Sarah Gancher is an exciting theater writer who has worked around the country and around the world. She is a frequent collaborator with many of the most interesting theater makers of all dots and stripes working today, and she joined forces with The Bengsons to contribute to the book on their love story/album/imagined event in between and across time and into each other’s lives for Hundred Days, now at New York Theater Workshop. We went deep on the making of this fascinating work, her collaboration with Abigail and Shaun Bengson, how one even collaborates, and Sarah as an artist. There’s even a surprise guest visit, so enjoy!
I just want to begin with: I saw Hundred Days at, like, a bar in Astoria years ago, and it has changed quite a bit since all those years ago, so I wanted to ask you: what’s it like joining a creative project that has had such a long history, not to mention a personal history?
Sarah Gancher: I love it. It’s one of my favorite things to do is to join a collaborative process that is proceedings and to hop into it midstream.
Why is that?
Gancher: Well, I sort of have this split life where half of my writing I’m writing my own plays on my own solo, and creating, you know, coming up with ideas from scratch, and then the other half of my writing life I spend working with devising ensembles and people that are creating shows collaboratively.
And the thing that I love about that is that I feel that when you start a show from scratch, on your own, you have to spend all this time creating this big pile of material, you know? Characters, settings, scenes, you know, phrases that you think might be apart of it, and memories that pop up. All that kind of stuff you have to draw from and conjure in order to build the world of the play. And it’s such a treat to just get to play in somebody else’s leaf pile; be like, all of the material is here already, very likely we’ll have to make some more, and we might have to, very likely, we’ll have to do a bunch of additional writing, but so many of the materials are here at hand already. So like, let’s see what we can make with what already exists.
Hundred Days is a project that Abigail and Shaun have been working on for, I think, knocking on ten years. They’ve been working on it essentially since they got together, since the time that the story is now set, so there is an enormous amount of material, there’s so many amazing songs and stories on the cutting room floor. There’s like an entire book musical/opera version of this that doesn’t exist anymore, that was the version at Z Space [a theater in San Francisco that commissioned, developed and produced the work earlier in the decade] that was done with a totally different, like totally brilliant writer. There’s like a completely stripped down version that’s mostly songs and very little speaking that was done at the Know Theatre in Cincinnati.
I actually saw it there! Which was wonderful, and when they later asked me to come on board to write it I was so happy that I had seen it already in performance. But, not to mention all the various times that they basically did a concert version of the show that just the two of them telling the story and singing the songs, you know? There was a version they worked in Seattle with Caitlin Sullivan who is now our Associate Director, and she’s been with the project for years-and-years-years, like pre-Z space.
There was already a very strong team, and a super strong team, and a super strong thematic core to the show, by the time that I came on. And of course the Bengsons' real life love story.
Gancher: Right and developing relationship which is what we chose to focus on in this draft. I think that part of why this particular show has changed so much is that it’s really about their lives and they are growing and changing as artists as the show grows and changes. So something that was appropriate for them to put up five years ago might be the right thing for them now.
That is absolutely fascinating, that their developing relationship and the art project are growing together.
It is a delicate balance to join a project with such heart, and history, I’m sure you didn’t want to step on toes; did you experience that as an issue?
Gancher: Well, I got brought onto this project because I was already with the Bengsons on a deeply personal musical that is also based on Abigail’s life that is sort of the dark prequel to Hundred Days, The Lucky Ones, which is going to go up at Ars Nova in the Spring. This version of Hundred Days, we really own up to the fact that Abigail had some very very real fears, panic attack sort of episodes during the time that she met Shaun -- some people would describe it as PTSD -- that had to do with really strong feelings for somebody and knowing that accepting a relationship with them would mean accepting that one day they would leave your life. And so Lucky Ones is a little bit, you know, why was that prospect so terrifying for her? You know, what was it in her life that created that fear?
So through that I had already done a lot of talking to the Bengsons about their lives, and about, you know, their histories and where they came from, and their families, and also, by the way, ideas for characters and ideas for settings, so we had already developed a really strong report working together and we knew that we were really excited about the mode of musical storytelling that we were developing together. So I think there was a lot of trust there already by the time that I got brought on to do Hundred Days, and indeed I felt that Hundred Days was just an extension of The Lucky Ones process, or maybe Lucky Ones is an extension of the Hundred Days process, and I think that ultimately it could be that these two works are apart of a triptych that may include Shaun’s backstory as well. So I think that this team, the Bengsons and I, and Anne Kauffman [director] and Sonya Thayer [movement director], you know, definitely feels as if we are not done yet, with this sort of category of work that we are pleating together.
