Matt Posey doesn't create theater the way he's supposed to. He does it a little backwards. When the Ochre House artistic director sits down to start work on a new production, he doesn't think about who will play the starring role or what the stage set-up will be. No, he thinks about the music. That's why his plays have come to feature such notable local musicians as Elizabeth Evans of the Polphonic Spree, Laura Harrell of Party Static and Stefan González of Yells at Eels. That's also why Ochre House, a tiny, 50-seat theater in Expo Park, yields some of the most original and unexpected music in Dallas.
Fans of local theater will recognize the Ochre House as one of the best theater groups in Dallas, but it's also a bastion of fearless and innovative original music. "I'm trying to open up a vein in theater's arm, with all the elements of music, dance, drama and comedy," explains Posey, whose current production, The Egg Salesman, runs through Saturday. "I'm trying to make it as kinetic as I [can] possibly get it."
Posey practices what he preaches: He notes that in one production, he crammed 14 songs into 105 minutes. Party Mouth, a play with a storyline about addiction and death, began with the band lining up on stage as if to bow, only to light and pass a joint between them before taking their seats, which were wedged among the audience.
Given the inherent demands and risks associated with original music and a live band, why not take the easier route and pre-record the music? "Live music and live actors go hand in hand," says Posey. Expanding on the point, he explains, "Canned music can set a tone in a storyline, but live music is its own character. It creates a certain kinetic tension between the actors and musicians, and it demands audience attention in a way recorded music can't."
Going back to his first Ochre productions, for which he enlisted then-local musician Ross Mackey (now of Austin's murder-surf band Machete Western) to write the music, Posey's fearless use of live music has differentiated his theater from every other in town. Posey laughs recalling that "Ross and Alexander Aulson, whom I'd met working as a rigger on stage sets, couldn't have been more than 18 or so when they worked on that first play."
Posey has since assembled a bench of musicians that can help him realize almost any musical vision his fertile, twisted mind can conjure. He now has a stable core of musicians -- including some with formal music training -- who can take a sketch of a musical framework and develop songs, whether stage productions or background tunes, that both advance the storyline and entertain. And while his troupe of actors by no means considers themselves singers, as Posey says, "They sure as hell know how to sell a song, and I'll always take a singer that sells the song over one that simply sings it well."
In his capacity as playwright, Posey determines both the "role" the music will play and its stylistic framework. For example, in Mean, a play about the first meeting of Charles Manson and Tex Watson, the musicians took on the role of a countrified house band playing in the bar where the action was set. For the current production, The Egg Salesman, Posey's vision was more Brechtian: The house band is perched in a tiny loft above the stage, behind the betting windows of the dog track where the story plays out.
Posey relies on longtime Ochre House actor and collaborator Mitchell Parrack to come up with the vast majority of lyrics to his productions' songs. At this point, Parrack has written lyrics to some 70 songs that have been sung on the Ochre House stage. This catalog ranges from dark to light, touching on the grimmer aspects of human nature in Mean, and much sunnier themes in Egg Salesman. Parrack may have a voice -- or many voices -- in his head as he creates the lyrics, but "the musicians and the actors on the stage bring it to life," he says. "Once the words are on the page, I have to let them go."
The musical leader and chief songwriter is sultry Fort Worth guitarist Deanna Valone. She's classically trained, with a background in music theory, and she can occasionally be found performing solo gigs around the area, where she showcases her jazz-inflected electric guitar playing. She's the one who takes the script and lyrics and combines them with original scores, forging songs the actors can "sell." It's a short, six-week production cycle that requires working fast. Valone often finds herself presenting a song or song fragment that she herself is still learning, working it to completion with the actors and musicians. Valone likens the experience to "the dream where you show up for work with no clothes on, and it goes on and on for three weeks."
Fortunately, Valone has capable help in fellow musicians Bobby Fajardo and Trey Pendergrass. Fajardo plays a variety of percussion instruments at Ochre House, including the vibes -- the instrument Posey calls his "secret weapon." With an MFA in music from the University of Miami, Fajardo connects the dots between studio sessions with Pharrell, performing with orchestras and the Ochre House.
Pendergrass has been a fixture at the Ochre House for years now, and he also plays around town in various bands. According to Posey, Pendergrass can be relied on to quickly "find a solution for any musical dilemma," a skill vital to keeping the production on schedule. Rounding out the current house band is Jeff Keddy, who plays bass and various other instruments, depending on the demands of the particular production.
Unfortunately, virtually none of the music has been properly recorded. As González recalls, "We were always going to record the soundtrack to Ex Voto [a play about Frida Kahlo], but it just never happened." As with most music that pushes the envelope, to experience it, you'll just have to see it live.
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