RETRO REVIEW: What Keeps a Musical Alive? 7 Stages Feeds Audiences a Dark, Fresh Take on THREEPENNY OPERA

Posted on: Sep 16th, 2016 By:
The wedding of Mackie (Aaron Strand) and Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) with cinematic insert of Mack's trio of cohorts (Jed Drummond, Tad Cameron and Evan Hynes) showcasing the all-stolen posh furniture. Credit: Stungun Photography.

The wedding of Macheath (Aaron Strand) and Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) with cinematic insert of Mack’s trio of cohorts (Jed Drummond, Tad Cameron and Evan Hynes) Credit: Stungun Photography.

THE THREEPENNY OPERA; directed by Michael Haverty and Bryan Mercer; Play by Bertolt Brecht; Music by Kurt Weill and translated from German by Marc Blitzstein; Starring Aaron Strand, Stephanie Lloyd, Kevin Stillwell, Don Finney. 7 Stages. Sept. 9-25, 2016 (EXTENDED TO OCT. 2!). Tickets here.

Atlanta doesn’t have the theatrical reputation of many comparable American cities, but with THE THREEPENNY OPERA (Sept. 9-25), 7 Stages proves once again that this city can and does produce innovative, provocative performances of the sort one expects to see Off-Broadway. This production, envisioned and co-directed by Michael Haverty and Bryan Mercer, is quite simply a must-see if you like Brecht and Weill, value drama that provokes, disturbs, and makes you laugh like Hell, and/or don’t believe Atlanta produces theater at the level of New York.

Set in working class Victorian London, THREEPENNY tells the cautionary tale of MacHeath, aka “Mack the Knife,” a brutal but charming thief and murderer, as well as the many women who love him. The rest of the cast of characters include beggars, criminals, whores, and corrupt police officers. First performed in Berlin in 1928, it was Brecht’s attempt to adapt and update John Gay’s 18th century BEGGAR’S OPERA into a socialist satire of both the profit motive and the mode of musical theater itself right down to a perhaps (or perhaps not) unexpected ending.

From the moment Nicolette Emanuelle (read our Kool Kat of the Week interview with her here) emerges, dressed almost only in an accordion, and belts out the eponymous song, “Mack the Knife” in deep, guttural tones, the visceral, unrelenting tone is set. Let’s say definitively that this ain’t Bobby Darin’s homogenized hit. One can’t help but be reminded of CABARET though that was written much later,. The comparison is appropriate given that while the setting is London, Brecht conceived THREEPENNY in Weimar Germany with a jazz-influenced soundtrack. And thanks to subversive drama such as THREEPENNY, in 1933, Brecht and Weill would have to flee their home country in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power.

Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) and Macheath (Aaron Strand). Credit: Stungun Photography.

Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) and Macheath (Aaron Strand). Credit: Stungun Photography.

This THREEPENNY shows more spunk and further establishes its 1920s setting, along with embracing Brecht’s expressionistic theory of theater, by mimicking silent film at various points, including a cast titles segment at the beginning. The characters parade live in front of a period-consistent unsteady camera with the resulting black-and-white footage projected onto the rear stage wall. THREEPENNY works better with a minimalist set and lower production values (vis-a-vis the abject failure of the big-budget 1989 Broadway revival with Sting which I unfortunately saw but mercifully remember nothing about). In this case, the camera is used a number of times during the show not only to compensate for a limited budget but also to enhance the theatrical experience in creative ways. I won’t divulge the details so as not to spoiler.

While the cast was consistently strong in the preview performance I saw, several actors stood out. THREEPENNY can be made or broken by who plays Mack the Knife. I can say thankfully that Aaron Strand is no Sting. And don’t be fooled by his pretty face. Strand takes the role of bastard by the balls and rides it all the way unabashedly, from displaying a full grasp of the nuances of the play’s dark and biting humor to enthusiastically embracing Mack’s raw sexuality, even endowing a rock n roll edge at points that makes the role feel contemporary without compromising Brecht’s vision. Brecht never wants us to empathize with his characters, but we need to sense Mackie’s extreme charisma despite his inherent sociopathy. The directors have admitted  tossing a nod towards this year’s presidential race, and it’s hard not to see some parallels in a man who can say or do anything and still be loved by many. “What keeps a man alive? He lives on others.” Indeed.

Also memorable are Mr. JJ Peachum (Kevin Stillwell) and especially his wife, played in drag by Don Finney. The Peachums run a lucrative and, to them anyway, respectable business training professional beggars and taking a share of their earnings. If Mackie is a capitalist, the Peachums could be community organizers of sorts especially when later in the play they assemble an army of beggars to disrupt the queen’s coronation. They aren’t pleased at all when their daughter Polly abandons the family business to marry Mackie and take it upon themselves to get him arrested and hanged. Stillwell is an earnest Mr. Peachum who hits all the ironic humor of his character, but Finney is a show-stealer–effusive, maternal, dominant, and absolutely hilarious. In other hands perhaps placing a man in the role would simply be a gag, but Finney sets fire to the stage and easily matches Mack as a formidable adversary.

Mrs. Peachum (Don Finney). Credit: Stungun Photography.

Mrs. Peachum (Don Finney). Credit: Stungun Photography.

For all the darkness in THREEPENNY, as noted, Brecht injected a lot of humor. A special nod should also go to Adam Lowe, who plays not only the clumsy Filch, who applies to Peachum and needs some serious education in begging, but also Tiger Brown, the esteemed police chief of London. Tiger and Mackie served together in the military, and Tiger has been, at least thus far, protecting Mackie from arrest. Their boisterous nudge-nudge-wink-wink rendition of “Army Song” is a show highlight. A call-out should also go for slapstick mastery by Mackie’s trio of henchmen–Readymoney Matt (Jed Drummond) who reminded me in voice, if not hair, of VENTURE BROTHERS’ Pete White, Crookfinger Jake (Tad Cameron), and Bob the Saw (Evan Hynes).

Among the ladies in the cast, Stephanie Lloyd is an appropriately pretty and savvy Polly Peachum, madly in love with Mackie and to whom he leaves the control of his shady business when on the run from the law. The production makes an interesting choice by having her, rather than Jenny the prostitute and Mackie’s original lover, sing “Pirate Jenny” (perhaps the play’s second best known song), a change which I am uncertain about maybe because Lloyd’s voice hits a much higher pitch than the deep-throated Lotte Lenya (composer Kurt Weill’s wife), who played Jenny in both the 1931 German film adaptation and the 1954 Off-Broadway revival which debuted Mark Blitzstein’s translation of Weill’s lyrics, the best-known translation also used in this production. However, casting Dorothy V. Bell-Polk, who resembles Grace Jones, as Jenny is an intriguing surprise. And Jessica De Maria brings the right balance of passion and disgust to Tiger Brown’s daughter Lucy, Mackie’s other “wife” who is considerably less dainty. (As a side note for those who don’t know, a young Bea Arthur played Lucy in the 1954 rendition and Lucy was played by a man, Brian Charles Rooney, in the 2006 Broadway revival which toyed with Mackie’s sexuality and featured Alan Cumming as Mack and Cyndi Lauper as Jenny).

A big hand should also go to DeeDee Chmielewski, 7 Stages’ longtime costume designer, for her monochromatic black and white designs which blend well with the expressionist cinema ambiance,, as well as the simple props and sets designed to maximum effect by Melisa DuBois, and lighting design by Rebecca M.K Makus. And of course, the band. As with 7 Stages’ DRACULA, THE ROCK OPERA (Read ATLRetro’s review here), the musicians are onstage but woven seamlessly into the action. In sum, 7 Stages shows yet again how to maximize a parsimonious assemblage of performers, with my only possible regret being that there weren’t more beggars to march on the coronation.

Move fast and don’t miss this THREEPENNY because while the characters may be perennially stuck in their low societal positions, Atlanta theater runs are always short. As with DRACULA, one wishes this production could hang around for a while and build an audience. 

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Kool Kat of the Week: Under Heidi S. Howard’s Helm, Seven Stages Throws a CD Release Party for DRACULA, THE ROCK OPERA

Posted on: Feb 13th, 2014 By:

Dracula and his wives in DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA at 7 Stages; L-R: Jessika Cutts, Rob Thompson, Naomi Lavender, Madeline Brumby.

Forget a red heart-shaped box this Valentine’s weekend, and go straight for the heart, the bloody heart. The CD of DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA is finally out (watch for our Retro Review soon), and 7 Stages is throwing live concert to celebrate its release with three shows, February 14 and 15. [Ed. note: 8 p.m. on Fri and Sat. The Thurs. Feb. 13 show was canceled due to weather, and a new show has been added at 10:30 pm Sat]

It’s been a year and a half since the curtain last went down on DRACULA. As ATLRetro said in our Review, “DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA melds JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR with Grand Guignol in a production that not only rocks hard and delivers a horrific, non-twinkly Nosferatu, but also is surprisingly true to Bram Stoker‘s original novel.” That review marks the only time a full cast and crew have earned Kool Kats of the Week, and we added that the production not only broke the bounds of community theater expectations but blew them out of the water. We felt like we were “discovering HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY ITCH off-Broadway in 1998 or THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW in a tiny upstairs theater in London in 1973.” We wish everyone who missed it could see the full production, but hopefully the music being available on CD will help convince skeptics that something this crazy original can happen outside the Big Apple. All the main creators/cast members of the Little Five Points Rock Star Orchestra will be back, including Rob Thompson, the mad mastermind behind the sinister shebang; Naomi Lavender (Muleskinner MacQueen Trio), Mina with a voice to make Kate Bush blush; Rick Atkinson, America’s hardest rocking Renfield; and more.

Since then, Heidi Howard has assumed the helm as creative director of Seven Stages. She’s a mighty Kool Kat for taking on one of Atlanta’s most innovative and daring theater companies, following in the footsteps of founders Del Hamilton and Faye Allen, who both are local legends here. Here’s what she has to say about the concert and CD, as well as what’s next for DRACULA and 7 Stages!

Heidi S. Howard. Photo courtesy of 7 Stages.

It’s been a year and a half since the curtain dropped on the last performance of DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA. While the vision started with Rob Thompson, it was also an amazing collaborative effort with Del directing and many of the musical cast contributing to the composition. Can you talk about that aspect of the production and how it relates to the music we’ll be hearing this weekend?

I remember sitting in the basement over four years ago, listening to the first notes composed and encouraging Rob to propose the production to Del. I have often called theatre a collaborative sport; we have to work together in order to make great things. Over the years, the relationship with 7 Stages artists and Little Five Points Orchestra has grown to something really impressive. This process specifically was created to encourage everyone’s ideas to be heard and to merge the music and theatre styles. By including Shane [Morton]’s knowledge of Dracula and encouraging the composer’s possibility of the music style, we were really able to expand the overall sound of the story.  There is such a diverse style of surprising music from true rock in “The Castle” and “Dracula’s Opus,” to jam in “Van Helsing’s Teachings,” even to rockabilly sounds in “Lucy’s Proposals,” that make it accessible to many.

