At the Crossroads- Bible, Burlesque and the Blues will be playing at the Lichfield Garrick Studio on Friday 9th, and Sat 10th May. Garyswordz managed to grab some time with the show’s writer Mal Dewhirst to find out more. Mal is a past Staffordshire Poet Laureate and Creative Director of the Fired Up Theatre Company who are presenting this show with the Lichfield Mysteries.
1. What is the show about?
Perhaps I should say what it is not about first, it is not about a Motel somewhere in the Midlands with cardboard walls, there is no Meg or Jill or Sandy, no Miss Diane or Benny. So having got that out the way and perhaps now people won’t ask me if that is where we got the idea for our production.
At the Crossroads is a tragi-comedy that explores temptation and how we may be seduced by it. The play develops from the Marlow’s Dr Faustus and the idea of being tempted to sell your soul to the Devil in exchange for a short time of fame and fortune. Continuing with this theme we bring in the music of Robert Johnson who legend has it, sold his soul to the devil at the Crossroads.
The Crossroads in our production is the part of any town or city where people come for entertainment; it is where the bars, clubs, gambling joints are tempting people to come looking for fun. It has its bright lights, its glitter top but also its underbelly where those who seek to exploit people connive their schemes.
The Devil and the seven deadly sins are to main protagonists of all things sinful, whose schemes rule the lives of those who come to the Crossroads. Until the arrival of Messiah who sees both the temptation and all it has to offer and the deprivation of those who succumb to the debauchery and is determined to change the order of things.
2. Is it a play, or a musical?
The most appropriate description I would say it is primarily a play that melds dialogue with music and dance. It is not a musical and I am sure those who are into musical theatre would not describe it as such.
3. When is the story set?
The story takes place now, but with some strong character references to 2000 years ago and the time of the crucifixion.
3. Does it feature live music?
The music is a mix of a backing track and a live guitarist, (Ben Macnair), the music has been developed by Tom Brookes (The Pinch) and Ben based upon the tracks that I selected from the Blues canon to feature in the show.
4. What part does Burlesque play?
Burlesque, the dance of teasing and temptation has all the elements to excite and to arouse, its sensual movement with the vibrant colours of feathers and costume was the perfect dance from for this production.
The Devil played by Ruth Adams, is a female burlesque dancer, surrounded by her alter egos, Lucifer and Satan played by Emma Allen and Emma Smith who are responsible for choreographing all the dance sequences.
6. What part does the Bible play?
The bible gives us the story, the context of the last days of Jesus’ life on earth from which I developed this story. I used mostly the Book of Luke, as the version of the crucifixion from which I drew the core of my research, the crucifixion scene takes is dialogue directly from Luke 23 32:43.
7. The city has been a place which lures and repels since Biblical times, what part does it play in this production?
The scenes are set in two locations, The Wilderness of nothing but rocks and sand as a contrast to the City where the Crossroads sits among the temples, the banks, places of trade and commerce to the homes of the city dwellers.
The city in the show is a fictious place, it is every town. We sometimes see the city for all its glitter and opportunity; we ignore the risks as they are often drowned out by the beats and neon lights that entice us in to some of the devastating life changing decisions.
That being the dark side, it is also a place of fun, laughter, dance music and good times and if it is only a hangover that you get the next day then why not go back for more.
Messiah gets lured in but is also repelled back into the wilderness by the uncertainty of his thoughts and feelings.
8. What is the background of the performers?
The performers are drawn from the community and are all amateur; we have a mix of performers from Tamworth and Lichfield. Many of the Tamworth performers have worked with us before and are part of the Fired Up Theatre Company, Most of them worked on productions such as Quadrophenia, with one of the performers, Will Green having been with us since The Wall and Colin Grazier Enigma.
The Lichfield performers are drawn from many theatrical groups, with many being seasoned performers in the Lichfield Mysteries.
It has really brought together some fantastic local talent to be part of what I think is fantastic production to have been involved.
9. What inspired you to become involved with the show?
Simon Quinn the Director and I were approached by Jill Taylor of the Lichfield Mysteries and given the opportunity to create something totally new within the themes and traditions of the mysteries.
We were given a total freehand to develop a new piece of theatre. Jill asked us to come up with our ideas on what we might want to do; this was what attracted us both to this project being given a freehand to develop new theatre.
Simon has for a long time wanted to explore the Faustian concepts and in some ways we did with Pink in the Wall and the Jimmy’s in Quadrophenia, selling their souls to their demons, but Simon wanted to push this further and explore the idea that Jesus may have been tempted to sell his soul to the Devil.
I have always been fascinated by the Blues, and the legends of singers such as Robert Johnson and his supposed deal with the Devil at the Crossroads, that saw him turn from being a mediocre guitar player and song writer, into the great influence that he became before he died at the age of 27.
So we developed our ideas around these two ideas and added in the burlesque as a result of being introduced to it through our chorographers.
We pitched it to Jill and the Lichfield Mysteries team and they gave us the go-ahead to develop it.
The Lichfield Mysteries are producing the show along with Garrick and it has been funded by the BBC Performing Arts fund, all to whom we are extremely grateful.
10. How did you select the songs to feature in the show?
I have been a real fan of the Blues from the late 1970’s, initially through Led Zeppelin, from which I explored the roots of the songs and widened my listening to include Eric Clapton, The Yardbirds, Cream and the Rolling Stones until eventually I found the original blues artists such as Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Son House and Blind Willie Johnson, so I was aware of a great deal of Blues music from which I could select the songs for the show.
