SPIRIT ANIMALS: A Conversation with Heather Christian and Dave Malloy
We arranged to meet Heather and Dave in Bushwick to talk about their shows Animal Wisdom and Ghost Quartet, respectively. These pieces have some similarities, don’t ya know, almost in a telepathic kind of way. Ghosts, music, layered rugs, antique lamps, passed beverages, extended blackouts, audience instrumentals, and just generally a common vibe. Plus, we’re proud to say, they both premiered at the Starr. But there are also some important differences between the shows, and we’re thrilled to get these mad geniuses together to compare notes.
We slide into a booth at Starr Bar just as they’re opening, the only souls in the joint, and get right to a confession: Heather has never seen Ghost Quartet (who’s most recent run just closed at New York Theatre Workshop). Travel and performance schedules have always conflicted, but she muses seriously about checking it out when it tours to Seattle in the new year. Dave is a dinner at Montana’s Trail House away from seeing Animal Wisdom for the first time. This moment is unadulterated.
What drove you to create these particular pieces? Do you remember the initial spark?
Heather: Yeah, I was tryin' to save my own soul. I was tryin’ to save my career. I got sort of hit with career ending performance anxiety five years ago, so I started with wanting to write a requiem mass to lay whatever the fuck that was to rest.
Dave: Mine isn't nearly as interesting.
D: I was just hanging out with some friends one night, and we were like, “The four of us should totally make a show!” I mean, I will say that I wrote [Ghost Quartet] shortly after Comet's off-Broadway run, and after all the chaos and stress of doing such a giant thing, we deliberately wanted to make something as small as possible. It was really just going to be the four of us. Then we slowly realized we kinda needed a director, and the director kinda needed a designer, but then that was it.
H: When I originally started, I had to have a director. I never could have done this by myself. I mean, I can make all the shrines in my house, ya know, drinking hot chocolate, but that only goes so far.
What came first, the music or the concept for the show?
D: For me, it was the concept first. We had the name before anything. We had the name Ghost Quartet.
H: It's a really good name.
D: And then I always write a lot of text first. I write text before music.
D: Oh always, always. And then I put that text in front of me at the piano and improvise singing it, which is where I usually discover the chorus of the song, what lyrics are working, what aren't working, and then just radical re-writing goes on from there. And you?
H: No, music first.
D: Oh really?!
H: Yeah one hundred percent, music first. I have a stupid folder on my computer of, like, poems that I wrote about the dead people that keep showing up as animals in my house. And I was collecting songs I had written from dreams, and from migraine visions, and they all went into this folder. So for me, I'll over-saturate and write a hundred something songs, and then figure out which things belong in the container. Then the text comes way after, when I’m trying to figure out what the logic is and how I'm stitching it.
D: So do you write the songs with nonsense syllables first, or...?
H: Do-be-dap-deh, yep!
D: Awesome. That makes sense because of your voice. I feel like your songwriting is so wrapped up in your voice.
H: Exactly, emotional content first.
Do you believe in ghosts?
D: I don't. There's a very deliberate line in Ghost Quartet, which is "and I never saw anything that I couldn't blame on my mind, so I don't believe in ghosts", which is actually the most clear statement that I make in that show. That said, I'm fascinated by the unknown, and I like to think about spiritual and supernatural things. But I don't believe in belief in general. To me, it always just seems so absurd to believe in something if there's no evidence.
H: It's subjective. You choose to believe what gets you through. I do believe in ghosts, but I recognize that I have to in order to deal with the way I process the world. In the same way that my mother needs to go to church every single day in order to feel like she's tethered.
D: Yeah, I don't actively or vehemently disbelieve, I’m just super agnostic about almost everything in my life, and that's how I choose to live. And that's the thing I need to get through the world.
H: Totally. I read this essay by a neurologist that proved by studying lots of people with Aphasia that 97% of what we perceive as reality is actually our brains just coloring in the lines and making assumptions. So it's essentially all hallucination. What we call reality is actually the consensus between all of us of what hallucination is right.
So, the blackouts...
D: I mean, probably neither of us is the first one to ever have a blackout...
H: No. And I actually said that to Andrew Schneider when we were teching. I was like, "You did not invent darkness!”
Tell us a bit about your intentions behind it.
D: Have you ever seen the movie Wait Until Dark?
D: I was a huge Stephen King fan as a kid, and he writes about seeing that movie at a dive cinema that actually put out the exit signs during the blackout parts, and him talking about how that experience so terrified him, being in the dark with all these strangers around. Like you really don't know what's going to happen. I don't know how it functions in your show, but for me, I love that discomfort. It’s not just that we're in the dark-- it's that we're in the dark with all these strangers. We made an agreement to be in this room together, we have a social contract in place, and now we're really gonna test it, cuz we're actually gonna take the lights out. And we're all a little tipsy and thinking about ghost stories…
H: Mine is actually the opposite. I want people to forget that they're there with people, and totally go inside themselves. And it was the only way for me to move all of the traditional God and Jesus rhetoric out of the way, so that people can experience the requiem as it is functioning: we are gonna walk through Hell. Hell is 15 minutes long. It was necessary for people to check out of the play and into themselves and have a moment of actual discomfort in order for me to get a real thing to happen.