We have chosen to highlight the different styles and favorites in this concert while still saving some of the best to be heard on the CD. Even today I am inspired by hearing everyone’s ideas and implementing the best of them, as well as the group’s way of working through a decision together.  The Drac Pack is a very intense gathering of strong-minded rockers and artists, each with passionate dedication to what we have created together.  7 Stages has the unique environment of engaging the individual and really supporting who we have in the space.  We are a people’s place and make opportunity for those that are here and willing to collaborate and become better. This process is a testament to engaging and supporting those who are present.

While it’s not the complete production, will characters be in costume and what else is the company doing to recreate the horrific ambiance?

We are sticking to a concert presentation style, keeping the production elements as simple as possible while still creating an intimate environment.  While really celebrating the music and engaging the community, we are keeping the work present in the minds and bodies of our audiences. We are creating a lobby installation of the costumes and some of the scenic elements used in the production. Instead of using the video projections there will be images, many from Stungun Photography, who captured beautiful moments of the production. We did not want to create the expectation of a full production and staging elements, because the goal is to celebrate the music itself. Also, it is important to note that not all of the performers were available for this gig, and so Rob and others cover some of the vocal roles.

What’s your personal favorite song in DRACULA and why?

Oh my goodness, I tried hard to pick one to answer this question, but I just can’t. The music is so rich with diverse styles, and I like many different types of music. “Diary and Mysteries is up there because of the simple beauty of Naomi’s voice and the build of everyone’s layered voice in as the song builds. I love, love, love when there are all of the layers of voices and music changes in many of the Act 2 songs. “Alone in Transylvania” really speaks to everyone’s fear of being lonely, and it always brings chills to my body.  “Van Helsing’s Teachings” is so much fun, and Jeff nails it every time. I wake up singing “The Chase”…. And the list continues. It is so good, and I get so overwhelmed each night in rehearsals, I am literally sitting in the theatre rocking out, feeling so lucky and thankful.

7 Stages is one of Atlanta’s most acclaimed theater companies for serious plays. Why do something as seemingly pop-culture as DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA, or is it pop-culture?

Traditionally DRACULA productions have been poppy, and with our production we really focused on sticking to the Bram Stoker’s book and creating music and a production that answered the desire of these artists.  7 Stages has always had a mission on supporting new work and encouraging artists to expand their craft.  For me, I was really interested in the process of merging the music and theatre scene, creating a space to develop high quality storytelling and offering both the musicians and theatre folk the best of both worlds so that we could learn best practices and become better artists overall.  This production is a fusion of pop and rock culture, and while it is a break from the serious heavy topics, we are creating a seriously great rock opera. 

Heidi S. Howard. Photo courtesy of 7 Stages.

There have been many stage and screen adaptations of DRACULA. Why do you think this one worked so well and was so popular with audiences?
We stuck to the book in composing the lyrics, many of them being directly taken from the text. Many other productions stray away from this and tell “popular” vampire stories because of the trend. There are so many Dracula mythos out there, and we really stuck to Stoker’s mythos as opposed to others such as Anne Rice’s, TWILIGHT or other modern pop culture mythos.  We used the wave of what was popular for marketing purposes but wanted to stick to the original tale.  We wanted to celebrate the strength of the musicians and performers with high quality production values.  Also, it was a direct goal of Rob’s to do “something that doesn’t suck!”  There is a Little Five Points Orchestra following, as well as those that support 7 Stages who have really encouraged our relationship to grow over the years of producing the Krampus shows [and] involving the musicians in our production of HAIR a few years ago.  Ultimately, we are answering the demand of our community.  The show is fun, involving, intimate, and so surprising that all want to be involved.

So many of us wish there would be full-out performances of DRACULA again. Any chance of that or of it going on the road to other cities?

We would love to do the full production again, taking everything to the next level, send it on the road, sell it to other producers, etc… it deserves to be out there.  That is a large reason for producing this concert version, in addition to celebrating the CD release.  But, it takes money.  Lots of money so that we can pay the artists for their time and work, as well as pay for all that it takes to make a production including blood, effects, blood, costumes, scenery, blood, video, blood, etc.  We want to keep the music and possibility present in our community and continue to push it out there.  

Heidi S. Howard gets the Shane Morton treatment. Photo courtesy of 7 Stages.

How are you feeling about 7 Stages now that you have a few years under your belt. How are you feeling about taking the plunge? What do you think is the company’s biggest success under your helm? And what is its biggest challenge?

Absolutely fantastic.  I love my staff, the artists, and all of the amazing people that walk into the space.  I stuck around 7 Stages all these years for the people and am always inspired by the involvement of those people. I am having a lot of fun with our Home Brew series.  We have always supported the development of new work, but by formalizing it into a program and inviting audiences into the process, the support and understanding for the process becomes very clear. The Navigator was a great success as we took our work outside of our space, and at the same time we were the first organization to be allowed to perform on MARTA with Mass Transit Muse [full production to premiere in May].   But honestly, we have stayed open; we are extremely focused on becoming financially stable.  This is both a success and an ongoing challenge.

Next up is THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE. That’s a book that many people read in school. Why should they want to see it performed live through the lens of 7 Stages?

7 Stages’ new adaptation of RED BADGE uses puppetry, live actors, projected animation and a dynamic soundscape to create an immersive world of battle. Our version uses contemporary techniques to achieve the intense atmosphere of war and the spinning viewpoint of our naive young soldier. People who have read the book will find new nuance and perspective on it, while those unfamiliar will leave the theater itching to read!

What else is 7 Stages up to that you’re excited about for the rest of this season and into the next?
As mentioned above, our work is not just focused on the serious. We are sticking to our social, political and spiritual mission. It is my goal to expand the knowledge of what we do. We like to have a great time with our work. While it can be serious, it can also offer Atlanta a really good time. Today the work has a lot to do with reflecting and representing our community and expanding it – internationally and locally. I am gearing up to jump into rehearsals again for Mass Transit Muse, which is another process that will merge mediums, and Jed Drummond will be a feature, which is always a plus! It’s a wonderful experience to work with your friends, who happen to be amazing artists. I’m looking forward to sharing their talents, engaging with our community, and creating art that surprises, engages and inspires Atlanta.

Heidi in front of 7 Stages' spider float at the L5P Halloween Parade. Photo courtesy of 7 Stages.

You do a lot of work with youth through Youth Creates, the Playmaking for Girls program, etc. Can you talk a little bit about those pursuits and why you are so passionate about working with young people.

By listening to the youthful mind, I am allowing voices to be heard.  As a young person, I was continually challenged by not being heard or not knowing how to express myself. As Education Director, I was able to create a place for young people to connect their everyday life to creative process.  While working on professional productions at 7 stages, training under the world-renowned directors and artists that we brought in, I was able to structure the education programming around the needs of our ongoing programming. It has been obvious to me that we can answer each others’ needs by answering the desires and needs of our community by offering the community opportunities of professional development, while offering hands-on experience in the professional field of creating art.

Finally, tell us something about you and what drew you to the theater life that we don’t know.
I worked at Disney while I was in college and loved playing Timon, the meerkat from THE LION KING, because I could flirt with the girls and no one would know.

Is there any question did I not ask about 7 Stages, DRACULA or you that I should have, and what is the answer?

7 Stages doors are always open. Come on in, grab a coffee or drink from Java Lords, hang out in the lobby / gallery, check out the library upstairs, create with us, see all of our shows, give us feedback, pop in and say hi to us in the office. As I said, I do this for the people I get to meet and create with each day.  There are always amazing things happening here that will surprise and inspire.

CDs of Dracula the Rock Opera are at Java Lords now and will be available at the show. For advance tickets, visit www.7stages.org.

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ATLRetro’s Throwback to the 20th Century St. Valentine’s Day Guide – Our Top Picks for Gettin’ Comfy With Cupid, Retro-Style!

Posted on: Feb 11th, 2014 By:

by Melanie Crew
Contributing Writer

Hey all you dapper fellas and glitzy gals! Cupid got your tongue? “Be Mine”, vintage-style this year and celebrate all that is vintage and Valentine’s in Retro Atlanta! Get romantic, retro-style and see what we have in store for you on this day of love and seduction!

1. Red Hot Jazz. Get jazzy with your love tonight at the Crimson Moon, with Atlanta’s Jazz Diva, Tommie Macon (Tommie Macon & The Gentle Men) and her Evening of Jazz, Wine & Roses event! It’ll be a night of romance, tasty libations made to the little god of love, a special Valentine’s Day menu, a rose for your Valentine and sultry jazz standards!  Doors at 8 pm! Or let Kayla Taylor serenade you with her romantic jazz standards while dancing the night away with your sweetie under the dinosaurs sipping a few sexy cocktails at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History’s Martinis and IMAX!

2. 80s All the Way.  Find your Prince (or Princess) at Vinyl this Valentine’s Day as you rock out with ATL Collective paying homage to Prince and sharing their intimate re-telling of his classic album, ‘1999’! Or rock on over to the Drunken Unicorn for their Valentine’s Formal, featuring live tunes by Smithsonian, a tribute to The Smiths and Kool Kat Joshua Longino with Andrew & the Disapyramids throwing a rockin’ beach party of love!  So, get dolled up, put on your dancin’ shoes and get down with the one who stole your heart! Doors at 9 pm! Or be a smooth operator and sail on down to Park Tavern in Piedmont Park for Lover’s Day with Yacht Rock Schooner! It’ll be an evening of smooth 70s and 80s love songs and a champagne toast, so put on your dancin’ shoes and come aboard! $15 online/$20 at the door. Doors at 7 pm! And for those about to rock, grab the rocker guy or chick in your life and get sinfully mischievous at Hottie Hawgs Smokin’ BBQ this Valentine’s Day with Sin City Atlanta delivering their rockin’ tribute to AC/DC!  

3. Deep Roots.  Get rustic and spend Valentine’s Day ‘in the round’ old-time-style at the Red Light Café, while rockin’ the roots troubadour swagger with Tommy Wommack, David Olney, Adam Klein and the swampy roots n’ blues of David Jacobs-Strain!

4. That’s Why They Call it the Blues.  Valentine’s Day got you down?  A little too jaded for your own good?  Well, jump, jive n’ wail your way to Big Tex for Valentine’s Day with the Tommy Dean TrioIt’ll be a night of blues, swing, jazz and soul standards! It’s a Rat Pack Valentine’s Day, so come on out and dance the night away! Music and dancing begins at 9 pm!

5. Shakespeare In Love & Really Retro.  Get romantically retro and take in William Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers and feuding families at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center! The Atlanta Ballet premieres Jean-Christophe Maillot’s alluring yet stripped down production of Romeo et Juliette, hailing all the way from Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo! The Atlanta Ballet Orchestra accompanies the beautifully choreographed masterpiece with Sergei Prokofiev’s provocative and breathtaking score! Tickets start at $20 and performance begins at 8 pm! And for all you knights in shining armor, get really retro and romantic with the royal one in your life and joust on down to Medieval Times for their Valentine’s Day Couples Package!  $99 gets you 2 admissions, a photo, Valentine’s scroll, champagne in keepsake glasses, a light up rose and 2 admissions to the dungeon!

