. No one under
17 will be admitted. $10-$20. 734-332-3848. http://www.blackbirdtheatre.org
Blackbird Theatre presents world premiere "Patty Hearst: A New Musical"
By: Jenn McKee
May 28, 2010
The Blackbird Theatre is currently preparing for the world premiere
of company founder Barton Bund's musical, "Patty Hearst." But Bund
first started work on the show in a moment of frustration in 2004,
when the country re-elected George W. Bush as president.
"I wasn't going to go out kidnapping or murdering people," said Bund.
"But I came to understand then how people could get so worked up and
angry. … I wasn't about to go out and bomb things, but I would write about it."
And given the number of recent headlines focused on the Hutaree
Militia, as well as the Tea Party movement, anger that's aimed at the
American government remains a timely issue, to say the least.
Patty Hearst's story, of course, is a highly complicated chapter of
American history. Hearst granddaughter of the enormously wealthy
publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was kidnapped in 1974,
when she was 19 years old, by members of a left-wing urban guerrilla
group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. The group initially
demanded the release of several jailed SLA members, but when that
failed, the ransom evolved into one that required Hearst's family to
distribute food to needy families in California (at an estimated cost
of $400 million). Hearst's father arranged for a food donation worth
$6 million, but Patty wasn't released, and two months after her
capture, she declared, via audiotape, that she'd become part of the SLA.
Hearst thus helped SLA members rob a San Francisco bank, among other
crimes; but after the police found and arrested her the following
year, Hearst's attorney, F. Lee Bailey, argued that Hearst had been
brainwashed by the SLA, as well as physically and sexually abused.
"There are all these contradictions within (Hearst's) story, … but we
still have to honor her story," said Bund. "And there's a freedom
within that … for the actors. Things aren't so locked down. We have
the facts, but we're still exploring them, and still figuring out
what would drive a person to this. I've told the cast, 'Don't try to
figure out who you are. We're just going to play these moments, feel
it out, and do the best we can.' But we all feel a different way
about this story after every rehearsal."
Indeed, Bund and his cast have strived, in the musical, not to pass judgment.
"I'm not condoning what the SLA did there were real victims, and
they did terrible things but Patty couldn't have made this
conversion if she didn't develop positive relationships with certain
individuals in the group," said Bund. "I didn't want to go too far
beyond her story, and I didn't want to interpret that didn't seem
like an honest way of doing this. … But her description of some of
the folks that she was with on the ground they were decent."
According to Bund, many of SLA's members were white suburban kids who
felt disillusioned because of the Vietnam War and the nation's poor
economy. And while the SLA's demand for food aid to needy families
was an example of how the group had some laudable goals, these
ambitions were perverted by way of SLA's violence.
"The group had some good intentions," said Bund. "But their
methodology, being militant and murderous, took away from that mission."
The musical also explores the way the government responded shooting
at, and burning down, a house where six SLA members were hiding and
the circus-like nature of Hearst's trial.
"Musicals are a great way to tell a historical drama, especially
because there's so much going on psychologically in this story," said
Bund. "Music gets certain things across more efficiently than
dialogue. In straight plays, you have characters talking things out
for two hours to arrive at a certain point, while you can arrive at
that same point in a song in about two minutes."
Bund describes "Hearst"'s score, which he also wrote, as including
folk songs as well as the rock-funk that's reminiscent of Hearst's
era. But the show's candid exploration of Hearst's story means that
it's definitely not a show for kids.
"Everything that happens in the show comes out of her court
testimony, or her autobiography, or the news stories of the time,"
said Bund. "Whenever I tried to improve upon the story, or condense
it in some way it was just too crazy for that."
Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for AnnArbor.com.
Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2546
"Patty Hearst: A New Musical"
Who: Blackbird Theatre.
What: Based on the true story of Patricia Hearst's 1974 kidnapping by
the Symbionese Liberation Army, Barton Bund's world premiere musical
traces Hearst's strange journey from heiress to underground
revolutionary. This show is for mature audiences only..
Where: \sh\aut Gallery and Cabaret, 325 Braun Ct. (An additional run
plays at the Boll Family YMCA Theatre, 1401 Broadway in Detroit, June 16-26.)
When: Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., June 3-12.
How much: $20 ($15 for seniors, $10 for students).
Info: Blackbird Theatre website or 734-332-3848.
Patty Hearst: The New Musical, 5Q4 Barton Bund
June 13, 2010
One of the best musicals of the season isn't up for a Tony tonight. I
can only think of one reason: It isn't on Broadway.
The Blackbird is a non-Equity theater in Michigan that opened Patty
Hearst: the New Musical in a tiny space in Ann Arbor that can be
confused with a living room; it seats about 50 in a four-sided arena.
Patty moves to Detroit for a limited engagement this week.
Barton Bund, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, and who directed
the show as well, uses the space exceedingly well to tell the story
of Patty Hearst, the kidnapped heiress who later joined her captors
in revolutionary activity. Members of the Symbionese Liberation Army
break through the front door, guns pointed, making us feel we are all
at risk. While Patty's fiancé escapes through an open window, they
throw a plastic sheet over her, and before we settle in to enjoy a
show, they come at us on all sides, enveloping us under the sheet and
in the story, too.
Bund captures the tenor of the times, 1970's Berkeley, California,
where most of the bizarre story of Hearst's involvement in the SLA
unravels. His research is careful, and his language, largely taken
from historical documents, is right on. When Patty wants to placate
her captors, for instance, she lets them know that unlike her family,
she voted for McGovern in the previous election. Turns out, the SLA
gave their votes to Nixon "because fuck it, that's why. Expedite the
process. The People know he's the enemy, they'll be quicker to rise
up against a pig like him."
