“A Vaudeville of Ionesco meets 30 Rock” In Conversation with David Bernstein on creating “surrealist hoedown” NASHVILLE STORIES at SummerWorks
Article by Megan Robinson
David Bernstein is sitting across from me in my living room and being delightfully self-deprecating and candid about his current production Nashville Stories at SummerWorks. “Oh, you’ve never heard of me? Well here is my original 75 minute, ten person musical! […] I’ve had to really interrogate my desire to make things this big.” He is joking but also not. He considers the production his “cold open” to the Toronto theatre scene, which is a lot for someone taking on the roles of writer, director and actor. As the opening was creeping up and nerves were beginning to take over, David lets me know he is seriously considering his therapist’s recommendation that he get Beta Blockers.
“What are those?” I ask.
“They slow down the heart,” he says.
Having studied at NYU, David is now working in Toronto where he is building his reputation for making bold and out-of-the-box choices, despite the fact that networking is not what he considers his strong suit. A performance artist, his first Canadian production Cherry Corsage was an original piece co-presented by Videofag. He is also a creative associate for the dance company Rock Bottom Movement, where he works closely and collaboratively with choreographer Alyssa Martin.
His newest beast Nashville Stories is what he describes as a “surrealist hoedown”, and is the result of seven months of work starting back in December when he and Jake Vanderham (co-writer, producer and actor) pitched it to Summerworks.
The show is inspired by Garth Brooks’ strange turn into Chris Gaines back in 1999, an event David says he knew nothing about at the time. “I liked country music but like… Shania Twain.” When Liza Kelly, costume designer, posted an article about the phenomenon on Facebook, David took the click bait and discovered his newest show.
As we discuss the event, David puts real emphasis on the incredulity of Garth’s choice. “He was the biggest selling artist of that time and he decided he was going to make himself into this weird sleazy rock star character. We use one of the songs from that album in this show and it sounds like Boyz II Men. Not only is it not what people paid to see from him, historically, it also calls into question the sort of constructed aspect of the rest of what he’d done.”
Pop culture and celebrity has been a staple in all of David’s original work so far, “Every time I find something that I want to make something about, it’s always about a real person, a celebrity, and it usually involves something about how they make their art.
His first show, which was created while he was living in New York, centered around Lena Dunham. The show was inspired by the strange results of Dunham’s rise to fame, which put a unique stamp on “the millennial creative woman trying to figure out her shit”. This archetype became its own cliché that then trapped a lot of the women he knew who were trying to make art from their own lives. And so birthed the show, Too Many Lenas.
Next up: Cherry Corsage, about Isaac Mizrahi on the shopping channel, and the very real segment where he argues about whether the moon is a star or a planet. David was a sales person, himself, when he saw the clip and was fascinated with the showmanship of sales, “Sales is just this weird extemporaneous monologue with this thing at the end where you try to get people’s money. So I was watching this person perform in this mode that I was performing in and I was thinking, “Great! I’m going to do that.”
So how does a country singer creating an alter ego as a rock star with a made up back story hit a personal chord in David’s life?
Well, the show is trying to grapple with that tension of creative fulfilment and success with that romantic, social side. David was going through a breakup, himself, and used the creative process to bolster where he was in his own life.
“When you hear about Garth’s story and you get that Wikipedia epiphany of “Oh! Chris Gaines is what he did after he got a divorce,” you get this sense, and it’s the one we end with in the show, of this bittersweet moment of somebody fixing what they thought was an inadequacy in them based on a romantic failing, with a creative change that forces them to leave something behind. Where I was socially, romantically, I could feel all those holes he was trying to fill. And feel what he would have had to push out to fill them.”
This, David says, is what’s underneath all the colourful flourishes “if you really are sinking your teeth into it.” But most of the time, the nonsense and the fun is what prevails. David’s work leaves people with questions. Mooney on Theatre reviewed Cherry Corsage and said “Despite the research, and having no clue about what on earth I just witnessed, I still enjoyed myself, and the show. It was really funny.”
Which makes sense to me even more as David unravels his creative process of scriptwriting, which starts out with a point and ends in a joke: “A lot of the script is found material. There’s a Bette Midler stand-up special, then three lines I’ve written and an inside joke from rehearsal. We stage it, then I’ll cut what was the heart of the piece, and the inside joke might stay. And then it becomes a transition for the next scene.” As a result, the final script was really only solidified a week and a half ago. “There are just too many options,” David says, about creating his own script.
Nashville Stories is ambitious and in the interview it’s almost like David is struggling to get a baby tiger to cuddle with him, as he explores the various elements of this fun and fluffy but wild-spirited piece.
There is a lot at stake, and to trust in your own vision can be hard, though David is getting better at that. “I’m not afraid of people being like “WHAT THE FUCK?” I’m afraid of bored, polite digestion.” There’s also apprehension of making those final leaps in rehearsal in order to sew it all together, “I trust the cast to get there, but it requires a real acrobatic ability from the performers. I think it’s pretty close.” Then there’s the weight of bringing in the audience: “I feel such a responsibility throwing the cast out there in front of people, so what I’m creating and the structure of the piece has to serve them. I can’t let them go out there with something I know I should’ve cut or put in a different spot. “
When I ask David a final time to give me a sense of the show or to describe it (which I’ve done a lot already and it is probably annoying) he leaves me with, “A Vaudeville of Ionesco meets 30 Rock.”
Written by David Bernstein and Jake Vanderham
Directed by David Bernstein
Produced by Jake Vanderham
Performed by Cynthia Ashperger, David Bernstein, Stephanie Cozzette, Kaleigh Gorka, Brendan Flynn, Teresa Labriola, and Jake Vanderham
Choreographed by Alyssa Martin
Costumes by Liza Kelly
Lighting Design by Eric Bartnes
Stage Managed by Scott Phyper
Garth Brooks is sad. His divorce is final, his album is not. With the help of his famous friends, Garth tries to make himself disappear. But nobody is prepared for who replaces him. Based on the infamous 1999 album The Life of Chris Gaines, performance artist David Bernstein and writer-performer Jake Vanderham conjure a surreal hoedown featuring a live bluegrass band. Surf’s up!
The Theatre Centre – Franco Boni Theatre
1115 Queen Street West, Toronto, ON
Thursday August 10th 8:30pm – 9:45pm
Friday August 11th 4:00pm – 5:15pm
Saturday August 12th 8:15pm – 9:30pm