Welcome to the fourth installment of Artists Who Inspire! During this unprecedented shutdown of live theater, DCMTA will use this space to lift up local theater artists who are finding ways to remain creative and share their craft. If you are an artist who inspires and you would like to share your story here, email us at email@example.com.
By John Becker
A global pandemic can turn us into a herd of toilet paper–hoarding neurotics, but it can also force us to become creative and inspiring. For us as artists, “creative and inspiring” is basically our job description. The idea for a wary but willing group of DC-based artists to create a music video blossomed from a minor comment on my social media from DC actress/vocalist Karen Vincent: “Let’s make some virtual music!”
I translated this as “all of my creative projects have been postponed for God knows how long and I feel like an active volcano stuffed with a giant cork!”
Perhaps I was imposing my own thoughts into a simple comment, but it gave me a creative impetus to build on. I missed the creativity of being involved in music, film, and theater, but I also missed the collaboration.
I knew that Karen was supposed to be killing it in Guys and Dolls at Ford’s Theater. I was writing a play that was to go into rehearsals over the summer, had been lining up some music gigs, and was looking forward to attending a festival that would present my film What They Seem. None of this was as important as the anxiety caused by the pandemic in every community, not to mention the mounting death tolls around the world.
I needed an idea that might, in some small way, inspire others while also granting isolated artists an opportunity to use our creativity. Everyone I knew, artist or not, was longing for a sense of release. The perfect song occurred to me: I Shall Be Released by Bob Dylan.
I recorded myself playing several guitar tracks and sent them to Karen. She sent back a rough video of her singing along with the first bit, and it sounded amazing. She’s a naturally gifted singer.
I’m fortunate enough to count among my friends artists and musicians from many different backgrounds, so I started sending out emails. It didn’t take long for responses to start filling my inbox. Aside from Karen, we had vibraphonist Becky Culbert Finly from the Venice Symphony, drummer Tom Bednar from many DC-area rock bands, stage/film actor and Irish music aficionado Jon Watkins, bassist Katy Comber of the Immaculata Symphony (who also runs the writers’ workspace Creative Light Factory), violinist Emily Campbell from the Minneapolis Chamber Orchestra, DC-area actress/vocalist Melanie Kurstin, keyboardist Jackson Sharpe (who’s majoring in music at Shepherd University), rock/pop/choir vocalist Lina Castano, and myself on rhythm and slide guitars.
We had a wealth of talent from a myriad of different musical backgrounds, but getting rock musicians, musical theater vocalists, and orchestral violinists to blend together isn’t a simple task.
If I thought for even a fraction of a second that it was going to be easy from that point on, I thought wrong. It was quite tricky to get everyone on the same page musically; two musicians wanted sheet music, the rest played by ear. That was nothing compared to the technical problems.
Karen Vincent: “You can’t spontaneously react in the moment or breathe together or look at each other for understanding.”
As vocalist/film and stage actor Jon Watkins put it: “John Becker came to me with an idea to be able to share my talent on a project that would take longer than expected, require a good bit of work, and pay nothing—so I was a definite ‘yes!‘ People are really digging the video.”
These artists didn’t have the luxury of audio engineers or cinematographers to record and film them. They had to rely on cell phones they’d propped up on a stack of books.
Vocalist Melanie Kurstin couldn’t get her video clip to stop chopping her musical phrases in half. Drummer Tom Bednar had his teenage son film with his phone, only to have it cut off a third of his performance. (No wonder he raises his hands in victory at the end of the video.) Bassist Katy Comber cursed her phone for three hours as it refused to obey even her simplest requests.
Artists are nothing if not resourceful, and not one of them threw up their hands.
As I began to import all of the music clips into my film editing software, piece by piece, something magical began to emerge. Becky’s vibraphone actually did fit well with Karen’s vocals and my guitars. Katy’s stand up bass was indeed the perfect touch. Tom’s rock drums didn’t overpower the song, they lifted it. Emily’s violin didn’t seem ill-suited, it raised the piece yet another level. Lina’s vocal didn’t compete with Karen’s, they complimented it. Melanie’s vocals filled out the chorus’ nicely and Jon’s provided perfect balance. And Jackson’s keys hit the perfect middle range that rounded everything out.
Maybe we’ve discovered a way to reach new audiences but, more important—from the initial responses—it seems as though we may have actually encouraged, perhaps even inspired some people.
Despite the many technical glitches and near nervous breakdowns, another song/video effort may be in the works. As long as we have isolated artists and anxious communities, we will have resourceful creativity. My hope is that we will bring all we’ve learned about ourselves and our audiences with us even as we emerge from this strange period of our lives.
John Becker has won three Individual Artist’s Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council. His musical, Everything I Do, was read at the Kennedy Center and chosen for a workshop at Artist’s Bloc. He was commissioned by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in New York to co-write and co-direct the book trailer for Susan Coll’s The Stager. His play Summit Meeting was performed at the Kennedy Center for a festival, where it was awarded first place by audience vote. John has had plays performed four years in a row at the Source Theatre in DC and had a play performed Off-Broadway at the Emerging Artists Theatre in New York. He co-wrote and co-produced the short film Thirst and wrote, produced, and directed the film What They Seem. What They Seem was selected for the Chesapeake Film Festival, Columbia Film Festival, Wheaton Film Festival, screened at Catholic University through the Longacre Lea Theatre Company, and was also featured in the magazine What’s Hot. He was commissioned to write a play for the One-Minute Play Festival at Round House Theatre. He has also had plays performed at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, the Writer’s Center, Company 13, the Run of the Mill Theatre (for which it won a Greater Baltimore Theatre Award), the Human Rights Arts Festival for Amnesty International, and many others. He has also written articles for Howlround at Emerson College and published poetry and short stories.