Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kristen Miller in Actors Studio benefit

Kristen Miller has been turning the cello on its head for years, mixing hypnotic African rhythms and Eastern melodies with rock attitude, vocabulary and gear — like a vintage Tube Screamer distortion box and a battery of effects pedals. But these days Mama's got a brand new bag. The Byfield cellist, who drastically cut back her performance schedule after her son Lucas was born four years ago, has this jazz thing going on as she returns to Thomas Eaton Recording at the Tannery to work on her follow-up to 2006’s “Strange Little Valentine.”

Not that listeners will be able to peg the music as hard-bop or post-bop. It’s more about attitude than definition. It’s jazz that “comes out sideways,” says Miller. She’s going into these sessions with some ideas, not songs ready for the can. “It’s a much looser approach than I had with ‘Valentine,'” she says. “I don’t have a plan. I’m going by intuition. I start playing and find out what song wants to be recorded now. We’ll see what we have at the end.”

But, this being the always-elusive (musically, at least) Miller, who cites everybody from Bartok to Zeppelin as an influence, you know the new album is not going to sit still stylistically. The still-untitled album, which she hopes to release in early 2010, will include instrumentals and spoken word, tunes with a worldbeat vibe and rock — including a cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” which was “a little bit of a gimme since it has such a great string arrangement to begin with.”

You can get a taste of what the cellist has been up to this weekend, when she joins the Powow River Poets in a benefit for the Actors Studio at the Tannery. It will be one of her last shows of the year, as she settles back into the academic life at The Governor’s Academy, the former Governor Dummer Academy — or what the cool kids are calling “the Gov's,” avoiding the whole issue.

The Govs is where the whole jazz thing got started. Miller, who grew up in New Jersey, plays a handcrafted turn-of-the-last-century Leon Bernardel cello. She learned the “right” way to play the instrument at the University of Connecticut. She did what was expected, performing standard repertoire in trios and quartets — and teaching — to pay the bills. She moved to Byfield — just around the corner from the Gov's — about 12 years ago.. That's where she developed "cellobrew," which is what Miller calls the unique east-meets-west, classical-meets-rock musical hybrid that flowered on 2003's "Later that Day" and, three years later, "Strange Little Valentine."

After her son was born, Miller started looking for a more dependable gig, and and landed a position as orchestra director at Governor's Academy. That went so well that they offered her the chance to lead the school’s jazz ensemble. She told them that jazz was just a little bit outside her comfort zone, but they were impressed with her teaching chops and said, essentially, that’s cool — and packed her off to a weekend seminar with jazz educator and author Jamey Aembersold, then followed that up wih a weeklong seminar with NEA jazz master David Baker. The seminars clicked, generating a lot of new ideas that are coming to fruition on the new, still-untitled album.

In the schedule-busting mix of dayjob, mommyland and creative imperative, something has to give, and for Miller that has been performance — at least during the academic year. “I have to make time for the cello," she says. She’s also making time for session work, playing on “Some Assembly Required,” the new album by roots-rockers Assembly of Dust — a disc that included such high-profile players like Richie Havens, Bela Fleck and John Scofield. She also played on Irma Thomas' “Simply Grand,” which grabbed a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues album early this year. She is part of a string quartet on “What Can I Do?,” a tune Burt Bachrach wrote specifically for the album. She got a call from Rounder Records asking if she could play the session “and I said ‘Yeah, I think I can make that happen,’” she says. "I tried to play it cool. I don't think I succeeded."

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Cellist Kristen Miller will perform with the Powow River Poets at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3 at a benefit for the Actors Studio of Newburyport at the Tannery. There will be a reception in the concourse of Mill #1 after the program. Tickets are $45. All proceeds benefit the Actors Studio. For information or reservations call 978-465-1229. For more info, log onto

