INTERVIEW: Lisa Rafaela Clair and WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM? A DEEP SPACE LOUNGE ACT
Clair describes the show, based on her real-life diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis in 2013, as “a multi-media neo-cabaret with original music put together from memories of past medical experiences, bodily disaster, impressions of outer space from movies watched as a child, and a desire to transcend by becoming a lounge singer with the ability to sparkle beyond the bounds of this realm.” It plays Cloud City March 26-April 4th.
I interviewed Clair via email a few days before her opening, and listened to a track from the show. Powerful, earthy vocals sit over and alongside samples of sounds from medical tests. There is something inherently yearning about a long vocal line, and something inherently cold about the electronic ephemera of the medical world. Musically fusing these elements creates something both beautiful and unsettling. It’s counterpoint and dissonance, familiar and strange.
(1) You referred to this show as a kind of “coming out”–what did you mean by that?
My friend Jason Craig told me after a reading of the piece at JACK this past September, “This is your coming out show”. I guess I had never considered it that way before that point but it makes a lot of sense. It has been a year and half since my diagnosis of MS and it has been a lot to take in and process. I remember on the day of my diagnosis thinking – well thank goodness I am an artist – I have the tools to figure this out and express it. How horrible it must be to be a “normal person”. But then I started to consider the larger community of theater folks in the downtown theater scene that I have come to work with, be fans of and very close friends with. I was so scared at first that people would hear “MS” and freak out and assume this means that all of a sudden I can’t walk or function let alone ACT or SING! In this show I do all of that and I dance. So in a way it is proving to myself and my community that I can still do the very thing I love and need to do. But the show also tells my story through the lens of an Alien Invasion. It says- this is what happened to me everyone! The truth of it and the fiction (my experience of my diagnosis and the Alien invasion that represents how the whole thing felt) both become truths.
The show is a coming out in that it says “This is MY problem” but I am no different from YOU, I am not special because I have MS, it is crazy yes but we are the same- at the end of the day. This is my problem and I’ll sing and dance and entertain you but also ask “What’s YOUR Problem?” In that way it becomes a ‘coming out’ for the audience as well, I suppose. It helps us all digest the thing we are most afraid of – which is our bodies falling to decay and dying. (haha!)
(2) What’s been the most surprising thing about this process? The hardest? The weirdest?
The most surprising thing about the process… Hmmmm I feel like that is still to come, BUT I would say the way in which it has been received so far. My Collaborators– Brian McCorkle, the music director and composer, and Chantal Pavaguex, my director–have been with the show since we began working a year and a half ago. The surprising thing has been their openness to help me tell this story and their willingness to jump in and play in this weird world. I could not have created the thing without them.
The hardest thing has been focusing on remaining healthy. I first got sick when I last wrote/produced and directed a show while in residence at The University Settlement House. The stress of the creative process set my first symptoms into motion. I think I have always gotten sick somehow when I really love a show. It started when I was ten and got the flu while playing the Witch in Into the Woods at camp. The hardest thing is finding a way to break that pattern. The whole process has been an experiment in creation without losing a limb. Creation can be healing, but also destructive, I think for me it is very much both, and the interplay of the two is exciting, but I need to stay healthy and so, it is a challenge.
Weirdest thing: I think I am the weirdest thing. In my mind I wrote a very straightforward narrative but everyone else who has watched has said “This play is so crazy/weird/funny/strange.” Clearly I have a higher threshold for weird.
(3) How has the experience of narrating and figuring out how to narrate what you’re going through affected your non-performance life? Is the show shifting in response to your non-show experience, or vice versa?
The whole thing has been a process in me figuring out how to say directly what it is that is going on with me. I even wrote a character in the play that helps me in this by saying “get to the point” and “spill your guts.” My character would much rather sing songs and tell jokes than talk about what is going on but she has to. And the same goes for me. As I have become more and more comfortable with the facts of this diagnosis my writing and ability to perform the harder, more vulnerable sections of writing has become easier. I am better able to “get to the point.” The character I created is sort of an armor for me – she is the ultimate being in my eyes – a glittery glamorous lounge singer – she has become and the show has become a tool for protecting myself and letting go of that armor. At the same time, I am able to make the entertaining parts Bigger and funnier and the serious parts more grounded in truth.
(4) Can you walk us through the creation process for one of the songs?
Sure! There is a song in the show called “Applause”. It started as a monologue and remained a monologue that never quite worked for a very long time until I realized- OH! Make it a song!
The song takes place directly after a series of ‘tests’ that the protagonist has to go through in the show- the tests are taken from actual medical tests I went through (hearing tests, MRI, Evoked Potential) but presented in a sci fi context. The monologue is sort of the inner monologue of my character’s experience as she relates to the testing.
I wanted the song to reflect the musicality of the actual tests themselves. If you have ever had an MRI you will know they sound CRAZY! and vary in rhythm and tempo. So those sounds became the basic structure. The tempo changes from a waltz to a kind of Marilyn Manson punk ballad to an operatic aria all in the span of 2 minutes. The different sound samples of the MRI fit the different sentiments being expressed in the monologue so well! Lastly, our media designer Rob Ramirez was able to make a visual score that was cued right along with the sound samples. I think they do some kind of technological wizardry that makes the video play as the sound themselves happen. But the visuals the audience is seeing are taken from an Evoked Potential test, which is medical test that measures the brain transmissions relating to the 5 senses in the central nervous system. I remember thinking how beautiful all of these tests are when taken out of context – or re-textualized – and that became a major entry point into the creation of the show, especially the sonic and visual world.
The other major reference being made in the show are taken directly from the Sci-Fi movies I watched as a child: 2001, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien and Space Balls. Many of the sound samples and video clips are taken directly from these movies as well.
What’s YOUR Problem? //A Deep Space Lounge Act//
Based on a true story of bodily malfunction, human decay and alien invasion. With Songs!
By Lisa Rafaela Clair
Directed by Chantal Pavageux
Music by Brian McCorkle
Starring: Lisa R. Clair, Brian McCorkle, Hanlon Smith-Dorsey, Jedidiah Clarke and David Commander.
Choreography by Allison Plamondon and Sam Pinkleton
March 26,27,28 // April 3,4 @8pm
Cloud City (85 N. 1st street, Brooklyn, NY)
TICKETS are $10/20
Lighting design by R. S. Buck
Media design Rob Ramirez, Billy Noble and David Commander
Space Helmet by David Commander