We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time is an astonishing piece of theatre. Focusing on monologuist David Cale’s early and traumatic adolescence growing up in Luton, Bedfordshire, in the early 1970s, the piece (at New York City’s Public Theater June 13-July 14) deals with addiction, domestic violence, and mental illness in his family, and with a profound tragedy that marked their lives forever. But though the piece carries considerable emotive freight, it is threaded through with a clear-eyed and compassionate portrait of a time and place and the people in his family, chiefly his mother, whose stories Cale has inherited. As such the piece slowly evolves into one about how a young person can transcend personal devastation, and, in Cale’s case, become an artist.
I’ve long admired Cale’s work for its lyrical intensity, mischievous grace, and unique sense of presence, in such plays as Harry Clarke, Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky, and Lillian. In 2016, in my capacity as founding editor of NoPassport Press, I published a collection of four of his plays under the title Shows. Last week Cale and I spoke on the phone about this piece, and about his wide-ranging 30-plus years of work in theatre, music and performance. The following is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.
CARIDAD SVICH: When I saw We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time at the Public a few nights ago, the friend I was with, who did not know your work prior to this encounter, said, “Oh, it’s a musical!” And by that they meant that the structure of the piece felt very much like that of a music-theatre piece. Not only are there songs, co-composed by Matthew Dean Marsh and yourself, sung and played live, but each segment of the powerful autobiographical story you tell functions as a set piece. Could you talk about how song-poem-plays are a thread for you in your writing/making process, and specifically, how finally putting this piece together came to be?
DAVID CALE: I wrote it as a musical. Some people see it as a play with songs, which I understand and accept, but to me it’s a musical. Because I come from a background in music. I started off as a singer. For many years I was immersed in the world of albums. The primary influence for me for writing and structuring my shows were albums. Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, Hejira, and Blue, in particular—the way the songs are laid out and sequenced taught me a lot about structure. I didn’t know plays. I didn’t grow up seeing plays. But I did know records very well. Later when I was putting together my first show The Redthroats at P.S. 122 in 1986, I started to discover the work of Joseph Chaikin, and, reading his collaboration with Sam Shepard Savage/Love, which is a play that is laid out like an album. And I liked that. Laurie Anderson’s work too was an inspiration, because of the way she worked with spoken word. I could relate.
So when I was putting together my shows, there was a consciousness about them being theatrical, but they were still sequenced like albums. They would often be 12 monologues and the ordering was so that they were played right. But then I started writing lyrics for the band the Jazz Passengers; I worked with a lot of great singers, artists like Jimmy Scott, Debbie Harry, Elvis Costello, John Kelly, and I got into lyric writing. Eventually I started placing songs in my monologues, to the point where I thought they should all have to have songs in them, and that I couldn’t make a show without music! We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time is the most straight-ahead musical I have done of my solo pieces, and it’s the culmination of a lot of the exploration that I have done with words and music in my life. Listening to albums and watching movies has affected my work a great deal, and in this show the underscoring is like the kind of underscoring you would find in a movie.
Can you talk to me about your collaboration with Matthew Dean Marsh on this show and how it came to be?
I had been part of a workshop of the Civilians show Rimbaud in New York, which they did at BAM. I had this idea of turning one of Rimbaud’s poems into a song, and director Steve Cosson said, “Why don’t you do that?” So I came up with a melody on the fly to this poem and sang it. Steve liked it and said I should sit down with Matthew Dean Marsh, who was the music director of the show, and organize it musically with him. We got on immediately. I didn’t end up being part of the production with the Civilians, but I knew I wanted to work more with Matthew.
My friend Kevin Malony, who is the artistic director of the theatre company TWEED TheaterWorks, asked me to do an evening of my songs at Pangea, which is a little club in the East Village, and I thought, “I’ll do it if Matthew does the show with me.” I didn’t really know Matthew beyond that one workshop with the Civilians, but I had such a strong feeling about him. We did a one-night gig of original songs and it went very well, and Kevin and Pangea offered us a monthly residency, which we’ve done for two years. After a while our collaboration was evolving and Matthew was not just arranging my songs and accompanying me, but we were co-writing as well. I thought, this is the person that I can potentially realize this very personal show with. After all these years, I finally found my collaborator.
