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December 23, 2015
Prototype Festival: Donna Di Novelli and Heidi Rodewald on their Vietnam War Era Musical “The Good Swimmer”
Heidi Rodewald. Photo by Lane Nevares
Heidi Rodewald. Photo by Lane Nevares

Deep into the process of rehearsing and shaping their new musical theater piece The Good Swimmer, a First Look Presentation at the 2016 Prototype Festival, librettist Donna Di Novelli  and composer Heidi Rodewald took a few minutes of precious time to talk about collaboration and writing a piece using found text.  As we spoke together via phone, it was evident they were both right in the center of their creative flow; their excitement in working together on such rich subject matter was palpable, making our phone call crackle with creativity.

Heidi Rodewald is the Tony Award-nominated, Obie Award-winning co-composer of the musical Passing Strange with longtime collaborator, singer songwriter, Stew.  Recently, she co-created Wagner, Max! Wagner!, which opened at the Kennedy Center in September and explores the connections between composer Richard Wagner and the blues.   She is co-composer with Stew of The Total Bent, a new musical which will open in 2016 at the Public Theater.

Donna Di Novelli collaborates with artists around the world in opera, film and music-theater.  Her diverse body of work includes Hildegard: A Measure of Joy, with vocal ensemble Chanticleer, lyrics for Rachel Portman’s Little House on the Prairie, with book by Rachel Sheinkin, which premiered at the Guthrie Theater, and many projects with composer Randall Eng, most notably on the jazz-infused opera Florida, slated for a 2017 production.   Her screenplay, Stag, is currently screening in festivals around the country and winning numerous awards.

Did you know each other before starting to work on this piece?  How did you find each other? 

Donna and Heidi: Yes, yes we did.  We were friends and we decided we wanted to make something together, which is a great way to start.

What were the starting and jumping off places for creating The Good Swimmer?

Donna: We started with the Greek play Antigone, updating it to 1965.  We also knew we wanted to create a piece based on found text.  We quickly decided on a family of lifeguards at the beginning of the early days of the Vietnam War.  We had three starting points: a defiant rebellious sister who is fighting a government power; in the sense of Antigone it was to bury her brother, here it is to not approve of a monument created in the [fallen] brother’s name; then the idea [that] we wanted to use found text and lifeguards brought us to a life-saving manual and that language of the manual, which is almost 80% of the lyrics of the songs, was a real jumping off place and then we actually brought in other manuals.

Heidi: Yeah, we got excited about that idea and that’s what got us started.

There is so much subject matter out there.  Heidi, you just finished a piece at the Kennedy Center putting Richard Wagner and the blues together and Donna, your storytelling is vast; from medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen to Little House on the Prairie.  Is this your first time working with found text?

Donna: I’ve been in love with found text for many years.  Whenever I can, I think of how I can use found text in a piece.

Heidi: You mentioned the Wagner piece.  That is a piece with Stew, who I’ve worked with a lot.  And I write music when I work with him, I’m the co-composer.  I’m the composer on The Good Swimmer, I’m working with the music but I am taking in the found text, like I do with Stew, I’ll take the words and mess around with them.

Donna: One part of this piece is the song “The Good Swimmer”.  Hearing what Heidi has done musically with found text was so thrilling.  I mean she has this facility to work with lyrics that are not rhyme, she might repeat another line, it’s just fascinating and sort of proof that we could make a piece that way, because of how we both work with found text.

Heidi: Yeah, Donna and I work really well together, because we both do our thing and we respect each other hugely.  She gets excited about what I do, I get excited about words that I cannot believe she found in whatever manual.  I‘m just so excited about it!

Donna: Yeah, I think that’s why it all works so well.  I think we’re really fans of each other.

Heidi: Yep.

Donna Di Novelli. Photo by Colman Domingo
Donna Di Novelli. Photo by Colman Domingo

What’s one joy and one challenge of working with found text?

Heidi: The joy is that I believe music just makes you completely look at words differently, there could be a simple sentence that says something beautiful that Donna will hand me, and putting music to it, you find the rhyme in the words, maybe the words don’t particularly rhyme but it just works so well with the music.  There’s something about that.  And then the challenge, sometimes it just happens and works and other times nothing is really happening and then all of sudden it just kinda does.  I’ve been working in music long enough, I’ve had a career in music for a long time, so I know, I look at it as a homework assignment and I like it!  I like to be challenged, sometimes it is very frustrating when something isn’t working that Donna hands me, but in the end it feels so great when it does work.  There is nothing we use just because we did it together.  Everything in The Good Swimmer we are very happy with and really feel like it works.

Donna: Once there’s a structure, once there’s a base and once you have great text, a great manual, it is so joyful.  For instance, we were just looking at one of the songs today.  I’ll just give you the first line: “It has become an axiom in life-saving that the rescuer must keep his eyes fixed on the victim”.  So to me, that kind of language is so satisfying.  And I have to say, one of the things that I realize, we call this a pop requiem, but it’s also a kind of eulogy to text itself.  This manual is written before the 1940’s and the way people used language then, in this very literate way, even though it is prose and a how-to manual, is part of what we love about this piece.  We are bringing this kind of language to the stage.  The challenge…

Heidi: The challenge is putting it all together.

