Magic Time!: The Mind-Blowing Stagecraft in ‘Twisted Melodies’ at Mosaic Theater

A Q&A with Production Manager Chris Banks about how this amazing show came together technically.

Twisted Melodies is a spectacular finish to Mosaic’s fourth season. Written by and starring Kelvin Roston, Jr., the show sweeps us into Donny Hathaway’s world of magnificent music-making and mental torment. It takes place on the last night of his life in the New York City hotel room from which, at age 33, he fell 15 floors to his death. And we are with him in a most extraordinary way.

Kelvin Roston, Jr., in ‘Twisted Memories.’ Photo by Richard Anderson.

When we first see Hathaway, he is agitated, already in the grip of the paranoid schizophrenia he suffered from. He’s hearing voices; he thinks that “they” are out to get him and a “machine”  is stealing his music. Soon a most marvelous stage moment happens: Hathaway discovers us the audience, first in wariness then wonder.

Who are you?
What is this?
How did you…
Are you with them?
Wait
Wait
You seem
Different
I can feel you
A part of me
Connected

Suddenly a bond between us and the character is sealed…

My Grandma would say nothing happens without purpose
So you must be here for a reason
To help me. Focus. Be my muse. My muses. Yeah.
My angels.

…and from then on we have a stake in the story that Roston’s phenomenal performance never lets us shake.

[Read Ramona Harper’s rave review of Twisted Melodies.]

Supporting Roston’s performance is some mind-blowing stagecraft. Hathaway’s breaks with reality—the frightening apparitions he sees, the invasive static he hears, the incessant disorientation he feels—are made palpable through sound, light, and projection effects so exceptional they must be beheld to be believed. At times Twisted Melodies seems to carry the visual and sonic force one associates with cinema.

Kelvin Roston, Jr., in ‘Twisted Memories.’ Photo by Richard Anderson.

Besides being riveted by the performance—and undone by the don’t-let-anyone-tell-you ending—I left the theater wanting to know how this amazing show came together technically. I was fortunate to get the story first-hand from Mosaic Production Manager Chris Banks.

John: This production comes from the Apollo Theater in Harlem and before that from Baltimore Center Stage. What was your role in mounting the production at Atlas, and were any accommodations needed for the Lang stage?

Chris: Putting this show up started way back; planning began a year ago, and ramped up in intensity over time. My job as Production Manager for Mosaic is to make sure that what the designers propose can be realized here in DC, and plan for any and all contingencies with regards to equipment, staffing, physical space restrictions—everything. And all on time and within the budget!

Twisted Melodies was technically a remount for Baltimore Center Stage—the first of a three-leg presentation that you saw on opening night. While the design didn’t change much from the original, the set was rebuilt for this tour, and incorporated lessons learned from the original 2017 production at Center Stage. Because the show would have to exist in three theaters with different configurations, capabilities, and resources, a considerable amount of information had to be shared with Rob McLeod, the Baltimore Center Stage Technical Director, who would be tasked with building the new set in a way that would work in all three spaces.

That process began long before building started. The Baltimore Center Stage team came to DC for a site visit to answer questions specific to placing the set in the Lang Theater after a similar visit to the Apollo in New York City. Atlas Production has been instrumental in ensuring a smooth transition as well, and they have been the very definition of good arts partners in helping Mosaic bring this show to DC audiences. It is one thing to design and then execute a plan for a show. It’s entirely another to install someone else’s plan that wasn’t designed with your needs in mind.

Also, because Mosaic shares the Lang with Capital City Church on Sundays, the set had to be built in such a way that it could accommodate the church service (they have their own projections that need to happen, and bring in a full band, etc.).

Kelvin Roston, Jr., in ‘Twisted Memories.’ Photo by John Chavez.

Projections in the show are complex and vital to the storytelling, and while the Lang has one projector generally available, Twisted Melodies required four. The rigging, networking, and programming to make them all work together presented a major challenge to Baltimore Center Stage in their own space with their own gear. That challenge was only compounded by trying to retrofit it into another space that has an entirely different infrastructure. Hang positions and sight lines, and the sharing of physical space with lighting instruments competing for limited theatrical real estate, was a complex negotiation, much of which happened in real time.

The amount of lighting equipment on this piece vastly exceeded the Lang inventory, and that is something that had to be resolved at the Apollo as well as here in DC for our production. I spent the weeks prior to loading in the show sourcing the gear required by the piece in an effort to supplement the available inventory. I’m grateful to the generosity of the DC theater community, which helped us borrow gear that would have cost us upwards of $35,000 to $40,000 should it have required a full rental package.

