Dan Caffrey loves Bruce Springsteen. A musician himself, Caffrey is also Artistic Director for Tympanic Theatre and his influence is apparent in their latest production. Deliver Us From Nowhere: Tales From Nebraska pairs eleven playwrights with ten Chicago directors to create a night of theater inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s legendary album, Nebraska. Each song on the record serves as a springboard for a ten-minute play that explores the track in ways both literal and thematic. Caffrey spoke with Our Town about the innovative show.
Our Town How did the idea for Deliver Us develop?
Dan Caffrey We wanted to produce a night of short theater based on an album for a while. I'm an absolute Springsteen fanatic [and] Nebraska seemed to be the most logical choice; its stories are very much in line with the stories we like to tell as a company: eerie tales about loners and outcasts. You can't listen to that record and not think of ghosts.
OT How did you go about pairing playwrights and directors?
DC Our Literary Manager Chris Acevedo and I first wrote down every possible playwright and director we could think of that might be a good fit. Then we had to narrow it which was really tough. From there, we had every playwright pitch the top three songs they [wanted] to use as inspiration for their piece. Luckily, there wasn't a ton of overlap. We kind of predicted which writers would be drawn to certain pieces. We assigned them each their respective songs, they turned in their work, the directors read all the scripts, then pitched the top two or three they wanted to helm. From there, we tried to build teams consisting of people who had worked together before, as well as directors and writers who had never met. It's important to get that mix.
OT What are some favorite scenes you’ve seen developed from the tracks?
DC Man, that's a tough one. Everyone took a different approach, from the straightforward to the abstract. While I'm hesitant to pick favorites, I always love watching "The Drive," written by Mary Laws and directed by Michael Carnow. It's inspired by the song "Used Cars," which is arguably the least well known on the album. It makes great use of the track's simplicity; just the idea of a family going through some troubled times as they take a normal car ride. I also really dig the final show of the night, "Dead Dogs" (written by Joshua Mikel and directed by John Ross Wilson). It's based on "Reason To Believe" and took the lyrical image of a guy staring down at a dead pet and just ran with it. It's so spooky and sad and has some great, naturalistic performances from Michael Rice and Chris Smith. The vibe feels like No Country For Old Men. I could go on and on about the plays. I really do love all of them.
OT Can you take us through the process of creating your scene?
DC Well, my Dad actually wanted to submit something to be considered. We had already picked playwrights, but I suggested we write something together. He was a New Jersey State Trooper back in the 80s (around the time Nebraska came out), so we of course picked the song "State Trooper." We originally had the play seen through the eyes of the song's protagonist, the guy who gets pulled over. My Dad started telling me all these stories about officers who led double lives--guys who bought houses for both their wives and their girlfriends, you know? And we wanted to have this kind of moral standoff between the officer and the speeder. We eventually simplified it and shifted it to the trooper's point of view. The play deals with moral flexibility, how we're all willing to be morally passionate about one thing, but morally indifferent towards something else. It's not a statement on cops on all, but on all of our moral compasses and how skewed they can get. After we got all that heady stuff out of the way, we added in some of the spooky imagery from the song--gospel stations, radio towers, and the like.
OT So, songs inspired the scenes and from there, scenes inspired original songs that also became part of the show.
DC It's kind of embarrassing, but the idea of having music based on plays based on music sprung from a fear of getting sued. We originally thought about having musicians play each Nebraska song live after its respective play, but we weren't sure if we'd run into any weird rights issues. We probably wouldn't have, but we're a small company and definitely couldn't afford to get sued by Columbia Records or whoever owns the publishing rights. So our alternative was to have musicians write songs inspired by the plays themselves. And I think it worked wonderfully.
OT Any anxiety about creating music essentially based on music that has already been proven great?
DC At first, I was pretty nervous about the idea and tried to give them all this direction on how I thought the music should feel, how it should inform the plays, etc. But I found it was best to just let them run with it. They're all incredibly smart players and songwriters and their instincts were right on the money. I know a couple of them didn't even listen to Nebraska at all while they were writing their music, as they wanted to make sure they were doing their own thing. That was a classy move on their part.
OT Do you have to be a Springsteen fan to enjoy the show?
DC Not at all. We've had a good mix of Springsteen obsessives and people who only know his music casually, and they've all enjoyed the show equally (unless they're lying to me, heh heh). Obviously, if you love the album and are really familiar, you might get a different, more analytical type of satisfaction out of Deliver Us, but we hope that at the end of the day, everyone comes back after intermission because of the compelling stories, regardless of what drew them to the theater in the first place.
OT What’s your all time favorite Springsteen song and why?
DC I feel like my answer always changes. I'd say more often than not, it's one of his true epics, "Thunder Road," "Jungeland," "New York City Serenade." But for this interview, and because I really want people to go out and find this song, I'm going to say "Iceman." It's a b-side from Darkness On the Edge of Town (my favorite album of Springsteen's, hands down) and can be found on the Tracks boxed set. Like all of the Darkness material, it's a lot simpler than what came before--just a midnight piano riff played over and over by Roy Bittan with Springsteen singing. Gary Tallent eventually kicks in with the bass and Clarence Clemons has a great sax line. I wouldn't even call it a solo though. It's not one of those moments where he takes center stage and knocks you over with his notes. He just plays under everything, which is rare in a Springsteen song. It's also got some great imagery that never goes too over the top like some of his Born To Run material does:
"I say better than the glory roads of heaven,
Better off ridin' hellbound in the dirt,
Better than the bright lines of the freeway,
Better than the shadows of your daddy's church,
Better than the waiting, baby, better off is the search."
Isn't that great? Plus there's glockenspiel in it.
Purchase tickets for Deliver Us From Nowhere: Tales From Nebraska here.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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