Ride the Cyclone

September 29

November 8, 2015

Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare

book, music and lyrics by
Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell
directed and choreographed
by Rachel Rockwell

Conversation with the Creators

CST: Let’s start with the basics—how do you talk about this piece? What is it? And what inspired you to create this unusual story?

Brooke Maxwell: I think the line that I always say is, ‘Six kids died on a rollercoaster and are then brought back to life by the fortune-telling machine. But it’s funny.’ I try to say that as quickly as possible before people can go, ‘Oh, it sounds so dark and sad.’

Jacob Richmond: The inspiration for the project came from how we read every day in the newspaper that forty people died in a tragedy the idea of someone being a statistic in a mass tragedy—and how hard it is to wrap your head around what their individual lives meant. It’s about humanizing the idea of a mass tragedy, which in truth contains hundreds of stories that are interrupted. We wanted to have each individual be reflected in their own music. There’s a thematic reason for why there’s a tribute to David Bowie, why there’s kind of garage band in there, and French cabaret, hip hop, pop, New Orleans swing.

BM: To reinforce the individuality in all of the characters.

JR: Yeah, that each individual, like their fingerprint, has a different sound or different sonic world they’re coming from. But they all complement each other and feel organic in the context of the whole.

Brooke is so adept at writing different styles of music. Each one of them represents an aspect of a community. You’ve got the politician; you’ve got the kind of almost religious figure in Ricky Potts; you’ve got the artist Noel; you’ve got the kind of proletariat worker Constance; and you’ve got Jane Doe, the outsider of that community. But it’s the idea of the community, of them all representing an aspect of a dying small town.

I was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. In a self-effacing country, Saskatchewan is the most self-effacing. I really wanted to take my memories of that place and glorify it, make it spectacular. And that emerges as another theme: people being ashamed of where they’re from, or the idea that one town is lesser than another. Or that one person’s existence is lesser than another’s. People say, ‘Oh, it’s a shame they never got to live their life.’ But that person still did have a life and it had a validity and a kind of a beauty to it. Yes, it’s great if somebody won a gold medal, but if somebody else raised a couple of kids, that life also has value. Because it’s not a contest, basically. When we lose loved ones, it isn’t for some philosophical reason. It’s just a horrible fact of life. So that was another idea we were trying to play with: honoring somebody being taken in a kind of unfair, terrible manner, and celebrating the life they lived as opposed to the event that took them.

BM: ‘Celebration of life’ is clichéd, but actually it is that in the truest sense. It really does celebrate these individual characters. There’s so much joy in it.

Can you talk about the role of Jane Doe in your story?

JR: Jane came from exploring the idea of a loss that is absolutely out of any context. Like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or the person in the tragedy who isn’t even remembered or they can’t even physically find their body. How can you actually personify that character? And so we came up with Jane Doe, and then evolved the idea that she had a doll’s head—because how do you do a headless person onstage?

The story goes to places that are disturbing—and humorously irreverent.

BM: I’m really proud that there’s that element of irreverence, but it’s never without the human connection.

JR: There is a caustic sense of humor to it, but just like life, I think, right? When you’re dealing with a subject like death, which certainly the piece explores, you have to be kind of gentle because everyone has experienced the loss of someone.

What about the role of Karnak in the story?

JR: The Amazing Karnak came about because we needed some form of framing device, and came up with the image of the old penny arcade
omniscient machine being the ‘über’ narrator. I’ve always loved just the aesthetic of those machines. Karnak is a curmudgeon with this very dry sense of humor. Within the context, I think he adds a sense of magical realism. And it’s a very Charlie Brown world: Karnak is kind of the only adult, and the parent is a machine. The funny thing is, the more I tried to explain him in the draft, the less he worked. With those little mystical creatures, the less you know about them, the more they work, right? Don’t ever explain them.

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