Songs that include Freedom, Bourgeois Bitch, by way of explanation,
My Gay and Lesbian Army, from a character who finds the SLA too
hetero and male-dominated and wants to start her own faction, and,
when Patty voluntarily joins up, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight,
come out of source material, sometimes line for line, and evoke a
70's musical sensibility; they always forward the action and develop
character. In a group sex scene, characters fuck on a bed of stolen
money, high after a bank heist, and sing The People's Orgy.
Bund does more than recreate a time and circumstances, more than tell
a strong story that keeps us on the edge of our seats, even though we
know how it will end. He brings to the fore the complexity of feeling
that anyone caught in those times experienced. Even those repelled by
the thought of violence had to wonder: Was marching on, sitting in,
and signing petitions enough? Were non-violent activists deluding
themselves that change is possible without extreme measures?
Bund never glamorizes the terroristsa man slugs his wife, people
bicker over power in the groupbut we see their humanity, too,
convoluted as it might be. When some are burned alive, we feel for
them. When Patty joins them in the work that is their passion, we
understand. That made some uncomfortableWhy weren't the bad guys
always and entirely bad? Why was there comic relief in some tense scenes?
What makes this play so wonderful is that it is about more than what
it is about. It taps the kind of insecurities we all have and talks
to our need for community, something Hearst found in a group of
terrorists after being torn from family and friends and forced to
live in a closet, blindfolded, for weeks.
A far healthier sense of community is evident in the fine ensemble of
actors who bring Patty and her captors before us. They are: Jamie
Weeder (Patty), Christopher Joseph, Chelsea Sadler, Vanessa Sawson,
Talia Glass, Emily Wilson-Tobin, Gayle Martin, Steven O'Brien, Joe
Kathrien, Analea Lessenberry, Ruell Black, Max Hully, Danny Friedland.
Bund, who is also the founding artistic director of the Blackbird, is
the real deal. His vision is authentic, his commitment to a small
group of local artists genuine. Patty is infused with a spirit of
collaboration, and Bund is quick to credit his actors and co-sound
designer, William Myers, for their part in developing the work. But
it's clear as well that on this outing, he has done it all, and he
has done it all brilliantly.
He's also done a good job reporting experiences leading to this
production in two blogs, one that he completed a year ago, another
that he's added to recently. I had just a few questions left for him.
DN: You've done a remarkable job of capturing a time and place. What
was your research process?
BB: [I saw the movie years ago and was intrigued.] I was looking
everywhere for her book and finally found it in a used bookstore in
Maine when I was on a vacation there in 2006. …I found a lot of
[political and] personal information, but it left a lot of questions
unanswered, so my other research was catching as much video and as
many other stories, Steve Weed's [Heart's former finance's] account
of the whole thing…The whole thing becomes more and more insane the
more you get into it….There was an issue about the comedy, but the
funniest stuff is the true stuff. Pretty much everything that's said
or talked about comes out of her testimony, her book-it would have
been impossible for me to make this stuff up. They shared a
toothbrush, they had these clumsy group orgies, they were addicted to
TV and would train, then watch horror movies. They were in their
young twenties and bumbling. The trial was an absolute circus.
I don't want to make fun of the characters or judge them, whether
we're doing Shakespeare or a piece like this. When you're creating
theater from zero, you have to find a way of doing it without judging it….
These are young people who grew up just like me…I could have been led
astray…When you get people together, the group mentality….I had
revolutionary thoughts when we were under the Bush administration, I
wasn't sure how to deal with them…
DN: Are you involved in any direct political activity, or do you
work through your art?
BB: I try to keep it to the art. In fantasy, the idea of running in
and doing something…there was a time in the Bush years when I felt I
needed to do something more political, but the way I think has very
little to do with policy and more to do with people's minds, and art
is the place for me to do something.
Which is not to say art is part of a political agenda…. Your own
thoughts and feelings are in there, but the event takes on a life of
its own. The best thing to do was to get out of the way and let the
characters do the talking….When I'm in rehearsal, I try to work in a
way that's very separate from the rest of my day. Of course, personal
things come into it, but we have to free ourselves from our everyday
concerns [and attitudes] and let the work go where it takes us. It's
bigger than just us. I recognize that everybody I talk to is going to
feel differently about this story.
DN: You were dealing with a massive amount of research. How did you
decide what to include?
BB: The key incidents became [those that showed] how she became one
of them. She came to think of herself as a revolutionary and not
about how she was kidnapped. What would motivate a person? Her
parents had so botched things up…they gave up negotiating with the
terrorists…the FBI left this poor girl to suffer when they could have
solved this problem…we may have rushed the time she spent [locked in]
a closet. We had to keep the story moving….
DN: How did the play change as you developed it?
BB: The workshop allowed me to process strong poltical feelings and
personal fears. We had many different endings and moved so many
things around. . Finally, we wanted to throw this out in the messiest
way possible. Typically, you're trying to clean things up…We wanted
to ask questions, not to answer them.
DN: When composer Bart Bund collaborated with lyricist Bart Bund,
which came first, the music or the lyrics? And just what is The
World Famous Love Machine?
BB: I think it's the lyrics that came first. Certain phrases [in
their talk and writing] have a certain musicality to them…I took what
they said [added to that and made it rhyme]. Patty sings about pizza.
In the closet, she wasn't thinking "Who am I?" She was thinking about
missing home and food. I wrote the music on an acoustic guitar ahead
of time, then Will Myers produced and mixed it.
The World Famous Love Machine is me and my laptop and Will Myers, who
has been our sound designer…It's an alias, an alter ego, maybe it's
me finding an artistic distance between myself and the work. That
frees me up to do things I don't think Bart would ever do…. I enjoy
going into my den and manipulating sound and playing guitar.