Conrad Alexandrowicz is trying to do the impossible. The writer-director’s latest project, a play-with-music called The Boy Who Went Outside, which opens at Performance Works on Thursday (May 27), celebrates renegade 20th-century American composer Harry Partch, but Alexandrowicz is legally forbidden to play or excerpt any of Partch’s songs in the production.
“There’s a reason why we call it the impossible project,” says Alexandrowicz, on a break from rehearsals in the Firehall Arts Centre’s upstairs studio. His company, Wild Excursions Performance, has been blurring disciplinary boundaries for years in ways that others might not have thought possible, but this show, his first full-length theatre work since 2007’s Beggars Would Ride, poses a unique set of challenges. “Because if it’s about his music, but you can’t play his music, how do you do that?”
The challenge is fitting, because impossible is a word that might also be applied to Partch’s approach to his art form. In the 1920s and 1930s, the composer—who spent time riding the rails as a hobo and who later created some of the first multidisciplinary performances in the U.S.—devised a radically new form of tuning, with 43 tones to the octave instead of the traditional 12. Conventional western instruments couldn’t play his music, so Partch invented and built more than two dozen of his own: beautiful, otherworldly contraptions made of bamboo pipes, glass bottles, and polished tree branches. You can see pictures—and even play the instruments—on a Web site celebrating American musical mavericks cosponsored by American Public Media and the San Francisco Symphony. It’s a resource that the production’s composer/sound designer, Lee Gellatly, is using to create a sense of Partch’s music with her original compositions for the show.
Alexandrowicz first learned about Partch when he was studying music and dance as an undergraduate many years ago, but it’s only recently that he found a theatrical subject in the openly gay composer, whose work was largely ignored by the mainstream musical establishment. “His outsider status was something that I identified with in a big way,” says Alexandrowicz, whose previous works have fused dance, theatre, and linguistic experimentations in starkly original ways, often placing him outside the mainstream of any single genre. “He was the ultimate renegade and outsider, and I’m really intrigued by rebels.”
But capturing Partch’s life story proved challenging. “For the first workshop [in June 2008], it was basically the theatrical equivalent of the biopic, which was massive, unwieldy, and impossible,” Alexandrowicz recalls. Two workshops later, in the summer of 2009, Alexandrowicz hit upon the idea of making his own struggles as a writer part of the story. He invented the character of Lily, who is trying to write a commissioned play about Canadian political history but keeps getting sidetracked by her obsession with Partch. Alexandrowicz is up-front about the character functioning as his alter ego—“of course, she is me,” he says—and her struggle is the basis for a great deal of playfulness and humour, which leaven the heavier, music-theory elements of the play.
Just as Partch defied musical conventions, Alexandrowicz is pushing theatrical conventions with this production. Partch is played by multiple actors, both male and female, of varying ages. “The fact that Harry’s played by different actors is a way of embodying the fact that he is in some way impossible to portray, that they’re all approximations of Harry,” explains Alexandrowicz.
Despite most people’s lack of familiarity with Partch’s musical innovations, his story has a great deal of contemporary resonance, Alexandrowicz says. “I think it has to do with censorship,” he offers. “It has to do with the way that alternative ways of doing something or thinking about something are suppressed and even erased by dominant ideologies. And we tend to accept so much of what we’re told as being the universal truth about any particular subject or field of endeavour, and it’s not.”
When asked what he wants audiences to take away from The Boy Who Went Outside, Alexandrowicz says: “Something about the human will to speak your truth and to fight for what you believe in and to ”˜follow your bliss’, as Joseph Campbell talked about. Basically it’s a tribute to the fact of human passion, the passion for ideas, the passion for beauty, the passion for something that you will commit your whole life to, regardless of the consequences.”