The project was born in a conversation between the composer Julia Wolfe, one of the three composers of Bang on a Can , and Anne Bogart. Julia had written an oratorio entitled Steel Hammer and we began to discuss collaboration between SITI Company and the Bang on a Can All Stars towards a music theater piece that would transform Julia’s oratorio into a dramatic music-theater piece.
The work premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2014, with recorded music. Then, in the fall of 2015, SITI and the musicians of the Bang on a Can All-Stars collaborated to create the fullest version yet of this music-theater piece. This complete realization of Steel Hammer had its first performance at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, before touring around the country throughout the fall and culminating in the New York premiere at BAM in December.
About Steel Hammer at Actors Theatre of Louisville
- Work and the cost of hard labor on the human body and soul.
- The human impulse to tell a story.
- The necessity for stories in our lives.
- The function of stories in society.
- How stories travel through time.
- Who owns a story?
- The thrill of a story.
In November of 2013, Anne, Barney, Brian and Bondo returned to the studios at Skidmore College for a weekend to workshop some of the ideas that are beginning to emerge around the project.
In January of 2014 Barney began to “sketch” ideas around the choreography for the piece in the SITI Company Studio in New York.
Also in January 2014 Anne and Julia Wolfe made a presentation about Steel Hammer at the APAP conference in New York City. The session was very well attended and there was a good deal of interest in the project. We hoped to find a situation where SITI and Bang on a Can could finally combine.
Interim Literary Manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Steve Moulds’ Article about Steel Hammer for Inside Actors magazine.
After three days of rehearsal in New York City in late February the cast moved to Louisville to begin rehearsals there. Assistant Director Laura Sheedy wrote the following diaries about the process:
New York. 20 Feb, 2014
To begin each day, as is SITI Company practice, all performers (and on Day 1, one of our writers, Regina Taylor), train for the first hour of the rehearsal day. As well as Suzuki and Viewpoints sessions, Barney taught the beginnings of choreography that he has created as well as an introduction to clog dancing and our musical director, Christian, taught everyone some basic body percussion moves.
Following training, we moved into what was to become three solid days of table work during which we read and re-read aloud the four scripts/texts/pieces that have been written for Steel Hammer. We discussed and hypothesized and posited in great detail. Steve Moulds, our dramaturg from the Actors Theatre of Louisville was with us for most of our time in NY which was incredibly valuable for our research discussions.
Regina Taylor and Kia Corthron, two of our four writers, were with us all day on Day 1. We began with Kia’s piece that has six roles and is set at a tent show und raising contest. We discussed the characters at length and Kia was able to give the actors great insight and background into each of them and their relationships to each other.
Later in the afternoon, we moved on to Regina’s piece which is written in a call and response style involving all the actors. It has a sense of musicality to it and the actors played extensively with the dynamics of call and response as well as the rhythmic changes and dynamic shifts in the piece. Regina was able to give the actors lots of ideas and alternatives as they moved through the piece, both singing it and speaking it.
New York. 22 Feb, 2014
Days 2 and 3 continued in the same vein. Training for the first hour, then in depth script analysis for the rest of each day. Both Regina Taylor and Will Power were with us on Day 2. We worked on an updated script that Regina gave us then moved on to Will’s piece, a scene between John Henry and Polly Ann, in the afternoon. This piece is a conversation between the two characters while John is in prison. What emerged were some very interesting discussions about the prison labor industry in the US, both past and present. The book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander was referred to a number of times. We finished the afternoon looking at Carl Hancock Rux’s piece which is a monologue for Patrice in which a woman recalls her meeting John Henry when she was 12 years old.
Day 3, following training, we continued looking at Carl’s piece. It suggests more of a philosophical side to John Henry and we talked a lot about the personality of this man. Patrice gave Anne a number of questions to ask Carl about the script. We had very interesting discussions about the abolishment of slavery, the idea of ‘no more free room and board’, of freed slaves staying on the farms they had been on, but now getting paid for their work.
After lunch, Eric gave us a history lesson in Step Dancing and gave us a demonstration of moves and sequences from his and other Fraternities.
Kia came in again near the end of the day and we revisited her piece again, nutting out other questions that had come up over the couple of days.
The first three days of Steel Hammer rehearsals in NYC successfully completed and off to Louisville to get into the theatre!
Louisville. 4 March, 2014
During our third and final day of rehearsal in New York, cast member Eric Berryman gave us a history lesson and demonstration of Step Dancing. Anne has been keen to include elements of Step, since she found out Eric had been a Step dancer in college.
Step Dancing is a performative style of dance made up of percussive movements that involve the hands, the feet and chanting. The two strongest influences on Step Dancing are African dance and military call and response drills (post WWII). The form was borne out of black college fraternity and sorority houses of which there are nine – five fraternities and four sororities, known as The Divine Nine. Traditional white houses have always presented live shows, ticketed events for their college mates and the general public, known as Greek Song. These were/are all singing shows.
Gradually, the black houses performing in these shows began to include dance moves and hand claps. And so the Greek Song morphed, changed and graduated to the Step Show. The heyday of the Step Show was the 1970s and early ‘80s as funk and soul were taking over the pop charts and Step dancers began pulling more and more dance moves from the artists they were watching on television.
This week Eric started teaching the cast a number of Step Dance moves and sequences to be included in Steel Hammer. We are working with these movements alongside the second part of the sixth movement of Wolfe’s score, The Race during which John Henry races the steam engine. This section of music is incredibly complex, aggressive in tone and varies its time signature a number of times. Just finding a beat to move on is tough. Everyone is sweating with physical exhaustion and mental concentration. It’s incredibly exciting to watch. And Eric every now and then, Eric shakes his head and smiles with the incongruity of context, seeing his fellow actors in this rehearsal room doing Step Dance moves.
