Sex, drugs, jazz – you know, the classic ghost story.
So reads the tagline for Nu Sass Productions’ 2014 Fringe show, Stone Tape Party. The play is making its world debut at DC’s summer Capital Fringe festival this July, but the production team has been working hard round the clock since mid-April to get the piece up and running.
“One of the most difficult problems we had was defining what the hell to label [the show] as,” Director Angela Pirko says with a laugh. “It’s classified in the Fringe program as a comedy – which it definitely deserves! It’s one of the funniest scripts I’ve ever worked on. But there are deep lines of tragedy and horror running through the piece as well – and with all the songs we’ve got going on throughout the piece, you could probably call it a musical and I wouldn’t fight you on it.”
Which brings us to another unique challenge the team has had to face: bringing Stone Tape Party’s unique soundscape to life. Music is written right into the text of the play; the script is interwoven with mentions of rich, soft jazz, the changing and flipping of records, couples dancing lazily to low beats – but, as playwright Danny Rovin says, there’s jazz, and then there’s jazz. The question was, how to find the unique musical stylings that best fit the feel of the show?
As producer and actress Aubri O’Connor puts it: “One of the first comments I made to Danny [as we worked music into the piece] was how ‘for a show about jazz, we sure don’t use a lot’. Turns out New Orleans jazz is different from what I thought of as jazz. I never knew.”
“Way, way back in our early conversations, Angie and I talked about most of the music being by contemporary, less established artists whose elements were strongly rooted in pre-rock and roll styles,” says playwright Danny Rovin. “We wanted to be very clear that this was a contemporary story, but that an important theme of our show is the relationship we all have with our past. The past shapes us in the present or distracts us from the future. We can be lost in it, or find ourselves running from it the rest of our lives.”
Thus, one of the primary elements that the team has played with bringing that theme into the production has been through the sound design of the show. In addition to discovering the musical stylings Rovin worked into his play, Sound Designer Niusha Nawab has also had to deal with the unique challenge of, as director Pirko puts it, “making the house the eighth character of this play.”
“Like Danny said, the past is very present in this place – each character is running away from something they don’t want to face,” says Pirko. “The house in which the play takes place is home to most of the characters, and so much of what they’re all trying to avoid has transpired within its walls. Stone Tape Theory is an actual thing – it’s the idea that ghosts as hauntings are manifestations of energy of events or people locked into physical surfaces, stone or wood, and just playing on repeat forever, unable to escape. So Niusha and I really wanted to work in the idea that the house has a voice, that there are always sounds and creaks happening somewhere just offstage, in another room, an auditory embodiment of all these horrible and wonderful things that this house has seen.”
This voice of the house is one half of the sound design – the other half is the aforementioned music that’s written into the script. So, what is the type of jazz that belongs in with a haunted house?
“We wanted the music to reflect that feeling of being linked with the past,” says Rovin. “Elements of blues, bluegrass, and especially jazz appear throughout the show alongside video games, bad action flicks, and club beats. Having all of these come together has been, for me at least, one of the most magical developments for this production.”
The show goes between these nostalgic styles and the pump and sparkle of modern rock and pop, which is also liberally used throughout the play in the story’s more upbeat moments.
“There’s one song that really defines for the show for me in particular,” says Pirko. “’Anna Sun’ by Walk the Moon – it’s one of those songs I really think of as defining the millennial generation, these teens to thirty-year olds like us wandering around what the hell we’re doing with our lives and to each other. It’s maybe almost too easy to use, but it ended up just fitting the message of the play so well that it was irresistible.”
As the song goes, ‘We got no money, but we got heart. We’re gonna rattle this ghost town.’ The play is all about that, about people and pasts and hauntings and living with nothing but with sheer joy just to spite the world.”
Stone Tape Party is onstage at the Atlas – Sprenger Theatre, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC.
Performances are: Thursday, July 10 @ 8:30pm, Saturday, July 12 @ 8:45pm, Thursday, July 17 @ 6:00pm
Sunday, July 20 @ 5:00pm, Thursday, July 24 @ 6:30pm and Saturday, July 26 @ 12:30pm
Details and tickets or call 866-811-4111.
— Written by the collective member of NuSass’s Stone Tape Party