#102 Staging a Steampunk Dystopia: An Interview with Kamala Sankaram and Rob Reese

Photo Credit: Christopher Lovenguth

Besides all of the steampunk’d renditions of Shakespeare plays and Gilbert & Sullivan musicals, how can steampunk work onstage? Recently, I stopped by the HERE theater to see one innovative example in the form of Miranda, a steampunk murder mystery opera. Tor.com will be posting my review of the show (EDIT: Here it is); sadly, the show is only running in NYC until Saturday the 21st, so I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to see this show to book their tickets ASAP. In the meantime, I took the wonderful opportunity of interviewing the creator, composer and co-librettist Kamala Sankaram and her fellow co-librettist and director Rob Reese about their inspiration behind this unique production.

After the jump, we’ll talk about steampunk dystopias, legal circuses, and the role of people of color in steampunk world-building.

About the interviewees:

Praised for the “sheer power” of her music (TimeOut NY), Kamala Sankaram’s compositions have been performed as part of American Opera Projects “Opera Grows in Brooklyn” series, at HERE Arts Center, the Stone, the Bang on a Can Summer Festival, the Santa Fe New Music Festival, and the Lucerne Festival. She had the featured commission on the 2009 21c Liederabend, selected as one of Time Out’s 10 Best Classical Concerts. Her music for SOUNDING (directed by Kristin Marting) was hailed as “gorgeous pop-rock interludes” (TimeOut NY). She was a 2011 Con Edison/Exploring the Metropolis Composer-in-Residence at the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy. As a performer, Kamala Sankaram has collaborated with and premiered pieces by Anthony Braxton, the Philip Glass Ensemble, the Wooster Group, John Zorn, and eighth blackbird, among others.

Rob Reese’s work as a playwright, director and/or performer has been seen in eight countries on four continents (and counting). Credits include his adaptation of “Frankenstein”, the satires “Survivor: Vietnam!”, “Keanu Reeves Saves The Universe”, “Tad Granite, Private Eyeball” and “Invasion of the Yellow Menace”. His scriptless pieces include “Psycheroticproviholicyesandsomthinvoodoo”, “The Flatiron Scriptless Theater Laboratory” and “Three Plays In Search of a Script”. Rob Reese is currently developing the musical revue “Yahweh’s Follies” with composers Matt Schloss and Eric Brenner, starring Kamala Sankaram. Interested producers and backers are encouraged to approach Rob directly. Rob must thank Kamala for drafting him, the entire company for their amazing hard work and talent, Fred (as usual), and his amazing Jenn. Some of Rob’s scripts can be found on indietheaternow.com.

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Welcome to Beyond Victoriana! Miranda is one of the most creative uses of the steampunk aesthetic I’ve seen in theater in a long time, and so it’s a pleasure to be able to speak with you both about this production. To get started, how did you two first meet and start on creating Miranda?

ROB: Kamala and I first met while working on a show for The Wooster Group: myself as a technical artist and her as an actor/singer/musician. We have each collaborated on many other projects with many other people (and continue to do so). This is our first fully-realized project together. Our partnership began a couple of years ago when Kamala asked me to help with text on a smaller project (or two). Kamala had been developing Miranda for some time before she brought me on board, first to help with some text and later to also direct. This project soon took precedence over our other nascent ideas, all of which are still rolling around in our heads and our notebooks.

KAMALA: We first met each other while working on the Wooster Group show La Didone. Rob asked me to do a reading of an early draft of Yahweh Follies, and we discovered that we had similar sense of humor. So, I invited Rob to work with me on a song cycle. It was going to be called “The Attestant” and it would be an exploration of the role of Twitter and Facebook in our perceptions of other people (done as a freak show!) But, sadly, we had to stop working on it because I was commissioned to write a big piece using another text and it fell by the wayside. However, I really liked it, so I decided to ask Rob to help me with the script for Miranda. And the rest is history! Next up, we may start an opera about Leon Theremin (with theremins).

Miranda certainly has a dystopian bent to its world-building that read as one part Hunger Games, one part Sterling & Gibson’s The Difference Engine, and one part Sweeney Todd. What were your inspirations (steampunk or otherwise) with creating the New Federation of Northern States?

ROB: That’s a very astute set of comparisons! Of course the gladiatorial death-as-entertainment aspect of The Hunger Games is very prevalent, and the grim (and even Grimm) story told through music aspect of Sweeny Todd is an unavoidable comparison. Visual aspects of the recent Burton version of Sweeney Todd has also provided some design inspiration.

The Sterling / Gibson inspiration is the most obvious, though. We very much utilized the “Difference Engine world” of the mid-19th century as the background of what would develop into our “modern” world of 2012. The strong British Empire and fragmented United States is an especially strong connection.

As there’s so much dystopian fiction in our collective conscious and sub-conscious, there are certainly plenty of inspirations handed down by Orwell, Huxley, Clarke and others. Some of which we’re conscious of, some of which might still be pointed out to us.

KAMALA: Agreed! Joss Whedon’s Firefly was also a huge inspiration for me… A way to create an alternate, sci-fi universe, but keeping it analog instead of digital, if that makes any sense.

