Theater to band to musical: “Fall of the Band” and “Water Man”

Kyle Acheson and Sam DeRoest explain their dual roles in a serial musical about a band, and a spinoff musical about the ocean.

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Sam De Roest (left) and Kyle Acheson (right) joked about writing a musical in Action/Adventure’s Fall of the Band. Then—no joke—they actually did it. Image by Pat Moran.

By all accounts, Action/Adventure‘s “Fall of the Band” is supposed to FEEL real—but nobody anticipated it would GET as real as it has. In brief:

1. Theater creates fake band to star in a play.

2. Fake band creates fake(r) side project.

3. Fake side project suddenly becomes a real musical.

4. Band also develops into a (somewhat) real band.

5. Theater reprises play about band, produces musical, AND sells band merch, in a grand flourish of music/theater synergy virtually unparalleled outside of Hannah Montana and (hey, hey) The Monkees.

I asked “Fall of the Band” co-stars and musical co-writers Kyle Acheson and Sam DeRoest to explain this trajectory in more detail, and they obliged with a pre-rehearsal powwow at Ford Food & Drink. Between witty asides about Norman Rockwell and giant rats, I learned the following:

Action/Adventure Theater’s “Fall of the Band” is a series of semi-improvised plays that follows fictitious rock band Ghost Dad through many stereotypical struggles. After runaway success last year, the series resumes this weekend. Picking up Ghost Dad’s semi-scripted story where they left off last time, the company  will again present five new one-hour episodes that advance the band’s journey over the coming five weekends. Like TV, one new episode will air each weekend (shown 4 times). In each of these shows, actors anchor to fixed plot points, but they improvise their dialogue, making each night a one-time-only performance. To demonstrate their band-worthy chops, they also play instruments and sing live. No sweat, right?

It should be noted that Fall of the Band’s combination of devices is unique but not unprecedented, as aspects of the show mirror larger local theater trends toward series formats, improvisation, and music/theater fusion. Third Rail’s halfway through presenting Richard Nelson’s 4-part Apple Family series (“That Hopey-Changey Thing,” and “Sweet and Sad,” et al) over 4 seasons, Hand2Mouth penned and performed dazzling small-ensemble musical “Something’s Got A Hold of my Heart” with actors playing instruments at Fertile Ground 2012, and Curious Comedy has hosted “improvised musical” “Les Revolutions,” devised on the spot by house ensemble Pipes. In recent years, musical acts Black Prairie and Holcombe Waller have metriculated into stage productions, and even now, Amanda Spring of Point Juncture Washington and Ioa acclaim is planning a 2014 premier for her new musical, “Aika and Rose.”

“Songwriter involvement in the theater seems to have grown in quality recently,” admits Acheson, who’s recently scored several plays for A/A. “Still, on the ground floor, there aren’t that many musicals.” Enter Acheson and De Roest’s creation…but can we just call them Sam and Kyle?

Sam said he thinks his first name sounds trustworthy. “If you need someone to help you out, you call a Sam,” he says, noting that “Kyle” sounds more shifty: “…unless the thing you need help with is, like, moving a body, then you call some guy named Kyle.” But we digress…

In FotB’s debut 2012 season, poor Ghost Dad suffered some typical setbacks: the band lost its practice space, sexy lead singer Lana (Natalie Stringer) threatened to go solo, and lead guitarist Miles (Kyle) fell in unrequited love with multi-instrumentalist Jimmy (Sam). When Jimmmy lost patience with the shenanigans, he’d storm offstage, fuming, “I’m going to go work on my musical!”—which was supposed to be a joke. At some FotB plot-point, though, Jimmy’s fictitious musical “The Water Man” needed a real-life flagship song to keep it believable within the framework of the band’s (equally fictitious) dynamics. So the production’s self-described “secret songwriter” Kyle wrote a very Neutral Milk Hotel-inspired ballad called “On Land,” that he imagined a mer-man might sing upon his first visit to the beach. “It’s kinda like Water Man’s ‘astronaut moment,’ discovering a new environment for the first time,” he says.