Most of the songs are from Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson and traditional sources, which these Blues singers developed and popularised in the 1920’s to 1940’s.
Many of them have been covered by the British Blues bands of the latter half of the 20th Century.
The songs were chosen for their themes in relation to the script, I also changed some of the lyrics the reflect the characters and the story, this often happened in the Blues tradition that artists making cover versions would change the lyrics to create their own versions.
11. Will there be songs in the show that most of the audience will know?
Many of the songs will be known to the audience although people may not have realised their origins lie with the original Blues singer song writers.
Crossroads Blues is an original Robert Johnson song that has been covered by Cream and Eric Clapton. As is 32-20 Blues and Me and Devil Blues which are lesser known but both featured on Eric Clapton’s Me and Mr Johnson Album.
The Revelator is a call and response song who origins are unknown; it was picked up and re-written by Blind Willie Johnson, Son House made the recording that influenced our version.
The Little Red Rooster again another traditional song that was developed by Willie Dixon and is perhaps best known through the Rolling Stones version.
Blind Willie Johnson whose influences lie within Gospel Blues also provides us with two songs that he developed from traditional songs. In my time of Dying, which was later covered by Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin and Nobody’s Fault but mine which was also covered by Led Zeppelin and Nina Simone?
12. Have you created any new music for the show?
We have created our own arrangements of the songs mentioned above through Tom and Ben. Ben has also improvised the incidental blues sound that underscores the scenes.
There is one new song The Wilderness, which was written by Simon from one of the development workshops.
13. What relevance does the Blues have to the contemporary music scene, or is this a nostalgia trip?
I think music moves on but always has its roots always set in what went before, such that contemporary music is a progression from Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll, Punk and the Pop genres that have gone before. Music evolves without necessarily realising where its deepest roots are and I don’t think that matters.
Is The Blues relevant today? Well B.B. King still sells out and was very well received at Glastonbury, in recent years both Cream and Led Zeppelin have reformed for one off sell out gigs.
Artists such as Joe Bonamassa have major followings worldwide. Then if you want some who is totally contemporary then check out Bradford’s very own Chantel McGregor who is an unexpected delight.
Tinariwen, a group of Tuareg musicians from the deserts of Africa are further developing the Blues into new horizons.
I have to also admit that there is also a hint of nostalgia.
14. Which Blues artists stand out for you, and why?
For me, Robert Johnson, Howlin Wolf, Son House, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Memphis Minne, Willie Dixon and Leadbelly from the original blues singers, they took the traditional African American songs from the cotton fields and developed them into standards that defined the Blues.
Alexis Korner who started the British Blues scene that saw the rise of The Yardbirds, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page on to Cream and Led Zeppelin all of whom took the Blues and brought it new audiences, even bringing the original singers over to Britain and taking the Blues back to America and introducing to audiences who had overlooked it when it was hollerin’ in their own backyards.
I would also mention the Blues Poet, Langston Hughes as being an important voice from the culture of the Blues.
15. Why do you think that Blues music has endured?
I think Rock and Roll with its roots clearly in 12 Bar Blues has played a part in the Blues longevity, but I think it was the British Blues Invasion that truly cemented the blues in to the world psyche.
America with the racial tensions of the middle 20th Century saw very few people engaged in promoting the Blues. America’s musical focus was on Big Bands, Jazz and Country Music.
America is largely rural place and Country Music was and probably still is the most listened to music.
It was the exponents of the Blues from Britain that took it back and became the biggest promoters of the musical form that it is today. I think the way that the likes of Alexis Korner and Eric Clapton showed the utmost respect for the music and its origins that saw their acceptance among the original artists.
16. What audience are you aiming at?
Ah back to the play, I can get lost in the Blues.
The production is aimed at anyone who wants to see a different perspective to story of the crucifixion, it has comedy and the hopefully will delight in many scenes even if it has tragic ending.
It is also aimed at anyone who loves the Blues or Burlesque.
It is not Jesus Christ Superstar or The Life of Brian, it is a contemporary view of our lives and some of the things that we sometimes engage in without thought for the consequences
17. What has been your role in this production?
I am joint artistic director along with Simon; we collaborate in devising theatre, through working with the community and local actors to develop the themes.
Simon and I jointly defined the story line and I then wrote the script.
I have also been managing the development of the projections which have been provided by John Brooking and Stuart Goodwin and his team.
18. What has been Simon Quinn’s role?
After the initial development work described above, Simon’s role has been taking the script and directing the actors in its delivery. Simon is also giving a wonderful performance playing the part of one of the seven deadly sins.
19. Are there any scenes which we should particularly watch out for?
There are several scenes, including the wilderness scenes, which provide repeated theme. The introduction scene at the Crossroads has a lot of laughter and fun and without giving anything away the reveal at the crucifixion.
But really it is all relevant.
20. What future projects are you lining up?
After the production, Simon and I going to take a well earned break before we start rehearsals on a reprise of our production the Colin Grazier Enigma, which is to be staged at Symphony Hall in Birmingham in July. And personally I want to get back to writing some poetry and reading at Spoken Word events again.
Finally we will not be singing “Always look on the bright side of life” during the crucifixion scene, for those who have not already asked.
Tickets are available from the Lichfield Garrick Box office: http://www.lichfieldgarrick.com/#