Orchestra Hall, Logan Square, around 8: in a small room plated over with white wall panelling reminiscent of old Chicago bar ceilings, I am being stared down by a wide-eyed man-puppet wearing a golden suit and red bowtie. He looks surprised, yet poised, anticipating the scenes yet to unfold in the curtain box at his right. There is a morbid glow cast about his face, setting the tone for a night of sadistic tales of love, revenge and death, presented by Chicago’s burgeoning, adult puppetry company, Rough House Theater.
Mike Oleon, director of Rough House, steps onto the stage to kill the lights and animate his fellow MC. The two dawdle for a few minutes in the dark, with only an awkwardly humorous exchange of hiccupping and shushing to be heard. For the rest of the show, in between pieces, these two are a light, bawdy reprieve from an otherwise somber subject matter, with Oleon’s waxen companion interrupting his narration to insert pithy innuendos and pointed looks at the audience.
Five separate ballads are presented and commandeered by 3 other puppeteers: Sarah Rush, Max Wirt (who also led musical arrangement) and first time Rough House performer, Maggie O’Keefe. The trio work deftly behind and around the small stage, animating puppets on sticks, strings, and 2 dimensional, stand-alone houses that are, when flipped over, adorned with severed heads and a sad, bloodied terrier.
Together, the four players provide the musical accompaniment for the Murder Ballads which is truly one of the most joyful parts of the show; not joyful in the “happy” sense of the word, but in that it’s the only word fit to describe the huge smile on my face while I listen to characters like Lottie, the serial killer of Millhaven, gleefully cackling over her victims all the way to the nuthouse.
After thoroughly enjoying a night of puppeted pageantry, I sat down with Oleon at Logan Square’s New Wave Café to talk about the creation of Murder Ballads, some early Rough House history and new projects on the horizon:
AS: I did a little bit of research on Murder Ballads and came across Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album. I didn’t know who they were, so I took a listen to them and Tom Waits, both of whom you cover in the show. Can you talk about your process in choosing the music and the theme?
MO: Definitely. There are a couple of murder ballads albums actually. Johnny Cash, Tom Waits did them… so the play is like a trope to them, because there’s just so many. It was really kind of overwhelming in picking some because they go on forever and ever. The ones we chose to do were humans killing humans, but any song about an untimely death is technically a murder ballad. It fits the genre. Yea, but I think Nick Cave was influential, and hearing just how well his arc went in that album made it seem like very good idea.
AS: And what was the initial impulse to do Murder Ballads? Was it a personal thing you were interested in?
MO: Yea, we just had a big list — we still have the list — of all the shows we’d ever want to do if the time is right. We needed something that was musical, that was portable, something cabaret style so that we could segment it if we had to, because we wanted to go on tour with it. Doing an hour long narrative wouldn’t be the easiest thing to take to festivals. This way we can split them all up easily. I guess one of the inspirations was somebody who was pretty close to me had a very close family member that was actually murdered. And so, I found it an uncomfortable conversation for me to first even talk about, it was, there were a million things that got in the way of it…
AS: You mean in the way of the creation of the show?
MO: No, about the actual murder that happened in their life. It’s weird, I haven’t actually told anybody this before…but I think it was, it got me thinking of how…because it was such a painful topic for them to talk about, and such an uncomfortable topic for me to bring up, I was just trying to think of, how does one discuss this? How does one address it? So my answer to everything is puppets. Let puppets do all the work. The murder ballads that we picked are generally condemning of murder, there’s maybe only one that doesn’t. If it were just actors performing these stories onstage, it would just get relentless and exhausting — but puppets have unlimited stamina. Though all of the pieces, even if they’re upbeat, are kind of downer murder ballads. We were thinking about hip-hop, but a lot of the hip-hop songs are incredibly misogynistic and violent and we don’t really want to glorify murder. Maybe explore the thrill of it, as we do in “Millhaven”, but that one’s really over the top campy, and far more on the side of fiction.
AS: And especially adding a strong musical aspect lightens it so much,
MO: Yea, absolutely.