And I guess this is all just to say that I feel very lucky that there was trust established already so that I could go to Abigail and Shaun and be like: all right, so in every version of the show, you talk about how important this first meal at this diner was, but like what is so special and so mythical about this diner? Explain it to me, explain it to me again, I still don’t get it. And sort of doing that for every single point of the story to try to understand as deeply as I possibly could exactly what was going on for them in their lives, during these three weeks between when they met and got married, so that we could create a frame for the music that would allow the audience to understand as fully as possible what this music, what this song, what this relationship means to these two people. For us to crack a little of their personal code, and to understand the art that they make together and the way do.
And to do that as economically and as elegantly as possible. My goal with this book is not to... you know, I don’t care if anybody watches it and is like: oh that’s a good scene. Basically if people watch this and they don’t notice that there is a book at all, I’ve done my job, you know? My job in this I think of as chiefly architectural, and it is also about me getting to know their personal voices as deeply as possible so that I can create dialogue for them that sounds as if they said it, that I can listen to them speak for ten minutes and then pick the five sentences that are going to be useful for setting up a song.
Yes, that’s lovely. What kind of artist is Shaun, what kind of artist is Abigail, and what kind of artist are the three of you as one force? It seems like this piece sort of wrote itself? But it seems like it needs just the three of you.
Gancher: I don’t think it’s accurate to say that it’s writing itself; I mean, I think that we are constantly figuring out. It does sometimes feel as if the piece already exists and we’re just trying to get closer to depicting it as faithfully as we possibly can. And I think that part of that has to do with it being so closely aligned to their real life story and to this sort of idea about trying to live one's entire life in Hundred Days, that they’ve sort of had that is a deeply emotional idea but that has never been very logistically flushed out, you know? (Laughs)
We’d mine the idea for maximum impact without having us slow down and be like, no, hands-in-the-back, if you really tried to do this, would that mean that you would never, I mean, we never wanted to get involved in those kinds of questions, because they’re just ultimately not as interesting as this, as this sort of beautiful epic intention of trying to squeeze an entire lifetime into a incredibly short and dense period of time.
Now I’ve completely forgot, oh yeah! Abigail, Shaun, OK! (Laughs)
No problem whatsoever, you have so much to say it’s wonderful.
Gancher: Yeah, I mean so one thing I’m learning being around the Bengsons a lot and seeing the way that they work is that people - -interviews, institutions, just like people that just like their music -- have this kind of deep seated urge to wanna parse out what is Shaun’s contribution, what is Abigail’s contribution, sort of who does what, how does this function on the inside. And all I can say is that I’ve really learned that it is true that they just actually do everything together. Like not only as songwriters but also as people, like they are actually always together in almost every moment. (Laughs) And I live across the hall from them, so that’s a thing that I can attest to.
It’s not like one of them writes the lyrics and one of them writes the music, or like I think that sometimes people think that like "my god, Abigail’s voice is so insane and amazing and it must be that she’s the star performer, and he’s the…” Hey, hi.
Abigail Bengson: Hi.
Gancher: I’m on the phone with a reporter talking about our show. (Laughter)
Bengson: Explain how attractive you are.
Gancher: Oh yeah, Abigail wants you to know that I’m very attractive.
Bengson: You got it. (Laughter)
Gancher: I just opened the door, I was literally just talking about how beautiful your voice is, and you just walked out the door. (Abigail sings some beautiful bars of music; laughter)
I can hear it!
Gancher: He said he can hear it. (Laughter) Anyway, you know Abigail is an incredible vocalist who has like a range of things that she can do with her voice that is not common to most people, and often times people are like ‘well it must be that she’s the pyrotechnic performer and Shaun is like the secret genius composer’ but that is not accurate. They are both really incredible performers and really incredible writers and they actually do write everything together.
