Interview with Amanda Palmer about Her Neutral Milk Hotel Play at Lexington High School
The Needle That Sings
in Her Heart
Amanda Palmer: The catalyst was actually more Steven Bogart than Lexington. He was such a huge influence on me in high school, and I brought the idea up to him five or six years ago that I would love to collaborate on some kind of theatre project. I had been far and wide and he was still the best theatre director I'd ever seen at work. He and I batted around ideas for years: do a production of Cabaret, do an original workshop with professional actors. We got an offer from a theatre in New York, even an offer from the Sydney Opera House, but projects and funding kept falling through. We eventually realized that we might never work together if we don't just nail a project that we know we can do, so we thought "Let's just do it at the high school."
I had a painful experience at the American Repertory Theater a few years ago with The Onion Cellar. The show was definitely successful, but it was not the project that I had signed up for. I had brought in Bogart as the director that I wanted to use for the show and the ART wouldn’t hire him. So they paired me with a director I didn’t know who I ended up really butting heads with. The show ran for 40 nights and it was really painful and also drove a stake in the heart of the band with all the conflict.
After that experience I found myself really wanting to heal the wound by getting back to my roots and doing a project that I knew wouldn’t be fraught with politics and arguing. I wanted to get back to my people... Bogart is my people. And the cast, these kids, are so passionate and so pure about why they’re doing it: because they’ve chosen to do it, not to further their career. They really just want to be there and they want to create something beautiful for the sake of it. That is something that I really miss when you’re working in the big complicated adult world of politics and bureaucracy.
I had a more rewarding experience in a few days at Lexington than whole months at ART. It’s like night and day. I don’t want to come down too hard on them [ART], though. It’s important to point out that when I walked in the doors of the ART I was full of expectations from a really bizarre experimental background that I assumed was a common language. I had to learn the hard way. My naivete clonked me over the head. But I wouldn’t take any of it back. I think I’ve learned a lot about getting what I want.
What was the writing process like?
We’re literally still in the process of writing the show from scratch, and it’s sort of a process that I know Steve Bogart is a master of, which is basically starting with a concept and creating exercises that give birth to improvements that in turn give birth to the script. It’s an incredible process and part of the reason it works so well with these students is that they’re just fearless in what they’re willing to explore and improvise. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of trust in the room. You can’t do anything stupid, no one will laugh at you. You can come up with the most bizarre surreal ideas and… people will watch and listen and give you feedback. And the strong material survives and becomes the spine of the show.
Bogart’s real genius is leading that process without... he sort of manages the process instead of tyrannizing it. His role as the director is to sort of conduct the orchestra of creative voices. It’s an incredibly sensitive, democratic process. Everyone really has to let their ego drop. We all have so much respect for him.
It’s a sort of magical alchemy based on a lot of factors. There’s a lot of history and background... The students know his process, he doesn’t patronize them. [Bogart] was one of my favorite adults as a teenager because of that. I felt listened to and respected as an artist when most adults were so dismissive and patronizing or coddling. He actually just listened and gave honest feedback and artistic encouragement and that was like gold.
How were the students selected for the play?
They auditioned. Bogart held the auditions. I bend to his decisions in a lot of places. He ran the auditions with no input from me. And we just went through the casting process which is really sensitive because all the students have been trading roles during the improvisations, the writing process. Everybody is sort of invested in all the characters. I had my suggestions and input but I really left those casting decisions up to Bogart because he is the expert and he knows the kids better than I do.
What is the play about? Is it based on actual events, or is it more conceptual?
It’s much more surreal. It’s definitely very... it’s definitely not a straight piece of theater, put it that way. It’s centered mostly around the artist’s idea of Anne Frank and, further, Anne Frank’s use of her own imagination for survival in a death camp. The scenes underneath it are about creativity and how, as human beings, our creative impulse is one of the most sublime tools we have to defeat suffering.
I hear a lot of that in the album and I know Bogart did too, but what’s interesting is a lot of it really just came from the kids and their responses to the lyrics and the music. It grew very beautifully.
Are there actual songs from the album in the play?
There’s a good deal of the music used in the show. Some of it is sung live, some by me, some by the cast. The music takes on all sorts of interesting incarnations.That’s my department: to figure how the music can support the story. It’s never background music or a soundtrack. It’s all used to add dimension.
What's next for you after this? More work at Lexington?
I never know what’s next and I actually like that about my life. The minute I know what I’m doing next is the minute I stop surprising myself and the minute I start being bored. I’ve enjoyed myself immensely working with the cast and I would do more work with Bogart in a heartbeat...
I encourage people to get tickets for this play very quickly, because they’re already selling really fast. We announced the same yesterday and 600-700 tickets have already been purchased. I would hate to see all the press go out and people not be able to go. So get online and buy in advance, reserve your place.