Brief Encounter With … Of Mice and Men's Heather Christian

John Steinbeck’s timeless novella, Of Mice and Men, gets a contemporary twist at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this March. Associate Director, Mark Rosenblatt, making his directorial debut at the Leeds theatre, collaborates with New York-based musician and actor, Heather Christian, on this tale of loneliness, isolation and hope set in Depression-era America.

Primarily a musician with Avant-Americana group, Heather Christian & the Arbornauts, Heather has toured extensively all over the world, as well as composing and performing in the National Theatre Studio’s award-winning MISSION DRIFT. She takes time out from rehearsals to discuss the challenges of adding a score to Steinbeck’s "perfect text", the joys of performing live music, and repaying a karmic debt…

How are things going ahead of opening night?

Heather Christian in rehearsals for Of Mice and Men at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 29 March.
Heather Christian in rehearsals for Of Mice and Men at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 29 March.
©Jonathan Keenan

We’re having the last-minute brilliance and disasters. Either the ceiling is falling down, or we’re coming to the realisation that everything is genius, and there’s no in between! Which is kind of on track as far as these bigger shows can go, in my experience. We’ve literally just walked in to the (Playhouse’s) Quarry Theatre today and realised it’s huge and wonderful. I’m just so glad to be here. It’s just so beautiful.

You’re wearing a number of hats in this production, including composer, actor and musical director, how easy is it to keep them separate?

It’s impossible. The decisions I’m making as a composer are affecting my character; decisions I’m making as my character are affecting how the music is going to be directed or conducted from the stage. All of them feed each other and it’s keeping the relationship coherent that’s the most difficult thing.

How did you approach the composing process?

It’s different for every project. I primarily work in devised theatre where I’m generating material before the script is written, so it’s sort of cart before horse; you put a lot of trust in the collective unconscious and things being miraculous. This is a different process because there’s a pre-existing script, so it really becomes about how your director wants to integrate music. In this specific case, Mark Rosenblatt wanted me to use the sensibility I used with MISSION DRIFT, which doesn’t really fall into either category of it being a traditional musical, or music serving as underscore; it’s somewhere in-between.

It’s more aggressive than an underscore, but there’s no narrative push like there is in musicals. It’s a poetic sonic weaving of things. We talked a lot about how that could work, where it could work in regards to this play, and how it should go along the same train as the characters’ emotional lives and the landscape. Then they flew me out for this workshop – kamikaze week! – in October where I met the set designer, and then you spend a lot of time drinking coffee and trying to figure out the best way to marry all these sensibilities.

Did you find that what you had in mind was similar to Mark’s vision?

Co-incidentally and serendipitously, yes. We had a lot of similar thoughts. Thank goodness!

What are the specific challenges of working with such classic material?

I don’t know what Steinbeck’s reputation is here (in the UK), but in America he is one of THE great Americans. So there’s a certain amount of reverence you have to approach the text with. I’ve grown up with this text; it’s a set text in our middle schools. I’ve read it maybe 85 times. It’s one of my favourite books, so there is a certain amount of fear. What I’m adding is essentially not necessary because the text is complete; it’s perfect. So, there’s been a lot of trying to figure out how much exactly I could add and where to shade it in a different way so as to not be superfluous.

Does this production remain faithful to Steinbeck’s source material?

It is quite faithful to the time period; we are doing some things quite naturalistically, with the exception of the music. In dealing with this play in music, we’ve delved into this idea of a universal hope and a universal loneliness. It’s this intangible and unarticulated desire for home, and a desire for companionship that no-one on the farm really has the capacity to express. There are some interpretations of the play where you could say that it’s a story about two friends and it’s tragic and it’s set in the Depression and things are awful. There’s a very existential read of this play and I don’t think we’re going there. Our intention is to show hope and possibility; so the hell becomes much more hellish by comparison. Our play is about hope rather than friends.

Do you think it feeds into anything happening in American society today?

Certainly. This period in American history is fascinating. This is really the starting point of how you get a generation like my parents and like mine. The Depression is the first time in American history where you had nothing. Before this generation, people were literally just sticking their flags in the ground and saying ‘this is mine’. Then those people who were raised in the Depression had children and instilled this idea that they had to save for tomorrow. That’s my parents. Now I’m in a generation of ‘there is no tomorrow’, but my generation is a generation of artists, free thinkers and radicals; at least in America.

Given your background, were you always going to pursue a career in the creative arts?

My mother was a professional go-go dancer, but my dad didn’t pursue music professionally. He actually went into the oil industry and did music in his spare time and loved it. He basically decided that my brother and I were going to be able to do whatever we wanted, so there’s a huge emotional karmic debt to be paid there; I’m living the life that somebody lived their life to pay for. It wasn’t assumed; especially in my hometown, which is devoid of anything artistic. I decided I wanted to move to New York City when I was in sixth grade. I knew I wanted to pursue performing, because I was a giant, obnoxious ham! But I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t write my first song until I was 24. It all happened very late for me.

Do you find you’re becoming more attracted to acting?

I went to drama school and I did quite a bit of acting years ago, and was paying my music bills with theatre, which is a ridiculous idea! I don’t encourage anyone to do that! But there’s something so liberating about live music, music in general. I guess that anyone who has a vocation and can do that thing and can feel what it is to be the right person doing the right thing at the right time; you feel like you’re at one with God. It’s an incredible experience. And acting is not that for me, so I tend to get neurotic and nervous and I squash myself into this little container. So it’s just apples and oranges. I don’t mind being on stage acting, but I don’t love it like I love being behind a microphone. Not even close.

Which begs the question, why take on the role of Curley’s wife?

I actually tried to convince Mark to cast someone else, but, honestly, what happened was that he was sneaky! He invited me to (the Playhouse’s production of) Sweeney Todd – I thought James Brining did an incredible job on that show, by the way – and I walked into that theatre and that little 14-year-old girl in me that ran around in her ballet tutu was like ‘I wanna perform on this stage!’, so I’m going to make her happy and do it! It’s been a lot of fun figuring out the dimensions of this particular character’s personality and how that could function in terms of the score because I’m still conducting and singing most of the music from the stage, so those things have to be married.

Finally, what can audiences expect from this production of Of Mice and Men?

They can expect a new perspective on this old and perfect classic. I think it’s an interesting idea to try and bring contemporary music into a text like this and see if it illuminates anything that hasn’t been illuminated on a stage with this text before. It’s a total experiment and we’re going at it with gusto and some things may fail! But it’s been a pursuit of beauty.

Of Mice and Men runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 29 March 2014.