AS: Having the rhyme and repetition of the chorus– you can sing along to this wonderfully gruesome thing you’re watching; especially at the end of Millhaven where the killer Lottie goes into the mental hospital. One of my favorite parts was while she was going mad, and all of a sudden seeing a unicorn cut-out propelled by the farts sail across the backdrop — just little things like that made it endearing to watch, and made you really like that character even though she was committing these heinous crimes. And when Lottie says, “I could have done so much more!” you agree, like, “Yea, I know! It’s such a pity!”
MO: Yea in the full-length version of the song, she does do so much more. Lottie turned into a real mass murderer. She kills hundreds of people, drowns an entire school bus full of children–
MO: — lights this entire slum on fire, causing riots. The song takes forever.
AS: I thought it was quite a nice length to tell that story. And I really enjoyed Maggie, who played Lottie. She was fantastic. I spoke to her afterward, and she said she had just auditioned, and this was her first show?
MO: Yea, it was. Maggie’s great, has a really can-do attitude. She’s our tour manager now, which is such a relief.
AS: So you had Millhaven, which I totally enjoyed, but I have to say that I absolutely loved the Georgia Lee piece. It was gorgeous because it was extremely simple, and, when juxtaposed against pieces like Millhaven, balanced out the show so well.
MO: Good, thank you.
AS: Can you talk about the process of putting that one together?
MO: There were a lot of elements coming together. I’d known for a while that I’d wanted to do essentially a stick, or a dirt and stick puppet ballet. And initially I wanted to make her into a breakable puppet. We started…we’d do a leap with her and then snap her spine, and you’d hear the stick crack and it was just a little too…it was disproportionately violent to the quiet, lyrical nature of the song.
In terms of choosing it as music, we were in the process of listening to tons and tons of songs. Georgia Lee was so stuck in my head for a while. The song was really vague, and I thought, well, this is really neat, we can make it about whatever we want. We realized a big problem in America is that if you look at the murder rates…there’s a lot of ways to interpret the numbers, but the easiest people to kill are women and black people. It’s a problem that society has, and whether the numbers even indicate that’s true or not, it tends to be the thing that we sing about, or what ends up getting sung about. We thought it was important to address it head on. So we made Georgia Lee. And that song is just so…looking at my iTunes, you know how it’ll say the number of times that you’ve listened to a song? Within about a week or so, Georgia Lee had gone from 5 to 60. It’s just one of those things that is hard to get out of your head. Very sort of mysterious song, and really sad and catchy in it’s own odd way.
AS: It’s interesting that you bring up the murder rates and women being easier targets, because as I watched, I definitely had that thought, but at the same time, it wasn’t this kind of blaring “look at what’s happening in our world!” It’s just a very sad reminder to the audience, and isn’t this a sad story about this girl, and here we’re going to make it into beautiful art that you can always take with you. I enjoyed the piece quite a bit, especially the music.
So Max was responsible for the musical arrangement, but was it solely up to him, or was the process more ensemble driven?
MO: Max’s job was largely to record the music, and I think the decisions of the sounds were largely me and him, or him going off in his own direction…probably shouldn’t write that down–
MO: (laughs) He really likes synthy stuff so that’s why it’s more a synth score, except Georgia Lee, which was guitar. He would handle musical recording. Max also wrote the original music to the “The Coin Thief’s Lament” and music and lyrics to “Two Sisters” which is my personal favorite.
Sarah, the girl who played the moon, she was more in charge of the harmonies. A lot of it was just jamming with one another — it was definitely collaborative.
AS: Was it Sarah’s first time working with Rough House?
MO: No, Sarah played the Fish Princess in our first show, Ichthyodyssey. She has a phenomenal voice, and she does a great job. I think puppetry has a tendency to go so over the top that we like subtly. One of the things Sara does well is that she’s able to quietly express a lot of emotion and character. So we’re keeping her forever.
AS: Yea, both of the women had really lovely expressive voices. And Max added some fun quirky-ness to the mix.
MO: Max is phenomenal. He mostly studies directing, but every time he acts — I always forget that he acts, and then when I see it, I’m reminded of how good he is. The character voices he comes up with are really great. He’s certainly not a pretty or beautiful or technically trained singer, but he makes up for it a thousand times by how much pizzazz he puts behind his acting.
AS: You and Max founded Rough House correct?
MO: Yes, Max and Shelly and I. Did you see one of the two shows where the dead girls were performing before the show?