Monday, September 14, 2009

Michael Kimball: A guy with a thousand stories

Michael Kimball has real-life stories that are every bit as unlikely as the stuff he writes for the stage, like the Richard Cycle, where a disembodied penis starts hassling the guy in the sexual driver’s seat because he doesn’t get out much any more — and the star of one of Kimball’s collection of dirty plays that will be staged next week at the Firehouse Center ... Okay, maybe not quite that unlikely. But stories? Yeah, he’s got ’em. Like the one about a depressed, down Maine middle school music teacher who becomes a successful novelist after Steven King, the king of creep, cracked up over an article about, um, farting that he had written for CoEvolutionary Quarterly, the grandchild of the Whole Earth Catalog, he had casually dropped in with the draft of what would become his first published novel he had sent to King. Completely true. Or the one about the teacher-slash-novelist who turns his back on a gig that people around the world dream about — being a big-shot writer, not teaching scales to snot-nosed monsters in middle school — because he likes hanging out and drinking with actors. Also completely true. Well, sort of. It’s a long story. With Kimball, in town to chat about “I Fall For You,” the new production, but, sadly, not long enough to tie one on with the cast, it usually is. The conversation bounces from one thing to the next, with plenty of colorful diversions that will wind round and round before circling back to the point. Which is that it’s fun hanging out with actors: They’re colorful people and, like the playwright, know how to tell a story, and he does enjoy tipping the occasional glass with them — something he learned after turning the page on his thriller-writing years, after his publisher dropped him, not long after the firm "misplaced" the entire print run of his new novel. Yup, true. He started writing plays six years ago, mostly as a way to get a director friend of his off his back and discovered he loved it.

Yeah, he’s got literary game, and lots of unlikely-but-true stories of his own, or from his pals, that provide the starting points, at least, for the seven sex-themed plays that make up “I Fall for You,” which opens Sept. 18 at the Firehouse. Like the one about his buddy, a gynecologist, who runs into a patient in a singles bar. Uncomfortable! Or the playwright's uncle, who used the occasion of a family reunion to announce — to everybody — that he was the most sexually frustrated man on earth. “The silence that followed was devastating,” says Kimball, “Complete silence. No one knew what to say.” That story ended up morphing into “Say No More,” the play that closes "I Fall for You." And he’s got stories about dirty plays that aren’t especially dirty, where the filth is in someone else’s mind, or religious/political positions earn you the label “banned author.” Which happened last June, when the new guy at the Utah State Theatre decided he didn’t like the incest themes in Kimball’s “Ghosts of Ocean House” and replaced it at the last minute with “An Inspector Calls,” a tired, sixty-year-old British farce. Problem is, the play isn’t “about incest.” It's about a haunted house. Well, actually it’s about a guy who uses religion as a weapon to browbeat someone much weaker than he is. Hmmmm, interesting. He was angry when the play was banned, and even more so when they asked him to “do the right thing” and return the advance. Which he did, even though it probably really wasn’t the right thing, and decided to wear the banning as a “a mark of distinction.” You’ve got to wonder how they would have reacted to the Richard cycle — especially if they saw him in full plumage, or even the head-hat he will be wearing in the Firehouse production.

He's not "from here," as people from here like to say, but he's got deep, historic roots in the region. Yes, he's one of "those" Kimballs, one of the first families to climb out of the boats in the 17th century, and a guy with, his words, some pretty horrible ancestors, who, for better or worse, owned stuff (like Plum Island, for a while) or ran things (like the trial against Susanna Martin, the Amesbury woman twice accused and once executed during the Salem witch hysteria.) And while he may not be "from here," he's certainly been around here. His 20-minute play "Good Golly Miss Molly at Recess," about three adolescents burying a beloved pet in the schoolyard, premiered at the 2005 New Works Festival. And while the current production of "Say No More" is getting its official premiere this weekend, it grew up in workshops at the Actors Studio and was staged, in a different form, at the North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative — And, word of warning, if you know he's going to be "around here," look both ways before crossing the street — guy says he can make it from York, Maine, to Newburyport in a half hour. He lives in York, which used to be part of Massachusetts, even though the ingrates declined the Bay State’s invitation, which was kindly delivered at the end of a Puritan gun. That’s another story, one that Kimball tells in “Submit,” which, given the content of his recent plays, sounds like it could be a little kinky, but actually gets right to the point — something it took the playwright a while to do. Again, a long story. So back it up a little bit, back to the Reagan years.

