Admit it. You were introduced to opera by Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes. No shame, most of us were. But how many of us created a theater company based on the tragic persistence, scientific creativity, and undeniable artistic talent of Wile E. Coyote?
“Well, I think of one of Looney Tunes’ cartoons as one of my biggest artistic influences,” Lola B. Pierson told Baltimore Fishbowl.
“The Lights Went Out Because of a Problem” is a three-act opera co-directed by Pierson and Jarod Hanson, comprising found text and original writing by Pierson. Music is by Allison Clendaniel. “The opera is about learning to sing. It is also about goofing off, meditating, hanging out, healing from trauma, and the pandemic,” reads the press release. “This culmination of 3 years of slow and steady work is going to be a weird one you won’t want to miss.”
Fishbowl spoke to Pierson and Hanson about their new production, their innovative alternative approach to putting a piece together on the typical compressed timeline of a matter of weeks, and of course, the coyote connection.
“We’re an experimental theatre company and that term sort of gets thrown around a lot to mean a lot of things. But for us, it really means our shows are actually like, ‘Hey, I have this idea. And I don’t know if it’s gonna work,’” Pierson said. “So, the joke is that it often doesn’t, and it blows up in our faces. Our motto is ‘Theater that blows up in our faces.’”
“But also, it’s so beautiful, right? The thing that happens with Wile E. Coyote is he keeps trying every time and it’s so creative, and it’s so inventive. And then he’s got an amazing new idea and it’s stunning to watch him fail. So that’s where the name comes from, is we hope that you find it stunning to watch us fail,” Pierson laughed.
Pierson also spoke in seriousness about the fact that the cartoon character is always doing something else that he doesn’t mean to do, and never actually achieving his goal, something with which she feels a deep resonance. “I’m never doing the thing I set out to do. But he is doing something actually really amazing,” she said.
The company’s unusual approach had them working on their upcoming production slowly and gradually, rehearsing over a period of two years, rather than the typical theater company’s schedule of auditioning, rehearsing, set-building, and performing over the course of weeks.
Hanson, the production’s co-director, described it as a different sort of immersion in the work.
“My roots are in ensemble devising, which by its very nature demands rigor and time,” Hanson said. “So, for me, it was a very familiar role to step back into the bittersweet luxury of taking time to actually cultivate and develop a shared vocabulary, a group, an ensemble connection, that can dig into the material on a deeper level because we have more time to process, more time to think, more layers of specificity, more layers of the onion to peel away into the piece in so many ways.”
Pierson explained her reasoning for the more relaxed, expanded timeline for putting this production together, and why now that she’s experienced this approach, she’s never going back.
“I have a lot of chronic health conditions and they always get much worse after show because I couldn’t do the thing I had to do and take care of my body in the way that it needs to be taken care of. And during the pandemic, I couldn’t do anything, right?” Pierson said. “It took eight months into the pandemic where I was like, ‘Wait, I am in charge. I get to pick. I don’t have to do this the [old] way. …I get to pick the way this happens.’”
She also never felt comfortable asking people to work for her for a year and wait until the end of it to get paid. An anonymous $10,000 donation enabled her to try this new process.
“I’m never going back. This is the new way,” Pierson said. “We have so many amazing performers who are either people with chronic health conditions, people with small children, people with full-time jobs, or more than full-time jobs, or people who are caring for ailing parents who just can’t. There are nine cast members and eight of them are women, right? And so if you say, ‘Can I have your life for eight weeks?’ the answer is like of course, ‘No!’ But if you say, ‘Can I have three hours of your week? Every week?’ they’re like, ‘Yeah, it’s the highlight of my week!’ And so, it’s been really wonderful for the work.”
Pierson and Jarod agreed that the accessibility of the process makes it possible for people who are unable to participate in a regular model of theater, giving it so many advantages over the traditional way of putting productions together.
The upcoming opera, written by Pierson, is about healing from trauma by learning to sing.
The title, “The Lights Went Out Because of a Problem” came from her pandemic experience of a combination of mishaps and being given useless information about why those mishaps occurred.
“Honestly, like all of my work, this is just sort of me trying to figure out what happened,” Pierson said. “Early on in the pandemic, my computer crashed, and Apple gave that message, ‘Your computer crashed because of a problem.’ And that had this deep resonance with me. I though, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the pandemic right there.’ Everyone had all these explanations for the pandemic, but none of them had useful information and none of it helped. And I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, this happened because there was a problem. And that’s kind of all we know.’”
She relayed that during their company’s shows, there is always at least one thing very bad that happens with the lights. In the show right before the pandemic, all of the lights went out during one of the shows, but everyone in the audience thought it was planned. So it’s the theater company’s running joke that made it into the title of the upcoming production.
“What happened was disorienting and scary, and we often encounter these things where we are walking through our lives kind of disconnected and not really realizing it and then something very disorienting and scary happens and that’s an opportunity,” Pierson said, referring to the pandemic. “And we can either sort of go further into our ‘pretending everything’s okay’ mode or our disconnected mode, or we can take it as an opportunity to go one level deeper and open up a little bit more. For me, I feel very lucky that the pandemic was an opportunity like that. I grew a lot in the pandemic, and I opened up a lot in the pandemic.”
Acknowledging that it wasn’t like that for everyone, and that she feels very lucky that was the case, she thinks one of the reasons she does plays is the hope that if she watches it enough times, she might begin to understand what happened there.
Hanson said what he loved about the show is that it’s conceptually simple, but the storytelling itself is dense.
“There’s like a lot of interesting things happening that aren’t necessarily linear and narrative, but that have a visceral logic to them. That’s both within the acts and from act to act. And I really love a piece that makes you buckle your seatbelt and go for the ride,” Hanson said.
“Either you leave a piece, you’re going for pizza and you’re thinking about what toppings you’ll get, or you leave a piece, and you go for pizza and all you can think about is, ‘What the hell just happened?’ This show is definitely the latter,” Hanson said. “It’s my belief that the piece really ends once people in the audience are leaving and they’re thinking about what happened.”
The show isn’t in true operatic format but follows the process of learning how to sing. “They do not truly sing until the end…. But there are elements of musicality, like rhythm and tone, that grow throughout the piece,” Pierson said. “In each act, a new element of what it is that makes up singing is added. And so by the time we get to the third act, they have rhythm, they have breath, they have text, they have tonality, and they can finally sing.” The actors also play the instruments.
The show opens Nov. 30 and runs through Dec. 17 at The Voxel, located at 9 W. 25th St., in Baltimore. Tickets cost $10-$100 on a sliding scale, with a “Pay What You Wish” policy. The company plans to have a “relaxed” performance on the second weekend of the run, described as being “child-friendly, neurodivergent-friendly, for people with different sensory issues.”
You can purchase tickets to “The Lights Went Out Because of a Problem” by clicking this link.