The question on the table was: “Why would people pay $25 to hear Stew and Heidi talk when there are talks after screenings all weekend?”
I have to admit that was my first thought when I heard about Tuesday night’s Wall Street Journal Summer Scoops panel discussion held at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater with Stew and Heidi Rodewald, creators of the musical Passing Strange, and the creative team behind the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company — founder/choreograper Bill T. Jones, set designer Bjorn G. Amelan and associate artistic director Janet Wong.
After all, the Spike Lee film version of Passing Strange on Broadway does hit the big screen at the IFC Center in NYC on Friday. Stew and Heidi will be talking aplenty at those early screenings. And they’ll be playing a free show at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in Damrosch Park on tonight — so what good’s talk when it’s really all about music, or the music of notes and words, for those two?
And the sparse turnout suggested that many fans may have felt the same way.
But the answer is simple: You won’t get the deeply real interaction between the Passing Strange team and Jones and his colleagues at those post-movie talks. And that alone made the discussion worth the price of admission. If you thought about going and skipped it, you missed something truly special.
I was blown away by the honest, revealing discussion. There were connections made onstage between those two creative teams and between them and the audience that were, while not out of the blue, deep and I hope lasting. (As Stew wrote in Passing Strange: “The wire got connected. The mistake got corrected.”)
I saw Passing Strange 12 times at the Public Theater, and four times on Broadway. I’ve been a fan of Stew and Heidi for 10 years. I’ve been one of 15 people in the audience week after week for their residency in the grungy basement of the Knitting Factory. But I have never heard them have such frank discussions about their art as they did with Bill on Tuesday night.
That’s not to say those conversations have never happened before. Passing Strange wouldn’t exist without a series of creative collisions and collaborative head-butting. But I’ve never seen such a magical level of public connection between two creative powerhouses like that before.
Some of Stew’s best lines:
“The advantage of being a songwriter in a rock and roll band is that we can contradict ourselves mid-verse.”
“Relax your ego? That’s like saying relax your penis!”
“I don’t believe in authenticity or truth. I make shit up and string words together cause they sound good…it’s not philosophy, not a teaching piece.”
“Meaning is boring.”
And Bill had some great ones, too:
“This life is a real motherfucker. And if you aren’t careful, they will fuck you up. And we can go into who they are later!”
“Art is a fight.”
And then there was Bill’s revelation that he may have lost some of his fire to do more work and his admission that, at age 57, he’s experiencing “spiritual malaise” and needs to rethink how he creates art.
Some in the audience thought the talk got a bit “squirmy” when Bill talked about the link between creative partnerships and sex, and admitted that although ” I’m a hom…uh, gay man.” he had thought about sleeping with Wong, his collaborator. (For her part, she said, “I would have said no and forgotten about it.”)
In the end, moderator Wendy Bounds showed a clip from the last scene of Passing Strange, in which Youth (Stew’s theatrical alter ego) ponders the death of his mother:
“That’s it? You know, you’re right, you cannot bring her back. But why lose faith in the only thing that can? I will see her again… Because life is a mistake… that only art can correct.”
That clip gave Bill his chance to ask Stew one of the most provocative questions of the evening:
“Do you believe that?” Bill asked.
Stew started to reply. Words came, but he never really answered the question — perhaps because there is no answer. But instead of being frustrating, it seemed appropriate. After all, “the real is not real, my friend. The real is a construct. The real is a creation. The real is artificial. … Some people feel like art is more real than life.”