By the 1980s, Kimball had spent more than a decade teaching music and, well, that was enough. Actually it was way more than enough. “I was having a breakdown, basically,” he says. Unemployment office was a waste of time: What are you qualified to do? Um, be a middle school music teacher? Then the Gipper cut funding for a federal migrant education program, so Kimball found himself without a summer job. Now what? He decided to write a novel. He found an agent, who explored conventional approaches to publishing while Kimball took a different approach: He wrapped up the manuscript, with a serious piece he had written on farting (“Why not? Brooke Shields farts," he says. "Tonto farts, swans fart. In fact, research shows that people fart 5.64 times a day.") and mailed it to Stephen King, Bangor, Maine. ("I didn't know his actual address," he says.) It was the farting article that saved Kimball, because King usually just tosses the stuff into the fireplace. ("Do you know how many idiots send Stephen King unsolicited magazines every year?" Kimball says. "I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know what else to do.") He loved the farting story enough to read the accompanying novel, and he liked the novel enough to get behind what would become the comic novel "Firewater Pond" personally.

Kimball spent the next decade writing original screenplays and adaptations for motion picture companies, including three episodes for "Monsters," then returned to the novel in 1996 with "Undone," a thriller that went on to become a London Times best-seller and earned him the distinction of being the only American to receive the "Fresh Talent Award," given out by W.H. Smith, Great Britain's largest bookstore chain. He followed up "Undone" with the thriller "Mouth to Mouth" and "Green Girls," which actually started out as a script for the "Tales from the Dark Side" television series. ("My agent told me that if I got rid of the zombies, it would be a great thriller," he says. ) Published in 2002, that was also the thriller that "went missing" in William Morrow's network of warehouses — right before the publisher dropped him and pretty much soured Kimball on at least that dark corner of the industry. And that's when Joe Dominguez got ahold of him. Dominguez is, Kimball says, a "pilot who got involved in theater because he wanted access to his emotions." He was also trying to find someone to write a short play about the 350th anniversary of the founding of York — and the Pilgrim thugs who made it possible. Essentially Kimball said "yeah, yeahHe had just been through the wringer emotionally and professionally, and wasn't really in the moment. But he agreed to work on a script with Jennifer Saunders — "and give it a weekend," he says. He wrote a first draft. There were some problems, including the fact that he had written a whopping 47 characters. They eventually worked out all the kinks and came up with a manageable production — another long story — and staged three shows that may have lacked a certain professional quality, but the spirit was there, Kimball says. "And I was hooked."

Since then, he hasn't looked back. It's not the most secure or profitable of careers, necessitating a return to the classroom — not listening to rotten kids with their horrible squawking instruments, but as full-time faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast master's program in creative writing. He says the playwrighting gig is "feast or famine," and that it's almost impossible to get original work staged these days, which may or may not be true, but he seems to be doing all right for himself: "Say No More" will have a short tour after completing its Firehouse run. “Say No More” will also be part of this year's New England Fringe Festival. His "Santa Come Home," which looks at how dysfunctional families celebrate Christmas, will be staged in November at the Players Ring in Portsmouth, N.H. (and which, like "I Fall for You," will be directed by Timothy Diering of Amesbury). An updated version of "Submit" will be staged at the Tavern Museum of Old York at 7 a.m. on Nov. 22, the time and date the deed was done — assuming he can get the actors up at that hour. Then there was the "Ghosts of Ocean House. Okay, score that in the "almost" category.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: "I Fall for You," a co-production of the Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities and New York Theatre Company, runs Sept. 18 to 20 at the Firehouse, 1 Market Square, Newburyport. Tim Diering directs. The cast features Kathleen Anderson, David Houlden, Jack Rushton and Jennifer Wilson. Tickets are $15, or $13 for students and SDAH members. For information, call 978-462-7332 or click here.