6. Groovin’ Up Slowly.  Disco on down to Edgewood Avenue for a Valentine boogie with the one you love and your very own Romeo!  DJ Romeo Cologne that is, getting’ groovy at The Music Room on Edgewood Avenue!  Or shake a tail feather and boogie on over to The Artmore Hotel (Studio Lounge) and get groovy with Groove Centric!  $72 will get you the Tastes for Two package, which includes a bottle o’ red, dinner and chocolate truffles!   Or get funky with your Valentine at The Star Bar during their Valentine Daze event with Cousin Dan, xXgLaSsLuShXx and Miss Britta!

7. Lovin’ on the Silver Screen!  ‘Here’s looking at you kid!’ Take a peek at love and romance Old Hollywood-style at The Strand Theater as they screen Michael Curtiz’s classic romantic drama, CASABLANCA (1942), starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Enjoy a few cocktails during cocktail hour with your dapper fella or glamorous gal at Rick’s Café Americain, set up in the lobby & lounge, open at 7 pm and throughout the film!

8. Be Mine, Pop Culture-StyleGrab your beloved bestie and even the kiddies for a dinner fit for a king at Pallookaville Fine Foods in Avondale Estates! A king of pop culture and classic monsters, that is! They’ve got monsters and circus freaks and retro-themed food, oh my!  So, you won’t want to miss their Valentine’s Day Feast running through Feb. 16, which includes the essential dinner of love, a ‘la Lady & The Tramp-style, Spaghetti & Meatballs and the fixins followed by chocolate-covered strawberries!  Adults $18, Kiddies $10!

9. We Goth You Covered.  For the darkly romantic, The Oakland Cemetery offers their Love Stories Tour, complete with tales of loves past led by a Victorian-era clad docent.  Tours last an hour, just long enough to meet a kindred spirit or even a new love! Get loved to death while traversing the land of passionate souls longing for love, beginning at 5 pm! $10 adults/$5 students! Or let the blood-letting begin as the Prince of Darkness rocks you while draining your veins at the Dracula: The Rock Opera CD Release Party & Concert with The Little Five Points Rockstar Orchestra, at 7 Stages running through Feb. 15! Or for a Valentine’s Eve (Feb. 13) event, get romantically massacred at  Mary’s for their ‘Goth Nite St. Valentine’s Massacre’ event! It’ll be a Goth throw down featuring classic Goth rock, synth pop, post-punk and even tunes from the New Romantic era!  And, bring a personalized Goth Valentine’s card to score some free swag! And for all you Tim Burton and bleeding heart lovers, get gothic and dress as your favorite Burton character at Jungle Atlanta during their Burton Valentine’s Ball!  It’ll be a night of Burlesque, aerial performances and all things dark and morbidly fantastique! Headlining burlesque performance by Vita DeVoid, dressed as Sally from A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, venders including our swanky BFF artist and vintage vending gal, Jezebel Blue, and so much more! Best costume wins $100! $10 cover before midnight!

10. My Mischievous Valentine!  Get a little naughty this Valentine’s Day with your lovely at Paris On Ponce for their 6th annual Valentine’s Day Show, featuring Burlesque, comedy, female impersonators and a saucy, adult entertainment and atmosphere!  Performances by Raquell Lord, Maya Montana, Coco Couture, Alicia Kelly, Angelica D’Paige, Smoking McQueen, Carmen Corazon and so much more! $45 general. $215 for an up-front for four table including wine/champagne, chocolates and cupcakes!

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Kool Kat of the Week: Born to Tease: Retro Fatale Katherine Lashe Puts the Sizzle into Southern Fried Burlesque

Posted on: Jun 10th, 2013 By:

Katherine Lashe. Photo credit: PinUp Girl Cosmetics.

Atlanta’s burlesque scene right now is hot, hot, hot, and one lady is right at the sizzling heart of it – Kool Kat Katherine Neslund, aka Katherine Lashe. This week alone, Syrens of the South, her production company, is giving Atlanta a new monthly burlesque showcase with Tease Tuesdays at The Shelter on June 11 (specific Tuesdays will vary per month). She’s also a key player in the city’s first Debut-Tease Ball, featuring Katherine and a mix of experienced and new talent either teaching or taking classes at Studio Burlesque, Atlanta’s own burlesque school which launched just last winter.

Perhaps most of all, Katherine is the driving force behind the Southern Fried Burlesque Festival, which celebrated its third anniversary this year. Finally Atlanta has an annual event that brings together local, regional, national and even international burlesque revival stars and legends. Tease Tuesdays are fundraisers for SFBF. And that’s not even beginning to talk about Katherine’s own talents as a performer who has graced nationwide stages including the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.

ATLRetro caught up with Katherine recently to find out more about this week’s events; her own path to burlesque via theater; what else she has coming up, including a significant partnership between Syrens and 7 Stages theater in Little Five Points; and much more.

ATLRetro: What’s the one thing that happened to you during childhood that made it your destiny to be a burlesque performance artist?

Katherine Neslund/Lashe: When I was younger my Mom made costumes and clothing for drag queens in Knoxville, TN.  I ended up wanting to be a drag queen when I grew up because they had the best clothes! Later it was explained to me that, being a girl, I couldn’t technically be a drag queen. I was pretty disappointed  with this childhood realization. I’ve obviously since realized my passion and have been doing theater in some capacity my entire adult life. I’ve always felt pretty at home on the stage. Burlesque seemed to unite the whole drag queen dream with my theater experience.

I understand you kicked off your burlesque career in Atlanta by opening for Dita Von Teese. That’s a pretty exciting beginning. How did that happen and can you share something about that experience? Did Dita impart any words of wisdom that have stayed with you.

I used to be the head performer at The Chamber, and one day Howie, the manager, told us we were opening for Dita von Teese in two weeks and we should do something burlesquey.  I had no idea what that meant since I had very limited experience with burlesque having only seen The Doll Squad and Torchy Taboo perform a few times at that point.  We ended up putting together a Fosse-style group number that incorporated burlesque, dancing and a little bit of that Chamber touch.  It’s kind of funny that out of that group came myself, Renea’le Roux and Gia Nova as professional burlesque performers.

Katherine Lashe. Photo credit: PinUp Girl Cosmetics.

The Syrens of the South is a production company, not a troupe. A lot of people don’t know the difference, so can you clarify what this means in the burlesque world?

A troupe is traditionally a group of people that works together on a regular basis; going through routines and rehearsals, every member focused on a common vision of what the group should embody as a whole, and then also on what every member will perform exclusively.  Syrens of the South treats all of our performers as independent contractors, and I have always encouraged everyone to have their own identity – to perform whenever and with whomever they want.  Each performer creates their own personal vision of what they want to be, and they own and control their personal performance.  Syrens is like a playground on which these amazing folks can show their talent. Thanks to this freedom, performers can feel free to include everything from classic, to comedy, to just plain weird stuff.  I also try to make sure that we have a good variety of acts, including, of course, vaudeville type acts to break up the boobies, making it an interesting evening for everyone!

It’s been long overdue for Atlanta to have an annual burlesque festival, and Southern Fried really seems to be putting the city on the map. SFBF has made it to its third year and seems to be really hitting its stride. What did you personally enjoy the most at year’s festival and can you give us a little preliminary tease about your goals are for next year?

My favorite part each year is the Legends.  I have a passion for burlesque history, hence why I teach a very in-depth class on it, and have been collecting burlesque legend interviews for a very long time now.  My goal is to gather as much information as possible before the information is no longer available.  I was lucky enough to interview Tura Satana before she passed away, and I am so very grateful I was able to do so.

This particular year I was really excited with how many people from the local Atlanta burlesque community became involved.  In between volunteers, performers and even those that just showed up in the audience to come and see us, plus so many regular Syrens of the South performers, members of Hot Toddies Flaming Cabaret, The Imperial OPA Circus, Minette Magnifique and Musee du Coeur showed up both on stage and off.  The hope is that Southern Fried can help show Atlanta a taste of what goes on in the rest of the world, as well as showing the rest of the world the amazing talent we have here in Atlanta and the Southeast.  Many performers don’t travel, so this is a great way to show off all that we have to offer here!

Funding a festival must be challenging. Where does Tease Tuesday fit in?

The goal of Tease Tuesday is to help raise money so we can continue putting on this amazing festival.  It costs around $20,000 to put on each year, and we make less than half of that from ticket sales each year.  The rest of the money comes from our vendors, sponsors, application fees, Syrens of the South shows and out of my pocket.  We need approximately $2,500 to pay off the remaining bills from last year before we can start moving on to next year.  Tease Tuesday events, at 10 acts for only $10, gives us  a nice inexpensive monthly show to help us get the remaining bills paid off and then hopefully help us get the deposit for the hotel next year so we can continue going forward with the festival.

Another thing we love about Tease Tuesday is that it’s going to be monthly. In New York there are multiple monthly and even weekly burlesque events, but Atlanta audiences have had to wait several months between shows by the same troupe or producer. Can you tease our readers about the Syrens first Tease Tuesday and how you plan to keep a monthly show fresh and exciting? Will shows be themed and will you just feature local performers or regional and national performers as well?

Our first Tease Tuesday show was in May as a straight up fundraiser and test show.  We were lucky enough to have the current Southern Fried Queen, Lola le Soleiland two time SFBF winner Bourgeois Betty, Little 5 Points Rockstar Orchestra founder Rob Thompson doing an acoustic set, as well as Talloolah Love, Nipsy Tussle from Knoxville’s Salome Cabaret, Tora Torrid, Persephone Phoenix, Edie Akimbo, Tru Bliss, and my Wednesday night Beginning Burlesque class from Studio Burlesque.  Fritzengreuben was our Master of Ceremonies with Tupelo Honey as our stage kitten.

Our show on Tuesday, June 11, will have some amazing burlesque – Florida’s Tokyo Bell incorporates fire into her stripping, Atlanta favorite Ursula Undress will be there, Jed Drummond will be singing and playing his ukulele, there will be sexy juggling, some sultry singing and many more burlesque dancers.  Remember -10 acts for $10, so it’s a surprise as to who the other performers will be!  The next one on July 16 is so secret I can’t tell you anything other than it’s gonna be awesome!

Katherine Lashe. Photo credit: PinUp Girl Cosmetics.

Studio Burlesque is another milestone for the Atlanta burlesque community. How did that get started and what was your role in its fruition?

I have been teaching burlesque classes for almost six years in borrowed/rented spaces. It was really only a matter of time before someone realized the popularity of burlesque was on the rise and that there should be a studio dedicated to it.  An investor approached multiple members of the Atlanta burlesque community until he found the right fit which happened to be the valedictorian of the very first Syrens of the South graduating class: Ursula Undress.  She and I had a long talk about it after she was approached, and her mission statement was beautiful and her heart was in the right place, so I decided to move my regular classes to Studio Burlesque.  I’ve given a little advice just because of the six years of previous experience, but with the festival taking off, it’s really nice to get to just show up as a teacher rather than organizing all the classes like I used to.  Many of my former students became teachers in the Syrens of the South class series and now teach at Studio Burlesque.  I am very proud of all of them and love that there’s a home for everyone in Atlanta Burlesque to be able to come to learn and to teach.

