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How the Internet connected two artists for a one-of-a-kind musical
Before the Internet, Steve: A Docu-Musical couldn't have existed. That's because this solo show at the 4th Street Theatre, starring NYC-based millennial performer and playwright Colin Summers, chronicles his online correspondence and artistic collaboration with a man he's never met, a self-described Gen Xer in Australia named Steve. Living on opposite sides of the world and belonging to different generations, the two probably wouldn't have come across each other in real life -- especially since Steve rarely leaves his home. But when Summers and his then-roommate, Andrew Eckel, launched PoetryToMusic.com, a site where people could submit lyrics that the then-Emerson College students would set to music for a fee, prolific Steve became their most dedicated customer. Some might even say he was obsessed.
"He sent me about 8,000 emails over seven years," says Summers, who shares just a fraction of those messages onstage. "At first it was very transactional, about the songs that we were working on. But gradually I started to get to know him."
What began as a business relationship slowly morphed into something else. A friendship? Not a traditional one. Perhaps a better description is mutual fixation and admiration. Summers found himself talking about Steve and their emails and songs constantly (even on first dates!), and his non-virtual cohorts insisted there was a potential play to be made.
But how to boil down almost a decade of output into a coherent and engaging 70-minute experience? "Careful curation," Summers says, and he credits his longtime director, Nessa Norich, with helping him shape the show. The result is a vibrant, humorous, and loving portrait of this mysterious artist, which is crafted with his eccentric emails, self-published books (see How to fail at college: How not to fail), the stock photos he uses as fake online profile pics, and a smattering of the hundreds of songs he and Summers wrote together.
It's obvious from the outset that Steve is, for lack of a better word, different, though what's going on isn't revealed until the end. But Summers -- and Steve, of course, who was initially hesitant about the project but now relishes watching emailed videos of the audience applauding every night -- wanted to make sure the tone never came off as ridiculing or condescending.
"That was our biggest concern throughout the whole creation of it," Summers says, and it's why he is immensely precise about how he shares artifacts from their relationship. "We want people to experience the emails in different ways. Steve has an off-the-wall sense of humor and sometimes the best way to see it is with your own eyes. But sometimes, you need a little help, with me guiding the audience with my tone of voice."
Of course, there's no surefire way to control people's reactions. "Audiences are fairly unpredictable," Summers admits. "The thing that we found works best is to just try and present it with as little commentary as possible and let people get to know Steve the way I did. Yeah, it's a tough line to walk, but I think we've gotten good at it."
Even though the focus is on Steve, details also emerge about the man telling the tale, like info about his band, Toys and Tiny Instruments, and his penchant for toy pianos and the Stylophone. "One of the things we were trying to do this time is bring my story into it, too," says Summers, who performed previous versions of the show at Joe's Pub, Ars Nova's ANT Fest, and Horse Trade's FRIGID Festival. (The current run is presented by New York Neo-Futurists.) "We wanted a little bit more balance."
In fact, Summers has suggested that Steve (who still emails him daily) should now write a show about their relationship from his unique perspective. "He says he's got some things that could be a good sequel to the show, and I keep saying I think a great sequel would be something with him talking about me," he adds. "But so far he hasn't been so interested in that. We have different tastes sometimes."
Raven Snook is the associate editor of TDF Stages
Photos by Hunter Canning
Tickets to Steve: A Docu-Musical are available through TDF's Off-Off@$9 Program.