Active Listening

Photo by Tim Summers

Frank Boyd fuses jazz and theatre into an unconventional new play at On the Boards.

Inside a cramped, dingy radio studio in Kansas City, Miss., an equally dingy jazz DJ is on a tirade against Rolling Stone or Mark Wahlberg or some equally infuriating travesty of pop culture. In the background, Duke Ellington’s “Basin Street Blues” plays; a trumpet solo starts and DJ Ray’s stream-of-consciousness commentary follows, relief washing over his face. This song, he declares, should be our national anthem—fuck that Francis Scott Key ‘’tis of thee’ bullshit. “What does that have to do with anything? This is us. It feels like us. It has all the layers.”

This continuous broadcast is the spine of The Holler Sessions, the solo show from writer-actor Frank Boyd premiering at On the Boards this month. Ray—played by Boyd—buzzes around his tiny, taupe-colored kingdom. The walls are covered with sticky notes, the floor with peanut shells. A coffee pot, a sad plant. Filing cabinets. The height of office-park drab. But when Ray spins a record, he’s exactly where he wants to be.

He’s never still, even when he’s motionless—sitting head tilted, eyes closed behind black sunglasses—listening so actively he practically hums. His humility and passion are palpable. Jazz is his life, the way he meets the world.

This simple, weighty one-act isn’t so much a story as a window cut into a soul. Ray eats, drinks coffee, expounds, listens, swears, makes connections and shouts into the void. Time passes; who knows how much? As theatre, The Holler Sessions is both unconventional and completely accessible. Boyd is a New York-trained actor who’s worked all over the world and called Seattle home for more than five years. For the first time, he brings his original work—emotional, intellectual, hilarious and honest—to the local stage. It has all the layers.

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Like everyone he knew growing up in East Lansing, Mich., Boyd was into sports, not theatre. But he took a theatre class in high school anyway, taught by “an incredible, life-changing teacher” who also taught at Michigan State University, where Boyd spent his first year of college (and where his father is a chemistry professor). “It was some Dead Poets’ Society shit in a very Midwestern-mom way,” he says.

Boyd is a relaxing, generous presence, easy to talk to and even easier to joke with. He has a way of speaking that’s at once subdued and borders on laughter. But when he’s passionate about something, you can practically feel his internal antennae start to vibrate.

During that year at Michigan State, Boyd started doing stand-up at a Lansing comedy club called—believe it—Connxtions. “It was great,” he laughs. “I started doing open mics, and then I got some paid work. I toured to Toledo. I opened for Tommy Chong. It was pretty cool at the time.”

A friend from high school was attending New York University and Boyd auditioned for the drama program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he would finish out his college career. While at NYU he studied acting for two years at famed New York training ground The Meisner Studio and one year at the Experimental Theatre Wing, which is where he discovered the value of creating his own work. “For me, that was the way to have a lifetime in theatre,” he says.

His post-graduation days were pretty typical—bartending, construction, a job entertaining kids at parties. “I was basically like a hungover Batman, and I got fired,” he says. But he also did a lot of plays, mostly with friends, mostly at a horridly (but wonderfully) run-down theatre in the East Village. Call this piecemeal artistic path paying dues or earning cred, but Boyd stayed true to his creative intent.

“I was useless with the few agent meetings that I had so I never went out for commercials,” he says. “I felt bad about that for a while but now I feel good about it.” Perhaps that’s why, of all Ray’s lines, this one is Boyd’s personal favorite: “I don’t want to be a salesman.”

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Boyd found an artistic home through the connections that fuel the downtown theatre scene, starting with New York-based theatre company The TEAM. Its founders were also NYU grads; Boyd didn’t know them well in college, but when they needed a replacement actor for a 2006 London run of their show Particularly in the Heartland, he landed the role. His penchant for rigorous, engaging new work made him a great fit for the intensely collaborative theatre group, of which he’s still a member.

Several years later, Boyd and The TEAM were working in Edinburgh when John Collins, artistic director of theatre company Elevator Repair Service, saw him perform. ERS was looking to replace the actor playing George Wilson in Gatz, their wildly popular, seven-hour, word-for-word adaptation of The Great Gatsby, for an upcoming return to The Public Theatre in New York. Collins offered the role to Boyd. (Gatz played at OtB in 2007, but Boyd wasn’t yet a part of the show.) From there, Collins asked him to help create The Select, based on Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and he’s been working with ERS ever since.

In 2009, Boyd’s longtime girlfriend Nila K. Leigh wanted to find a place with a great music scene to grow her band, Goodbye Heart, and the couple settled on Seattle. From his new home, Boyd continued to work with The TEAM and tour extensively with ERS through 2013—Singapore, Tasmania, twice to Australia. Awesome experiences, he says, but mixed blessings.

“I don’t think I had more than two months sequentially in town, which was cool but also kind of awful, because I didn’t feel like I had a home,” he says. “I couldn’t work on anything.”

The independent project he’d been looking for grew out of a show The TEAM created called Waiting For You on the Corner of…, an exploration of civil discourse born after the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and commissioned by Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Boyd’s character was a jazz radio DJ.