I asked Matthew to initially write the arrangements and compose the show’s underscoring. We did workshops at the Sundance Theatre Lab and the Goodman’s New Stages Festival, and the more we worked, the more our collaboration evolved. We added songs at Sundance that came from Matthew composing the music first, which I would put lyrics to, and between this and all the underscoring he was composing, I felt I had to re-bill the show in a way that was accurate, because we were at this point clearly co-creating the show. Matthew’s also extremely smart with scripts, so he was also very helpful to me in shaping the script. It’s thrilling to work with someone who is so gifted, who you have such a kinship with, and who you also feel is blooming artistically in front of your eyes.
The musicians are in the show with you. They aren’t characters, but they are integral to the piece.
I can’t do this show without the music. The subject is too tough. The musicians infuse the show, and the process of putting the show together, with their energy as well as their playing. It permeates the show, and the audience picks up on that feeling, whether they’re conscious of it or not. I pick up on it. So who is on that stage is very important, both from the playing and personality perspective.
Robert Falls and The Goodman have supported you so much over the years, ever since they produced The Redthroats in 1987 and commissioned Deep in a Dream of You in 1991. How has that relationship evolved over time? And specifically, how did you and Bob work on We’re Only Alive…?
I have done seven shows at the Goodman with Bob and Roche Schulfer in capacity as producers. It’s been a theatre home to me. Bob was the original director on my musical Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky, but was unable to do the show because one of his productions was going to Broadway (I forget which one). I didn’t initially associate Bob with directing monologues, but rather with big epic plays, or larger-scale works. So I hadn’t thought of him initially as someone to direct. We were friends, I was a fan of his, and he was extremely supportive of my writing and performing, and I’ve also wanted to work with him as an actor for many years. But then I realized this is an epic monologue. It can’t get more epic. And it’s got all this music too. Almost half the show has either songs or music scoring the monologues and story.
I believe strongly that, personally speaking, I have to work with a great director—with someone who’s overqualified. Someone like Bob or Leigh Silverman and Joe Mantello don’t need to prove themselves to anyone. They don’t need to slap their thing onto it, or show off their direction, and I trust them completely. I have built my work as a solo artist largely self-directing. It’s not that I don’t need direction; I do. I want to collaborate with a director to take the shows to a level that I can’t get to by myself. But I need to work with someone who can say, “Okay, what you’re doing there is fine. We don’t need to change it. But when you get to that other section, move two feet to the left.” That little shift can make the world of difference.
I was working with Joe Mantello on my show Lillian in 1997, for instance, and there was a scene in a fast-moving car, and he called out, “Lillian, put your hand out the car window.” And I, as Lillian, did. And my hand shook as if it were being blown by the wind. That little performance detail made all the difference. So many people after the show remarked, “I love that part where Lillian puts her hand out of the car window.” It was a great stroke of Joe’s, and it lit the scene up. When I was working with Bob at the Goodman on this show, he, first off, had me sit on a stool off-center. Something I would have never done. It changed the show. That kind of precision expertise affects the work in big ways. Bob gets my work, from Day One.
I have to say, without Bob and the Goodman’s support, I don’t know that I could have hung in there all these years. They have been the backbone of my professional life. Roche Schulfer said to me in 1987, “I want you to think of this as your artistic home,” and he meant it. The fact that this deeply personal, autobiographical show is in the hands of a director who has been there from nearly the beginning means the world.
For many audiences in New York unfamiliar with your solo work, the production of Harry Clarke at the Vineyard may have been an introduction to your writing. What was it like to work with director Leigh Silverman and actor Billy Crudup on the piece, and did it affect your process on We’re Only Alive…?
I sent the Vineyard the script in June 2017 and we were producing it in August 2017. It was incredibly fast. I wanted Leigh to direct. We’d started working on another new show of mine. I thought, Leigh will never be available at such short notice, she’s so in demand, but she tweaked her schedule so she could do it. I wanted Billy Crudup. We all did, but I’d never had another actor perform one of my solo shows and had never sent one of my solo show’s scripts to an actor, so I had no idea how he would respond. I was fearful we wouldn’t get a great actor, but instead get a good actor, but not one that could truly live up to the tour-de-force demands of the piece. And it would be an actor about whom all my friends would say I would have been better in the role! That was a bullet I really wanted to dodge. Fortunately Billy said yes, and it was an incredible collaboration.
