Directing “Short Leg”

I am directing two shows that are currently playing at the San Francisco Fringe Festival:  David Caggiano’s Jurassic Ark, and Wayne Harris’ Tyrone “Short Leg” Johnson and Some White Boys.  I couldn’t be more proud to be working on each of these projects.  David is a sublime movement artist with a delightfully sick sense of humor.  I invite you to learn more about his work by clicking here.

Wayne and I have created a blues play that is backed up by a live band.  Gary Carr, the publicist for the SF Fringe Festival, sent me the following questions to answer about the “Short Leg” project.

Tell me about Wayne Harris.  What has he done before?  Is he primarily a singer or an actor?  Does he have a following? (I talked to one writer who knows his work and loves it.)

I’ve known Wayne for nearly 12 years.  We first met in a David Ford solo performance workshop at The Marsh, and pretty much right away became good friends and artistic peers.  Wayne has built up an expansive and diverse body of work over these past 12 years: three autobiographical shows, a fictional one-man play called Train Stories, a program of John Henry stories that he performs at schools and storytelling festivals, and now this blues show.  He’s a multitalented artist with some serious acting, storytelling, and musical chops.  And yes, he definitely has a following; he has a seemingly effortless way of entrancing people through cadence, observation, hyperbole, and a generous availability to the audience.  In other words, he’s a damn good storyteller.

How was the script developed, and what was your involvement in it?  What attracted you to this show (besides the big bucks)?

Tyrone “Short Leg” Johnson grew out a side project of ours: for the past 5 years Wayne and I have played in a rock & roll band (The InTones) with some other friends.  Just gigging around, playing a mix of R&B, rock, and country.  I play guitar and serve as musical director, and Wayne sings.  Over time he has adopted the stage persona of “Tyrone”– a crusty & lascivious ol’ blues singer.   Even at the parties & fundraising events that our band was playing people seemed to love “Tyrone”, so we began to dream of putting him into a more theatrical context.  And that’s how the idea for this blues play came about.

I’ve been involved in the development of the script from the very start.  The first thing we needed to figure out were the circumstances under which Tyrone finds himself on stage.  So we began to think about all those old blues musicians who found themselves sharing the stage with young white musicians back in the 1960s, a time when young black people were turning away from the blues, but the hippies et al were embracing (co-opting?) the blues.  This created a lot of internal conflict for blues musicians.  On the one hand they were more popular than ever, but they were playing for audiences whose life experiences didn’t have a lot to do with where the blues comes from.   So we created a set of circumstances that has Tyrone on stage with a bunch of essentially amateur white musicians, and Tyrone ain’t happy about that!  But of course, there is a way in which the blues is universal, and ultimately a connection is bridged between Tyrone and his back up band of “hippies”.

Once we had a basic concept for the play Wayne did a little writing, and then we set up some jam sessions with our band.  We experimented with how spoken words could insinuate themselves into classic blues songs like “Wang Dang Doodle”, and over a few months a script took shape. Our band members had a lot of input…essentially they were our writers’ group for this project.  It was an organic & communal process, not without some challenges (as all writing projects have), but mostly a heck of a lot of fun.

 What do you like about Harris as a performer?

Again, he brings a number of skills to the table: he is a tremendous singer, a terrific storyteller, a great actor.  What’s interesting about Wayne is that though he didn’t really get into storytelling & acting until about 15 years ago, he’s been in the performing arts pretty much his whole life as part of world-class marching band teams.  He has won world championships as both a marcher (baritone bugle) and a teacher (working with youth groups).  And that’s where his great sense of musicality, composition, and theatricality comes from.  The other thing I like about Wayne as an artist is that with each project he embraces a new challenge and genre.  One show will be autobiographical and politically timely, the next project with be fictional and musical.  He’s curious about all the different ways that he can push the form of solo performance.

 Who are the “White Boys,” and are they a group that plays together regularly?  What bands have the players been with?  

The “White Boys” are for the most part members of the band The InTones (Wayne and I are members).  Our drummer Jeff Weinmann has a number of other jazz projects (Chattermill Jazz Unit, NDJ Trio), but for the most part our band members have day jobs and families, and playing music is a fun outlet.  That’s not to say the band isn’t a smoking’ ensemble; all of these guys are talented musicians.  And we have one ace up our sleeve: 18-year old Jeremy Goodwin is our lead guitarist, and he is a phenomenal star on the rise.  One of the story lines in the blues play is about the relationship between Tyrone and Jeremy…Tyrone takes the young protege under his wing.

 

How did you approach this show from the standpoint of the director?

I have a lot of experience directing bands, and this project is 50% just that: thinking through arrangements, dynamics, equipment, etc.  Then there is the script…I tend to do a lot of editing work with my clients.   And in terms of working with Wayne, we have been working on when and how he needs to connect with the audience, when and how he needs to connect with the other band members, and perhaps most importantly, what moments need to be private and internal.  Because ultimately you have a character who is embittered and lonely, and it’s important to capture that isolation even when he is on stage fronting a band.

Who else have you worked with recently?

I am the director of David Caggiano’s Jurassic Ark, which is also in the SF Fringe this year.  Jurassic Ark is a hilarious spoof on creationism & Hollywood, and David is a tremendous movement and multimedia artist.  A must-see show unlike any other solo show you’ve ever seen!

This is the third year in a row that I’ve directed a show in the SF Fringe.  Last year I directed Angela Neff’s Another Picnic at the Asylum, and the year before I directed David Jacobson’s Theme Park.

I have also directed Howard Petrick’s Breaking Rank, about his years in the Army as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam war.  Howard has had a lot of success with this show, performing it at fringe festivals across the US and Canada, garnering awards and great reviews.

Other solo performers I have directed include: Kurt Bodden, Victoria Doggett, David Kleinberg, and Garen Patterson.

 Any other thoughts, observations, bon mots, etc?

I am very grateful to producers such as Christina here at the SF Fringe for providing opportunities for solo performers.  I love the work I do as a director; I get to work with fascinating people, and it keeps me on my toes creatively and intellectually.  Just in the past week I have been in rehearsal for projects about creationism, motivational speakers, socialist cults, and the blues.  It’s like being in an American Studies graduate program, only without the exorbitant tuition!

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