INTERVIEW: Paul Rome, Roarke Menzies, Katie Mullins, and David Kammerer on Philadelphia and Other…
Writer Paul Rome and composer Roarke Menzies have been friends for several years and projects now, collaborating on their unique brand of performance literature. They first worked together on their show And Once Again, followed by an audio drama called The You Trilogy and a performance at The Bushwick Starr, Calypso.
They’re back at The Bushwick Starr for their latest show, Philadelphia and Other Stories, running from December 18th to 20th. This time, they’ve added additional collaborators. All the stories, written by Rome, are accompanied by a soundtrack composed by Menzies. The stories are followed by songs from musicians Katie Mullins and David Kammerer. The stories themselves will be read by Rome, Menzies, and actress Katie Scholland.
I interviewed Paul and Roarke at Paul’s apartment, where the two were meeting with Katie Mullins and David Kammerer about the music in the show. The topics ranged from Spotify, the closing of beloved NYC venues, academia, movies, and rashes.
Paul and Roarke, why did you choose David and Katie to be musicians in this show?
ROARKE: We’re so lucky.
PAUL: Yeah, we just thought of our favorite musicians. David, from Bushwick Home Companion, we’ve heard him perform on many nights. Katie, at the Arbitration Rock Festival. We select people that we want to work with, have dinner with, and get to know better.
David and Katie, what made you interested in participating?
KATIE: I had read Paul’s novel and I really liked it. I was reading his book on the subway with my hat and gloves in my lap. I was very engrossed in it and then all of the sudden my stop was there, so I jumped up to make my stop, but the hat and gloves stayed on the train. But it was worth it! Also I like these guys. We’ve hung out and that’s it, that’s enough.
DAVID: I’ve seen Paul perform his work many times. I was there early in this process for him. And I thought the stories were amazing, incredibly insightful, funny, and really smart. I just had a blast listening. I also live in the neighborhood. I see these guys a lot and it’s great to run into each other. Occasionally, we get into conversations about music and literature and that’s fun.
How did you pick the songs that you wanted to feature in the show?
ROARKE: Both David and Katie have really stellar solo albums. They’re so listenable and I’m a huge fan. We decided when we brought up the idea, as far as including the songs with the stories, that they would be framed in totally equal lights. Basically, Paul and I were sitting here in his living room and chose the ones. We listened to a handful and it was pretty immediately clear.
KATIE: We did a reading with all the stories and all the songs. I was listening to the stories, and I was like ‘oh, that makes total sense that they chose that’. The theme of the story fits the song.
PAUL: For me, the songs are continuing to resonate in new ways. With a collection of stories, there’s this whole question of how they talk to each other, and the songs are part of that. Hopefully, they all contribute to a deepening of the ideas.
You have an interest in traveling as a theme. The idea of traveling, or going on a journey, is essential to the history of storytelling itself, starting with Homer’s The Odyssey, which you retold in your previous show Calypso. Traveling seems to be a theme of Philadelphia and Other Stories too. So, what appeals to you about traveling?
PAUL: It’s funny, I’ve done less and less traveling since moving to New York. I relish the opportunity and it does become a time of reflection. When you sleep in a different bed, or drive somewhere different, the change causes new associations and new memories that you didn’t have. You start thinking about old people you haven’t thought of in a long time. I’m interested in that. And traveling with someone else, romantic or otherwise, it’s a very intimate experience. From the food you try, to the music you put on.
ROARKE: When you’re on a trip with someone, you share experiences and memories that you would never think to tell if you were hanging out in another context. Working on this project, working on this show, has been a similar thing. There are these associations that are fired, when you’re in the context of focusing so much on creating this thing. You develop this intimacy and you share a lot. I think that’s how Paul and I became so close, working on projects like this. And now, I think we can tell each other anything.
DAVID: I think something that comes up for me with traveling, and it’s also a method of songwriting, is this idea of possibly getting lost and not knowing where you are, which is a nice place to be sometimes, especially creatively. Just having a how-do-I-get-out–of-here kind of feeling.
