Sunday, July 16, 2017

Spotlight On...Johnny Walsh, Qais Essar, and Marina McClure

Johnny Walsh, Composer & Lyricist
Qais Essar, Co-composer
Marina McClure, Director

JW: Washington, DC
QE: Phoenix, AZ
MM: Brooklyn, NY

JW: MA in Near & Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University; BA in History, Harvard University
QE: BA in Political Science, ASU
MM: MFA in Directing, CalArts; BA in Theater, Dartmouth College

Favorite Credits:
MM: I directed Sara Farrington’s Leisure, Lust – a play inspired by the life and work of Edith Wharton – at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, MA. It was both intimate and impactful. It’s just a home, so there’s no “backstage.” The playwright and I sat in Edith’s bathroom during the shows, listening to the actors bring to life these people that actually inhabited that place. It was a magical experience.
QE: Playing the Kennedy Center. For a kid who grew up in DC and used to go there for field trips, that was a huge deal. In elementary school we’d get dressed up, we’d take buses with all the other kids from across the school district. I vividly remember lining up against the wall of the building. I remember watching the symphony as a kid and looking at the stage, 7 years old, and thinking “that’s what I want to do. That’s where I want to be.” The first time I performed there, it happened to be a field trip day for local school kids. I got there, I saw those kinds lined up. They were on a field trip, and they were there to see me. That blew my mind. Playing there brought everything full circle for me. And I’ve played there three times now, including in May when we performed a concert of music from this show, Tear a Root from the Earth.

Why theater?:
MM: The world is messy and incoherent and beautiful, and theater artists can try to make sense of it. Audiences can come together to be in dialogue with those artists and with that beautiful mess. The immediacy of being in a room, making things with other people. The elements of time and space, bodies and voices, are incredibly compelling. I think of myself like a painter, and those are what I put on my canvas. Because it’s collaborative, and because a director ultimately removes herself from the product, ceding control and handing off the work to others, it is exciting that a part of the work is helping everyone to become their best artist and their best self so they can take the thing up, and offer it to the audience.

Tell us about Tear a Root from the Earth:
JW: This began life as a body of songs I wrote in my trailer while serving as a diplomat in Kandahar, a province in southern Afghanistan, at the height of the American troop surge. I observed such fundamental decency in the average Kandaharis caught in the middle of an awful conflict between the US and the Taliban insurgency. I came to believe that the only political ambition of most Kandaharis was to be left out of it, to live quietly and protect their families, and this was what neither we nor the Taliban could offer them - we each used the means at our disposal to pull families, villages, and tribes to our side of the war. It was difficult to convey this in a diplomatic cable, so I began writing songs after hours to depict it, on a mandolin I had taken out there with me. I've since teamed up with some incredible collaborators, from my band Gramophonic to our theatrical team to the Afghan-American virtuoso Qais Essar, who have helped expand this story into a sweeping epic about one family's journey through 40 years of Afghan history in which global geopolitics repeatedly tear their country and village apart. As large and ambitious as the story has become, it is still at its core the same story of those Kandaharis I knew - always decent, sometime flawed human beings thrust into impossible circumstances, trying to make the best of a conflict that is inextricably tied to Americans and our own choices.

What inspired you to write/direct/create Tear a Root from the Earth?:
QE: The war in Afghanistan is now the longest war in American history, but most Americans (based on my travels around the country) have no idea about the war, or the country, or the people. It’s not even real to them. It’s so far, so detached from their normal lives. It’s almost like Narnia. I tour all over the country, and I am often the first Afghan that people have met. But it’s something that we should address, that we should reckon with. This war is so much a part of modern American life, and it doesn’t seem like America is leaving Afghanistan any time soon. So to be able to put that conflict into a way that we can access it, understand it, grapple with it is incredibly vital. Something like this show (and my own independent work), is about making this far-off, “exotic” place that people have heard of, but have no real idea about, it’s about making Afghanistan real for them. Our countries are intertwined, and will remain intertwined. We need to recognize the people, the country, the situation. The lack of recognition is part of what has allowed it to go on as long as it has. It’s not like Vietnam, where people were invested. Without a draft, there isn’t the same investment in this war, and so people don’t take the time to understand Afghanistan or other conflicts we are engaged, because at the end of the day how much does it impact their lives personally?

