Performer John Kelly reaches back more than 20 years for “Find My Way Home” and finds it even more relevant in 2011.
Kelly’s new production will be performed at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Oct. 15, at 8 p.m.
“Find My Way Home” is a revival of 1988 multi-media musical based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, recast in the Great Depression with Orpheus as a famous radio crooner. Kelly — an actor, singer and dancer — utilized opera, dance and video, and his show won a number of awards, including a Bessie.
Kelly brought the show back in 1998 for performances in Miami, Portland and Seattle, but it never made it to New York, as Kelly had hoped.
“It always remained in my mind as a sore spot, a rupture,” he said.
The show remained on the shelf for more than a decade, but Kelly applied for an NEA American Masterpieces Grant and received two, which allowed him to also do two revivals, one last December and the current one.
When deciding to revive the show, Kelly mulled over whether he could actually still play the character of Orpheus. He knew Orpheus could be any age, but had to honestly ask himself if he still had the hunger to inhabit the character after 13 years.
“It was one of the most ambitious projects I had done,” Kelly said. “So there was a practical thing of ‘OK, I have the grant, and I have to do it and I can do it,’ but beyond that it was ‘Can I care enough about it to redo it?’ The answer to that was ‘Yes, I still care enormously about it.’ ” More challenging were the issues of the physical production.
“It was a question of me getting hold of all the old physical production, recasting it partially, revisiting it, and retooling it as need be,” Kelly said. “I’m attempting to keep it as close to the last production as possible, but there are some adjustments and some improvements.”
Kelly had some trouble with the storage space that kept sets, props and other materials required for the physical production, and still hasn’t been able to recover everything. This has necessitated the recreation of the original stage backdrop.
“My two main collaborators az- my set designer and my costume designer — are both dead,” Kelly said. “My set designer died of AIDS in 1993, and my costume designer died of an AIDS-related heart attack sometime in 1999.”
Three of the original six performers also died, and Kelly has had to recast those three roles.
“I had an enormous love for the collaborators who died — three of my dancers died — so there was a bit of a reverence around the idea of doing it again,” he said.
In 1988, the piece functioned as Kelly’s very personal response to the AIDS epidemic, filtered through his love of Greek mythology and the 1930s. His first AIDS death, a mentor, was in 1982, and the grief did not stop there — instead it snowballed.
“By 1988, I had lost a number of friends already, including a very close singer friend of mine, so this was me essentially being an AIDS activist on the stage,” said Kelly.
Taking to the streets just didn’t feel right to Kelly, and he felt he could better address his concerns and mount his protests on the stage in a performance. It was, after all, the world he came from — his career began with performances in night clubs on the Lower East side of New York, legendary early 1980s spots like the Mud Club and the Pyramid Club, where he would perform as Maria Callas.
It was also in these venues that he began using film and video in his performances, now an integral part of his productions. “I had been working with a filmmaker since 1983 because I wanted to be on film,” Kelly said. “I wanted to use film as a part of my dance vocabulary because I didn’t study theater, I came from dance and visual arts.”
Kelly started out utilizing Super 8 film, then 16 mm and now, even with digital video, he finds a screen with visuals still has the same power in a live performance — and they still help take “Find My Way Home” to another level.
“Those sequences augment the narrative, they provide a different texture,” Kelly said. “I find modern audiences are riveted by media in performance. I know it’s chic and hot, but I’ve always felt that modern audiences are riveted by the TV or whatever, the movie screen, because it’s both menacing and alluring and it doesn’t change but what’s within it can change as if they’ve never seen it before. It’s a nice thing to have onstage with live bodies. It’s another dimension.”
Kelly integrates film sequences during Orpheus’ suicide — here he recreates a scene from Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” — as well as in a hospital scene, a poker scene where the Underworld unfolds and at the point when Orpheus gets his sight back and he can see Eurydice once again.
“It’s a way of relaying that information to the audience by providing another dimension, another texture, and without using spoken word,” Kelly said. Kelly uses the aesthetic of period black-and-white films to bring the story alive “I know most of it from black-and-white films, so for me, in my brain, the palette is the very desaturated urban landscape,” he said. “And it was a fairly desaturated palette in terms of the presence of metal and black, white, gray, silver, shiny, reflective, shiny, new technology as opposed to the 20s, which is all about color and a different type of life.”
That changes when the story shifts to the Underworld and a new aesthetic takes over.
“I decide to set the piece in the early ’30s, which is also just a benchmark moment, 1932,” Kelly said, “with Hitler coming to power and the Hollywood code going into effect and the Depression, it really was a very loaded few years. When Orpheus is able to charm the Furies with his singing voice and make his way into the Underworld, we basically go back in time a bit to go to the Underworld, into the ’20s. It’s full-color.”
It was not lost on Kelly the similarities between events now and in the era he had placed his story, and he also triangulated these circumstances when considering the time that he wrote the piece.
“The divide between wealth and gentrification, with affordable areas for outsiders, artists and like-minded spirits, quickly diminished, and the diminishing began in the early 1980s in New York in the East Village where I lived,” he said. Kelly can still recall the Wall Street crash of the ’80s and the East Village bohemia that found itself overtaken, though complicit in their own invasion — low-income creativity began to welcome the cash being brought in by rich people looking to slum for the night.
“There was a huge influx of yuppies into the East Village who would come to party and make a mess,” said Kelly, “and we were very happy to have their money although we knew that it was the beginning of the end. That game has always been going on and culturally the divide between rich and poor seems to always be present, although there are points where it’s more present and to me, it was very present in the ’80s and it’s so much more present now.”
Kelly sees this occupation of Manhattan’s own hip Underworld of the ’80s as the end of an era and the beginning of another that has a direct line to 2011, and which his piece stands as a time piece with a relevance that crosses the temporal barriers with its outlook.
“There is no physical bohemia left in Manhattan,” Kelly said. “It no longer exists, even though the visual Muzak of the culture is hip, is what artists used to look like, is tattoos and piercings and a two-day growth on your face and an attitude, a slacker attitude. That’s all affectation and all of that stuff came out of genuine petrie dish culture of affordable rent and artists creating culture.”
“With the stuff going down on Wall Street now, it’s a perfectly viable thing to be lingering on.”