"There's Nothing Quite Like Playing The Heartstrings": A Q+A With Artist-In-Residence John Lionarons
Each year, the PAC selects an Artist-In-Residence. The program stemmed from a desire to create affordable and accessible art through interdisciplinary collaborations, bridging the gap between the visual and performative worlds. We strive to include artists of various disciplines, and previous notable collaborators have included painters Martin Campos, Jenn Warpole, and Madeline Adams; sculptor Rodger Wing; and photographer David Comdico. For our production of "Mary Stuart," we were lucky enough to meet award-winning hammered dulcimer player John Lionarons, and are proud to introduce him as our first "non-visual" artist-in-residence. John is a history buff, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and accomplished musician; in the sparse world of our production of "Mary Stuart," his soundscape is, perhaps, the closest thing we have to a scenic design. Artistic Associate Katherine Fritz sat down with John and asked him to share some thoughts about this process, his career, and just what a hammered dulcimer is, anyway.
Katherine Fritz: Hey, John! Welcome! Ok, so - let's talk about the hammered dulcimer. It's an instrument most people, myself included, aren't really familiar with! How did you become interested in this particular instrument?
John Lionarons: The dulcimer is a hammered harp, or struck zither. It's derived from the ancient "santur" or "santoor" of India and Persia and it's reputed to be as old as 2,500 years in design. It has been adopted by many, many cultures down through the centuries. I first saw a dulcimer at a folk concert my sophomore year at college in Buffalo, when traditional music was still mostly for nerds. A friend got ahold of one right away and I learned on his. Another friend began building them and I had my own before I graduated. With my piano training and folk guitar sensibilities, I was able to pick it up quite quickly, and owing to its rarity and amazing sound, it has opened more doors for me than I can count.
Fritz: Right... you had mentioned one of those doors was "Broadway's first hammered dulcimer player"? Can you talk a bit about that experience?
John: Well, it falls into the category of "It's not what you know..."
I was good friends with an Irish fellow named Mick Bolger, a fine traditional singer who also happened to be on the maintenance staff at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He arranged for us to play together at a party for some of the artistic staff at an Irish pub -- where else? -- one day in 1983. Fun gig. Didn't think any more of it. That year I got married and moved away. But they had my number, and one day the following year, out of the blue, I get this call from Denver. They're mounting a new musical called, "Quilters," about women in pioneer days, and there's a dulcimer part in the score. Apparently my pub gig served as the audition, and the job was mine for the asking, provided I joined Actors Equity, as the band would be on stage, in costume. And there'd be some traveling as well; we'd be doing shows in Denver, at The Kennedy Center in D.C., and then finally opening in a small Broadway house. Not a bad way to start one's professional theater career. I worked with some marvelous people and learned the ropes from real pros. An amazingly rewarding, enormously thrilling and practical educational experience, for which I was even paid. But more importantly, it set me on a completely unforeseen left-hand turn in my musical career, with Equity card in hand.
Fritz: That story is pretty incredible. It kind of leads me to my next question, which is about your regular gig as a performer in historic old city. I'm sure you must have some good stories from the tourists who come by. Anything memorable to share?
John: I do get a fair number of stupid questions while I'm playing the dulcimer in my 18th century garb. Kids are great. As they stand before me, watching me striking the strings with machine-gun rapidity, they will invariably ask, "How do you play that?" I've no clue as to what they are missing, so I always say, "Really well." The international tourists are also great. Once, when I was relaxing with my white cotton, stockinged legs stretched out from under the dulcimer, a woman came up and asked, "Are those your real legs?" I didn't know what to say. So I wiggled my feet and she jumped, and said, "Oooh!" I concluded that English was not her first language. Another favorite comment, asked while I'm playing is, "Nobody plays dose tings anymore, do dey?" to which I always answer, "Who are you calling "nobody?"
Fritz: Ha! We certainly don't think you're a nobody. Ok, last question. Is there anything about this specific time period in history that speaks to you as a musician and a historian?
John: Well, I play lots of styles, but I'm really drawn to this "early music." I've been working backwards in time since learning so much from 1776 (for my day job.) So I'm always trying to unearth and learn new tunes from the previous two centuries. So much of what survives today is chamber music, making it a good match for a soloist. I think this music finds a lot of its beauty in the simple melodic line, rather than from say, counterpoint, or contrasting different instruments the way you would in more complex arrangements. Playing solo also allows me more variation, and freedom with tempo and expression - perfect for this type of music which is often in minor keys with a melancholy feel. There's nothing quite like "playing the heartstrings."
