Entertainment » Theatre

All This Jazz :: Diego Arciniegas on 'Lost Tempo'

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Oct 3, 2017

Longtime stalwart of the Boston theater scene Diego Arciniegas helms the world premiere of Cliff Odle's jazz-infused play "Lost Tempo," a tale of love and music -- and other, even harder, things, such as addiction.

When Willie "Cool" Jones, a jazz saxophone player living in America, is coaxed back to Harlem by an old flame, it's a change for fresh beginnings. But America in the 1950s isn't the easiest place for an African American man, no matter what his career path.

Odle -- whose many skill sets include instructor, writer, and actor, much like the polymathic Arciniegas -- drew on conversations he had with jazz Max Roach when the two of them were attached to the Huntington Theatre Company's 2000 production of "King Hedley II," by August Wilson.

"I was blessed to have several discussions with Mr. Roach about his music and the many people he had worked with including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and of course Clifford Brown," BPT press notes for "Lost Tempo" quote Odle as saying. "I had always had an appreciation for jazz, but talking with him opened a whole new world for me. I became a big fan of the jazz genres of the '40s and '50s, but particularly Hard Bop . . . Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock."

Arciniegas, like Odle, teaches, as well as acting and directing. For a decade he served Publick Theatre Boston as Artistic Director, during which time he created his own English language translation of Chekhov's "The Seagull," which he also directed. Arciniegas has acted in large ensemble dramas like "Operation Epsilon" -- produced by The Nor Theatre Company as a world premiere at Central Square Theater in 2013 -- and smaller, more intimate works such as "Faith Healer," a biography of Francis Hardy. Arciniegas is a senior lecturer in theater studies at Wellesley College.

EDGE caught up with Diego Arciniegas to see what he's been up to since our last interview, and see what secrets we could coax from him about the upcoming world premiere of Cliff Odle's "Lost Tempo."

EDGE: Catch me up if you would on what you've been up to over the last year or so.

Diego Arciniegas: I've directed a couple of pieces, one of which was 'The Draft' [by by Peter Snoad], a documentary piece on the Vietnam War -- sort of what Ken Burns did, only much less expensively and for theater.
EDGE That was at Hibernian Hall, wasn't it?

Diego Arciniegas: It was at Hibernian Hall. It was basically arranging testimony from actual Vietnam vets and protestors, etc., and crafting it together into what turned out to be a multiplatform movement piece with video and all sorts of stuff. It ended up getting filmed, and it's now being used for education about the war.

And I directed a piece for Theater on Fire called 'Dog Act.' It was a post-apocalyptic Shakespearean Vaudeville show, essentially...

EDGE: Like 'Mr. Burns,' the so-called 'Post Electric Play' they did at the Lyric a couple of seasons ago?

Diego Arciniegas: It was funny, because it got nominated for several IRNEs and I noticed that there were two shows that had "dog" in the title. It made me laugh.

EDGE: Have you directed a Cliff Odle play before this?

Diego Arciniegas: No. The last time I directed Cliff Odle was at the Publick Theater in 'MacBeth,' as an actor. That was, oh my god, it was close to 20 years ago.

EDGE But this is the first time you've directed a theater work Mr. Odle has written.

Diego Arciniegas: That's right. He has a really interesting voice for theater. He probably could do it anyway because he's so talented as an actor, but it really helps him with his dialogue. There's never been a question about the believability of the dialogue. It's been more how do we rearrange things and tell the story.

EDGE: How about Boston Playwrights' Theatre? Have you directed for them before?

Diego Arciniegas: The first time I directed for Boston Playwrights' was in 1996... or so? On a play by Karen Zacarías. I've actually had the good fortune to direct playwrights at Playwright's whose work has gone on to be produced all over the place. Last I caught up with Karen, she was the playwright in residence at Arena Stage in D.C. And I was actually in a play that she wrote that was produced [in 2010] by the Lyric Stage Company, "Legacy of Light." It's really interesting and exciting to work with playwrights when they are baby playwrights and then watch them grow up and then actually end up doing their work after it's been published and produced nationally.