The score was also a dynamic blend of various musical genres: I’m no expert on music, but I sensed elements of classical musical theater combined with funk and trip-hop. How would you both describe your musical influences?

ROB: Kamala is the composer, I take no credit for the amazing level of the music. I leave this question to her.

KAMALA: I think most people have a really diverse musical palette, especially with the ability to buy and stream things online. I’m a good case in point: I grew up listening to Telugu movie soundtracks and Carnatic music from my dad, and Debussy and Rachmaninoff from my mom. I discovered Pink Floyd at age 12 and quickly bought every album they ever made. By 14 I was obsessed with Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains (maybe I’m dating myself here…) My late teens were all about My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, Mr. Bungle, the Pixies, Tom Waits, the Swans, Bjork, Radiohead, Portishead (many heads…) Godspeed, you black emperor, the Legendary Pink Dots… you get the picture. But at the same time, I was listening to Philip Glass, Stravinsky, Bartok, Monteverdi, and other more “classical” musicians. I’ve always had very eclectic tastes in music, so the music I write is inspired by and sometimes quotes all of these influences. Right now I’m listening to a lot of 60s Bollywood music and the new Tom Waits…

Photo credit: Christopher Lovenguth

Class and caste are satirized — at times, quite bitterly — in Miranda, especially with the creation of actor-musician legal proxies staffed by “lower class” players. How much did you visualize the impact of class when conceptualizing this world, and how closely do you relate it to the steampunk aesthetic?

ROB: The artists of the world of Miranda were always conceived as a lower class in this piece, but the concept of the intricate workings of class and caste didn’t materialize until we began to fully embrace and commit to the steampunk aesthetic. It’s not something I see explicitly referred to much in most steampunk worlds, but since the aesthetic generally romanticizes Victorian and Edwardian fashions and modes of behavior, it seemed a natural next step. Very prevalent in real world society of that time was a highly stratified and complex understanding of class. The concept that a poor citizen may be paid to stand trial as a proxy for a wealthy person is an actual historical tidbit from nineteenth-century England. It’s an element we feel comes generally from the aesthetic and works perfectly in the specific world we’re creating for this piece.

KAMALA: Agreed–the Victorian notion of a poor person serving the sentence of a rich person was an important foundation for the show. So, steampunk was a natural continuation of this idea because it already combined the Victorian aesthetic with sci-fi (another very important element in the show). And it gave me an excuse to wear a gorgeous costume (designed by Jacci Jaye), which is why we do opera in the first place, really…

A question for Kamala in particular: I find the presence of Miranda and Anjana’s Hindi & English songs quite refreshing to see in American musical theater. Moreover, Anjana’s identity as a non-white immigrant woman (and Miranda’s identity as a biracial “second-generation” daughter), adds a particularly fascinating faucet to this steampunk musical, especially since the sociopolitical placement of people of color is not typically addressed in imperialist worlds of steampunk. Would you care to elaborate further about this aspect?

KAMALA: Being a biracial, second-generation daughter myself, this is a topic that has always interested me. To what extent do you adopt the majority culture, and to what extent do you let it go? For Anjana, marrying someone of Izzy’s caste is a huge step up in the world. But, to hold on to it, she lets go of everything she’s worked for up until that point (including a medical degree) to devote herself to being his wife. At the same time, she has to work very hard to maintain the correct social veneer. One of the major themes in Miranda deals with identity–particularly the way that other people can construct an identity for you. Of all the characters, Anjana is most concerned with how people see her (a trait I’ve found to be common in many immigrants trying to fit in in an unfamiliar culture) and with how people see her daughter. And this concern is what may have led her to commit murder: choosing the reputation and social standing of her husband over the life of her daughter… or did it? I guess that’s for the audience to decide.

I heard that a cast CD and show DVD is in the works. When would these be available for purchase?

ROB: Unfortunately these won’t be available until after the run of the show, specific release dates are still TBD.

KAMALA: We’re also hoping to put up a company website in the next couple of weeks, which will contain release dates and purchase information.

After Miranda’s run ends at HERE, what plans do you have for the show’s future?

ROB: We don’t know for sure. We believe the piece would make for a great tour or for a long run “sit down” engagement at an off b’way theater, but for either of those eventualities to occur, we need help from producers and investors. Everyone is crossing fingers that people fitting those descriptions will come fall in love with the show as our regular audience members have been.

KAMALA: So, if you know any Merchant Princes, send them our way!

Thank you, Kamala and Rob, for taking the time to stop by the blog! Readers can purchase tickets for Miranda here and  find out more information about their work at the below links:

Miranda at the HERE theater
Kamala Sankaram’s official website: http://www.kamalasankaram.com/
Amnesia Wars, Rob Reese’s NYC-based performance troupe: http://www.amnesiawars.com/

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2 responses to “#102 Staging a Steampunk Dystopia: An Interview with Kamala Sankaram and Rob Reese

  1. Pingback: Miranda : A Steampunk Dystopia Opera | The Melancholy Romantic

  2. Pingback: REVIEW: Kamala Sankaram’s "Miranda" - ComicMix