Trio creates Duets for One

Duets for One rehearsal
Duets for One rehearsal

I just got back from New York after two great weeks working on the creation Duets for Onewith writer / performer Tanya Marquardt and director Mallory Catlett.

Tanya sent me an email in late 2011 asking if I’d like to collaborate on writing a 10-minute libretto for an opera. At the time, she was doing her MFA in memoir writing at Hunter College in New York. The college’s opera program had sent out a call for writers to serve something up for student composers.

Over after-work martinis on Commercial Dr. a few months before — the Stanley Cup riots were in full swing downtown — we had vaguely committed to the idea of creating something together in the way that drinking theatre people are predisposed to. Something with rock tunes in it. Partially under the influence of rock forms in the performances that I was seeing on the Club PuSh stage over the years, I was interested in writing music for such a piece.

Theatre Conspiracy / PuSh had commissioned Nervous System System (Marquardt, Tanya Polozniuk, Caroline Liffman) to make Close at Hand for the Club that year. And, of course, I’d seen Tanya’s one-woman cabaret piece, Lounge. Around that time Mallory was directing Tanya’s play Nocturne at Dixon Place in New York. It was a compelling idea to just try something out.

Tanya suggested an opera based on famous love letters like Napoleon’s to Josephine, George Sand’s to Chopin etc. (She was in the middle of a long-distance break-up at the time and thought it might be more productive to turn her own obsessive letter writing into art). But somehow we settled on focusing on the biography of David Wojnarowicz, the seminal New York artist/writer/AIDS activist. The libretto, Lyric Solutions for Noir Occasions, was about a lonely man cruising the Manhattan docks for sex with The Stranger. There was some great composition and vocal gymnastics in the student production — but it also sounded odd, given the material. We wanted to see where else this collaboration would take us

As a teen runaway — fleeing Port Alberni for Vancouver in the early ’90s — Tanya had met a drug dealer / poetry fan who showed her an unattributed poem of obsessive love titled, When I Put My Hands On Your Body. She loved it, copied it out longhand and kept it in her pocket for years until it tattered. Years later, at the library doing some research for Norman Armour (then at Rumble Productions), she happened to pick up In the Shadow of the American Dream, the collected journals of Wojnarowicz and then, when working on Rimbaud research with Mallory on The Green Room, she came across Wojnarowicz’s poem again, finally connecting the writer with the poem.

The work of Wojnrowicz, Patti Smith, Klaus Nomi and other artists of the ’80s New York underground fed Marquardt as a young artist — and the relationship continues as she writes of those influences on the pages of her memoir, Stray.

It’s a thrill to be working with Mallory Catlett, who has such a keen ear and eagle eye, and a deft facility for dramaturging the script and directing both movement and music as the piece is created in rehearsal. We’re weaving together scenes sourced from Tanya’s memoir, her influences, reflections on loneliness in both life and in the writers’ craft — and the place of her adoptive home, New York, in the midst of all of those things.

Much of the music is from a long backlog of progressions and riffs I’ve pilfered from my own repertoire, some references to Patti Smith, Dylan, etc. and a few tunes created specifically for Duets over the summer and recorded with producer/guitarist Jon Wood and drummer Ed Goodine.

The performance has become something of a darkly comic, touching and poetic meta-memoir told though straight-up storytelling, movement-driven verse and song, music and noise. It’s great fun to be at the beginning of this exploration and thrilling to imagine what Duets for One will finally become.

– Tim Carlson, Artistic Producer, Theatre Conspiracy