Monday, September 7, 2009

BFF: A decade on the road with Tiger Saw

To be perfectly honest, something a reporter should never do, I thought Tiger Saw was just a phase, a patch that Dylan Metrano would eventually work through, probably quickly ... Yeah, yeah, I know, but it made sense at the time. He’d just come off of several years working with Hamlet Idiot, an intense, raucous and proto-punk band that he dismisses now as a paeon to youthful excess and enthusiasm, but was pretty bitching, if not exactly popular or polished, back in the day. The band released a dozen cassettes and a couple of CDs, never really finding its audience, but making a lot of righteous noise. Then Metrano packed his bags for the left coast, the spiritual home for fresh starts. When he came back about a year later, he unveiled Tiger Saw, a project that could not have been more different, leaving behind the furious, confrontational style of Hamlet Idiot for soft, yielding slowcore, for songs that were sweet and melodic, sad and beautiful, almost like lullabies.

It's hard to believe that was ten years ago, a decade in which the Newburyport-based and psychologically centered Tiger Saw has not only persevered, but thrived, releasing seven albums and becoming a road-hardened touring band that, despite its roots, is almost never home. And a decade in which the band evolved, undergoing extensive changes that completely changed its musical direction, from the hushed conversation, boy-girl/call-responses of "How To Be Timeless Tonight," to the joyous, celebratory, everybody-all-together “Sing,” to the abrupt, musical left turn of "Tigers on Fire," which saw the band sporting a horn section and playing dance music — basement soul, if you will. And the personnel? Forget about it. Once you get past the late-middle period, you need a scorecard to keep the players straight — especially when you include the live configurations.

And that's exactly what Metrano has done in "All My Friends Are Right Here With Me: A Decade in the Indie Rock Underground." The book, just published by Burst & Bloom Press, is a blow-by-blow account of the ascent — and transformation — of the band. Part travelogue, studio diary and oral history, "All My Friends," which takes its name from a song from "Sing," is based on a decade of tour diaries and dozens of interviews, with first-person accounts of tours with Kimya Dawson, Castanets, Jason Anderson, Viking Moses and The Hotel Alexi and detailed remembrances by members of Dirty Projectors, White Hinterland, Little Wings, Songs: Ohia and Tarentel, and many others. It also also comes with a CD of Tiger Saw covers by friends and collaborators like Jason Anderson, Cake on Cake, Guy Capecelatro, Moons of Jupiter, Annie Palmer, Picastro, Gregg Porter and Quiet Bears.

Tiger Saw will be touring with South China and The Wailing Wall to support the book. Select shows will feature dramatic readings performed by a collection of home-made puppets. There are no Newburyport dates on the schedule. The closest shows are in Cambridge and Portsmouth. The tour schedule is at The book can be purchased at

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Coash unveils 'Veils' at Actors Studio

Don’t let him know how you found out, but Tom Coash, the playwright, will be the guy sitting in the back row of the Actors Studio, hopefully in the shadows, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, hoping that you don’t notice him freaking out, or worse, as “Veils,” the third play to come out of his years as an academic in Egypt, gets a once-over at the North Shore Readers Theater Collaborative.

Launched last year by Marc Clopton, Ron Pullins and Leslie Powell, the collaborative is a play-development series that stages no-frills productions in which works-in-progress get their first realistic spin around the stage, after which a hungry audience dispenses instant criticism. It’s a valuable tool for a playwright, getting to hear the spin actors put on words typed onto a page and seeing how an audience reacts to them, but it’s a strange place for him to be, says Coash. “Basically you cut out your heart, hold it in your hands and ask 'so, what do you think?'” the playwright says. “It's one of the most exciting, exhilarating experiences you can have as a writer. At the same time you want to throw up. It’s wonderful, horrific and bizarre.” 

“Veils” mixes traditional and modern worlds within a Muslim context as an African-American and an Egyptian — both women, both students, both Muslim — create a YouTube video project after a campus-wide ban on the wearing of burkas, or veils, creates a tense political situation. The play is almost as well traveled as its author, who settled down in New Haven, about five years ago, after completing extended stays at American University in Cairo, where both he and wife Julie taught, and Bermuda, where he directed the film “Baby ... Wait” and produced the Famous For 15 Minutes New Play Festival. These two outpostings were separated by an ill-fated move (“that was supposed to bring stability to our lives,” he says) to Haverhill, where his wife had accepted a position at Bradford College just three months before the school suddenly, inexplicably closed forever.