The actual set itself, with its extensive automation, presented its own challenges, some of which had to be addressed prior to build (Where will all that automation gear live? How will it be hidden from audience view?). In a practical sense, the automation had to be placed and installed, and a technician had to be trained to maintain and run the system, and to troubleshoot it should the need arise. And while the Baltimore Center Stage staff was here for the installation, after four days, it was all on me and my crew here at Mosaic. None of us here had any experience with that level of theater tech, so getting up to speed on the fly was imperative.

We were fortunate to have Rob McLeod available to us to lead our load-in, along with two of his crew from Baltimore Center Stage. I hired a team of local carpenters to install the set, and again, Atlas Production was instrumental in facilitating that process. Most of the original designers or their assistants traveled with the show and were in residence with us at Mosaic throughout tech. While the Production Stage Manager, Jana Llynn, traveled with the production—and called the show in Baltimore, New York, and now here at Mosaic—the backstage crew is all local and had to be trained up during the brief tech period. The Mosaic team had nine days (from load-in to first preview) to learn everything there is to know about this show, and to run it as flawlessly as it ran for you on opening night. I am immensely proud of my Mosaic family.

Kelvin Roston, Jr., in ‘Twisted Memories.’ Photo by John Chavez.

Would you tell me about the rehearsals when the show was teched, when all the cues and Kelvin Roston’s performance got sync’ed moment to moment? Was it appreciably different from teching other productions Mosaic has done?

It was different in a couple of ways. First, all the rehearsing of the piece was done in Baltimore prior to the first leg of the run, so in that way, the process was dramatically different. In a normal process, we spend weeks and sometimes months with the piece and the company. In this case, we load in the show and go directly into tech. At that point, everything comes together, and the countdown to the first audience begins (nine days, in this case).

Further, the scale of this piece is significantly more complex than anything we’ve done here at Mosaic, at least during my tenure, which began with Season 4’s The Devil’s Music. These new, more complex elements (automation, multiple projectors, etc.) further compounded the challenge presented by the truncated schedule. I’m extremely proud of my team—they rose to the challenge and did the work that most other theaters do with dramatically larger staffs and resources.

I’ve seen every mainstage production Mosaic has done, and I’ve not before seen a production that seemed both technically and emotionally such a unified work of theatrical art as this.

Thanks for that.

Was this a stretch for Mosaic? If so, can we expect to see more such…stretches?

The tech in this piece, as well as the audience itself, are all Kelvin has, and they play vital roles. The tech provides a visual and aural vocabulary for schizophrenia that supports the narrative, and gives the audience a suggestion of what Donny might have experienced on that last night, and throughout his life.

As to whether it was a stretch…yes. Mosaic is a new company, as you know, and while we’re the resident company at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, we don’t have the resources, both physical or human, that other theaters producing at this level take for granted. To achieve this level of production at this point in our history is remarkable, and speaks to the dedication of the team I’m fortunate to spend so much time with. By combining forces with Baltimore Center Stage, we’ve been able to expand our technical aspirations so that we can bring this remarkable piece to Washington audiences.

I like to think we continually stretch ourselves with every production, and for Twisted Melodies, that took the form of a technical challenge. But tech should never be the star. Theater begins and ends with the story, and the performers that breath life into the words.

Kelvin Roston, Jr., in ‘Twisted Memories.’ Photo by John Chavez.

In a recent conversation with Director Derrick Sanders, he shared with me some insight into his and Kelvin’s impetus to make sure that this story could be told by one man on a street corner be equally compelling. The story is important and vital, and should not be limited by or dependent upon technical flourishes. In this iteration of the story, we are lucky to have the opportunity to support the story with some flashy theatrical gestures, and for that I am grateful. It’s professionally gratifying to participate in bringing this level of production value to a piece, and I look forward to continuing to go all the way in on each piece Mosaic brings to the stage.

Finally, what’s it like to watch the show knowing all you know about what has gone into it behind the scenes artistically and technically? And what’s it like for you watching and hearing audience responses to what has been created onstage?

Theater is a labor of love. The vast majority of my theatrical career has occurred out of sight from public view, and at this point in my life, I find myself measuring my success against my own expectations. In this case, I saw this tech challenge coming from the beginning, and have been steeling myself, knowing that it would be such a heavy lift, both for Mosaic and for me personally. Further, as a white person who has spent a large part of my career working in African American theater, I have to justify my place at the table in word and deed. It is a privilege I’m given to play a part in bringing these stories to life, but it’s not my story. Ultimately, to see it all on the stage knowing it was my responsibility to make it all happen—and to hear audiences so enthusiastic about it—it gives me the kind of validation that I find meaningful. It’s not about me, it’s about the work. When the audiences respond to the work, I am satisfied.

Running Time:  90 minutes with no intermission

Twisted Melodies, presented by The Baltimore Center Stage and Congo Square Theatre Company in association with The Apollo Theater and Mosaic Theater Company of DC, plays through July 21, 2019, at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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