Are classes just for aspiring burlesque performers? Could any of them be an alternative to a conventional boring exercise class?

The regular weekly classes are for anyone at any level of dance experience.  My Beginning Burlesque class on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. has people who have never danced before and a few seasoned performers, however, they all work great together in learning the new choreography we do each month.  For those who want to try performing, I’ve been offering a performance spot for that class at each of the Tease Tuesdays.  Students get a little firsthand taste of the performance experience and can then decide if it’s something they want to try.  The performance track classes are for those that are interested in becoming burlesque performers or at least getting a solo opportunity on stage.  It consists of three months of classes; we focus on getting them on stage for a student showcase at the end of the three months.  The next performance track series will be starting in July after July 4th.

Debut-Tease is coming up this Saturday. Some people might be reluctant to come to a beginners’ show. Tell us why they’re wrong.

I love student showcases!  There is that excitement of it being their first time, and you can see the nerves, the joy, the fear and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment when they walk off the stage.  It’s like watching someone be born without all the gross parts!  However, even if you’re not a big fan of watching newbies, myself and many of the other teachers will be performing as in this show, so many professional performers will be gracing the stage as well as all the newbies.  Ursula Undress, Talloolah Love, Fonda Lingue and The Chameleon Queen will be performing, just to name a few!

Are any of your students performing? Any star student in particular to watch out for?

Every student that is debuting on the 15th is part of the Studio Burlesque Performance Track Classe Series so I have gotten to teach them all as I teach the History of Burlesque and Tassels and Gloves classes in that series.  Many of them also come to my Wednesday night class so I’ve gotten to know a few of them fairly well.  If I had to pick one to watch I’m going to have to say A to Zee as he is the only boy making his debut that night.  I’ve seen his work in progress, and I think everyone will have fun with it. Being the only guy, I think he’ll succeed in inspiring other gentlemen to come out and learn the art of boylesque!

Finally, burlesque is just one of your talents. You have a background in theater and were heavily involved with 7 Stages‘ hit DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA. Anything you’d like to share about that experience and what’s next for that production? Or anything else you’re up to?

Yes, I was honored to be the stage manager for DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA!  The finished recording of the awesome soundtrack from our show will be finalized and out for sale on CD sometime soon.  We’ll be doing a concert version in February so do keep your eyes peeled for that!  I went to school for musical theater and am now finishing up a degree in technical theater to balance out my onstage and off-stage experience, which is good since I was just the lighting designer for LADY LAY, a great play at 7 Stages Theater that closed out the 2012-13 season.  I’ve also been a stage manager for The Imperial OPA Circus for a few years, and look forward to continuing at 7 Stages in the 2013-14 season.  After Dracula, I really just found my home at 7 Stages as I love everyone who works there and what they are trying to do through art and community building.

Katherine Lashe. Photo credit: PinUp Girl Cosmetics.

I’ve recently been made a member of their fundraising committee and am helping to put together a brunch at Our Way Cafe on June 23.  Brunch will include a concert by the awesome local band Till Someone Loses an Eye, and benefits will go to 7 Stages.  Mark your calendars!  Also, our Syrens of the South 6th year anniversary show will be held on the main stage at 7 Stages on Aug 3.  I’m splitting the profits with the theater to help them with their fundraising goals.  As 7 Stages is now going to be our new home for our big shows, for instance our Anniversary, Tits for Toys for Tots (Nov 23) and our Vixen’s Valentease show, we want to make sure to start our new marriage by giving them a decent dowry!

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Kool Kat of the Week: Freaks, Geeks and Playing with Teeth: Aileen Loy Is Ready to Sing the Music of the Devil…Well, Till Someone Loses An Eye

Posted on: Mar 6th, 2013 By:

Aileen Loy, performing with Till Someone Loses an Eye at the Star Bar on Jan. 10, 2013. Photo credit: Jolie Simmons.

ATLRetro has had our eye on Atlanta visual and performance artist Aileen Loy for a long time, and now seems like the perfect time to catch up since her band Till Someone Loses An Eye will be playing Sunday March 10 in a three-month second Sunday series at the Corner Tavern in Little Five Points. The unique nine-person ensemble also will be opening for self-described “rockabilly-porno-metal with a country twist” Fiend Without a Face  and Ricer on Wed. March 6 at the Star Bar. Other band members include  Sam McPherson and Michael A. Robinson (L5P Rock Star Orchestra/DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA); Meredith Greer (The Chameleon Queen); Steve McPeeks (Art of Destruction)Frank Anzalone (Walk From the Gallows)Brigitte Warren (Wicked Geisha Ritual Theatre); and Dee Dee Chmielewski (DRACULA).

To call Aileen an eclectic talent would be an understatement for her passions definitely are eclectic and her talent unquestionable. Her singing voice is unexpectedly deep for a woman and has often been compared to Tom Waits. her costumes are always the very spirit of Bohemian and often feature bones, whether she is in full Mexican skull-face Day of the Dead regalia or  a skintight black pants fronted by a human pelvis and skeletal legs. Still to call her a goth would be selling her short. She certainly displays a passion for the macabre, but she also equally embraces the playful, including the recent Renaissance of carnival/circus culture and even a gypsy steampunk edge. Till Someone Loses An Eye lists its influences as Waits, Nick Cave and Gogol Bordello and its interests as “rusted metal, old time circus culture, cheese sandwiches, small rocks, freaks, geeks and miscreants.”

When she is not making music, Aileen crafts cool, creepy jewelry using prosthetic eyeballs and teeth, and she has experimented in film and just about every type of artistic media. If that’s not multi-talented, we don’t know what is. But enough talking about Aileen, let’s get talking to her.

ATLRetro: Seeing your artwork and listening to your music, we can imagine you being closer to Wednesday Addams than Cindy Brady as a little girl. How old were you when you started down the path to the darker side of creativity, and what pulled the trigger?

Aileen Loy: That’s a fair cop – I was a pretty serious and awkward little girl. I’m not sure how to answer the rest of that question but there was probably a library card involved.

Aileen Loy plays a mean harmonica with Till Someone Loses an Eye at the L5P Halloween Festival 2012. Photo credit: Stephen Priest.

Who/what were some of your early inspirations musically and visually that still influence your work today?

Johnny Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, a lot of classical music. My parents had a weird assortment of albums when I was growing up, so I’d go from listening to SONGS OF THE GUIANA JUNGLE, Lord Kitchener, those odd Reader’s Digest collected works of *insert western classical composer or awesome polka guy, here*, lots of Bollywood, Johnny Mathis and a good dose of Kitty Wells, Dolly, Willie Nelson. Rock and roll was kind of special because I got to discover that on my own. Those were the albums we played when the folks were at work or at my friend’s house. Dad went on a “Rock and roll is the music of the devil; we must burn all rock albums and rid the world of it’s horrible influence” phase, so most of my albums stayed in my room hidden safely behind the Mozart and Ravi Shankar. It was an odd time.

Why do you think circus and carnivale culture has made such a comeback and is seemingly in a renaissance in the independent arts scene from burlesque to steampunk to modern-day proud-to-be-freaks shows?

Good question and I don’t really know. I’ve always been drawn to it because it seemed like a magical amorphous place, where one can, not only be exactly what one is, but is encouraged and expected to be fully that – to gain power and reflect competence and heart through what others might view as “freakish.” It’s a place where no one expects tidy and convenient truths. Fantastic stuff. I think I definitely would have felt safer in there as a kid.

Your vocals have often been compared to Tom Waits, which is unusual for a woman. Did you work to create your unique singing voice or did it just come natural?

I’ve always had a little froggy voice, and the vocalists that I really loved had such huge resonance. You could feel them in your chest! So, yeah of course I wanted to sound like them. That would be me, age 5, trying my damnedest to sing Johnny Cash, and eventually I could. I had a voice therapist tell me that I have the physiology for it . My vocal cords are similar to a male’s. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to train that low.

Aileen Loy fronts Till Someone Loses An Eye at 7 Stages during Day of the Cupcake, Oct. 8, 2012. Photo credit: Jolie Simmons

Tell us about Till Someone Loses an Eye, your latest band. Why the name? And what makes this band special and unique musically?

I thought the name was funny. It could be a threat, an eventuality, or an aspiration. The band is personally interesting to me because everyone has such a widely different back story and vibe from one another, and it informs the music in a pretty cool way.

At an Artifice Club performance in fall 2012. Photo credit: James Curtis Barger.

You list some of your collaborators as “heads of mischief.” What do you mean by that?

I was being glib when I wrote that, just trying to fill a page and get it up. But now it’s very apparent to me that it’s absolutely true on its face, no explanation needed. Lovely troublemakers, all of them.

You’re playing twice this week. Wed. March 6 at Star Bar and then Sunday march 10 at Corner Pub, which is going to be a once-monthly event on second Sundays. Do you have any special plans for either show? Why should folks come out?

Wednesday’s show we’re playing with Fiend Without a Face and Ricer, two reasons right there to come. Second Sundays, we have the whole night to do whatever we want. We could play two full sets just us, or have another band open, or musicians sit in for a song or two. This Sunday, the band, Tulsa, is coming through from SXSW and will be doing an early opener set at 8:30.

A vintage stag pocketwatch sporting a prosthetic eye designed by Aileen Loy.

What are you up to in the visual arts right now? Last time I checked you were making beautiful jewelry involving teeth.

Still plugging away, trying to up the scope of the teeth jewelry a bit and take it to a logical conclusion, not sure what that is. I’ve got a few new projects brewing, but it’s still to foggy to talk about them with any kind of intelligence.

What artistic or musical accomplishment are you most proud of so far, and why?

I’m just happy I’m doing it. Neither was particularly supported when I was growing up, so I kind of always found my own way around. Definitely, a late bloomer.

Finally we had to ask. What’s your favorite whiskey and why?

Is there ever a bad whiskey?

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Kool Kat of the Week: The Beating Heart of Art: Garrett DeHart and His Poe-Inspired Short Film IF I AM YOUR MIRROR

Posted on: Feb 22nd, 2013 By:

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Atlanta native filmmaker and photographer Garrett DeHart is the mastermind behind one of the most inventive short films ATLRetro has seen in recent years: IF I AM YOUR MIRROR. An adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the film takes Poe’s lean exercise in mounting paranoia and expands it into a fractured document of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the years following the Civil War. Beyond the narrative twists taken with Poe’s themes, the film dramatically stylizes the world its characters inhabit – presenting it as a living Victorian-era oil painting imbued with the blood, spit, dirt and murk both of the time and of its main character’s mind. The portrayal of that lead character by the late actor Larry Holden in one of his last roles, is a triumph: in turns fierce and fragile, proud and pitiable. Currently available for viewing online, this immersive 18-minute epic is well worth your time.