The story grew out of Coash’s real-life experiences at American University, where he met an American Muslim student who arrived on campus “thinking they were coming home in a way, but ended up hating it — a fascinating situation," the playwright says. Coash wrote “Veils” in 2007. Actually, strike that. He started writing it in 2007, he’s still writing it now (“just finished a couple of things,” he says during a telephone interview) and will likely rewrite it after the Newburyport production on September 12. “You know what they say,” he says. “No play is finished, only abandoned.” It started out as a one-act at Western Kentucky University. He recast it as a full-length play, after scoring a play development grant from the InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia and then in June brought it to McCall, Idaho, where it underwent rewrite after rewrite at the Seven Devils Playwriting Conference.

The North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative audience will be the first to hear the newly revised play. The local production will be directed by Judith Muss'ells, and feature performances by sisters Jasmyn Gudaitis and Jordan Gudaitis.

"Veils" is the third play to come out of Coash's Cairo years. "Khanaseen," the first, which he was commissioned to write shortly after taking the playwriting position at American University, deals with a young woman’s fears in a strange country and her complex relationships with her husband and her new friends. "Cry Havoc," written in the wake of the Luxor massacre attacks, deals with terrorism and the fine line between conviction and obsession. “Thin air,” a play about a tightrope walker suffering a crisis of confidence after her husband “went down” (Funambulists, as slackrope walkers are known, never say the word "fall.") also came out of Cairo, but for no immediately apparent reason. "An image of a tightrope walker came to me," he says. "I don't know why. And I started writing. I think that maybe I just liked the word 'funambulist.'"

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative, a monthly play development series, will stage Tom Coash's "Veils" at 10 a.m. Sept. 12 at the Actors Studio, located in the Tannery, 51 Water St., Newburyport. Tickets are $. For more information, call 978.465.1229. 

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New season takes flight at Finch Coffeehouse

Finch Coffeehouse is more than just a collection of folkies whooping it up in the basement of a Unitarian church, playing to post-hippie audiences hopped up on so-so coffee and chowing down on brownies that don't have the kick we may or may not remember from the old days. But the venue, does feel like "old Newburyport," says Finch founder and manager Karen Dardinski, recalling, at least in spirit, the sense of community from the fabled old days of the late '70s, when artists hung out and created, when they could afford to live in the city.

The venue is coming off a wildly successful opening season, one that saw, despite the down economy and virtually no budget, mostly sell-out shows that included local favorites like E. J. Ouellette, circuit regulars like Harvey Reid and Joyce Anderson, and suddenly on-fire national acts like the Eilen Jewell Band — a success for which Dardinski, a visual artist who managed the Firehouse Gallery for 15 years and operated a Port catering business, takes absolutely no credit. "It's really been a surprise," she says. "It's been wonderful, every part of it. I've been lucky. I didn't know what I was doing. I'm a caterer. I know how to throw a party, but that's all."]

[When she launched the coffeehouse last year with Sue Ann Pearson, who has since moved on to manage the Lowell Folk Festival, the Finch concept was simple: To keep live music alive — and, with 15 buck tickets, affordable. She looked for a space where expenses would not crush the dream, and she got it from the First Religious Society, for low rent. She lined up Tom Eaton, owner of the Tannery-based Thomas Eaton Recording, to do the sound. “Good sound was crucial,” she says. Then she started contacting performers and offered them a nice space with good sound and short pay and figured they would politely turn her down, but no one did. She did the food herself.

The Finch is familiar, but different. It’s not Me & Thee North or New Moon East, it’s not just usual suspects. Good as they are, how many times, and in how many different venues, are people willing to see, say, Bill Staines or Bob Franke — not to single these guys out, but to point to somewhat ubiquitous faces in a close scene. The sophomore season will open with Les Sampou, a folkie whose sound is infused with a rock and blues vibe, and include shows by The Serfs, accordion-slinger Gary Sredzienski’s surf-rock band, as well as a long-overdue reunion of Roll & Tumble, the Newburyport-based acoustic blues band that kicked up a lot of dust in the late 1990s. They’ll be the opening act for the Justin Quinn Band, an electric blues band. The season will also include local heroes like singer-songwriter Kate Redgate and crowd favorites like Mark Erelli, David Surette and Susie Burke. Other acts on the horizon include the Gibson Brothers, a bluegrass band, and singer-songwriter Tracy Grammer.

