The Good Woman of Setzuan, produced by Caitlin Renee Campbell, Anne Marie Gillen, David Castellani and Charles Otte for Open Fist Theatre Company. Opens June 4; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; through July 17. Tickets: $20-$25. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; 323.882.6912 or openfist.org.
Speaking from her home in New York, composer/author/director Elizabeth Swados is busy working on an emergency deadline that has just been thrown her way but is happy to discus Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan, which is having a revival at Open Fist Theatre, directed by Charles Otte, from a translation by Eric Bentley and an original score by Swados.
“I originally did this at New York’s La Mama in 1975,” Swados recalls. “Andrei Serban was directing and he asked me to do a score. It resulted in the whole show being put to music. I also scored Caucasian Chalk Circle, in collaboration with Serban. Those are the only two Brecht plays I have worked on but I have set Brecht’s poetry to music. I love his poetry.”
Swados has spread her love over an eclectic array of creative fare since graduating from Vermont’s Bennington College in 1973 with a BA in music. “The whole time I was at Bennington I was mentored by Henry Brant. He was a genius of a composer and a great teacher. He was involved in spatial music. That was his main concern. He did everything from concert works to ballets to chamber music to film scores.
“He was one of the first to have instruments move about the orchestral space and he would place instruments in different areas. I was in a piece he wrote where the orchestra was on stage at Carnegie Hall and a marching band was in the balcony. He thoroughly opened my imagination to investigate all possibilities.”
Swados first gained acclaim with two musically diverse works, Night Club Cantata (1977) and the Obie Award-winning Runaways (1978), which became a multi-Tony Award nominee when it moved to Broadway. “During the early ’70s is when I began working a lot with different theatrical realities,” she recalls. “In 1972, I did Medea at La Mama. We did it in ancient Greek and Latin, very much like a ritual opera. I also did Electra and The Trojan Women, and composed incidental music for The Cherry Orchard.
“All of this was done between ’72 and ’74. In composing for the theater, I believe it is my job to fulfill the director’s vision. I am not out to write hit songs. The work itself will determine the style of the music. When I began working on Good Woman, I had no idea the music would continue throughout the show but that is the way it turned out.”
Keeping up a continuously overlapping work schedule, Swados has composed, written and directed for over 30 years. Some of her works include the Obie Award winning Trilogy at La Mama, Alice at the Palace with Meryl Streep at the New York Shakespeare Theater Festival, Groundhog which was optioned by Milos Forman for a film, and a wide variety of Biblical musical adaptations. Her work has been performed on Broadway, off-Broadway, at La Mama, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall and locations all over the world. She has also composed highly acclaimed dance scores for well-known choreographers in the US, Europe and South America.
Equally adept in the literary world, Swados has published novels, non-fiction books, children’s books and poetry to great acclaim, receiving the Ken Award for her book My Depression. Her theater textbook, At Play: Teaching Teenagers Theater, was published by Faber & Faber in June 2006. A new book of poetry, The One and Only Human Galaxy, was published by Hanging Loose Press in Spring 2009.
When asked about her current schedule, Swados laughs, “I am busy. I am on the faculty of the Theater Department at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. I teach something called Performance Composition which is how to make a show.Â That is not taught at theater schools and that’s why I am doing it.” Swados then rattles off a list of ongoing projects that sound more like a career’s work than a current schedule.
“I just finished doing a 15-minute opera, Narcissus, at La Mama. I am finishing a new musical. I am writing and putting together an oratorio to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. I am also doing an oratorio about the women who were murdered in El Salvador. Actually, it is a follow up to the opera I wrote about the murders. It focuses on what has happened around the world because of their deaths.
“I am also doing a project I do every summer for NYU. The school has problems because it is in the city and it has no real campus. So, they have problems with drugs and with students feeling lost and suffering from depression. It is like any large urban school. I have been commissioned every summer to put together a show that will help the incoming freshman know what’s coming and where to find help if they are in trouble. It is very funny. It is called The Reality Show. It is different every year and this is the seventh year.” The piece, which incorporates rock and roll, dance and edgy humor, was performed last summer by NYU students at Madison Square Garden.
Along with five Tony nominations and three Obie Awards, Elizabeth Swados has been honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship, Ford Grant, Helen Hayes Award, Lila Acheson Wallace Grant, PEN Citation and others. Most recently she received a special grant to record musical selections from her years of work.
Swados is delighted that works like The Good Woman of Sechwan continue to be produced, but she does admit to constantly being pulled into the demands of the moment. “I do have to end this now,” she says. “I got an emergency call this morning that I need to come up with a song in a hurry. Fortunately, I write very fast.”
Feature image of Lauren Lovett and production photos by Tom Burruss
Article by Julio MartinezPrint