In honor of this horrific accomplishment, ATLRetro goes Really Retro with this week’s Kool Kat.  We spoke with Mr. DeHart about his experiences making the film, the techniques behind creating the images, his influences, his local ties and much more.

ATLRetro: IF I AM YOUR MIRROR has a remarkable visual style, resembling an oil painting come to life. Were there any particular artists that inspired the look of your film? Filmmaking-wise, who influenced you on this particular project?

Garrett DeHart: I’ve always loved Poe, and  I had been playing around with a process to make live action film look like an animated oil painting. I thought the color and composition of Romantic painting, the predominant painting style of Poe’s time, was very well-equipped to tell a story inspired by Poe’s voice. I added a bit more dirt, grim and blood, and I think, with that, it’s a style that lends itself well to my voice as well. I did research on Romantic painting as a whole, but was really drawn to the paintings of Eugène Delacroix, J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Wilmer Dewing.

As far as filmmakers, the process was, of course, inspired by Richard Linklater‘s WAKING LIFE.  I loved what he did, turning live action into animation, to create a world of dreams, and really loved the look of his Rotoshop films. But I really wanted something that had a bit more texture and grim to it, and also wanted something that I could do myself.  After I saw WAKING LIFE, I started working on the process and used it in my film THE PROBLEM WITH HAPPINESS (2004) a 70-minute film that was projected on three discrete screens and had an accompanying seven-piece live band playing the score. We had 300 people at Eyedrum for the premiere and then later played The Earl before the band broke up. It was a sci-fi film in which the protagonist’s world slowly turns into a moving oil painting. I was never really happy with the effect that I was able to produce for that film and so I kept playing around with the process. The narrative was inspired by the films of Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier.

Could you describe how you came to create MIRROR’s striking look? How long did it take to bring such a heavily-stylized project to fruition?

The actors were shot on green screen at a small studio at Georgia State University. Aside from a few chairs, luggage and miscellaneous props, everything else was added in post. I developed a process through Photoshop to stylize the actors’ frames and ran each frame of each element in a scene through Photoshop to add the effect. Many of the shots have multiple layers on each actor, and the layers were then rotoscoped in to create lighting effects, shadows and a greater depth of field with the paint effects. The backgrounds were developed from stills, paintings and created graphics. Those backgrounds were then layered and animated in After Effects. Some of the shots have hundreds of layers in them. The final shot of the film took over 30 hours to render. I pushed the capabilities of After Effects in working in a 2D for 3D world. I did all of the post for the film on my MacBook Pro. The computer was running full speed around the clock for over two years. I’m typing this now on the same machine. The whole process took a bit over two years.

You also directed DOGME #55: A PICNIC AND A STROLL. You’re obviously not frightened by taking on a wide variety of styles, as MIRROR is about as far away from the Dogme 95 philosophy as possible! Which turns out to be more difficult (or, alternately, more fulfilling) for you as a filmmaker: following the self-imposed restrictions of the Dogme 95 movement, or the technical demands of an effects-heavy film like MIRROR?

I was really inspired by the Dogme 95 manifesto. I really like the idea of using real people, instead of actors, when possible, and breaking down the spectacle of lighting and score, and using a handheld, cinéma vérité camera style to get to some truth. I think my tendency would be to lean more towards a Dogme esthetic, at least in the way in which I direct actors. Now that I think about it, It might be compelling to try and develop one of Poe’s stories as a Dogme style film.  But I don’t think even Von Trier or Vinterberg ever made a truly pure Dogme 95 film, and while I think there are some very important ideas in the Dogme 95 movement, I’m really most inspired by very stylized expression in films. I also love the graphics and effects and the spectacle of fantasy and horror films.

I did MIRROR for my graduate thesis and I really wanted to experiment with this effect that I had developed. They have a great studio at DAEL (Digital Arts Entertainment Laboratory), and I wanted to utilize the GSU facilities while I had the chance to access all of their equipment for free. We shot almost everything in the DAEL blue-screen studio at GSU and got to utilize all of the studio equipment.

I’m not sure which style is harder as a means of telling a story well. I know which takes longer.

How did you come to work with the late Larry Holden, and how was your experience working with him on MIRROR?

I met Larry on the set of another film a few years prior to my film. My friend had written him a letter, told him he was trying to make his first feature and asked if he’d be willing to be in the film. Larry drove across the country for that film, so when it came time to make my film, I thought he would be perfect for the role [and] I wrote him and asked if he would star in the film.

Larry was an amazing cast member to have on set. The experience and vitality he brought to the set really energized everyone working on the project. For most of us on set he was the biggest name we had worked with, but he was incredibly humble and was really dedicated to working with and teaching everyone on set. He had been in Christopher Nolan’s films and a lot of TV, but he was making his own films whenever he could, and when he had time he would travel across the country, for little more than expenses, to help and teach those who were trying to learn the craft. He stayed with some friends of mine up the street from my house during the shoot.

He was not only incredibly influential to all of the crew that he worked with for less than a week, but many folks in the neighborhood became very close with him in that time as well. My neighbors traveled across the country to go to his funeral. I was not able to make the trip at that time. It’s an incredible loss. He was an amazing artist and an amazing person, and we all feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend some time with him.

Poe’s stories are known for how streamlined they are, which makes adapting them almost impossible without necessarily expanding on the source material, or deviating from it in some way. MIRROR provides a particularly novel take on Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” How did you decide on your approach to the source material?

Initially I had planned to shoot a straight version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” told through the lens of Romantic painting, with voiceover. I had all the pre-production done and was ready to shoot and make that film. As I got Larry Holden interested in and then brought him onto the project, he convinced me that “The Tell-Tale Heart” films had been done enough and that it might be more interesting to take Poe’s story and its themes and let those inspire a new story. After some research, I realized that while a modern “Tell-Tale” done well could be really compelling, he was right and that I needed to develop something new: something that would express my voice. So I dug in, and with the help of a couple of friends, developed a script that I thought respected Poe’s legacy but might expand on who his characters were and the world they may have inhabited.

Garrett DeHart on set of IF I AM YOUR MIRROR.

I had the blueprint of all that pre-production I had done for the Tell-Tale script, but I was convinced we were making something new now—something certainly more challenging for me. So it wasn’t really a difficult process in deciding what to add or subtract. Poe’s story works really well in its minimalism and focus. He excludes all details that don’t lend directly to the development of the protagonist’s obsession and insanity. I was working on a new project; a film inspired by Poe. I think that “inspired by” gave me the freedom to expand on Poe’s ideas and imagine circumstances that may have brought his characters to the situations they experience in his story, and in that imagining I was creating my own story, a story that explored some slightly different, maybe more contemporary themes.

My first edit of the film we shot was almost 50 minutes. It was really more about pacing than it was about cutting scenes. But many of those quick shots, that last only a few frames, were 5, 10 or even 30 seconds long in the first cut. I was really working from the inspiration of Malick and Von Trier in the pre-production process. I imagined the film as a very slow, melodic PTSD nightmare. But as I worked with the film more and more, I found something of a thriller in it, and it seemed a bit pretentious to let the scenes linger like they were. I loved the 30-second wide, static shot of the train driving across the horizon, or 30 seconds of his wife walking through a burning wheat field, or a 5-minute flashback of the Civil War, but as I lived with the film day and night for two years, I realized this was a short, not a feature. I felt the audience might find it a bit tiring, and I wasn’t sure the long shots and extra scenes were really helping to propel the narrative. I’m happy with the decisions I made in cutting the film down.

Being an Atlanta-centric website, I’m required by city ordinance to ask: what local talent should we be keeping our eyes peeled for in the film? Any notable locals toiling behind the scenes that we should be aware of?

We had an amazing turn-out for crew from GSU grad students and for extras from all over the Atlanta area.

Shane Morton (aka Professor Morte of the Silver Scream Spookshow) was incredibly helpful on set. He did a lot of makeup work on the actors in production to help the paint effect along when we got to post.  He’s always working on cool projects. He did some effects and stars in the TALES FROM MORNINGVIEW CEMETERY horror anthology. He’s always planning and working on Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse, and they are in development on FRANKENSTEIN CREATED BIKERS (The sequel to DEAR GOD NO!).

If you’ve seen any Atlanta independent film you probably know Barefoot Bill (aka Bill Pacer), the Old Man/Evil Eye. Bill is always auditioning in Atlanta when he is not working on his one-man Ben Franklin show. He”ll be doing the Ben Franklin show at AnachroCon this weekend and March 2 at Duluth Historical Museum.

Mari Elle, the wife in the film, is now in LA but comes back to Atlanta to audition for films. She’s in town this week auditioning so catch her while you can. She is fantastic.

Steven Swigart and Chris Escobar were a huge help during production as the anchors of the production team. Chris is now the director of the Atlanta Film Festival and recently made a documentary short, shot partially in Colombia, about the ripple effects of family choices. Steven is making mini-documentaries for a university.

Jeff Ballentine, who let us borrow his large Civil War re-enactor wardrobe, is working on post for his own Civil War film.

What led to your decision to release the film online, rather than pursue the typical festival route? What has the reaction been thus far?

There’s a misconception, I think, that filmmakers are giving their work away for free when they put it online. The truth is that most filmmakers don’t make any money from their films; in fact, most spend hundred or thousands of dollars just trying to get the film seen in festivals. I made IF I AM YOUR MIRROR as my graduate school thesis project, so I wasn’t expecting to make money on the film. I wanted to create a film that exemplified my capabilities at the time, and I feel this film does that. MIRROR, at 18 minutes, is long for a short film and does not easily fit into an established genre. Therefore, it would be difficult to place it in festivals.

The festival circuit, while important, seems to me, just another way to suck money out of the truly indie filmmaking market. At $20 to $50 per entry, it’s just so much time and money that could be spent on the next project. And while seeing a film on the big screen is, of course, a far better experience (I screened my film at the Plaza Theatre and the trailer at the High Museum as part of WonderRoots Best of Generally Local, Mostly Independent Film Series), reaching an audience is really the most important thing, and the potential audience on the web is immense. Tapping that audience is, of course, the key, and that has been somewhat difficult, but I’m doing everything I can to self-promote the film through online media like ATLRetro. The critical response has been great and the film has gotten a lot of attention but, sadly, that has not really translated into as many viewers as I had hoped.

If you like the film, please support independent cinema, and pass it along to your friends and social networks.

This past October, I saw the 7 Stages production of DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA, and when I saw your film later at the Plaza, there were a few effects shots in the video projection that looked familiar—primarily some shots of the train and the train station itself. Given the overlap in talent between these projects, I have to ask: were these your handiwork?

Yes. Rob Thompson was in MIRROR and asked, when they started to develop DRACULA, if they could use some of the footage for the backgrounds of the rock opera. I adjusted a few of the shots and gave them longer takes, and I’m very happy that MIRROR helped to fill in some of the space of the Dracula rock opera.  We’ve talked about the possibility of doing a music video/short with one of the songs on the soundtrack that will be released this month, but we haven’t had the time to work it out yet.

Are there any future projects on the horizon we should be looking out for?

