We’ve created a monster!” says Rachel’s pianist Rachel Grimes, feigning disbelief. “We didn’t realize we’d be making such a big-scale thing. It’s the biggest production that Rachel’s has ever been involved in.”
Grimes, phoning from Michigan, immediately undercuts her claim with a chuckle, but she’s right: Systems/Layers, the traveling theatrical piece that the Louisville band has created with New York’s Saratoga International Theater Institute (SITI) Company, is something of a behemoth. Drawing on the talents of 18 players, the piece combines film, spoken word, dance, lighting and, of course, music into what the pianist describes as a 70-minute “flowing” work. According to Grimes, the band’s basic aesthetic-instrumental music with a film backdrop, provided by projectionist Greg King-was essentially built to support a project of this type, if not necessarily this magnitude.
“All of us are really open to improv and writing together, and that’s the common denominator,” she says, noting that the band’s 1996 album, Music For Egon Schiele, was also given theatrical treatment. “We all bring different interests from art or film into it. Our lives are so filled with inspiration, like film and art and poetry, that we can’t really leave it out. We’ve just made it part of what we’re doing.”
Grimes and her Rachel’s cohorts multimedia-inclusive attitude is reflected in their collaboration with the similarly-minded, experimental SITI Company. Formed in 1992 with hopes of stimulating American theater by integrating influences from other cultures, the group has long kept its projects forward-thinking in scope. Appropriately, Systems/Layers began germinating when the band’s demographic-shunning blend of the classical and the popular found its way into the ears of SITI collaborator and choreographer Barney O’Hanlon. He considered the band a kindred spirit.
“We discovered their music just like anyone else,” he says. “[SITI] is kind of in the same boat as Rachel’s. We do opera, we do just straight-up plays, and we generate our own pieces.”
O’Hanlon began to incorporate the band’s recorded music into various performances and classes he taught, with other SITI teachers soon following suit. The fascination eventually lead the choreographer, touring through Louisville, to invite Rachel’s into one of the group’s improvisational practice sessions. It was a revelatory experience for both camps.
“They jammed with us-they improvised, and we improvised,” O’Hanlon says. “It was an incredible match. It was like finding a lost love.”
“We really hit it off and realized that we really enjoyed being in the same room together,” Grimes says. “It became kind of apparent that we wanted to make a piece together. We weren’t sure we were creating a piece together immediately, but we knew we liked the work of the other group.”
Buoyed by the success of their off-hand improv sessions, Rachel’s and the SITI Company eventually took to writing a dance piece, something neither had previously attempted. The movement into dance involved, among other things, some major upheaval in the 13-year-old theater group: Systems/Layers was the first SITI production directed by someone other than the company’s founder, Anne Bogart.
“I don’t really have directorial aspirations,” O’Hanlon says almost penitently. “I had the strongest feeling about where this thing should go, so I just took over the reins. In a very practical way, I just wanted to create dances to Rachel’s music.”
“[Bogart] was ready for that to happen,” Grimes says. “Barney knows more of the choreography end of it, so it seemed like the right way to go.”
Modest ambitions aside, what the groups’ collaboration eventually became was something broader and more thematic than originally intended. Melding the SITI Company’s New York roots with a shared catholic sensibility, the piece crystallized into a patient meditation on the beauty of urban living.
“It’s essentially about people living in an urban environment and just going through their day,” he says. “We were all exploring interior and exterior environments, like outside on the street or inside a cafe. How do you express that without a set? How can you do that with just the music and the bodies? And then there’s the body, what you show in public and what’s really going on inside.”
While Rachel’s actually released the soundtrack (also called Systems/Layers) on Quarterstick in 2003, a year before the piece first showed up in a live setting, actual performances have been limited: Krannert’s hosting of the piece is, in fact, the only time the two groups plan on performing it this year, with only three performance at the University of Utah preceding it. Both Grimes and O’Hanlon chalk this development up to the simple expense involved with making Systems/Layers run.
“In terms of shopping it around, it’s a very big piece,” O’Hanlon says. “There’s eight actors and we’re all union members. There’s musicians. The number of bodies makes it expensive-only a big venue can afford it.”
Grimes is less discreet about the problem. “If you know anything about theater budgets and arts funding in the United States, you know it’s up shit creek right now,” she says flatly. “Even universities are having to make very conservative choices about things to bring in. Most theaters are picking theater that is less expensive to them but still exciting. Without really intending to, we’ve created a pretty expensive production that requires a technologically fixed room like the Krannert Center. There’s only so many performing arts centers in the country that really fit that bill, and then there’s the problem of getting the show. The Krannert Center was wonderful to step out and say that they wanted to program it into their schedule. We’re grateful.”
Though actual performances of the piece remain few and far between, both Grimes and O’Hanlon remain enthusiastic about Systems/Layers as a fully formed “multi-level experience.”
“Ultimately, what I think Rachel’s-and all of us-want is for the audience to leave the theater and start looking around at the environment they’re in everyday,” O’Hanlon says. “All that’s beautiful and artistic about it, how beautiful something that’s simple or mundane can be.