By Isaac Butler
As many of you know, five years ago I left theatre—I believe “semi-retired” is the term I jokingly used—in order to get my MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Minnesota and focus on writing. Well, the weird thing is, I never really ended up leaving theater entirely. While at the U, I directed workshops for the Playwrights Center, wrote about theatre for American Theatre magazine, and staged a piece called Brooklyn Babylon, by the composer Darcy James Argue and the visual artist Danijel Žeželj.
Well, now I’m officially coming out of my semi-retirement, this time as a director and writer, with a piece that will have its world premiere at BAM Next Wave 2015.
I’m cocreating the show with Darcy, alongside the media artist Peter Nigrini. It’s called Real Enemies, and it’s a multimedia piece about conspiracy theories and paranoia in postwar American life. It premieres at BAM’s Next Wave Festival this fall (Nov. 18-22), with a workshop preview at Virginia Tech on Sept. 10. We will also perform the score in a music-only performance at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall on Friday, October 2.
Belief in conspiracies is one of the defining aspects of modern culture. It transcends political, economic, and other divides. Conservative or liberal, rich or poor, across all races and backgrounds there exists a conspiratorial strain of thought that believes there are forces secretly plotting against us. Conspiracy theories often take hold because they provide an explanation for disturbing realties. They tell a story about why the world is the way it is. Paradoxically, it’s often more comforting to believe that bad things happen because they are part of a hidden agenda then it is to believe that they came about as a result of mistakes, ineptitude, or random chance.
Conspiracy theories tend to flourish at times when we have genuine cause to distrust those in power. When we learn that the NSA has been monitoring all of our emails and cataloging all of our phone calls, that the Department of Defense proposed carrying out false flag terrorist attacks against U.S. civilians in order to justify going to war, or that the CIA secretly dosed mental agents, prisoners, drug addicts, and prostitutes with LSD as part of its mind control program, the only natural response is: “What else are they hiding from us?”
Real Enemies is the product of extensive research into a broad range of conspiracies, from the familiar and well-documented to the speculative to the outlandish. It traces their historical roots, their iconography, and their rhetoric, and examines conspiratorial thinking as a distinct political ideology. It chronicles a shadow history of postwar America, touching on everything from COINTELPRO to the CIA-Contra cocaine trafficking ring to secret weather control machines to reptilian shape-shifters from Alpha Draconis infiltrating our government at the highest level. Over the course of 75 minutes of live music and multichannel video, Real Enemies spins a web of paranoia and distrust, where the truth becomes increasingly elusive.
By the time it goes up, we’ll have been working on the show for two years (if you were wondering why I’m not blogging much these days, that’s why). This is the first time I’ve combined my writing and directing practices, creating a new kind of hybrid, three-dimensional nonfiction work. Rather than a traditional script, Real Enemies has what we call “The Spine,” an outline of images and text that the audience will take in, that will be fleshed out and elaborated upon by Peter’s multi-channel video.
The Spine draws heavily from primary sources (both of government documents and conspiracist texts), histories and theories of conspiracy theories, films (both documentary and not), surveys of the cold war and government wrongdoing, pop culture ephemera, and more. The show is part jazz concert, part documentary film, part lyric essay and part found-object collage, an investigation into and excavation of our deepest, weirdest fears.
Oh, and there’s voice over by none other than the great James Urbaniak.
The music for Real Enemies will be performed live by Darcy’s band Secret Society. As befitting a journey into postwar paranoia, the work draws heavily on 12-tone techniques — if not always conventional notions about how those techniques are supposed to be employed. Other musical touchstones include the film scores of Michael Small (The Parallax View, Marathon Man), Nicaraguan singer-songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy, early 1980’s LA electrofunk-influenced hip hop, and much more. Darcy’s worked with 12-tone techniques before, but with Real Enemies, the 12-tone row becomes a deep structural device, not just for the music but the formal and visual development of the entire work. It’s going to be an intense musical and sensory experience and we’re very much looking forward to unveiling it this fall.
I can’t wait to tell you more about this show as we get closer to the actual performances. And I hope to see you there.
10 Sept 2015 @ Virginia Tech: subscriptions available now, single tickets on sale August 4
2 Oct 2015 @ Stanford Live: subscriptions on sale June 8, single tickets on sale August 25
18-22 Nov 2015 @ BAM Next Wave Festival: subscriptions on sale June 15, single tickets on sale August 10