John will be playing his own compositions, designed specifically for our production, live at each performance of "Mary Stuart." We are so thrilled to have him with us for this process. His CD's will be available for purchase at each performance, but they can also be purchased online at his website, www.johnlionarons.com., where you can also check out some audio and video clips, and read more about his work.
Dan Hodge and Krista Apple-Hodge have a whole lot of relationships to navigate. They are both busy working actors, who have appeared together onstage in the past. They are both deeply involved in the daily operations of running the Philadelphia Artists' Collective. Dan is currently directing the spring production of "Mary Stuart," featuring Krista as Queen Elizabeth I. And, of course, they just celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary. Associate Artist Katherine Fritz sat down with the couple, and asked them to dish on what it's like working together so closely, onstage and off.
Katherine Fritz: So, you guys were a couple for quite some time before appearing onstage together, correct?
Dan Hodge: Yeah, we had been a couple basically since I moved to the city. I met her and we hooked up right away. I think we were together for about three years before working together creatively.
Krista Apple-Hodge: I think Our Class at the Wilma was the first time we were onstage together.
Dan: I think we said all of five lines to each other.
Fritz: That was that incredibly heartbreaking play about the Holocaust, correct?
Dan: Oh, yeah. Things started off incredibly cheerful. (Laughs)
Fritz: So - what is it like for you to play a couple onstage when you are a couple in real life?
Krista: You know, it's funny. When we started rehearsals for Creditors, which was the first time we'd really played a couple together, I went into it feeling a little hesitant and a little worried about, 'Ohhh, we're going to be arguing onstage all day, I hope we don't start arguing offstage at night.' But it was actually strangely so much fun being able to tear into each other onstage, because we love each other and we trust each other so much. I think it gave us permission to just be kind of devastatingly awful to each other. There really was no need to be polite - we knew we loved each other and that wasn't going to change.
Dan: You know exactly where the buttons are and how to push 'em. And at the same time, you know how and when to keep things safe. It was a lot of fun - and a welcome change after Our Class!
Fritz: So this is the first time Dan is directing Krista! Can you talk about what that relationship is like? There's a lot to navigate -- Actor-Director, Husband-Wife, and "Ok, we run a company together."
Dan: I suppose you could say it's the first time it's legitimately my job to tell Krista what to do (Laughs). A lot of what's happening is that we founded a company with people that we all already respect, and there's already a shared artistic notion. I know she's good. I know this is a great role for Krista. It's also that I trust her artistically and I hope she trusts me artistically. There are things that we probably won't always see eye-to-eye about, but at the end of the day we're just trying to make a piece of work happen together.
Krista: Having spent time with Dan over the last 2-3 years as he has emerged in town as a director and really hearing him talk about his rehearsal process, his values, his priorities -- it's actually made it so much easier to come into this room knowing what it is that this director is going to be looking for. Knowing how he works, knowing what he really wants and needs, what he values from his actors. Knowing how he likes to tell stories. One of Dan's many skills and strengths is his ability to bring a story to life in a deeply visceral way. There's a real -- I don't want to say aggressiveness, but there's a real strength and momentum to Dan's directing style. It's such an asset when you're working on these classical plays where people talk and talk and talk and talk! So knowing who I was going to work for has made it easier for me to sit with my script and figure out, 'Okay, what are the most useful proposals I can bring into the room?'
Fritz: So has the "I'm sleeping with the director" joke become old for you yet?
Dan: Well, if we were sleeping together..... (Laughs) Ok, no, it really is something you do have to navigate. Especially asking yourself the question... how do you function in a world where you're trying not to bring the work with you everywhere you go?
Dan: We have to be good about that. We can't go home and talk about what's happened in rehearsal without doing other people the disservice of then saying "Here are the decisions that we've made for you, in our kitchen, at one in the morning."
Krista: Because, you know, I AM sleeping with the director! And I don't want to create a culture in the rehearsal room where that facet of our relationship could upend the creative work that needs to happen collectively with the fifteen other people working on this project.
Dan: Absolutely. If I show favoritism to any one person, ultimately it doesn't engender a good work environment in the room. So I need to put aside my feelings for Nathan Foley ....
Krista: How dare you. I'm the queen.
Dan: But I'm the director.
Krista: But I'm the queen.
Dan: You are -- A queen.
Fritz: Guys. I can't print any of this.
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