EDGE: How did you come to be directing 'Lost Tempo' for BPT?

Diego Arciniegas: Kate Snodgrass, who I adore, called me up and asked me to. I should say Kate was the first person ever to hire me as a director, back in the '90s. Periodically she calls me up and says, 'Hey! Want to direct this?' Sometimes she brings me in as an actor to work on the classes and do some student work. It's really been a wonderful relationship over a couple of decades now.

EDGE: Let's talk about the play specifically - it's a new play, isn't it?

Diego Arciniegas: I don't think it's even finalized yet! [Laughter]

EDGE: Aha, it's a world premiere! When you're directing a piece like this one, which is set within a time frame from half a century ago, what's your reaction? Do you share in the generalized nostalgia people seem to have for the 1950s?

Diego Arciniegas: it's interesting, because I have two sources of data, which are the more recent historical record and then I have these vague memories of my own. I'm not quite so old that I remember this particular period, which is late '50s and early '60s, but I do remember feelings that I had; I had enough awareness to get a feel for the time period. Certainly, I remember the clothing and the furniture and the sense of design --I probably didn't even know the word 'design' at the time, but you know what I mean. The feeling; the hair, the clothes.

EDGE: The color schemes.

Diego Arciniegas: Yes, and the color schemes... What was considered attractive, and how that changed over time. And then, to look at it through the lens of contemporary aesthetics and see it coming back [into style], it just reinforces that adage about if you just wait long enough, what was old is going to come back in again.

EDGE: Race has certainly been a fraught topic in America, and as has been the case at various points in the past, the current social and political landscape seems to be especially focused on the issue. Do current themes about race -- such as justice, resistance, political participation, and economic access -- resonate within this play? Will we see some of today's debates and discussions reflected in 'Lost Tempo?'

Diego Arciniegas: I think it's inescapable to see that, but it's ancillary to the piece. What is I think really attractive about this piece is while there are issues of race and they do come up -- certainly as the outside world encroaches on the world of this play -- this is a play about a group of musicians and music producers who happen to be African-American (and one who happens to be of mixed race). You definitely get a sense of how things have changed, but the eternal issues are there as well.

EDGE: Another focus of the play is on addiction -- something else we hear quite a lot about these days, with middle America in the throes of the opioid crisis. How does the play approach the whole question of drug use?

Diego Arciniegas: The focus is slightly different than that of the current concern with substance abuse. It takes on, I think, the mythology of substance abuse and creativity and the relationship between the two -- the misperception about whether substance abuse is actually a gateway to creativity, and right next door to insanity. The boundaries between all three of those get blurred.

I think the play takes on the larger myth of the artist as creative genius / lunatic / experimenter in alternate states of consciousness, etc. It's not as medicalized a concern as the opioid crisis is framing the debate now.

EDGE: There is that debate about whether artists, especially really significant artists who have broken new ground, are hobbled in some way - emotionally, psychologically -- and they self-medicate, versus the idea that the drugs are the ticket to their creativity.

Diego Arciniegas: Exactly. At a moment in the play, the protagonist actually misconstrues his symptoms of withdrawal as being synonymous with not being able to create, so he leaps to the conclusion that he needs to use in order to create. But then... well, I don't want to give too much away, but even the artists in this particular play have their own idea of what the artist does -- going from one point of consciousness to another, either through art or through substances. There are a lot of assumptions tied up with this that need to be questioned, but the play doesn't go on to systematically examine those. Instead, it just presents one account of someone from that world, who in a sense drives everything, and what his responsibility might have been in the outcome. It certainly doesn't offer any kind of clear opinions about this. It leaves those questions out there for the audience to wrestle with. Like all good theater, I think it asks more questions than it answers.

EDGE: I'm quite curious about the role music -- specifically, jazz music -- plays in the production. Obviously it will be part of the sound design, but what about other design elements?

