by Scott Kearnan
Wednesday May 6, 2009 Amanda Palmer has been out of high school for 16 years. But she’s still getting called to the principal’s office.
"Got a little e-mail last night," explains Palmer. Less than a year after releasing her debut solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, the singer/songwriter, performance artist and female half of the Brechtian punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls has returned to her hometown of Lexington to create an original play alongside her own former drama teacher, and with a new generation of student artists eager to take the same stage where Palmer first honed her craft. The notion sounds as wholesome as that of a former star quarterback returning to coach the rookies, but in traditional Palmer style this endeavor is nothing if not met with a twinge of controversy.
"Evidently there are some concerns about the content," continues Palmer of the play, The Needle That Sings in Her Heart, which was conceived and written by the drama students with help from Palmer and their drama teacher Steven Bogart, who also taught Palmer back in the day. It sets its artistic eye on the Holocaust, Anne Frank, and the idea of creative process as a tool for human survival and redemption. Palmer speaks highly of the "brilliant" young artists who have created the show, and has no doubt that they are prepared for the weighty issues they’re tackling.
"If you’re going to do a show like this and you’re not taking risks, you’re not doing it justice," says Palmer. "If people are going to say the show’s disturbing, well ... a show about the Holocaust that isn’t disturbing? That’s disturbing."
The show opens in four days, but Palmer doesn’t look concerned, slouched on a wooden seat in the high school auditorium and shouting friendly exchanges with students as they prepare for an afternoon tech rehearsal. Her legs are splayed wide and her sleeveless t-shirt screams "WTF," giving a butch edge to the bisexual singer, most often glimpsed in the flamboyant cabaret garb of The Dresden Dolls. Then she shifts, striking the pose of a girl who shoots spitballs from the back row of class, leaning back with both legs tossed over a row of seats. Maybe it’s an unconscious reaction to her high school homecoming, but it’s not hard to see where Palmer, Lexington High Class of ’94, once fit in the pantheon of teenage archetypes.
"I was the Ally Sheedy [type]," smirks Palmer, referring to the actress’s iconic portrayal of alienated adolescence in 1985’s The Breakfast Club. "I was the gothy, punk, hippie weirdo with her headphones on, always swearing at everyone and wondering why they didn’t understand her."
"I was making strange art, and I was better friends with my teachers than I was with other students," she adds. "I was pretty lonely. ... I was incredibly antisocial, not because I wasn’t social by nature, but I had a hard time connecting with people. I think I was a little too aggressive or intense. I was a really loud girl. I think I pushed people away, and like any teenager I was insanely insecure about everything, so that didn’t help."
Insecure? When she’s pouring it out on the piano in her Dresden Dolls makeup, boldly turning cabaret aesthetic into alt-rock art, it’s hard to imagine that Palmer could ever have entertained insecurities. She credits her early experience at Lexington High, and with the "fucking genius" that is Steven Bogart, with fostering brave creativity.
"I found a haven in my songwriting, and in making theater," says Palmer. "The more distance I’ve gotten from this place, the more I realize how insanely lucky I was because of this guy [Bogart] and his approach to art. It completely shaped me. He encouraged me to be dark, to be weird, to explore risky things. ... [It was] unclouded creativity."
Usually the haven of stock productions ("How committed can you be to Cats?" chuckles Palmer), high school proved one of the most artistically fulfilling times of Palmer’s life. Even college paled in comparison and she has sore memories of her last experience putting together an original workshop piece: The Onion Cellar, a collaboration with American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge.
"I had a terrible experience," says Palmer, whose artistic vision clashed with that of the director. She had originally pitched Bogart for that job, but was turned down. "It was the most painful creative project I’d ever worked on, and it really killed me," she continues. "I took all this time off of touring to do it, and I had these wonderful, huge fantasies of what it could be. I got none of what I wanted, and Brian [Viglione, her Dresden Dolls band mate] wasn’t really that interested in it in the first place so it became a real stake between us."
The experience compelled Palmer to seek out Bogart for a surefire satisfying experience. After entertaining several ideas and balancing schedules, they decided the most practical and interesting approach would be for Palmer to return to her high school and work with the students. The result is The Needle That Sings in Her Heart, borne out of two months of student workshops and inspired, at least in part, by the music and lyrics of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an album by indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel.
"I’m really glad we did it this way," says Palmer. "Working with the kids is different on some really important levels than working with professionals. They’re doing it for the right reasons. They all really want to be here."
Nor are they blinded by the experience of working with Palmer, who has emerged in this millennium as yet another groundbreaking musician with local roots.
"It’s good, because unless they’re hiding something from me none of the kids from the show are massive Dresden Dolls fans," says Palmer. "So they’re taking me at face value as this weird adult who is coming in to do this project with them. The playing field is level."
The younger artists have a similarly positive appraisal of their temporary mentor. "She’s really nice, and treats us like friends," says Rebecca Reibstein, 14, who plays Anne Frank’s older sister Margot. She says that one of the most valuable lessons she’s learned from Palmer is how to hold it together even under the pressure of show week. "She talks things through and lets it go," said Reibstein, who was vaguely familiar with Palmer’s solo work before they began collaborating. "She doesn’t dwell."
Sarah Bensassi, 15, who was unfamiliar with Palmer prior to the show, adds that the singer has helped them develop risk-taking in their creative process. "She’s helped us give this story [of Anne Frank] a new and different expression," says Bensassi, who plays a "slum kid" in the piece. "She taught us how to put it all out there and not hold anything back, even if at first you think something might be a bad idea."
In fact, says Palmer, bad ideas are few and far between.
"These kids are so fucking creative, and they are good!" she gushes. "They have good ideas and they just need the platform. If you give them the tools, they will deliver."
Following the show, Palmer plans to embark on an "epic hiatus," traveling the world with her boyfriend while she muses next steps and angles to "get dropped" from her current record label. "The relationship just isn’t working out," she muses. "I’m being very honest and vocal about the fact that the relationship isn’t working."
If art is about honesty, then this prodigious local drama queen at least practices what she’ll preach.
The Needle That Sings In Her Heart will be presented on May 7th, 8th and 9th at the Lexington High School Auditorium. The shows are all ages and tickets $10. Doors at 7:00 p.m., show time 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at amandapalmer.net/tour, and pre-ordering tickets online is highly recommended. For more information, please visit amandapalmer.net/lexington. For more information on The Dresden Dolls, visit dresdendolls.com.