Stephen Brown recognizes that there's something playful about titling his new performance Something Really Big: Part II, since there hasn't actually been a Part I yet. But when you're trying something completely new, sometimes everything doesn't come together in exactly the order you originally planned.
The artistic director of SB Dance, Brown has been choreographing and creating inventive multimedia work for 20 years. He also realizes that the environment for artists is different in a world where people have near-infinite entertainment options at their fingertips. "Recently I was like, 'Holy shit, I've never had to sell a ticket in my life; now I have to go out there,'" Brown says. "And that's a new reality."
As one way of confronting that new reality, Brown has conceived a work titled Something Really Big with a goal of exploring it through a wide variety of storytelling delivery systems. This first production—the one titled Part II—is live musical theater and dance. Another component might be a video installation; still another could be webisodes following the ongoing adventures of the characters introduced in Part II. "It's like with journalism," Brown says, "there's this hard copy thing that a few people still like. But there are other things I look at on my phone, and other things I consume through all these different platforms. Could I tell a story through all of these things at once? I love the idea that there's something you could present over multiple mediums."
The basic narrative of Part II, for which Brown created the script, involves multiple characters all looking for their own "something really big," spanning multiple genres and time periods. One segment, involves a private investigator in 1936 Berlin; another follows a pair of goddesses in the ancient world; still another involves someone launching a food truck called The Consensual Cannibal. The band Minx provides live music, in an intimate performance for audiences in the three-quarters round of only around 80 people.
Yet while in some sense this is a "traditional" musical theater piece, it's also designed for some outside-the-black-box staging creativity. Three performances are scheduled for the Rose Wagner Center, but a fourth performance on June 14 takes place at a still-to-be-announced pop-up location, sent to SB Dance email list subscribers. "This particular show is meant to be played in numerous spaces, ... something that's not as dependent on traditional proscenium theatricality," Brown says. "A traditional prop for theater and dance is a chair. ... I want to use a car as a prop. I have this idea that we pull up in three cars, the musicians get out of one and set up, we use another as a stage, then all pack up and drive away."
While the performance is part of an expansive universe Brown is envisioning, he emphasizes that he's attempting to create individual components that work on their own as well. "I'm trying to make them individually thematically compact enough to be satisfying," Brown says, "but when you see a movie and there's something interesting, you go to watch another thing the director made, or learn more about it. It's more like I want to say, 'If you want to dig deeper, you can go here.'"
For now, Brown says he's keeping his focus on Part II, out of simple necessity. And as with many daring artistic projects, the artist himself is still figuring it out as he goes. "Philip Roth would talk about how, as a novelist, you've never written this book before, so you're kind of looking around in the dark, and 90 percent of the time, you feel like a fraud," Brown says. "Then the last 10 percent, mastery takes over, and it's like, 'Oh, I'm really on to something now!' ... For this show, I'm on version 11.1, so there's been a lot of rewrites, to the point where the cast downloads the script an hour before rehearsal, because if they do it that morning, it might be completely overridden."
The timetable for the other parts is completely uncertain at this point; Brown even suggests it's theoretically possible the mysterious Part I, a video component, could be shot in time that it plays in the lobby of Part II. The key thing for him is the potential to explore a world, and to do so in whatever way seems to make the most sense for a particular part of this story. "It's one of those things where there's a bunch of characters, but I plan to grab that character and do something with them, and grab this character and do something with them, then go back to this world again. It's set up with a rich enough number of levels that I have a lot of things to plug into later on. I've got like a million planes circling in the air, trying to land.
"I recently talked to a choreographer my age," he adds, "who told me, 'I've made all the dances I want to make.' I haven't. I haven't even started!"