Louisville. 7 March, 2014
As Barney O’Hanlon said in rehearsal a few days ago - time is a character in Steel Hammer. In the rehearsal room, we are all constantly engaged by a study in time. The time signature of the piece of the day. Our human ability to keep up with the measures on the page as we are hearing them in our ears. The thought of how long each piece is, and so then, how much work we have in front of us in building the physical context for this music. The tempo of each action, movement and sequence within the tempo of Julia Wolfe’s score and the texts of our four writers.
We have a music lesson with Christian, our Musical Director, every day. We all sit in a circle with the next piece’s score on our laps and Christian talks us through the features, things to note, incongruous moments, on the paper. We then listen to the piece of music, following the written score. Or not: most often getting completely lost at least once, while doing so. But our ears are becoming more attuned, more flexible, increasingly able to follow the minutiae of the changes in time that this incredible score presents us with.
The four scripts written for Steel Hammer, do the same thing. Kia Corthron’s text has for example, just as in Wolfe’s’s score, a number of time signatures. It mentions i tunes and talks in detail about the ‘Black Codes’ and post civil war ‘Reconstruction’. In this piece, John Henry is a statue figure, but then speaks. Everyone else stops in time. It is a play within a play, set up by a local sporting goods store, telling the story of John Henry within a Medicine Show, environment and structure. Time folds in on itself again and again, alters and then transforms. And so at every point we ask the seemingly simple question of “what time are we in now”?
Steel Hammer – A Study in Time. We are constantly observing it, butting up against it, negotiating with it, being completely baffled by it and delighting in it’s constant re-emergence and complexity.
Louisville. 12 March, 2014
For the last few days we have been working on Kia Corthron’s piece. It is a piece that holds many options for us in terms of staging, of character relationships and of the telling of the story of John Henry. It is a piece that juxtaposes a sanitized folklore version of a hero, with the political truths of why John Henry, the man, would have ended up in jail in the post-civil war South. Today, while rehearsing the piece, the discussion came around to ideas of ‘humanity’.
In studying the story of John Henry, we are faced head on with the cruel and interminable ‘inhumanity’ that was the way in which the male prisoners working the railroads in the late 1800s, were treated.
Paradoxically however, today we talked about how slave women had looked after white children with the very best love and nurturing they could, not with the thought that those children would one day grow up to perpetuate the cycle of oppression. And nor did the children themselves question that they wouldn’t always have such a child/mother relationship with these women. In our humanity, we in fact hold dear to us thoughts and actions of benevolence, charity, clemency and compassion.
It is our humanity that pushes us to be the best we can be: the kindest, the most nurturing, the most giving. And also the richest, the grandest, the fastest, the strongest. We keep going, not giving up, striving for a standard of excellence. Sometimes, at any cost. And so we then asked the question of whether or not, in doing so, we adopt a foolish pride? A selfish determination? One that doesn’t really serve a purpose in the end. Or is that purpose status, and that is enough?
Why did John Henry compete so hard, that it killed him? He won, but he died doing it. Was it pride? Was it arrogance? Or perhaps, without a sense of repercussion or effect, it was an action that his humanity simply led him to.
Louisville. 13 March, 2014
Steel Hammer - a show in which actors count. And not just because they are the ones on stage performing the work we are making and it wouldn’t exist without them. They need to actually count. Out loud. For much of each day.
The choreography that Barney is making is a complex combination of simple patterns repeated with slight variation in timing, at each repetition. The actors are learning sequences of 8 counts, up to 20 of them at a time, to be repeated and called back. Not only is each 8 different to the one before, each series changes it’s timing in the counts. And then there are the canons in which the six actors are split into three pairs and each pair starts the same sequence, at a different time to the one previous…and they all have to keep in time! It’s an incredible process to watch and one in which as a voyeur, I feel like the actors are in something that I have no understanding of. It’s as if they have created their own language and when dance rehearsal time starts, they enter a world where that’s all they speak. Because, in effect they have, and they do. While continually counting out loud. Problems are identified and solved by trying to match numbers and moves, and repeating. And repeating. And counting. And counting.
Barney has been inspired by choreographer Lucinda Childs while making this choreography. He posted this yesterday to give you a clue to the complexity. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=md374oWtyzU&feature=share (this video appears to have been deleted)
Similarly so, in the staging of Regina Taylor’s text, the cast is repeating a series of tableaux, that are in themselves relatively simple, yet are being repeated in a complex pattern that Anne has set, throughout the text. There are five numbered tableaux that are moved through in a pattern that would go something like: 0, 1, 0,1,2,1,0,1,2,3,1,0 etc. To memorize this pattern, where each move fits into the text that is being spoken and how long each move needs to take to complete, while not hitting a friend in the head with the hammer or bucket you are holding, is a difficult. And takes time. And repetition. And Ellen, our Stage Manager and Anne, yelling numbers out. The terms “ok, let’s go back” and “can we go back?” are in very common use yet it’s fascinating to watch muscle memory slowly take hold and with each day, we go back less and less.
In the section of Wolfe’s score titled Polly Ann and The Race, the actors are performing physically very taxing Step Dance moves. This begins in The Race which is the second half of the piece (begins at 06.30mins) and I touched on the difficulties with this in my previous entry about Time. The Stepping sequence is nearly all unison group action. The music is angular and harsh, reflecting the introduction of a mechanical, steam powered drill. The actors not only have to stay with each other within this incredibly complex aural environment, but also find the cues in music in which the notation makes this a very difficult task. And so there is a lot of counting. And repeating. And counting. And repeating.
Here is the link to the Steel Hammer music: http://juliawolfemusic.com/music/steel-hammer
Laura also took rehearsal photographs which can be viewed here.