“At that point it was, OK, I’ll play a guy who loves jazz. I’m an actor, I can personalize that,” Boyd says. Previously, his only exposure to jazz was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which he owned in college. “That gets a bad rap because it’s such a cliché to have among your Bob Dylan records. But whatever, it’s an incredible fuckin’ album.”

When the TEAM landed in jazz mecca Kansas City in January 2013, Boyd visited the American Jazz Museum. “There were a bunch of kindergarteners there and me, and I talked to this guy Kevin who was working there, the education director,” Boyd says, settling into the rhythm of a storyteller. “He’s a tenor sax player, and I was like, ‘Hey man, I’m doing a play about jazz. Can I talk to you’?”

Boyd’s voice practically cringes as he laughs and explains how he and Kevin sat down to talk. Boyd kicked off the conversation with something like What does jazz mean to you?

“He appropriately kind of snickered, took a deep breath and then explained to me how jazz was his connection to Africa,” says Boyd. “It just slaughtered me. By the time he was done I was crying and he didn’t know what to do. That was the first emotional plunge that I took, was listening to this man explain what jazz meant to him, and the lineage of jazz from him to his father and beyond.”

The exchange made Boyd very aware of his place in the world he was diving into. “It’s profound to start to understand what this is, and then realize that you’re on the outside,” he says. “I’m flat-out too old to become a great player. Even if I did, what would I do, go to some jazz grad program? That just seems so hollow compared to what he’s talking about. So there was that longing; I was so jealous of him.”

Artistically, coming from an outsider’s place of yearning was a compelling perspective; Boyd wanted to explore that feeling. “You can’t touch it—you can point to it and scream about it, but at the end of the day you can’t do it.”

Much of the material Boyd wrote for his DJ character didn’t get used in the Kansas City production. Back in Seattle, he itched to keep working it. With the blessing of The TEAM, he and college friend Josh Aaseng—a director, theatre-maker and literary manager at Book-It Repertory Theatre—dove back in. Boyd was determined to get OtB’s artistic director Lane Czaplinski to come to a two-night workshop performance at Satori Group’s Lab at Inscape in August 2013. Which he did.

“He had that amazing thing that certain performers have,” Czaplinski says. “I guess at the highest form people would call it acting. But I don’t think of it as acting as much as fully inhabiting—being in front of people and being able to breathe and think, strong and also completely uncertain and completely like a human being. He’s interesting to just watch breathe.” After a couple of beers and dinners together, as Boyd tells it, Czaplinski wanted to bring Holler to On the Boards.

The Holler Sessions is about jazz radio, but in practice it’s more closely—and intentionally—modeled on the manic spontaneity of sports radio. Ray prowls his shabby lair, listening to music with a delight so unbridled it manifests physically—he moans, he moves, he talks back to the music. Like sports radio, he just goes and goes—telling stories and taking calls from the audience (really—leave your phone on). But more spectacular is the white space, the breathing room, the invitation to listen and the time to digest. Boyd doesn’t hit you with music, teach you a jazz lesson and move on. He wants to luxuriate with you.

This freedom comes from an element of improv built into the show, even though Boyd considers “improv” a dirty word. “He knows this guy so well that he can truly create while he’s performing,” says Aaseng, who remains a consulting director, along with TEAM artistic director Rachel Chavkin. Because Boyd lives so fast and loose in the moments onstage, you’d never know the show is so tightly scripted. But that’s the element of real creation—Boyd hasn’t just written a script, he’s created a world so truthful he can just live in it.

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 After the 2013 workshop, Boyd put The Holler Sessions on the backburner, both for budgetary reasons and because over-rehearsing would be the death of the raw-feeling piece. He kept busy—Boyd gave a gloriously quiet performance last summer, playing Josef Kavalier in Book-It’s behemoth adaptation of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—but didn’t work on Holler again until last October. He went back into rehearsal for only two weeks, this time working with his blended-coast artistic family: Aaseng, Chavkin, TEAM sound designer Matt Hubbs and Seattle stage manager Tori Thompson.

“For such a small, simple piece, it’s a loaded proposition,” Czaplinski says. “It’s about aesthetics, it’s about life, it’s about a frustrated existence, trying to make sense of a really fucked-up world. And that’s something everyone can understand.”

One of The Holler Sessions’ most provocative aspects, Czaplinski says, is that it’s easy to get. “It doesn’t hide anywhere. It doesn’t go into strange, new performance abstraction-land. It stays immediate and comprehensible. It’s something that our parents could come to, but I’d bring my snooty European-curator-colleague friends as well. He’s a straight shooter, but he throws a hard punch.”

For Boyd, whose performance history has always blended conventional theatre with innovation and invention, bridging the at times-baffling gap between the traditional and the avant-garde is natural. “People seem to think there’s theatre that’s crafted and performance art that’s masturbatory,” he says. “Or on the flip side, that there’s performance art that’s risky and weird, and theatre that’s canned and dead—and they have nothing to do with each other. Which is crazy. I hope that in my show there can be a little more cross-pollinating.”

The Holler Sessions runs Jan. 8–18 at On the Boards.