Monday, June 04, 2007

Interview: Inside a Tom Waits Peepshow

Ellen Stader and Rick McNulty are the creators of Austin's Broken Clock Cabaret -- A Tom Waits Peepshow. The Peepshow is a small-scale spectacular featuring dance, puppetry, and risqué vaudeville weirdness, set to the music of Tom Waits and played live by Austin's No Salvation Army Band. Ellen and Rick were gracious enough to swap e-mails with this fellow Rain Dog to share a little about their love of Tom Waits and give us the skinny on what to expect from this year's show. They will be playing at the The Parish Room in Austin on Thursday, June 14, and Friday, June 15 -- if you want to go, buy your tickets NOW because they will sell out. They'll also be playing some shows in the Bay Area later in the month for all you Left Coast Waits fans.

The Caravan of Dreams: Rick, Ellen: who are you guys anyway?
Ellen Stader: I'm a dancer in Austin who began choreographing dances about 10 years ago, and producing live performances about 5 years ago.
Rick McNulty: I'm a lapsed musician who dreams of stage shows that teeter on the verge of collapse.

TCoD: What is the genesis of the Tom Waits Peepshow idea?
ES: We were driving a rented Lincoln Town Car to a wedding in the Rio Grande Valley, so we were all kicked back on cruise control for hundreds of miles, listening to Rain Dogs and rhapsodizing about what cartoons we saw in our heads during each song. Then we started thinking about a creepy Tom Waits kids' show. We realized it would never work for kids--but we took the images and the filth, and turned them into the script for this show.

TCoD: How did you become acquainted with the music and persona of Tom Waits?
ES: I used to work for a cat here in town who road-managed bands; I'd go to his house and feed his lizards while he was gone. One day I grabbed a stack of his CDs to borrow, among them The Black Rider and Bone Machine. Sort of an odd entry point to the whole canon, but I was hooked immediately.
RM: I was working at a college radio station on the West coast when Rain Dogs came out. The timing couldn't have been better--I was learning to drink gin while shouldering a psychotic girlfriend. Tom saved my ass. I was convinced to move to Chicago.

TCoD: Do you think Austin is a good town for Rain Dogs?
RM: Austin is a great town for Rain Dogs. There are so many musically astute people here, and so many weirdos--most often they're one and the same--so there's practically a built-in community in Austin for people who appreciate the arcane and unusual as well as the melodically solid. It's a music town, so the tribute bands are talented and their arrangements are creative, to boot.

TCoD: How is the show this year different than in years past?
ES: Every year we change somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the show, depending on what worked in previous performances--new songs, new dances, stuff that people have asked for in the past. And somehow, the show has gotten progressively filthier in terms of sophomoric humor. Each new edition lowers the bar of tastefulness.

TCoD: How do you choose the Waits songs you play? Do you use some of the same ones over and over? If so, how do you pick which ones stay and which ones go?
RM: We focus on the second and third acts of Tom's canon, which is to say, when Kathleen began inspiring and collaborating with him. The Island years are our starting point, not because they're necessarily "better" than the Asylum albums, but rather, they lend themselves to wild visions of a carnival universe. He became less self-referential and more of a madman savant. Not to mention that we wanted to hear "God's Away On Business" live, and he wasn't performing at the time.
ES: As the choreographer, I like a lot of the "monster" songs, plus the creepier ballads--any songs that provide strong images that I can translate into dance. Some have been indispensable since day one, like "Rain Dogs." I choreographed the best work of my life to that song, and Rick wrote a really striking arrangement for it--so it's always been our strong first-act closer. Others are great songs that we made unwieldy pieces for, and those end up getting cut.

TCoD: Burlesque obviously plays a big part in the Tom Waits oeuvre. What goes into the choreography of a Tom Waits song? Is it just pasties and a g-string and ass shaking?
ES: This is actually the first year we've included any actual burlesque--with stripping and all--and everyone's pretty excited... especially the band. It's a classic burlesque ensemble piece--lacy pajamas, sparkly beads, fringe, the whole bit--as directed by Busby Berkeley. When I left Kitty Kitty Bang Bang Texas Burlesque (NSFW) several years ago, I lost my outlet for the bump-n-grind impulse, so I'm thrilled to get back into burlesque.

For nearly all the other dances, though, I've based most of the choreography on Bugs Bunny. Because as a cartoon, the intentions behind his movements are always instantly recognizable, always funny, and he always comes out on top. What better role model? The kind of work we're doing in this show is technically called modern or post-modern dance, with some cheesy jazz thrown in for fun, but at its heart, it's pretty much Bugs Bunny.

TCoD: OK, I get the burlesque and vaudeville aspect -- but why puppets?
RM: You can get away with puppets saying stuff that would never fly with regular actors. We've got a pretty blue script, and it's always hilarious to see and hear a puppet saying something filthy. Our puppetmistress is a Tom Waits fan as well, so she really gets the aesthetic we're going for. The real reason, though, is that you don't have to pay puppets nearly as much money.

TCoD: Did the Tom Waits movie Big Time influence you in any way? Have you ever seen Tom Waits play live?
ES: The Peepshow and Big Time are both loosely constructed cabaret-type shows, certainly, but we're using more of a straightforward vaudeville structure than the tumbling, time-and-space-shifting transitions that Big Time used. And we can't burn umbrellas because of the fire code.
RM: I saw Tom at his "comeback" show in Austin at SXSW in '99. Somehow I ended up with tickets to his Storytellers taping two weeks later; blind luck, I guess. And Ellen and I flew up to Chicago to catch him last August on his 2006 mini-tour. Onstage, he talked about my favorite hot dog joint in town, which was next door to the record store where I bought a used copy of Small Change. That album changed my life as well. I completely lost it when he told the story about the Wiener Circle and launched into "Tom Traubert's Blues." I wept like the drunken Irishman I am.

TCoD: What is your favorite Tom Waits line?
ES: "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."
RM: "Come down off the cross, we could use the wood."

TCoD: If Tom Waits called you and said, "Hey, I want to be in the show," how would you incorporate him?
ES: First, I'd get him a comfortable chair, and I'd sit him down with a good stiff drink. Then I'd ask him if he could mend all of our broken stuff with baling wire.
RM: I'd see if I could find a place for him in the band.

Thanks for your time, guys. Good luck with the show!


Suzy said...

Yes. Rain Dogs is choreography genius. Ellen rocks. Can I get an amen?

Steve-O said...

I give you an amen.