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?:
MM: Theater that is grappling with important societal questions is inspiring. When I go to the theater, I want to feel like I am in conversation with the artists who created it. I want to see playwrights, composers, directors, and performers wrestle with a question they have relating to how we live, whether today or in the past. There are wonderful, visionary female directors who are doing this: Rachel Chavkin, Rebecca Taichman, Phyllida Lloyd, Katie Mitchell, Julie Taymor. I come from an experimental background with training at CalArts, so I also love work by the Wooster Group, Robert Wilson, Anne Bogart.
JW: The greatest musicians can inhabit a character for the 3 minutes it takes to perform a song. Springsteen can become a factory worker who is down to his last dime. Little Richard is an 18-year old meeting a girl at a sock hop. Even without staging, with just the music, their performance is enough to transform the situation in a way the written word alone could not. Musical theater lets you expand on that phenomenon, letting our performers inhabit characters over the whole night, to tell a story that the music alone cannot.
QE: The kind of art that interests me lately makes a statement that reflects the current geopolitical climate and where we are with civil rights. I feel that we are at one of those times in history when we will look back and identify it as a significant moment, just as we did with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. A lot of that bigotry has swelled up again and now we are facing a different set of issues – not simply a black/white issue – but these are trying times. Art gives you a platform, it gives you an audience. I like seeing art that is reflective of what’s going on and that is trying to bring awareness of certain issues in another medium.

If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?:
JW: Emmy Lou Harris. In all the music world, she is the most perfect interpreter of traditional American forms (folk, bluegrass, country), and hers is my single favorite voice. I’d love to work with her over any other musician.
MM: Sia uses fascinating storytelling methods in her videos and concerts that really illuminate the emotion behind her music while also building a feeling in the audience. It is transporting and vibrant and strong.
QE: I’d really love to work with Devendra Banhart. He was at the forefront of the new wave of American folk in the early 2000s, and he uses his music as a kind of inter-cultural dialogue. Oh, and Jimmy Page. Always. Every week, I ask God to not let Jimmy Page die before I can meet him.

What show have you recommended to your friends?:
JW: Hadestown blew my mind. I had literal tears because the music was just so good. It totally hung together as a musical, but it was also a perfect use of natural, authentic instruments and the tropes of country music to tell a story. Wild romps with 12 acoustic instruments, tender moments with songs down to a whisper. Incredible. We approach that problem set very differently, but it was inspirational to see how successful they were able to be at telling a powerful story whose subject matter had nothing to do with the American south, or traditional American forms or characters, but they could use that musical form to tell that story so convincingly and emotionally.
MM: Indecent. It’s exciting how you can feel the personal relationship to the material of the creators and artists involved. It unabashedly takes a point of view. It deals with the impact of politics on culture, and exposes some of the ugly bits of American history in a very artful way. It doesn’t shy away from emotion in its narrative and visual storytelling. I’m thrilled that it got an extended run – everyone should go see it.
QE: Angel Olsen is amazing live. Check her out.

Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?:
QE: Russell Brand, obviously. He’d have to wear a nose prosthetic to play me. It would have some sad title. “Gone Too Soon.” Even if I live to be 99, I still won’t be ready.

If you could go back in time and see any play or musical you missed, what would it be?:
MM: The original West Side Story on Broadway. And early Wooster Group, from the 1970s.
JW: The Sun Studio Road Show that toured the country in 1956-57. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins. This was before Elvis went into the Army, before the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly.
QE: Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden in 1973. They played there three nights in a row, filming "The Song Remains The Same."

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?:
JW: Does 90s hip hop count? That’s all I’m listening to right now.
MM: I’ll see anything with puppets. I don’t care what it is.
QE: "Ugly Betty" reruns on Netflix.

If you weren’t working in theater, you would be _____?:
MM: An architect. One of the things I love about theater is its ephemerality – you have to be present, or you’ll miss it. Architecture is interesting because it’s communicating with people across time.
JW: This project is my answer to that question. I’ve lived a life in government service, diplomacy, and policy making. My first love was always music, and now I’m indulging that in a serious way with serious people, and having an absolute blast. It also makes me not want to go back to my day job at the State Department, working on Afghanistan, although I do love that job.
QE: Librarian. I like books, and would love being able to make people whisper when talking to me.

What’s up next?:
QE: I composed music for The Breadwinner, produced by Angelina Jolie. As far as I know it’s the first animated feature film about Afghanistan, and it should be coming out toward the end of this year. I also scored another animated film in Australia that should be out later this year. And I’m always writing new music. Look for a new album this fall. Then a European tour in the spring. And hopefully more interfaith work. I’m doing some church shows, which is something I really like to do.
MM: I’ll be directing Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill by Steph del Rosso at the Flea early next year. And Sara Farrington’s Leisure Lust at Art House Productions in New Jersey this fall.
JW:  Most immediately, I still have a day job as the head of the team at the State Department working to broker a peace process for Afghanistan. That wonderful country so desperately needs and deserves peace and it means the world to me to try to help. At the same time, we hope to keep putting on Tear a Root from the Earth in ever-more-finished form. There is new music we want to present, and we still have not staged the whole piece.  I hope and believe it has a long life ahead of it.

For more on Tear a Root from the Earth, visit or For more on Qais, visit For more on Marina, visit