Diego Arciniegas: Let me start with music and then move over into the other design elements. We have live musicians in the production as well as electronic, so the boundary between what is music and what is noise can be explored. I've gotten to do a little research into different schools of what is jazz, and the play kind of explores one artist's moving into an area called free jazz, which is much more experimental, much less tonal and much less structured, to such a degree that there's a big debate over how does one musician even follow another musician. Right now -- and I'm saying this fresh from tech [rehearsal], we're still exploring this -- we've got three jazz musicians that are currently watching run-throughs and responding musically to what they're seeing in real time. We're getting into a dialogue about, 'Oh, this is great,' 'Oh, maybe you shouldn't do that,' and still leaving it open ended enough that no two performances are going to be exactly alike. In that case, form and function and content are all working hand in hand. There are set digital sound effects and pieces of music, but they are layered on top of the dialogue with live acoustic music, as well. And it's all highly exploratory and experimental at this stage: We're making huge and crucial decisions in the 48 to 72 hours that will really determine what the final product is. It's very exhilarating, and also terrifying!

EDGE No pressure there.

Diego Arciniegas: As for the other design elements... Cliff actually said that the whole piece is written in a form of jazz music, which has been my cue as to how I interact with the live musicians and how I structure the piece. The scenes are not episodic at all; one thing blends into another. Sometimes there's one scene not completed when another scene already begins, and to some extent it mirrors the altered state of consciousness of the protagonist in the first place. I'm hoping that this becomes as impressionistic and hallucinatory as it can without losing comprehensibility. It's a memory play on top of everything else, so it's all filtered through memory, The staging of it is immersive, environmental, very loose, constant movement -- trying in the same way to pay respect to the music form itself.

The costuming is pretty straightforward period stuff. We're jumping time periods all over the place, so who's wearing what piece of clothing from what period is a huge question. And light, of course, is gonna try to respond to this structure as well -- jumping around [in time]. As the lighting designer said to me after she read the play, "I don't think there's a single fade in any of these light cues." It's going to be bumping around all over the place.

We've also done something really great with the set that I'm excited about. We've taken advantage of the fact that there was some functional remodeling of that theater space, to use it for this production. We've created a jazz club. The audience is actually going to be sitting in a configuration that more closely approximates a jazz club than a conventional theater; of course, the staging has had to take that into account, as well. Every possible usable space is being made use of. With any luck, the audience is going to feel like, in addition to going to see a play, they went to a jazz club as well.

EDGE: Tell me a little about the cast. I can't seem to find any details about who's starring in this production.

Diego Arciniegas: With one significant exception, these are folks I haven't worked with before. These are all folks who came in, auditioned, and got the part. It's a very young cast. Let's put it this way: It's a young play. If any of them have seen 30, they hide it really well.

EDGE: You are going to be participating in a post-show talkback on Oct. 7. Do you enjoy talkbacks? Are you hoping certain questions come up -- or don't come up?

Diego Arciniegas: I love them. I absolutely love them. Whenever I have an opportunity to participate in talkbacks for work I've been involved in, I love it because it's really an opportunity not only to develop the conversation further, but to find out what came across and what didn't.

But it can also be infuriating because the piece has to stand alone, as well. Often times I find myself being a little provocative when being asked to nail down what actually happened in a particular moment. I find myself being asked to either explain or interpret the events of the play, and I find myself resisting that and turning around and saying, 'Tell me what you think.' That in turn leads to a conversation amongst the audience as to what they think because ultimately the live performance is the published work of art, and it's no more valuable to say 'This is the answer' at the back of the book than it is for a painter to stand by her or his canvas and say, 'This is what I meant when I painted this thing.' I suspect that most visual artists asked to stand by their paintings [and offer verbal explanations] would refuse to interpret their own work for someone else -- that's the job of the audience. But the dialogue around that -- it's fascinating in post-show discussions.

"Lost Tempo" runs Oct. 5 - 22 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.bu.edu/bpt

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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