You know, now that I’ve started working with them on a couple of these things, [I'm] noticing that people have the same urge with me to be like, ‘oh well I really heard your voice in this one part’ or ‘oh I could really tell that was the part that you wrote.’ And sometimes that’s accurate and then sometimes I’m like ‘hmm, that’s actually something I recorded them saying and transcribed.’ Or people will be like, ‘oh that one part is so Shaun’ and I’m like, ‘I made that up all by myself.’
I guess that’s all just to say that I think that the point of this whole endeavour is kind of a mind meld, and that the closer that we get to achieving that the happier I am.
Now the thing that I will say is interesting and dialogue, over the course of our partnership on these projects that Anne Kaufmann and I have had a really interesting back and forth, and evolution in our partnership. So like there was a time when I really deeply believed that I wanted to see farmings for the Bengsons' songs that had really fully realized scenes, and lots of talking and lots of text and music interwoven. And Anne sort of was like all of the text, all of the spoken text has to be as minimal as humanly possible. And the closer that we can get to this being done with as little text as possible, that’s our ideal.
And we really have, over the time that we’ve been working together so far, and moving forward, have come to actually sort of embrace each other’s way of looking at things. I feel that we are constantly trying to forge a third way of achieving this type of particular storytelling. Which is not at all a traditional musical, it’s pretty hard to pin down.
I always struggle, people are like ‘so what is their music like’ if they hadn’t heard the Bengsons, and I’m so sorry to tell you I don’t have a good way to describe it. People are like ‘it’s kind of like folk but punk but like electronic’ but to me that description sounds awful. And I don’t think it’s accurate, and I also don’t have any better way to put it.
And I also think the same thing may be true of the type of storytelling that we’re doing, like it’s kind of like a radio play, it’s kind of like storytelling with songs, it’s kind of like a musical, it shape shifts, it’s different things at different times, you know there’s points at which it’s trying to be operatic, and times which it’s trying to be, you know a musical set.
Gancher: A concert, yeah. There’s points at which it’s trying to be a concert with in between patter, and sort of the aspect of always keeping people guessing is an important part of what makes this show work, and is also very deeply a part of what we’re trying to do with Lucky Ones, I’ll say that.
I’m looking forward to that. I’ve already taken more time of yours than I promised, but I do have two quick lil questions. I wanted to tell you that I saw Mission Drift at the Connelly Theater--
In 2013? ‘14? Something like that.
How have you changed, as an artist, from that moment, with that wonderful play, to right now?
Gancher: Hmm. I love Mission Drift so much, and Heather Christian [composer and theater maker part of Mission Drift production] that I feel really, really passionate about working with. And I wish you had seen the version that we did in London at the National Theatre because, as much as I loved the Connelly version, I felt when we did it in London I was like ‘this is it, this is the thing that we’ve been making,’ you know what I mean?
And that is another piece, actually much like Hundred Days, that changed and shifted and morphed so extremely from iterations to iterations. And it was the first collaborative piece that I had worked on over a long term that did that. And at first I found it so deeply frustrating, the only thing that was keeping me in the process was that I just loved the music so intensely that I couldn’t bear to not be part of the writing of that show.
But after a while the constant change became addictive. And I think that experience prepared me for this one, in a certain way. I think that when you work on a show that is this collaborative you have to know at a really bone deep level that nothing is lost and nothing is wasted. You have to know that you might have the best idea for a scene or a section and it might not matter. You have to be willing to let somebody else kill your darlings, and you have to say, honestly, ‘I know this is a part of the show that you love but it’s stronger without it.’ And to say that in a loving and truthful way that will allow the collaboration to keep going.
So I feel like those are all things I learned from Mission Drift. And I couldn’t possibly be more grateful for it, and I really love all of the artist I worked on for that show, are so important and special to me, particularly Rachel Chavkin, who is still one of my closest collaborators and closest friends, and we just did a play together in D.C. this fall, which also had music to it and everything. At this point we’ve been collaborating together for song long it’s like pairs ice skating. It’s such trust in your partner.
Could you tell me one or two theater artists you really admire or are inspired by?
Gancher: Yeah, my favorite living writers are Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Wallace Shawn, and Caryl Churchill, those are my top four. And the other big, big influence on my life, though he’s no longer living, is Dario Fo, he’s my spirit animal.
I don’t know if they inform this show, like, at all! (Laughs)
I bet I could pull out a little of each one of them.
Gancher: Bless you for a liar.