A Theoretical Act: The Story of the Story

A Theoretical Act: The Story of the Story

I had a phone call one day in New York from Stu and Andrew Maxfield. Stu’s band, Fictionist, was exploring ideas for a new recording, and Stu was wondering about composing a concept album—where all of the songs told a connected, unified story. They wondered whether I could point them to some possibilities. We talked about a few options, and I worked up some potential ideas. But like many things in life, the timing wasn’t right, and the project didn’t move forward.

Last year, I had another call. This time from Andrew. He asked me whether I had any ideas that could be used for a stage production. I’m a fan of rock operas, and I’ve been able to see a few great ones like The Who’s Tommy and Green Day’s American Idiot. I’ve also been lucky to work with classical composers and write the librettos for three operas myself. Two of these were adaptations of short stories by James Joyce and Willa Cather.

We decided to brainstorm, and I gathered ideas that could evolve into a show. I traveled to Utah to research a book I’m writing, and at the end of each day, Andrew and I sat up into the early morning hours batting stories and ideas for stories back and forth to each other. We rejected the narrative based on Native American magic (too bad, it was cool) and the outer space tale (good riddance).

The trick of a show like this is absence of dialogue. I mean, it’s hard to tell a story on stage without actors speaking.

I remembered a short story that I’d studied back in college, Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” It’s a great little story written after the Civil War, with a pretty fantastic plot twist at the end. Better for our purposes, it’s almost entirely in the narrator’s mind. And that lends itself to translation into a show.

Choosing the source material was relatively easy. My next job was to solve a million conceptual problems of staging the thing. How could we make transitions from one scene to another? Would the audience know what was happening if all the music is a contemporary updating? Do rock music and the Civil War go together? How could the thing be staged? I presented options for animation, film, projections of design, choreography, time-lapse photography, and more. It fell into place pretty fast.

On long walks, we would play a song—no music for the show had been composed yet, so we listened to other songs that Stu had written, for inspiration—and then I talked through what might be happening on stage to move the story along. It felt eerie, sometimes, when the songs we played had texts in them that were incredibly close to Bierce’s text. It was like Stu Maxfield was channeling Ambroise Bierce. Weird. I got chills.

Or maybe it was just winter.

But after an intense few days and additional time after I came back to New York, The Bridge took shape. The stage directions coalesced. I began to see the work as if I were sitting in the audience.

Writing a show is a theoretical act. Typing something on paper doesn’t make it so. Everything’s conditional. I found myself starting every sentence with a phrase like this: it would be cool if…. Most of my work was done when I handed over an extensive treatment of the story that indicated when songs are to appear, what is happening onstage on and onscreen, and how one thing leads to another. And then I gave it all to the composer to see what he’d make of it.

Glen Nelson
New York City