MO: Shelly was one of those girls. We all went to UCLA together, and then moved out here, and wanted to have a live-in workspace. So we moved into an apartment in Logan Square, and only after like a year did we started calling it “The Rough House”. But now we are just “Rough House”. It’s like “The Facebook” turning into “Facebook”.
AS: (laughs) I was going to say that a couple years ago I went to some show at this big house you were living in, and I was wondering if that was the original Rough House…
MO: Yea, it was this big, illegal performance arts space, and then a year later we moved out because we got flooded. We lived in the basement where there was no light, and we were going a bit crazy. There were definitely vermin problems. I had to kill five rats with just my hand– they’d get stuck in the glue trap and I’d just have to whack them with a hammer. They should just have traps that just kill the thing…anyway nightmarish place ultimately. Then when we wrote Ichthyodyssey, we weren’t actually going to be a puppet company, but when we went to The National Puppet Festival, we thought we might as well make The Rough House the name of what we do.
AS: Did you perform Ichthyodyssey…and is “Ichthy” spelled “I-C-K” ?
MO: Uh, “I-C-H-T-H-Y”. (laughs)
MO: One of the good lessons of that show was to pick names that people can pronounce and understand and spell.
AS: (laughs) I don’t feel so bad then. So you brought this show to the National Puppet Festival?
MO: Yea, it was in Georgia and it was a lot of fun.
AS: And it was a puppet show.
MO: It was a puppet rock opera.
AS: And what year was it?
MO: 2010 was when we first mounted it, and then 2011 was when we took it to the festival.
AS: So is Murder Ballads your second show?
MO: Yea it’s our second semi-full length. I think we’re going to add more to it, more ballads. We’ve done a lot of cabaret pieces, but this was really our second full show.
AS: What’s the next piece on your list?
MO: This whole year we’re focusing on science fiction musicals. We just don’t think there’s enough science fiction theatre, and we certainly don’t think there’s enough science fiction puppet theatre, and there’s definitely not enough musical science fiction puppet theatre.
AS: (laughs) That’s awesome. That was like a Jenga game…
MO: We want to combine everything we like about stories, and smush them together and do it ourselves. The next one we’re doing, Max is heading this one…have you heard about circuit bending?
MO: Oh, um…I really should have brought one…
AS: A circuit bender?
MO: No, actually a bent circuit…a circuit bender I guess would be the person bending the circuit…
AS: (laughs) Ok.
MO: Circuit bending is breaching into any electronic degenerate sound through a series of either switches or adding variable resisters that either increase or decrease power to certain areas. Essentially you can fuck with the sound. A classic example is the Speak and Spell which are really good ones to spell things out, and you can do things where you can set loops, changing pitch and tone, start overlapping things on itself. So we’re going through thrift stores, and grabbing a bunch of the creepiest and the coolest animatronics Santas and dogs — what’s really cool is that you can rip off their skin, and they have these under-skeletons that are very frightening things.
We’re doing a devised piece based on what we’re able to create out of those materials. The main characters are going to be a couple, like two very square kind of people, that are transported into an alien realm where all the inhabitants are these weird creature robots.
AS: That definitely sounds like science fiction. And would you like Rough House to ultimately be recognized on the same scale as companies like Red Moon?
MO: Oh sure, we all want to quit our day jobs and make adult puppet theatre, but I think there’s zero market for adult puppet theatre. You almost have to include kids, and I don’t think we’re quite ready for that yet. When you start catering to kids you can’t do adult-ish shows, but we’re not ready for the compromise you’d have to make for the younger audience.
AS: And so now you’re going to tour Murder Ballads in the Midwest?
MO: Yea. We’ll be based in Chicago, doing satellite trips for 3 months, performing the show as much as possible.
Murder Ballads recently toured at Toy Theater After Dark in Minneapolis after its run in Chicago. To request Murder Ballads for your venue, festival or showing, please contact Maggie O’Keefe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Otherwise, you can get it real good at roughousetheater.com and LIKE them on “The Facebook”.
Doing some local, interesting, artsy stuff in Chicago that you want covered? Leave a comment about your piece with your contact info- I’d love to talk to you!
And please enjoy the rehearsal video of the stunning Georgia Lee: