For as long as he can remember, Portland composer Tylor Neist wanted to be an astronaut. “I don’t even know where it came from,” he admits. Growing up in Minnesota, “I always loved space. I had space paraphernalia in the house as a child.”
He also loved theater. When he was eight years old, Neist played the shy, lisping Winthrop in The Music Man.But music became his main attraction, eventually leading Neist to a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied violin performance and composition.
A couple of years ago, Neist saw a film about the Overview Effect, a term coined by Frank White in his 1987 book of that title that refers to “a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface,” says Wikipedia, in which “the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this ‘pale blue dot’ becomes both obvious and imperative.”
“Everything came together,” Neist remembers — space, music, theater. “Being that I always wanted to be an astronaut, I was really inspired by the message.” He decided to create “a piece about a journey into the great unknown.” Neist’s new theatrical production, The Overview Effect, opens Friday and runs through April 23 at Portland Center Stage.
Neist plays a character he calls a combination of astronomer Carl Sagan and philosopher Alan Watts. The hour-long show is set in his workshop, and also uses projections from the Hubble Space Telescope as his character’s imagination embarks on its journey.
Neist’s trajectory from Minnesota to outer space runs through New York and Portland. While finishing his studies at the Manhattan School, Neist learned of a one-year opening as a substitute violinist in the Oregon Symphony. He and his wife enjoyed the city so much that they decided to make their homes there.
Though he continued performing in various Northwest orchestras, Neist soon felt his old theater urges stirring. He started acting in community theater on the coast, then auditioning for professional shows in Portland, working with companies like Bag&Baggage (as actor, composer, and musician) and appearing in, appropriately, Fiddler on the Roof at Portland Center Stage. His striking score for B&B’s brilliant Kabuki Titus, performed live, earned considerable praise, and his 2014 Unfolding for string quartet and looping pedals won FearNoMusic’s Locally Sourced Sounds competition.
Around the same time as his theatrical relapse, Neist also “got the chamber music quartet bug,” he remembers, leading to the formation of his piano trio ThreePlay. He sees parallels between the two performing arts. “The idea of being in collaboration with other people to create few beautiful moments with each other is what they’re both about,” he explains. “Everyone brings real juice to the process. Someone will say, ‘what about trying this?’ and by the end, you’ve journeyed to place you’ve never been.”
Journeying to unknown worlds is also what space travel is all about. Neist realized that interplanetary exploration is a classic Joseph Campbell-style Hero’s Journey: “a long external journey that leads to internal transformation,” as Neist puts it. But how to stage that journey to a place none of the audience members have ever been? “Only 500 or so humans have had that transformative experience,” he acknowledges, “so bringing it back, bringing people into that space inside their being, is challenging.”
Neist quickly understood that more than music and movement would be needed to evoke such an alien experience. “Such a different kind of project required a unique team to bridge all those different dimensions,” he says. That suited Neist — literally. He’s playing the protagonist, and for a photo shoot (he doesn’t wear it during the show), he donned a spacesuit that takes three people to help him put on. “I started to feel really claustrophobic,” he recalls. Now I can start to imagine what the astronauts felt like. You’re basically at the mercy of your team and then they put you at top of this many story bomb. I had to go through that psychologically.”
The experience of creating this show with his team gave Neist (who’s often engaged in the solitary process of music composition) the rich creative experience he felt when involved in theater projects: learning something new, and putting together a show with a diverse group. While serving as artistic director, composer and producer for The Overview Effect, he even created a flexible new music group, Bridgetown Orchestra, to perpetrate such performances.
“This is a model project for what this group is about,” he says. ” I love it. It expands my knowledge and brings me in touch with all these creative people. This show brings so many elements together. You’re kneading the dough, getting your hands on the creative process.”
Neist’s teammates include stage director Roland Rusinek, who has substantial Broadway and other New York credits as well as national tours and productions at major regionals theaters, whom Neist met during Fiddler on the Roof at Portland Center Stage. Production manager Audra Petrie managed Bag&Baggage Productions for several years and has abundant Oregon theater experience, and marketing director Allison Tivnon has the same role at the esteemed consulting firm ECONorthwest. Creative director Benjamin Read is a friend who happened to be creative director at a local design agency.
They also connected with Design Week Portland as a co-sponsor. “It’s a perfect fit for us,” Neist explains. “This project is all about design: scenic design, sound design, lighting, theatrics, every aspect. People going to Design Week will really resonate with the message.” So will many listeners open to big ideas. A preview performance before an audience of more than 3000 Keller Auditorium viewers at last Saturday’s Tedx Portland (on the appropriate theme of “Wonderland”) drew a rousing ovation.
Befitting the important role music plays in the production, the project’s other co-sponsor is All Classical Portland radio station. Neist has rewritten the music, custom composed for this show, three times as the project has evolved. “I had a design and musical ideas and a shape for the show,” he remembers. As the physical movement and text developed, “I had to shift certain musical elements. My mantra as I go through projects like this is ‘nothing is sacred.’ It has to serve the larger purpose.”
The score will be performed by live chamber orchestra. “I don’t know how to describe it stylistically,” he admits. “If you like film music, you’ll like this show.” But The Overview Effect has always been a theater piece, not a concert. And for Neist, who’ll be 38 when the project premieres this weekend —the same age as Neil Armstrong when he walked on Earth’s moon — it’s also a culmination of many of his lifelong passions: music, collaboration, theater, design, and, yes, in a way, he at last gets to be an astronaut. He hopes to bring that constellation of experiences to the audience. “It’s a whole experience tied together by music,” Neist says. “We want to take people out into the cosmos and show them the wonder of it.”
The Overview Effect runs through April 23 at Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio, 128 NW 11th Ave. Portland. Tickets are available online or at 503–616–9595.
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