Do you have things in theatre that you particularly like, either specific plays or styles of theatre that you like or dislike? For example, I like when the acting and writing is naturalistic, sometimes where it’s literally taken from transcriptions of actual people speaking. Or if it’s not directly transcribed, it’s clearly been written by someone who has listened to speech a lot. Whereas I feel averse to the type of play where it’s a bunch of witty people saying witty things back and forth to each other. That should be an Aaron Sorkin T.V. show or something. But in theatre, I’m interested more in silences and the awkwardness of speech.
ROARKE: The thing that comes to mind that I saw a year or two ago was something called Roman Tragedies that played at BAM. I loved it. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to see something in a theatre that you know you’ll just always remember. This was a Dutch theatre company. They took Shakespeare’s three tragedies that were set in Rome and translated the text into Dutch. They had this array of cameras, a whole camera crew, with monitors, in the middle of the stage. The monitors and a big projector had subtitles in English, but not of the original Shakespeare, it was then translated again from English from the adaptation that they’d done. It was so captivating and it was five and a half hours long. You could watch from the main audience in the opera house, or you could get up and go on stage. They had bars in both of the wings, serving drinks. So you were able to establish this level of comfort, because you could decide where you wanted to be, and have your own choose-your-own-adventure of where you wanted to watch things.
KATIE: My favorite kind of theatre recently has been immersive theatre. My favorite piece I saw two years ago, when I was visiting Berlin. The entire audience went on a boat. It was called Clean Room by Juan Dominguez. We were in a really dark room with cushions and they took us through a guided meditation, that’s how the piece opened. Then we traveled to another room and did this thing with chairs where we interacted with each other. Then we went and had dinner. And then we all went on the boat. There were no actors. He just created an experience.
DAVID: I went to Queen of the Night. That was pretty amazing. It was one of those things where they try to control you as an audience. They’re serving dinner. They separate you from the people you come in with. And there were people from the show who will come and grab you, and take you off somewhere.
PAUL: I want to be a contrarian and say I saw The Importance Of Being Earnest last year and it was fantastic.
ROARKE: Most people don’t spend much time in the theatre. You don’t spend much time in this very quiet, well-lit, place. In this frame. Just that space itself, there’s so much to that, what your mind does, how much it stretches out.
KATIE: Yeah and Philadelphia and Other Stories isn’t a play. It’s a shared literature experience. You can’t read a book with somebody, unless somebody reads it aloud. We’re deciding the pacing, the timing, and the intonation, but other than that it’s like everybody’s reading this together, which is super special.
Paul and Roarke, Philadelphia and Other Stories will be the third live performance I’ve seen you perform. Each time the performances are getting more ambitious and experimenting with new things. What are you planning next?
ROARKE: We started talking about this show, Philadelphia and Other Stories,as an album originally. We’ve talked about doing a recording for a while, so that’s likely going to be something that we do next year. We’ve also talked about a couple of other shows that use this show as a jumping off point, in a non-literal way. One is called Other Stories, where neither Paul nor I would be onstage. It would probably be extending this idea of using interviews and transcriptions of other people’s stories, and then spinning them a bit, fictionalizing them.
Speaking of transcription, I know to form some of these stories, you’d record Paul talking. What was the idea behind that?
ROARKE: We did that first in Calypso, when Paul was writing the stories for the character in the more colloquial tone. We knew what needed to happen in the scene, but how do you make that really chatty? In some ways it’s about time, you can spend a lot of time trying to make something you wrote sound like it’s being spoken spontaneously in the moment. Or you could just talk through the scene, describe it and write that down. During the course of making these shows, we spend so much time together, whether we’re working on something or not, there’s so much bleed. One of the scenes, I just literally transcribed what Paul said and that is in the story now. That’s just a big part of how we work. You know what the plot is going to be, it’s about finding the right language.
The other idea we have for a show would be Brotherly Love, which would be just Paul and I in the show and sort of examining our relationship. Looking at “the bromance” and all the weird ways in which that shows itself, in affection as well as competitiveness and aggression.
Speaking of that, can you talk about that bromance? In terms of your friendship and working relationship?
PAUL: It sounds self-serving, but it’s important to me that it’s fun. And fun becomes torture in the process of getting it right. It’s a twisted kind of fun. For me, it’s great to get Roarke in this kind of context. Even in this interview, once the gears are turning, a lot of awesome, crazy stuff comes out. It’s fun to be around for that and beneficial for the work.