Donna: Which we are doing.  Getting the overall arc.  But also each moment.  Finding what really works for us and what we agree on that works song wise.

What were you both looking for during the casting of The Good Swimmer?  Were there special requirements or a specific vocal sound needed for the performers?

Heidi: [Our director] Kevin Newbury is really such a giant part of this with me and Donna. Because of what we’re doing it really is the three of us talking about how we’re going to go about this.  As far as casting, even though I’ve done theater, I’m still this rock band person and Donna and I feel the same, we really wanted actors that can sing and anybody that’s in that musical theater world, it’s hard to take that out of them.  Because of my background and the music that I write, we were not looking for….there’s a lot of people that come from a musical theater background, which I love, but that’s not the music that I write.  And we really wanted individuals, too.  We have an amazing cast.  They’re all so individual, great voices, very different.  And that’s what we are loving right now!  Here, I’m going to let Donna talk!

Donna: I agree with everything that Heidi said!  We were looking for great musicians, so that they could really pick up the music quickly and then great movers, 'cause there is a lot of choreography.  Then add to that that Kevin wanted everyone on stage to be under 21, because the horrific statistic from Vietnam is that the largest group of those who lost their life in Vietnam were under 21 years of age and having served less than 3 months.  We have this gorgeous young cast of great musicians and great movers.  We’re so lucky!

Heidi: We’re so lucky.  It is so much fun to be around all these talented kids.

Vocally were you looking for a pop sound or a '60s sound?

Heidi: We just had to make sure in auditions that the kids, it’s interesting, I feel so old right?  A lot of kids in that age group listen to a lot of radio, that I don’t even know….I don’t know what’s going on these days!  We just needed to make sure they enjoyed singing straight ahead and not doing…all of them are very capable of doing anything, I think, they’ve all done a lot.  But singing some very straightforward pop songs and being happy about that and not having to… We don’t have these giant moments built in where they are looking up at the rafters, you know.  It’s not that at all.  So part of our casting is seeing if they are capable of holding back.  It’s not a competition of voices.  We love people being very individual, but especially in this, in found text, you want to hear the words, the beauty of the words, anyone who’s done too much musical theater, it’s hard to take that out of somebody.

What do you hope audiences come away with after experiencing The Good Swimmer?

Heidi: The way I feel right now, because we’re in the middle of it, the way I feel honestly is that, I guess what I do is to keep thinking what is it I really, really want to see, what does it for me, personally.  We all want to stay very excited about this piece.  And so I’m really not there yet, I think when it finally opens -- which is just the beginning, because this will go on -- I just want us to be really…that it’s all working for us.  If I start thinking about the audience too much -- and I know that’s all part of it, you want it to make sense and stuff -- but I’m still in a place where I’m just so horribly excited about the whole thing and what we’re doing and it’s what I want to see!  And that’s the way it should be.

Donna: I just agree with Heidi, that first of all, we are not there yet and second of all, we are each other’s audience.  And early on, how much collaboration is about a similar taste.  I have her as a barometer…and we play off of each other.  And that’s all we have really.  The most essential audience for me is Heidi.  And then we keep bringing in more people, the choreographer is the next audience and certainly our director, Kevin Newbury, who’s been on board with us for a long time now.  This is our tribe and our audience right now.

Heidi: I feel very lucky to get to work on a piece like this where we aren’t trying to do something different, we’re just doing something that is really exciting to us.  I think part of that is keeping an eye on us, seeing what we’re excited about and then you hope in the end everyone feels the same way.  I think that’s the best we can do as artists, really challenge ourselves and be really excited ourselves.

Donna: There you go!

What’s next after the First Look Presentation of The Good Swimmer?  Where does it go from here? 

Heidi: Because of all that we just said and it’s this very new piece that we are all right in the middle of, we aren’t putting it in any place right now.  We’re just doing what excites us.  And that’s what’s really important to do right now.

Perhaps asking “what’s next” is a bit premature, but I didn’t know how you were going to answer the previous question!

Heidi: It’s a good question.  I guess a lot of people really do think that way, too.  I think that everybody works differently.  I’m sure everybody that’s around us thinks this is heading in a certain direction, but I want to really keep my eye on what does it for me personally and all of us in the room.

Has collaborating on The Good Swimmer created a desire to work on something else together and if so what might you tackle next?

(Laughter from Donna and Heidi)

Heidi:  I think we’re both so into The Good Swimmer, that we haven’t had a chance to think about anything else.  I’m sure it will happen, but we’re so deep into this piece right now.  It’s taking over every second of our day.  Ask us on January 8th after the first performance!  You’re talking with us at a very interesting time.

Donna: (Laughs) That’s right.  It has kinda taken over our lives.  Every second!

The Good Swimmer plays January 7-17 at HERE Arts Center as part of the 2016 Prototype Festival.

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Written by: Navida Stein
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