The venue, which has acquired non-profit status since opening, is also looking at reaching out into the community: synching up the music program with cash-strapped schools, providing master classes for adults and advanced students — even, some time in the future (“after we get a lot better at this,” says Dardinski), putting together a folk festival.

Ironically, the best memory from the season for Dardinski comes from the New England Troubadour show, featuring Joyce Anderson, Harvey Reid, Dave Surette, Susie Burke, Justin Quinn and Susan Levine — the one concert where they overreached, staging the show upstairs in the church, since they expected big numbers that did not materialize. The image that stays with her is Anderson sawing away on her fiddle, playing with her young child in a papoose, dozing while she played. But it was the feel of the performance that made the show truly memorable: “It felt like jamming on the back porch and that’s what I was looking for,” says Dardinski. “ I wanted to develop a community, and I think we've done it. It feels really good.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Les Sampou opens the second season of the Finch Coffeehouse at 8 p.m. September 18 at the First Religious Society, 26 Pleasant St., Newburyport. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance at Dyno Records, 1 Middle St., Newburyport, or at the door. Doors open at 7 p.m. Coffee, light fare and desserts are available. For more information, log onto

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Jeff Onore: Still busy, still has problems, eh?

Jeff Onore is busy brushing up on his Canadian, or whatever language it is that they speak up there, north of Newburyport, beyond Salisbury even — in the Maritimes, eh, where the Clipper City comedian and self-described "international sophisticate" will be taking "A Busy Guy With Lots of Problems." The production, which is difficult to describe, especially since the guy never bothers writing press releases, but explores themes of sexual obsession and failed relationships, has been accepted in the Atlantic Fringe Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "I don't know how it happened," says Onore. "I'm just a crazy kid with a dream."

The festival runs for ten days — or liters, as the Canadians measure time — at various locations in Halifax, in the Great White North, as the MacKenzie Brothers used to say, but luckily for him, Onore will only have to hang around for half that, doing five shows in three days, "which, for a guy like me, is pretty arduous," he says. Especially when he has two two-set nights ("which is pretty intense and a little bit intimidating," he says) and has two shows that are perilously close to his normal 10 p.m. bedtime. He knows staying awake, let alone alert, under those pressure-cooker conditions will be a challenge even for a kid with a dream.
Onore has seen his share of literary successes lately. Several of his plays‚ including “The Realtor" and "Psych Date," have been staged at the New Works Festival. “Let Freedom Ring” won Best Short Play honors in 2007. "A Busy Guy " was staged at Independent Submarine's 1 x 1 Festival of Solo Performance and 1 x 1 Redux in Newburyport two years ago, and in "Dig It," a shared production with playwright Leslie Pasternack two years ago at Stage Left Studio in New York. It also took top Audience Favorite honors in last year's Boston Fringe. The show is not static. He adds new material or reworks old stuff, but not so much that it would warrant bringing notes or a laptop on stage. For the Atlantic Fringe, he's looking at the script to weed out local references or Americanisms. "It will be funny see how it transates into their language," he says. He'll be one of the few Americans there, and local audiences will likely be happy about that.
"It's all new to me, it's like walking on a tightrope, it's exciting," he says. "It's weird to be talking about it this way, no one ever talks to me about it." He's reminded of the whole press release issue, how they're generally a good way to get information out there. "Yeah," he says, "maybe I should pay more attention to that." But, until that issue sorts itself out, he's gonna focus on festivals as a way out of his press shortcomings. "Festivals are the way to go," he says. "They provide the stage, they sell the tickets, they do everything that's hard for me to do. If I could just get them to handle the press releases and maybe do the acting, I could sit back and really let the accolades roll in. "

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Atlantic Fringe Festival runs from September 3-10 in various locations in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Newburyport comedian/playwright Jeff Onore will perform "A Busy Guy With Lots of Problems" five times at The Living Room, 353 Agricola Street. For more information on Onore, click here. For a complete Atlantic Fringe Festival schedule, click here.