I’m hoping that getting IF I AM YOUR MIRROR out into the world will facilitate connections with other writers and filmmakers and lead to new projects in the near future.  I’m in development on a Steampunk character study, short film with a style inspired by Wong Kar-wai and Gaspar Noé, that I hope, when complete, I can crowd-source into a TV series or web series. I’m looking for some writers to help in the expansion of that project. Again, if you like the film, please support independent cinema, and pass it along to your friends and social networks.

You can like IF I AM YOUR MIRROR on Facebook and check out the webpage; www.ifiamyourmirror.com.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

All artwork is courtesy of Garrett DeHart.

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Tis The Season for a Love Bite: 10 Tantalizing and Terrifying Reasons to Take Your Valentine to the Atlanta Ballet’s DRACULA

Posted on: Feb 11th, 2013 By:

L-R: Mina (Nadia Mara), Dracula (John Welker) and Lucy (Rachel Van Buskirk) in the Atlanta Ballet's production of Michael Pink's DRACULA. Photo credit: Charlie McCullers.

Last Friday night, ATLRetro had the phantasmagoric pleasure of experiencing the Atlanta Ballet‘s production of Michael Pink’s DRACULA, which plays through Feb. 16 at Cobb Energy Centre. The ballet has now become almost as much of a Valentine’s Day tradition for the company as it’s performances of THE NUTCRACKER are quintessential to an Atlanta Christmas.

Like Seven Stages’ DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA, (which we reviewed here) this version hues surpisingly close to Stoker’s novel, especially in the first act (Harker’s seduction by Dracula’s three brides on a bed will be familiar to rock opera attendees) and even reinstating the American cowboy character of Quincey, though it keeps the characters in London for the climax. In the Atlanta Ballet’s version, however, Dracula runs a fine line of both sexual predator and charmingly seductive, appropriate for a Valentine’s production of a vampire story. Yes, we admit getting being much more hot and bothered when the Count seduces Mina in an electrifying erotic dance than we ever have been seeing a glittered-up Robert Pattinson sinking his teeth into a perpetually bored Kristen Stewart.

So in celebration of this now-Atlanta tradition, we asked the Atlanta Ballet if it could unbury a few behind-the-scenes secrets…

1. Michael Pink’s DRACULA had its world premiere in September 16, 1996, in Bradford Alhambra, England by the Northern Ballet Theatre in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s novel.

2. Production has been seen by over a half a million people worldwide since the world premiere.

3. Atlanta Ballet presented the North American premiere of DRACULA in 1998, and the production broke Atlanta Ballet box office records. The record was then broken again the following season when the company restaged the work for an encore presentation.

4. Dancers who portray Dracula receive additional pay for performing stunts of extraordinary risk.

Dracula (John Welker) and Jonathan Harker (Brian Wallenberg) in the Atlanta Ballet production of Michael Pink's DRACULA. Photo credit: Charlie McCullers.

5. Dancers in the production wear hand-tied wigs costing over $2,000.

6. It takes at least an hour and a half for the dancer performing Dracula to get in costume and makeup, and at least 15 minutes of work after each performance to remove the makeup and wig.

7. Artistic Director John McFall performed the role of Renfield in the Company’s original production in 1998.

8. David Grill, lighting designer of Michael Pink’s DRACULA, has designed the lighting for numerous Super Bowl halftime shows, including Beyonce‘s performance at this year’s showdown between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.

9. Nick Dudman [blood] is the “drink” of choice for Atlanta Ballet’s Dracula. Dudman Blood was created by costume and special effects director Nick Dudman whose film credits include the HARRY POTTER series, STAR WARS V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, BATMAN, ALIEN 3 and INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE.  It’s apparently the most realistic blood on the market.

10. There are about 40 dancers cast in Atlanta Ballet’s production of Dracula.

BONUS 11: “My favorite scene is the Dracula and Harker part at the end of Act 1,” says Brian Wallenberg, who plays Jonathan Harker in Cast A. “Whether I’m dancing it or not, it’s just one of the best parts of the Ballet. It’s the most fun experience that a character goes through.”

To find out more and purchase tickets to the Atlanta Ballet’s DRACULA, click here.

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Kool Kat of the Week/Retro Review: Sex, Blood and Rock n Roll: Jesus Christ Superstar meets Grand Guignol in Not-To-Be-Missed Dracula The Rock Opera

Posted on: Oct 12th, 2012 By:

Dracula and his wives in DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA at 7 Stages; L-R: Jessika Cutts, Rob Thompson, Naomi Lavender, Madeline Brumby.

In this Week’s Kool Kat, we break the rules and give it to more than one person – those crazy kids in the Little Five Points Rock Star Orchestra.  Don’t miss DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA before it closes this Sunday, October 14 at 7 Stages. 

DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA melds JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR with Grand Guignol in a production that not only rocks hard and delivers a horrific, non-twinkly Nosferatu, but also is surprisingly true to Bram Stoker‘s original novel. Not to be missed, this DRACULA brings the rock opera genre into the 21st century with the energy, musical, acting and staging quality of an off-Broadway find. Seeing it is like discovering HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY ITCH in 1998 or THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW in a tiny upstairs theater in London in 1973. But hey, wait a second, this is Atlanta’s 7 Stages Theatre, not New York, not London, not even LA or Chicago. And it’s not Rob Zombie, but Rob Thompson. How the HELL did that happen?

The short answer is years of hard work by the Little Five Points Rock Star Orchestra, a motley crew of badass tattoo-covered Atlanta musicians, stage professionals and grassroots performance artists whom you haven’t heard of most likely unless you live here. If you don’t live in Atlanta, you probably won’t believe this gang of music misfits, most with ultra-light theater experience, has produced a libretto, lyrics, acting and staging that set DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA tooth and claw above community theater.Maybe you’ll be more convinced when I point out that they did have the benefit of Del Hamilton, a seasoned internationally acclaimed director, to guide them. DRACULA will be the last of 80 shows which he has directed before he steps down as artistic director of 7 Stages, building with Faye Allen, a reputation for this company as one of Atlanta’s most edgy. It’s a testament to Hamilton’s vision that he was willing to take on a venture in the pop culture/horror arena as his swan song (though he will continue to stay active in 7 Stages). Clearly Hamilton drove the cast and production crew to their highest potential, ably assisted by longtime Atlanta actor Justin Wellborn, who returned from Los Angeles to work on DRACULA.

Harker (Chris Love) receives a dire warning from a gypsy woman (Naomi Lavender).

In JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, the son of God is reborn as a rock star, and so likewise is the iconic vampire dark lord of fiction as Rob Thompson emerges on stage, dressed as Vlad the Impaler with a long dark mane, a Gothic red velvet vest so pointy it looks like it could cut you, and tight black leather pants. At first he is bending his fingers and arching his back, creating a shadow image creepily reminiscent of Max Schreck in the iconic silent NOSFERATU (1922). But soon recharged by the promise of a new feeding ground in England, he is re-uniformed in a blood-red cape, red and black boot chaps and a sword. With his petulance, cockiness and powerful voice, Jim Morrison meets Ozzy as Thompson emotes on the power of blood to a heavy beat right out of Black Sabbath.  This Count is no romantic sparkly vampire, but a black metal superstar of evil whose immortality is dependent on the death of humanity.

When ATLRetro reviewed the first act, then titled HAUS VON DRACUL, during a trial run last year, we called that review “Dracula Superstar but Love is the Answer.” That tagline still holds true in that DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA is unique among Dracula dramatizations for having a strong/non-wimpy rendition of Jonathan Harker in the transcendent voice and passionate mannerisms of African-American actor/musician Chris Love. With a lion’s mane of long black hair, Love is already a daring visual choice for a role too often played close-cropped and straight-laced. Now Thompson has caught up with Love, but Love, as Harker, continues to embody the everyman (us by proxy) as he arrives on stages and declares in a moving opening solo that “a good man is a true man”  and later a stranger in a strange land, “all alone away from Mina.” Bram Stoker’s novel is written in the epistolary form with characters expressing their ebbing terror through diary entries and letters, and this rock opera masterfully embraces that format, often taking lines directly from the book and making the audience a confidante. In Love’s hands, Harker’s predicament gets progressively lonelier, reminds us that the vampire is evil and not to be embraced, progressively raising the stakes and easing the first act towards a sense of doom with no hope and escape.

Van Helsing (Jeff Langston, center) and Lucy's three suitors, Quincey (Shane Morton), Seward (Chaz Pofahl) and Arthur (Jed Drummond) make a "vein" attempt to save Lucy's (Jessika Cutts) life with blood transfusions.

Beyond Dracula’s tight leather pants, the “sex” side of rock n roll comes center stage early in Harker’s seduction by Dracula’s three wives, played to a perfect sirenic pitch by Muleskinner MacQueen Trio chanteuse Naomi Lavender (who also plays a gypsy woman and Mina), Madeline Brumby (known in the neo-exploitation movie world for her breakout role in also-Atlanta-produced DEAR GOD! NO!) and Jessika Cutts (who also plays Lucy). Their breasts show through white diaphanous robes, a clear homage to the sexy female vampires of Universal, Hammer and the lesbian vampire B-movie genre, and this production ups their otherworldly quality by adding exotic Eastern European headpieces and dance moves reminiscent of a Kali ritual. The actresses achieve a chemistry in their ethereal voices and interplay that only heightens the erotic tension and also their profound loneliness, trapped in the castle with the Count.

The first act showcases how to effectively use minimalist sets, lighting and an ensemble cast. No coach is needed with just Harker sitting vulnerably on steps while a mad driver thrashes a long whip, a small herd of humans outfitted in haphazard fur pelts furiously keeping pace to a metal beat. Less is more is also well-executed in the similarly soundtracked (the beat always gets heavy when Dracula is at his most bloodthirsty) ship scene conveying the hopelessness of the captain (Rick Atkinson) trying in vain (vein?) to keep his ship afloat in a stormy sea while the Count devours his crew in one of the play’s bloodiest scenes (watch out, front row!).

Van Helsing (Jeff Langston), Vampire Slayer!

DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA has to introduce a lot of new characters rapidly in the second act, and this task is mostly achieved well, including characters who appear in the book but often excluded from screen and stage. In a poppy update of Cole Porter’s “Tom, Dick and Harry” from KISS ME KATE, Lucy (Jessika Cutts) enthusiastically emotes to her best friend Mina (Naomi Lavendar) about her three suitors, earnest, bowler-hat-wearing Arthur (musician Jed Drummond in his stage debut); Dr. Seward (Charlotte, NC-based actor Chaz Pofahl), who runs the asylum (how romantic!); and Quincey, an American cowboy played with appropriate “home-on-the-range” swagger and just the right nod of humor by Atlanta horror Renaissance man-about-town Shane Morton (Professor Morte of the Silver Scream Spookshow, DEAR GOD! NO!, Gargantua, etc.) against type – in other words, more country than rock (Note: because of Shane also being the mastermind of the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse, Arnie Lowder is now playing this role Thurs-Sat for the last few weeks of the run).

