Two Composers Lob Ideas and Tennis Balls in Charlie Barnett’s New Play “12Ness”

So these two composers walk into a bar…well, actually, a tennis court. That’s the premise of a provocative new play, 12Ness, that had a recent run at the Ice House in Bethlehem, PA. Written by composer, producer, musician, (and Easton, PA native) Charlie Barnett, 12Ness was presented by the Crowded Kitchen Players, produced by Ara Barlieb and Pamela McLean Wallace, and directed by George B. Miller.

The two composers are American popular songwriter George Gershwin and Austrian expressionist composer Arnold Schoenberg. (The play’s title refers to the 12-toned chromatic scale Schoenberg favored). The mise en scène is Hollywood, 1936-37, alternating between Ira Gershwin’s private tennis court and Schoenberg’s dining room. In an interesting, site-specific staging choice, the audience physically moves upstairs to the Ice House’s second floor for the dining room scenes. The downstairs set, the tennis court, is quite minimal—with only a couple of benches—while the dining room includes a table, furnishings, and a glowing orb meant to signify a full moon. The movement between the two settings enhances the play’s flow, and the audience seemed to enjoy moving about the rustic décor of the old Ice House. In addition to Gershwin (Ryan MacNamara) and Schoenberg (Robert Salsburg), the cast includes Gershwin’s then-girlfriend, actress Ginger Rogers (Stephanie Gawlas Walsh) and Schoenberg’s attractive, much younger wife Gertrud (Syd Stauffer).

We learn in a program note that 62-year-old Schoenberg had recently arrived in America, escaping the Nazi threat in his native Austria with help from Gershwin, and that Gershwin died of a brain tumor (at age 37) less than a year after the men began their tennis rivalry. (Throughout the play, we see Gershwin suffer from various odd sensory symptoms that tell us not all is well).

The two composers, so divergent in temperament, artistic philosophy and style, and age, engage in an ongoing volley of ideas along with the tennis balls. While both men were musical geniuses in their own right, Schoenberg is formal, structured, and somewhat cranky, while Gershwin, a natural, intuitive talent, is much more sociable and happy-go-lucky. In the opening scene, the younger man scolds his older colleague: “You’ve got a rule for everything.” Schoenberg explains his philosophy: “Structure is everything.” He tells an incredulous Gershwin that his current work in progress has “neither notes nor melody.” Perhaps these artistic differences can be best described in a line from the play: “Schoenberg writes music for himself; Gershwin writes music for an audience.”

Certainly the debate about what is and what is not art is a heady subject for a play. However, as presented through the characters of the two highly individual composers, the topic takes on personal weight and meaning, and the play is quite engaging. Each of the four actors does a fine job inhabiting his or her character: Salsburg portrays Schoenberg with the right combination of intellectual fervor and curmudgeonly crank; MacNamara’s Gershwin is by turns light-hearted and tortured; Gawlas Walsh’s Ginger Rogers is intelligent and warm; and Syd Stauffer shows us Gertrud’s painful struggle between admiration for and duty to her husband and longing for a more exciting, passionate existence.

I spoke to the playwright for some behind-the-scenes insight into 12Ness. The following is an edited excerpt from that interview:

Shari Lifland: What was the inspiration behind 12Ness?

Charlie Barnett: The idea for the play came from a 13-second conversational tidbit. I was talking to my friend Graham Townsley about Gershwin and he told me about a standing tennis match between George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg. I can’t imagine two more unlikely people playing tennis. That was it—just the idea that George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg were standing 30 feet from each other. They’re the most divergent personalities and music that I could imagine. I couldn’t get it out of my head and I tried to figure out what to do with it. I wondered, “Is this going to make its way into a piece of music?” I didn’t really know. I did a minimum bit of research and found out there was basically nothing documented about what they said to each other, which is great for me, because I’m completely uninterested in a biographical sketch. I was interested in the art of it. So I thought, “Oh, good—I can just make up what they say!” Then I went on vacation (I’m not great on vacationing); and I got up every morning at 5 and I wrote for 4 hours. I wrote the play in a week. Then I spent the next 8 months putting it down, picking it up, editing. I invited 100 people whose opinions really matter to me to a reading, and based on that, I made some fairly decisive changes.

Shari Lifland: What are your next plans/hopes for the piece?

Charlie Barnett: It’s pretty clear to me that I’m going to make some changes structurally to it after seeing it this round. I’m going to work with Ara (Barlieb). He’s sharp at this stuff and sees this play with brand new eyes. There’s one big argument in this play—process vs. inspiration— and I have to figure out when enough is enough: when they audience finally gets it, vs. when they’re sick of it. It’s a fine line. Certainly in the play, all the best arguments are for process; there’s no really good argument for being inspired. How do you do it? Either you are or you aren’t.

Shari Lifland: In the play, Gershwin is put on the spot to defend inspiration, which is the only way he knows how to create. Is that fair? Is his art less valuable than Schoenberg’s?

Charlie Barnett: They were both certifiable geniuses in their own spheres, and that stands. There’s a good case to be made on both sides. Maybe I feel for them both equally. As a playwright, I just love the argument. As a composer, I’m probably ambivalent. I sit down to write a piece of orchestral music and it just comes. I’ve written a million pieces without a plan at all. I don’t have a plan like Schoenberg had a plan. I sit down and think, “Hmm. What would the audience like to hear? I’ll write that.” So much of what the characters in the play say is unsurprisingly what I would say.

For news about upcoming productions of 12Ness, visit www.charliebarnett.com

For information about the Crowded Kitchen Players, visit www.ckplayers.com

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