Charmed by “On Land,” FotB series co-writer Pat Moran suggested that Kyle and Sam make more musical numbers, or even collaborate for real on a full-length version of “The Water Man”—in time, he proposed, to premiere at Fertile Ground. “I guess he actually meant 2014,” says Kyle, “but we didn’t realize that at the time.” Within 2 months, the pair had penned the whole show, and in January, they staged a reading at Fertile Ground 2013, casting Chip Sherman and Cristina Cano in supporting roles. As you might imagine from its timeline and inception, “Water Man” is a silly story. There’s a star-crossed romance, a storybook-style villain, and some dark comedy about cannibalism.

“We start the audience off with low expectations that these two doofuses (Jimmy and Miles) made a musical,” says Kyle.”So then the plot makes fun of, like, that fated Greek tragedy thing, like w’ere just put in these roles and we have to play it out, you know? We have a villain, for instance, who has no purpose in life other than to be a villain.” The script is also riddled with references to local landmarks and styled with DIY “low-budget, high-imagination” sets and props, including an overhead projector scrolling illustrations. But don’t get too comfortable, he warns: “We enjoy calling those tropes out, but that way when we do something surprising, it FEELS surprising.”

“Both of these plays are pretty fresh,” blurts Sam—and, ever an improvisor, he quickly checks himself: “I can’t believe I said that; it’s like I should be wearing three backwards hats.”

What’s more, the play and the musical continue to reference one another throughout FotB Season 2. Now that their side project has burgeoned, characters Jimmy and Miles must balance their band duties with their roles as musical producers. Because it became a musical, ‘Water Man’ became a bigger factor in this season,” the pair explains. “Now it’s woven into the conflict that there’s the Water Man camp versus the band camp, each competing for our characters’ energy and time.” During FotB, Sam and Kyle will even hold pseudo-“auditions” for Water Man. “We’re not going to spoil the show, though,” Kyle admits. “We’ll probably ask actors to say silly lines that aren’t in the script, like, ‘I’m soooo evil.’ That’ll be funnier anyway.” Eventually, Water Man will take the post-show spot following the final episode of FotB, and then continue on after it closes.

Along with the Water Man conflict (slash hype), fictitious band Ghost Dad will face a slew of new challenges. Two female singer/songwriters with considerable but differing strengths (Natalie Stringer and Cristina Cano) will vie for the lead mic, at least one character will hint at “outgrowing” band life, and the group will begin hawking real merch (t-shirts) and theatrically discussing making a record and playing club gigs (which, if the pattern holds, could manifest in real life). By the season’s close, actors Kyle and Sam will even announce their real career plans via their characters in the script, altering the course of both Action/Adventure and Ghost Dad’s story. And that won’t even be the first time Kyle’s band and stage interests have collided: “Last year during Fall of the Band,” says Kyle, “I was also in a real band called Met City. They wanted me to move to Brooklyn with them, and I had to tell them,” he laughs, “No, I’ve got to go work on my musical.”

When I asked if their stage/life relationship resembles reality TV, both actors say no, citing little similarity to recent titles like “Duck Dynasty.” However, had these young punks followed the early emergence of “The Real World” or the movie “Dig,” they might see more parallels. Instead, Kyle compares the format to older sitcoms, taped with laugh tracks in front of a live studio audience. “It’s more like those,” he says. And for maximum comedy, he and Sam are prepared to play to “type.”

“As a lead guitarist, I’m really obsessed with my pedal collection, and really into ‘modes,'” says Kyle. “I’m constantly playing even when I’m not supposed to be, and I’m always begging for more solos.”

“As multi-instrumentalist,” Sam counters, “I have like one trick I can do on each instrument, but I don’t play any of them very well.”

Well, Guys, that sounds about right.

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