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Amanda Palmer: Back to Schooldays at Lexington High. A Rather Dramatic Musical.
May 07, 2009 at 12:00 AM
Thurs. May 7 – Sat. May 9

Generally speaking, JSInk doesn’t do much with high school musicals. Then, again it’s not exactly a regular occurrence that Amanda Palmer goes back to her high school and stages a musical. That she and a cast of 23 students at Lexington High School do Thurs. May 7 – Sat. May 9, for four shows. The play is called "With The Needle That Sings In Her Heart," It centers around Anne Frank and the idea that imagination and the creative process are essential tools for human survival and redemption. The play was written by the ensemble; it’s inspired by the music from Neutral Milk Hotel’s "In the Aereoplane Over the Sea."

We spoke with Palmer, the Dresden Dolls singer-pianist who released her first solo album, "Who Killed Amanda Palmer," last year. First question: Isn’t her schedule – recording, playing the with Boston Pops, touring – rather jam-packed to begin with? Why this? "I’m in heaven," she says. "It’s very easy to explain. This is reinvigorates me and inspires me. I don’t really like taking breakes where I do nothing. It’s a better break if I’m doing whatever I want which is going to make me feel really good. I’ve been so insanely happy doing this project." Palmer will playing music on stage throughout the show.

Pallmer did the initial work-shopping last summer, with Stephen Bogart – the drama teacher at Lexington who got her interested in theater and art back in the early ‘90s and whom she initially worked with on the Dresden Dolls/A.R.T. production of "The Onion Cellar" in 2006. They held auditions in February and rehearsals in March while Palmer was touring. How best to describe? Says Palmer: "It’s an original piece. We’ve created these ideas and characters from scratch. I do a combination of playing a character on stage and also playing in a band on stage. There’s a bunch of musicians - guitarist, drums, horns and one of the lead actors plays guitar. I came up with the idea [play’s idea]. Bogart and I had been going back and forth about doing a project for the better part of four years. He was my top choice at the A.R.T. for ‘Onion Cellar."’ (The A.R.T. put their own people in.)

"When that ended up being a disaster, it increased my yearning to do a really good show with a director I loved and trusted. We talked about a production of ‘Cabaret,’ an original play by me based on my solo record. We went through a whole string of possibilities and we were going to do it with professionals. The original idea was not to do it with a high school, but when these fell through because of production or budgetary reasons, I said ‘Let’s do what we know we can do together and use the resources we have. I am so glad it came out this way. We have total creative control and don’t have to deal with logistics of being in new space. We have a pro technical director and sound guy."

It’s in the 1000-seat Lexington High Auditorium. Getting to the obvious question about high school theater, Palmer says, "I think when people think ‘high school theater’ they think bad productions of ‘Our Town’ and stuff that doens’t have substance eand generally they’re right. Most high school theater is pretty terrible. Bogart is this miracle director who happens to be doing this job. I just feel so lucky and grateful not only to turn on a huge group of high school kids to one of my favorite albums of all time. But also I get to expose people to Bogart’s work. We go back 15 years."

Knowing Palmer, you know this play will not be all sweetness and light. "People expect [high school shows] to be light and nice and bad; instead they’re going to get very personal work about rape and war. It will unsettle a lot of people." Work that unsettles people is something Palmer says she shares with the director. "Bogart showed up at high school year before I did, a young director, People did not know what to make of this guy. High school kids love getting intense on stage, they love experimenting."

Bogart, on Palmer: "While in high school, Amanda embraced the process of developing original plays, and when she was a senior, she developed a piece based on the music of The Legendary Pink Dots called ‘Asylum.’ The theatrical post-modern form of the piece challenged the Massachusetts High School Drama Guild to rewrite their criteria for judging the state drama festival. For us, now in Lexington, our prodigal art-daughter has returned to create dynamic theater with us."

The basic plot line. "There is an artist," says Palmer, "who is imagining Anne Frank’s journey from the time we lose her after the diaries to the time she dies in the concentration camp. Meanwhile, we follow a girl in a concentration camp and how she uses her creativity to cope with the horrors she’s experiencing and this young girl, with vitality and hope, creates fictional circus in her own mind, which she escapes to. Those are the main two layers [of the play]. It takes place in a concentration and a circus. You don’t know whose imagination you’re following, the artist’s or hers.

"It was written collectively by the cast of 23. (Kids 14-18 years old.) It’s a living, breathing entity of a show. It could have a life beyond here … and glorious to think it might see a life …"

As to the rest of Palmer’s summer … she says the Dresden Dolls are "on a semi-permanent hiatus while we explore other projects galore" – drummer Brian Viglione is playing World/Inferno Friendship Party (see archived item). "We love playing together," says Palmer, "but I’m insanely happy with what I’m doing. I’ve wrapped up a world tour and will spend quality time decompressing. I’m going to travel with Neil Gaiman" – the graphic artist who, among many other things, did the companion book to "Who Killed Amanda Palmer" – "and I’m going to go to exotic foreign places, take baths, read books, do yoga."