D: Totally. Ours also came out of a super practical / dumb thing, which was that we didn't want to have a set designer. So when we talked about how the ghost would manifest on stage, the obvious answer was, “We're gonna put the lights out because people will do it in their minds way more effectively than any stage craft we can do”.
What’s it like on the other side, as performers in the dark?
D: Oh, I love it. I love it so much.
H: It's so meditative. We do our sound check in black out. I look forward to when it happens in the show because by the time I get there, I'm like, "I cannot sing another note... I can't do this anymore…" And then I get naked in the blackout and change my clothes while all these people are singin’ around me, and when I finally sit back down at the piano— and I've cheated, I put a piece of…
D: Don't tell me too much!
H: ...gaff tape on middle C.
D: Oh, I have that too. I actually have glow tape on a couple C's.
H: We just have gaff, we got no glow, no exit signs, we got no nothin'. It's so disorienting, and I did not think that I could do it. You're an incredible player... I do not trust myself as a player at all.
D: Yes, our rehearsals for that dark section were the most frustrating. We were all tearing our hair out because it was so fucking hard. Now we can do it, and now I love it, but we really had to go to the shed and drill it. We practiced it a lot in full light and then slowly got it darker and darker.
H: That's awesome. We just dove.
D: I remember even during tech, we would have moments where it would just collapse. We'd be in the dark and one of us would just… get lost.
H: Sasha is playing a bunch of guitar pedals during it and we taped over all of his LEDs, so he had the hardest job of memorizing the ballet of where his pedals are. And if he messes that up, it's done. We're done.
Where did the set design come from— the designers, or was that your vision from the beginning?
D: Having it in the round was our vision from the beginning. The idea was that we are all around a campfire sharing stories, so we wanted to be able to make eye contact with everyone in the room. Then when Annie (director) and Chris (lighting designer) got involved, they brought in the rugs and chandeliers. Those were all their amazing touches.
H: Mine was based on a mausoleum in Rome, and all the mausoleum's that I've been in. They’re just these round things, and then there's a freakin' coffin in the middle, and you just sit around, and sometimes there's an alter that's built over the coffin and there's services that are said, and they have these domed ceilings so when you sing in these mausoleums, it's just... anyway, I was trying to do that. As if I was in the coffin, right in the middle.
Why do you think people have responded the way they do to your shows? We’ve noticed audiences walking away feeling like they had left the planet with a room full of random people for a while. Were you aware of creating such a powerful affect?
H: It was intended. We all have death in common, we all have grief in common, and these days we all have anxiety in common. So while I was feeling very narcissistic that I was trying to write my own exorcism, it sort of became, ”No, we all have to deal with this black smoke river of whatever is creeping in and making us all insane in this current moment". And I think that's why people are responding the way they are. I had intended to make a piece that addressed something I had in common with the majority of the population, which is death. And the more we went down that road, the more it turned into not really death, it became about mortality, and what are you gonna do with your time? We've acknowledged that it expires. What are you gonna do about time?
D: My show is not as much about grief, it's more about regret. It's four people with all these stories about people making bad decisions and doing terrible things to each other, and then trying to forgive themselves and forgive each other, and that feels very human. The other thing is, our shows are both such music driven pieces. At least my show is designed to encourage people to think non-narratively and non-linearly, and just let the music wash over you. I feel like I get that experience of real catharsis and global, spiritual peace way more from music than from narrative art forms. So for me, the music is a huge part of that. People just let themselves release and sink into music in a way that they can't do with straight story.
H: Yeah, music is like lube. Better than booze.
D: That is a really cool thing about theater, in terms of what you said about that community feeling of 'we all just went to another planet together'. After the show, there's that moment of looking at the audience and seeing everyone have kind of dazed looks on their faces, and feeling like I just shared something with all these strangers... I really love that.
What's your ideal environment for writing music?
D: Oh God, I wish I ever found it!
H: Have you been to Ucross?
D: Oh, I have.
H: It's in Wyoming. It's like a glass box in the middle of a field with a grand piano in it.
D: Yeah, that room is amazing. I wrote the best part of Moby Dick in that room.
H: I wrote the best part of Annie Salem in that room. There's a bedroom in the back, but the majority of the house is the glass room in the snow with the friggin' piano...
D: Yeah, I was up there in January in heavy, freezing cold snow. Whiteouts all around you...
H: There's mountains, and it's cavernous...
D: And the deer!
H: Moaning steers that are lurking, sounds that you've never heard, it's like prehistoric… Anyway, that’s the best I've ever experienced.
D: And it's a really good piano.
D: I love retreats, because I kind of need to go a little crazy.
H: Me too. Like hallucinate crazy.
D: No contact with the world, crazy hours.
H: Yeah, I did the weird Benjamin Franklin thing, working for 4 hours, sleeping for 2, work for 4, sleep for 2…
D: Oh wow, I need to try that some time.
H: It's nuts. Exhilarating. I did it in Rome. I had an apartment with an upright piano, but I could only play between specific hours so I just took my voice recorder around and wrote the requiem mostly in parks and in a cafe behind the catacombs of St. Agnes. Ancient people would show up and play cards and drink their spritzers and chain smoke, and I would sit in the ivy in the back and just hum. Most of it was written there. Except the Imparadisum, which was written in an olive grove in the middle of a park in the middle of a rain storm after I got dreadfully lost.