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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Somewhere between its first workshop and its current production at Joe's Pub, Ethan Lipton's No Place to Go transformed from a snazzy concert into a full-fledged piece of theatre. Granted, the show still resembles a concert---it features a guy standing in front of his band ---but it feels like more.
So what's the difference? What makes something legitimate drama and not another night at the club?
It helps that there's a script. Lipton has released several albums, but he's also an accomplished actor and playwright. When Joe's Pub, The Public Theater's music and performance venue, commissioned him to create No Place to Go, he knew he could fuse his talents.
Here's how it works: Lipton essentially plays himself, and in between tunes with his band, he describes how he lost his day job because his company relocated to Mars. The songs also move the story along, explaining Lipton's emotional state as his professional life falls apart.
There's an element of truth there, since Lipton really did lose a job before writing the show, but the outer space references and carefully structured monologues keep reminding us we're not just watching a musician saying whatever comes to mind. "There's something exciting about that blurred line," Lipton says. "We're not giving you sign posts of, 'Now we're kidding, and now we're not.' I ask the audience to do some work, and hopefully, that pays off and keeps them engaged."
But concepts alone don't make a piece of theatre. When No Place to Go had a preview performance last year, the songs and the text were essentially in place, but Lipton says it still felt like a typical music event. There was a story, but it wasn't commanding attention.
That's where director Leigh Silverman came in. She says, "As I worked on it with him, I felt like, truly, the only thing that was my job was to knit the piece together energetically so that it moved out of the world of being strictly a 'gig' and into being more of a theatre piece."
Among other things, Silverman recruited a lighting designer to suggest moods for each scene. She enlisted a sound designer to make sure the music didn't just come at the crowd from the stage, like it typically does in a concert, but instead enveloped the audience on all sides. She even asked the wait staff not to visit their tables during key dramatic moments.
The performances were also important. "There was a moment where I said to Ethan, 'You just have to stop bowing after every song,'" Silverman laughs. "You have to sustain energy. I said to the guys, 'When you're playing, you're not just playing because it's your cue. You're playing because you're in conversation with Ethan.'"
"It changed the way they played," she adds. "They were listening and then responding with their instruments."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo Credit Heather Phelps-Lipton.