We already have a sense of Mina from Harker’s songs about her. Like in so many Dracula dramatizations, she could be just a romantic foil and vampire victim but fortunately Lavender’s unique voice – Kate Bush meets Janis Joplin, with a twist of Jane Wiedlin?! – and sheer dynamic energy forestall that possibility, ultimately ensuring she will be an equal to the otherwise male vampire-hunting team. Renfield’s crazed obsessiveness with Dracula is portrayed with a manic frenzy and an appropriately metalhead of frizzy curly hair in a breakout performance by Rick Atkinson, who has been with the L5P Rockstar Orchestra since its first production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR in the mid 2000s.

Meanwhile, Dracula in London is more of an omnipresent villain, now re-energized by a city full of fresh blood into full throttle rock star and re-attired in a black leather jacket (think actual suit jacket – Steve Tyler, not Sid Vicious). Fortunately Thompson and company recognize that he needs a similarly rocked-out foil not a dawdling elderly professor. Not your mama’s Van Helsing, this vampire hunter in purple is Doctor Strange meets Freddie Mercury. Jeff Langston, of hard-rocking Atlanta-based bands Ledfoot Messiah and AM Gold,  is just the hard-edged leader to unite Lucy’s triad of suitors to try and save first her life (no, they don’t succeed despite a steampunky transfusion gizmo) and then Mina’s as the Count makes them his inevitable victims. Ultimately, the intrepid group must travel all the way back to Transylvania to finish the battle, and as for the end, if you’ve read the book, well, you know it. And if you haven’t, you may well be surprised.

Rob Thompson as Count Dracula/Vlad the Impaler.

Ultimately that DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA is bound and determined to be tightly faithful to Stoker’s novel is both its strength and an occasional weakness, however, because occasionally that fealty causes some dramatic challenges. For example, after act one, it seems impossible when Mina receives a letter from Jonathan Harker that he has somehow escaped Castle Dracula. (Maybe a side performance showing Harker escape in pantomime might clarify?). Another scene that felt like it needed a little more work was a city scene in which Harker spies the Count for the first time in London stalking female victims. But these really are only small complaints in what overall is a fantastic production. Let’s hope for an encore soon and more runs well beyond Atlanta.

All photos courtesy of 7 Stages and DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA and used with permission.

 

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Days and Nights of the Dead: Zombies Walk and Stage an Apocalypse This Halloween Season in Atlanta

Posted on: Oct 8th, 2012 By:

Don't mess with Eddie Ray and these tough, battle-scarred babes of the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse.

The rest of the nation thinks Atlanta is the zombie capital of America because THE WALKING DEAD is filmed here. But the undead walked here long before Hollywood arrived and the best local zombie activities are completely conceived by homegrown brains.

First off, mark your calendar and break out your creepiest make-up for not one, but two Zombie Walks. Organized by Luke Godfrey, one of the sick brains behind Splatter Cinema, Zombie Walk Atlanta 2012 is this Sunday Oct. 14. This seventh annual event is the city’s largest and starts at Wonderroot at 3 p.m., but show up much earlier if you need help with your make-up. After you’ve walked with the dead, head over to Luke’s other bloody creation, Chambers of Horrors. For more about Luke and the city’s most extreme adults-only horror attraction, read last year’s ATLRetro interview with Luke here.

The dead don’t just have their day inside the Perimeter. The 2012 Marietta Zombie Walk  is Saturday October 27 from 5 to 7 p.m. during the Carnival of Doom festival. Register and buy a T-shirt here.

Finally, every night is The Night of the Living Dead at the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse, now in its own third season and expanded to include two different walking attractions, Curse of the Undead and ZWar and a zombie shoot at Safety Wolf, the paintball combat complex off Moreland Avenue, just south of I-285 (open Thurs.-Sun. nights throughout October and on Oct. 31). Set in and around a two-story abandoned motel, this more-than-100,000-square-foot attraction was nightmared up by the maniacal minds of local horror Renaissance man/make-up artist Shane Morton (Silver Scream SpookshowGargantua, Dear God! No!, Dracula The Rock Opera, etc.) and Jonny Rej (Plaza Theatre). Much more than your traditional walk-through haunt with jump-out monsters, AZA delivers a total immersion “experience,” in which attendees interact along the way with a variety of colorful characters living and undead. It’s sometimes hard to know who to trust but if someone says “run,” let’s just say you can be sure zombies are around, and if you don’t, you may get bitten and infected yourself or worse – eaten for your brains!

In “Curse of the Undead,” the origins of the zombie apocalypse are cultists reanimating the dead with arcane incantations. If you’re an EVIL DEAD fan, this one’s for you which makes the most of the addition of four acres of woods and even includes a zombie-killing hero named Bruce! My group was fortunate to have the protection of a police officer, played by talented local blogger filmmaker Eddie Ray (SATANIC PANIC: BAND OUT OF HELL) who did a great job of making us aware of a certain missing person problem and even imbued a little Southern-fried humor. FYI, we also encountered a few other familiar faces from the Silver Scream Spookshow and the Atlanta music scene.

Classic horror fans also will enjoy nods to Lovecraft (apropos since The Necronomicon raises THE EVIL DEAD) and the whole subgenre of B-movies featuring robed Satanists from THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968) to RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975). Wear comfortable shoes (open-toes are no-nos) and watch where you step in the woods to not trip on tree roots. The journey is well worth a travel, but after all the build-up, my group’s one disappointment was that we expected one more final big scare that we didn’t get. AZA is constantly evolving and tends to improve with every week, so perhaps that may change.

“ZWar” picks up where the last two AZAs left off with the sinister Center for Disease Development (CDD), now developing a high-tech mega-weaponized zombie. Last year introduced an ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK-like scenario with a seedy encampment of humans as potentially dangerous as the undead. ZWar begins outside in the back parking lot with a similar brutal gang of people who use zombies for sport and a redneck overlord demanding our group steal drugs from the CDD for them. Once indoors, zombies menace, a brawny commando protects us with a machine gun and there’s the prerequisite mad scientist, but things really heat up when the scientist’s nervous victim takes the lead to find a way out. Without giving away any spoilers, the actor in that role did a fantastic job of upping the tension (does he really know where the exit is?). Will you make it out without encountering the CDD’s Necro-Tech warriors? Let’s just say, there’s no climax disappointment here.

Tickets to the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse are $20 for each attraction, $30 for both ZWar and Curse, $30 for the zombie shoot or $55 for everything! Located just south of I-285, off Moreland Road; directions here.

Category: Features | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kool Kat of the Week: Joel Burkhart Plans on Doing Something With It; AM Gold Throws a CD Release Party at the Star Bar

Posted on: Sep 27th, 2012 By:

AM Gold at Oakland Cemetary. Photo credit: David Batterman.

By Torchy Taboo
Contributing Writer

My radio was my best friend from grade school all through college. I knew every word to every song and spent my teen years trying to stretch my tiny hands across the frets to eke out “Smoke on the Water” like the rest of my artsy friends. An Atlanta band has emerged called AM Gold that speaks to the growed-up heart looking for that “me and my radio” feeling. They will celebrate the release of their first CD, PLANNING ON DOING SOMETHING WITH IT, this Friday September 28 at the Star Bar with Higher Choir and My Rebel Episode.  A dream-team of an outfit, they’re fronted by this week’s Kool Kat guitarist Joel Burkhart, who was good enough to give ATLRetro the back-story on growing up in the glory days of AM radio, his past bands and Star Bar shenanigans.

Torchy/ATLRetro: Tell me about AM Gold.

Joel Burkhart: AM Gold started as a dream. Several nights in a row I had this dream of a band playing on the top of a hill. There was sunlight behind them so all I could see were the long shadows of the band cascading down the hill. The golden rays of the sun eclipsing any details other then the shadows of the people playing. The sound was a chorus of voices, not heavenly like a choir but more earthly and gritty. I heard them singing these lines:

“These are the songs we like to sing
Makes us forget most everything
This is the way that I want to feel
Soft as love and strong as steel.”

After the third or fourth night of this dream, I picked up the guitar and wrote that song. Then I started putting together the band. I knew it would possibly be the last band I ever put together so it had to be amazing. It had to have great players but this time it also had to have great singers. This was going to be all about the words and the melodies. If I wanted them to shine I had to get the right people to be in the chorus.

I have played with Jim [Stacy], Eric [Young] and Jeff [Langston] for years and knew what they were capable of. Jim Stacy has been a lead singer/frontman for many years with Greasepaint, LaBrea Stompers and Little Women and sings with me in The Downers. He was first on the list, but I asked him last because I didn’t think he’d want to be in another band with me. Jeff plays with me in Bully but has also fronted his own bands (Ledfoot Messiah, Ritual, Flathead Fuel) for years. He is quite possibly the best male vocalist in Atlanta that no one knows about. Eric has been my drummer through Mulberry Street, Bully, The Downer Brothers and now AM Gold. Along the way he started singing back-ups and is one of the best singing drummers around. He also makes playing drums look as easy as breathing. Musically I have never played with a better drummer. I have a hard time imagining my songs with anyone else playing drums on them.

When it came time to complete the rhythm section, there has always been a combination that I wanted to hear together. I had Eric and now I was lucky enough to get Blake [Parris] to say yes also. Blake is this town’s hidden treasure. Someday someone who can pay him properly for his services is going to come and take him on the road and we won’t ever see him again. Blake is an amazing bass player and singer – probably one of the best -but he can play almost anything: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, lead, rhythm, banjo, lap steel, pedal steel, keys… I really bet that you could give him a trombone, and in 15 minutes he would have a proper part written for a song. There is nothing that I can play or sing that won’t be made significantly better with Blake. He could just sit onstage with anyone and make then sound better. Seriously.

The final piece to the puzzel was a keyboard player. The only person that even crossed my mind was Jett [Bryant]. While he is not one given to the art of practice, he is one of the best damn singers in the game of rock and roll. He knocked’em dead in the Rock City Dropouts and kills it every night with Bigfoot. With AM Gold, he is pitch perfect and brings the pretty. I am sure that this is the most professional band I have ever played with. Practices and rehearsals are exciting and fun. We always have fun playing shows and hell, on top of all of that, we like each other. We all genuinely like being in the same room and shooting the shit. When the 6 of us are playing and singing together it is magic. There is no other word for it.

Joel, where are you from? Did you grow up listening to AM radio?

Joel: I am originally from Detroit. Lived there until the age of 5. Lived in farm country – Tecumseh,MI – for a few years before moving to Brighton, Michigan. I spent the 1980s as a mall rat in the suburbs. I moved to Atlanta when I turned 19 [in 1989].

Totally grew up listening to AM radio early on in Detroit – WJBK, WXYZ and CKLW. Later listened to commercial FM Radio – WRIF, WLLZ – and the college stations from University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University.

Joel Burkhart. Photo Credit: John McNicholas.

Do you write much aside from lyrics and when did you first start writing songs?

