In recent years, playwright and director Lola Pierson has become a fixture of Baltimore’s theater scene. Her group Un Saddest Factory organized four years of the celebrated and always sold-out Ten Minute Play Festival. And now her new independent theater company Acme Corporation is putting on her latest play — “Office Ladies” — which scored a very optimistic preview in the Sun and a glowing review in the City Paper.
The play, like much of Pierson’s previous work, includes “a lot of meta-theater stuff in it and a lot of nonlinear narrative,” as well as “a lot of people not really talking to each other.” And if that doesn’t sound like the makings of a charming, engaging theater experience, then you’ve probably never seen a Lola Pierson play before. Turning cerebral and formally adventurous character studies into well-paced comedies is a special skill of hers.
“Office Ladies” marks the second time she’s worked with composer and guitarist Alex Scally — best known as a member of the Baltimore-based dream pop outfit Beach House. He and Steve Strohmeier perform the “Office Ladies” score live. I wish I could offer you a sample of it, but they have no plans to ever record it. (Lola tells me they’re trying to “do this ‘presence’ thing.”)
I stole a few minutes from Alex’s schedule — who flew in Wednesday for the play’s last four performances — to talk with him about the play, smooth jazz and “rotten” office music.
Where did you fly in from?
Austin. Beach House is getting ready to do a tour in Japan and Australia. And all year we’ve had this one lighting setup, and we need to be traveling on ground to use it — in Japan you can only fly — so we’ve been developing a new lighting stage performance thing, so I was down in Austin with our lighting guy working on it for three days.
About “Office Ladies”–
You know, the music’s a very small part it — it’s not that big of a thing.
That’s funny. Lola seems to consider it crucial. And it sounds like it was integrated: she worked on the script as you worked on the music, right?
Yeah, it was integrated, but the play very much looked the way it looks now — regardless of the music. The music had more to do with, like, its placement within the play — our discussions placed the music in the play. The music didn’t inform the content of her play, at all.
The last time you did music for a theater piece was in 2009 for Lola’s “Prettiest Place on Earth.” Do you not usually seek out opportunities to do these kinds of projects?
Well, since 2005 I’ve spent every second of my life doing Beach House. I never seek out opportunities but mostly because I’m so busy — this band which I’m lucky enough to have support me is my priority and we need to love it and support it and take care of it all the time.
The way we ended up doing the music — there are five office ladies and they progressively go insane — each one of them has her own theme song. And as you’re introduced to each office lady she sort of dances or gyrates at her desk to it — and it’s really awful music, really rotten office music. There’s midi sax, slap bass, all that stuff.
That’s how the songs are introduced. At the end of the play the songs are reprised in a more serious way. I brought in Steve Strohmeier to help execute it, to help play it live — and of course he added cool little things throughout because he’s a great musician.
So it really sounds authentic?
Well, we’re playing live, but it gets shrunken down to a tiny size by playing it through two EQs so it gets all the low-end removed. It sounds really crackly and thin by the time it gets to the speakers that are on each person’s desk.
Did you use reference music to emulate in transforming these themes into muzak?
I am like a trained musician, and so I did formal training and my teacher made me learn the worst stuff. I learned so many jazz standards. I’ve always been fascinated by the light jazz station on the radio. It’s so amazing because I can’t imagine anybody listening to it. Some of it’s so sexual. So, anyway, I ended up using a lot of canned beats which I have many of, a lot of cheesy ’80s synth patches. All of those things are back in my history.
And you know what’s funny is Steve went to college for jazz guitar — we went to the same school — he left not caring about jazz at all, but he can play it.
Sounds like it would be a pretty stunning thing to watch for anyone aware of your main musical projects.
Yeah, we hear laughter. It’s sort of designed to make people uncomfortable. We have one faux-classical song. You know how classical music is used evil-ly in movies? Like, it’s brought in to trump up the emotion in a scene that doesn’t deserve it. So we were like, “Let’s find a strings patch and do that.” We kind of do one of everything. There’s one song that’s really bluesy, there’s one that’s really sexual, one that’s unbearably smooth — so so smooth — one that’s kind of like bossa, like what I think of as “hold” music.
It was really fun to do music that’s not saying, like, “Take me seriously.”
“Office Ladies” will be showing at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (1900 St. Paul St.) at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Get tickets online at Brown Paper Tickets.