Leigh’s also a fantastic dramaturg. I’d only been that script-collaborative with film director Tamara Jenkins, on A Likely Story. I usually don’t let people have a lot of input with my scripts. I don’t ask for notes or feedback. I like to do it all myself. But I trusted Leigh and just did what she said, and it artistically paid off. The script got so much better because of Leigh. The production of Harry Clarke was confidence-building. I had never sat in an audience for one of my shows, and experienced how people, who for the most part had no idea who I was, were responding. Here was Billy Crudup. And he was so great, astonishing, and so humble about it. For me, someone who has largely worked alone, it was a perfect example of how artistic collaboration can make something greater than I could have realized alone, and it gave me an excitement about collaboration that carried over and continued with We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time, where I was collaborating with Matthew, who I knew was also taking the show to a place I couldn’t get to by myself.
I take my writing extremely seriously and had always thought other people could perform my shows, but people had generally said, “Only you can perform your work.” It had never been tested before. But suddenly we had Billy, Leigh, the Vineyard and Audible. I am so intuitive as a writer. On some level I don’t quite know what I have. On first rehearsal Billy was asking me questions, many of which I had no answers for. Like, he’d say, “Who am I talking to?” And I’d say, “The audience,” which is a useless answer for an actor. And there were many performances where I’d think, did I write this?
The show was a very happy experience for everyone. It was kind of a miracle how it all came together. It transferred to Minetta Lane, and there’s another production in the works with the original team that I can’t talk about till it’s officially announced. And more people are seeing me as a writer, which I hadn’t experienced much before, and I’m writing for other people; Audible has commissioned a solo thriller for an actress to perform, and Matthew and I are working on a musical for three actors/singers. That may not have happened without the experience of working on Harry Clarke.
How do you sustain yourself as an artist in a city like New York, which has changed so much since you first arrived in 1979, and what advice would you give young artists moving here?
There used to be a lot of little performance spaces when I got to NYC, where you could just take part in open mics and try things out. I’m sure such spaces still exist. Just before Harry Clarke, for a few years, I couldn’t get anything produced in New York. So I just did what I did when I started, which was to go to Dixon Place and book the bar every week and read and perform new work. And it was free. This went on for months and months. I did it to keep writing.
It’s how I got started too. When I came to NYC, I didn’t have a sense of a career or show business. I wasn’t driven in that way. But what was happening was that I kept doing work wherever someone would let me do stuff. And I think this is still the way to do it. You don’t know who is in the house and don’t know what it can lead to, though you can’t go with that motivation in mind, and the only way to artistically evolve is by actually doing it. You have to be in motion. And you have to give yourself license to fail. Some artistic failures or disappointments are bridges to the thing that really works, and if you don’t go through them you don’t get to the better things. You don’t evolve.
Franklin Furnace, then in Tribeca, was the first to give me an evening of work when I started out. I wasn’t trying to get an acting career. I just wanted to write things and perform them as best as I could. People now are much more career-savvy. My generation in the East Village were far less interested, I think, in parlaying something into something else. They were just interested in expressing themselves. People now are generally savvier about self-promotion. That part of it all certainly still doesn’t come naturally to me.
Any plans to move We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time?
We all hope it will have a life in NYC beyond the initial run. That’s the dream for it. And we are also talking about doing the show in London. I have never performed in England. At first I thought I didn’t want to do it in many places. The material is so personal and quite tough, but now that I have been with it for a while, I feel differently about it in terms of my emotional stamina with it.
The prime motivation for me with the show is representing my mother, Barbara Arnold. I want to represent her. To honor her. I want this charismatic woman who was so misunderstood and had such a tragic life to have a place and a home in the American theatre. All that I have learnt thus far is in this show. Friends have said all the other shows have led to this one, and there’s truth to that. Matthew’s music and his arrangements have such beauty and life and to my ears, and in my experience, I haven’t heard anything like it in a theatre before. I’m deeply proud of what we’ve created. My ultimate fantasy is to take the show to Luton, my hometown, and perform it for one night in the hat factory where my mother used to work, which is now an arts center called the Hat Factory, and film it. That’s my dream.