You know, I used to write all the time. I have notebooks and notebooks of stuff. Poems, short stories, essays, laundry lists – actual and metaphysical – good, bad, everything,  As I have gotten older, I write less but the quality seems to be higher. I think that comes with being married and having kids, but also realizing who I am and what I want to say. When I do put pen to paper these days, there is probably a song there.

I started writing songs pretty late, I think. I was in my mid-teens when I first learned enough chords to have two different parts to a song. Unfortunately the first one sounds a lot like “Under The Milky Way Tonight” by The Church and the second one sounds a lot like “Boys Don’t Cry” by The Cure. It really wasn’t until a few years ago that I started to think I was writing my own songs that sounded like me. I think that’s part of the process: writing and writing and writing until you find your own voice.

Who were your earliest musical influences that stuck with you?

I think like most kids you listen to what is around you at the time, and my earliest influences were from my relatives. Whether it was my cousins listening to Elvis, Chicago, Kiss or Steve Miller; my grandfather listening to hits from the ’40s and ’50s; my grandmother playing WWII ballads on her Wurlitzer; or my uncle’s Rare Earth, Kansas and Yes records, it all influenced me. Some of the best memories I have are driving around singing “Afternoon Delight” [Starland Vocal Band] or “What’s Going On” [Marvin Gaye] along with my mother. Detroit radio was some of the best in the country in the ’70s, and my mother, in particular, was pretty influential in my early years. She loved music and loved singing; whether it was rock, soul or country, she listened to it all. Our record collection had Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Paul Williams, Barbra Streisand and the Bee Gees. Another big record that stuck with me was Tom T. Hall record SONGS OF FOX HOLLOW – For Children of All Ages. My grandmother gave that to me. I wore that thing out.

Who’d you listen to that makes you ask, “What was I thinking?  and how’d you ‘take their sad song ‘n make it betta’? Even the questionable influences of childhood can positively shape budding creativity, right?

When I was a young child, we had one of those small Imperial portable record players and I would go from room to room when my parents had parties putting on my “show.” I would carry my record player, my yardstick – which doubled as microphone and guitar – and my favorite record, Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” b\w “Delta Dawn.” I would sing through side one, take my break and then sing through side two. Man, I could rock that shit.

While there was some questionable hair metal that I listened to in the ’80s – TnT, Krokus, Helix anyone? – I can’t really disavow it in good conscience. They are all colors in my crayon box so to speak. Some people are great at painting with one color; I’m not. All of the music that I have listened to tends to find its place in the songs that I write for my different bands.

Before the Star Bar sound booth days, what was your worst day job, and did I hear the residue of that angst in your band Bully?

I did death scene clean up for almost two years. It was miserable work, didn’t pay very well, boss was a dick. That was very influential in the Bully songwriting process. “Quitter,” “Spit,” “I Don’t Feel Well,” “2nd Drawer Down.” All from that period of time. I’d come home pissed off and beat, fire up the bong, hit the Jaeger and let it all out. Thankfully my work life is less stressful now, but I think that was what life is supposed to be like in your 20s, living hard and carefree.

What was it like working sound at the Star Bar? Favor us with a story of your days in the booth.

So much to tell – Jim Stacy and I once spent 30 minutes trying to get a G string on Hasil Adkins’ guitar while a nearly sold-out house waited impatiently. He had a box of old guitar strings he carried with him, every one of them old and rusty. Just looking at the box gave me tetanus. For some reason, none of them were the right one.

Once we had a kid who was trying to promote some shows – this particular one with Har Mar Superstar – have a breakdown on stage. He started calling out the booker of the club, the owners, the bartenders and finally me. He told the room filled with people I had stolen his guitar and amplifier – which I believe he had left in a friend’s car or sold for meth – and that he wasn’t a “fat, jaded motherfucker” like me. I, for sure, took the brunt of it, I guess because he was on stage staring right at me. I think most everyone thought I was going to kill his mic (or him), but I just let him keep going until he tuckered himself out. He ended up going to a mental hospital a week or so later. Pretty weird.

But I also had some great, amazing memories there. The Ex-Husbands blowing everyone away with an out of left field, dead-on cover of “War Pigs” [Black Sabbath], followed by “Beating around the Bush” by AC\DC.

I remember that!

Alejandro Escovedo bringing over 200 people to complete silence with the breathtaking-ness of his songs; The Drive-By Truckers playing an Atlantis Music Conference and just weeping over the song “Heathens,” knowing things would never be the same for them after that night. That stage is magic.

AM Gold. Photo credit: David Batterman.

As I was on the road last year, I heard a lot of BS about how listening to Johnny Cash was a hipster trait and therefore passe. What would you say to that labeling?

One of the bonuses of being older is that I don’t know if it’s hipster or not. I’ve been listening [to Cash] since the ’70s when I was a kid and never stopped. I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

With The Downer Bros, you and Jim Stacy pay homage to some of Johnny Cash’s most, for the lack of a better word,  “fierce” recordings. You recently rattled the walls at the 12th Annual Cash Bash at the Star Bar [Sept. 22]. How’d the idea for the Downer Bros come about?

Like most of our great ideas, it started off with drinking. During the rockabilly\country revival in the 1990s, there were a lot of bands that would throw in a Johnny Cash or George Jones [song] and do it in whatever style they played. There was no one really doing the slower, lost love, murder ballad stuff, and definitely no one doing it stripped down and acoustic. Jim and I loved that kind of stuff. So when we were waiting for bands to show up or when the night was over, we would play songs, just me and him. Acoustic guitar, harmonica and our two voices, harmonizing and trading songs. It was magic. The name came from trying to describe the music to our good friend Andy McDaniel. He asked what kind of music we were doing and we said “country music, but you know, the ‘downer’ stuff.” It stuck.

I’ve been paying attention and coming to see your bands for a bit now. Do I detect a progression of a happier and more fulfilled man through your musical timeline, having made so many people weep openly, inviting us to be healed and happy – or am I waxing fanciful?

I think there is a definite evolution. Mulberry Street was me getting my feet wet playing and performing but quickly became a little darker then I thought it would become. With Bully, I totally embraced that darkness and anger. When you are more or less penniless, living from day to day, broken-hearted and feeling alone, it is hard to find the light. The Downer Brothers are similar to Bully in that there is some frustration and  loneliness, but instead of being loud and in your face and angry, it was quiet and more thought-out and reserved.

AM Gold it is next logical extension of the realization that there is goodness all around you. Goodness in the things you do, the places you go and the people you meet. The trick, I think, is being open to it, being willing to let it chase away the darkness that has comforted you for so long. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a meanness out there, thriving and consuming, but you have the choice. You can live in fear with the darkness or live in the happiness of the light. Mostly now I choose the light. Some days it is really hard work to find it, but I think it is worth the struggle.

As a performer, what show stands out in your memory?

Probably one of the highlights for me personally was playing in Greasepaint and opening for Tenacious D. It was a sold-out crowd at The Tabernacle here in Atlanta. For AM Gold, it has to be playing The Dogwood Festival earlier this year. A few thousand people on a beautiful day in Piedmont Park. Nobody knew who we were or our songs, but they seemed to really appreciated them and we had a great response.

Honestly though every show is great in its own way. Any time I get to get on stage with my friends and we get to play our original songs, the ones we have practiced a hundred times, the ones we put our time and effort into writing and arranging and performing. That’s a good day.

Worst gig ever has to be the Chili Cook-Off at Stone Mountain last year.  It was the first time in over 20 years I set foot on stage for the sole purpose of making money by playing covers. While we had fun playing our Steve Miller Greatest Hits set at the Star Bar a couple months earlier, when it came to doing those songs again, there was no love for them. While I admire people that can get on stage and play three or four sets of somebody else’s material and are able to support a family doing it, I am not cut from that same cloth. I suppose that’s why I am not able to support a family doing that.

I’ve been the annoying fan begging for CDs forever. What was the AM Gold studio experience, was it documented on film and when will PLANNING ON DOING SOMETHING WITH IT be available? Joshin’, but seriously does being recorded affect your perspective? And by the way, thanks and eager to hear both the Bully and AM Gold disks!

The recording process was really fantastic. We recorded with a great guy named Jimmy Ether at his studio called Headphone Treats. For this recording we were all in the same room, playing together. We set up in the morning, recorded seven songs, and were pretty much done that night. We came back a couple times and overdubbed a few guitar parts, percussion and some vocals, but for the most part, what you hear is what we did that first day. It is a really great way to record. All of the recordings I have ever done previously were all with the drummer in his own room and the guitar amps in their own rooms and the rest of the band usually in the control room listening back through small, tiny speakers. It has always been frustrating for me. I like being able to feel the kick drum and bass, feeling the air move in the room with the music, the rise and fall of the conversation we are all having with one another through our instruments. There is no replacing it.

As for the Bully stuff, we’ve got over 40 songs that had very limited – me handing a homemade CDR to someone – release. I’m hoping to change that later this year. I think we are going to put out three EPs, each having five to seven studio cuts and two to three live recordings. I’m not really sure. We also started re-recording some Bully stuff a couple of years ago that has yet to see the light of day. When your bass player is in one of the biggest metal bands in the world, it gets hard to get everyone together in the same room and on the same page, but hopefully while Troy [Sanders] is home for a little bit between records, we can get some Bully time out of him.

What aspirations does the band muse about for the foreseeable future? Just sheerly hypothetically speaking, what’s next for you creatively?

The thing about us being in our 40s and doing this is that we don’t have the free time and lack of obligations that being 20 something has. Jett [Bryant, keyboards] has Bigfoot and a budding movie career [he was the star of DEAR GOD! NO! and is going to be in the follow up], Blake [Parrish, bass] and Eric [Young, percussion] are both in several bands and are in high demand as players, Jeff [Langston, guitars] has Ledfoot Messiah (they are doing the Kiss Kruise later this year) and he is in DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA (ED note: Watch out for a Retro Review soon) at 7 Stages and Jim [Stacy, harmonica] has the Starlight Six Drive-In and Palookaville to run, as well as a successful TV show and the possibility of a opening a restaurant fairly soon.

And me, I’m not getting any younger. The thought of getting in a van and blowing with the wind down the road trying to find my rock and roll fortunes has long passed me by. The music I write and play isn’t fashionable. I have no hipster cred; my waist size has expanded. I’m not much to look at;  my head is shaped funny. At the end of the day I’m a 43-year-old IT nerd scraping by at a job I don’t care about, working for people who don’t care about me so I can earn money which is spent before I get it so I can keep a roof over my family’s heads and food and clothes in and on our bodies. I have a beautiful wife and family and a life like most people: spectacularly wonderful and exceedingly average. It just depends on what day of the week and how close we are to the next paycheck. Sometimes we have a little more than others, sometimes a little less. In my mind I’m doing all of this for them, hoping for the big pay-off someday. Rational Joel knows that is probably never going to happen.

But still, I have this need to make this music. I tell these stories and dream these dreams. That’s all good music really is. Stories and dreams. I’m going to keep writing and playing every chance I get for whoever will listen. When I have new stories, I write new songs. When I have new dreams, I write new songs.

It’s what I do, I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

Look for me up front and center.

AM Gold. Photo credit: David Batterman.

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