The Bengsons Perform The Proof
The Bengsons CD Release Party w/Walk The Moon
Thursday, January 20 · 8:00pm – 11:30pm
Location: Canal Street Tavern
308 East 1st Street
Shane Anderson, the technical director for the Encore Theater Company called me one late afternoon last October saying that I needed to come down to the Oregon District to check out the Bengsons. He said they were a husband and wife musical duo that were rehearsing their latest project, The Proof. I told him I’d be glad to and then asked him what kind of music they performed. That’s about the point when the conversation fell apart. Shane began by describing elements from the musical Hair, then switched up, describing what they did as “folk opera.” After more adjective searching, vaudeville, cabaret and folksy were tossed out before Shane conceded that it was difficult to describe their music and told me that I should just come down and see them for myself.
A cold Autumn drizzle covered the cobblestone streets in a slick sheen as I made my way over to the building that housed Encore. I entered and was met by Shane who led me upstairs to a rehearsal room where around fifteen or twenty people were scattered about. Abigail Bengson was flanked on her right by singers J.J. Parkey and Shawn Elizabeth Storms. On her left, her husband stood motionless, eagerly tuning his guitar. Behind the singers, musicians Bart Helms and Zach Wright were readying their own instruments. Abigail began the evening by welcoming everyone and thanking them for showing up before she launched into an abridged description of what their latest project entailed.
The premise caught me by surprise by its complexity. This was a story about two lovers who, upon finding out that the husband was suffering from a terminal disease, consciously decided to compress the sixty years or so that they once imagined that they together into a single year, which was what reality and circumstance had afforded to them. As they launched into an condensed version of the whole poetic précis, I felt the same loss of adjectives to describe what I was witnessing that Shane had had earlier.
The music ranged from boisterously defiant anthems to somber melodies, with each singer’s voices fading in and out, making room for a new voice, a new segment of the story. The melodies themselves conveyed a hue of their own, painting a picture of the passage of time as well as capturing moments lost to an impending sadness. Abigail’s resonating voice pitched and dove, holding a balance between incessant denial of the inevitable to the shrill sorrow of acceptance. Her eyes were brilliantly focused, her countenance held in a tightly coiled dramatic smile that communicated that which was left unsung. Her arms flailed, as if conducting an invisible orchestra, or as if she was holding a weaver’s needle, stitching the vignettes of the opera into a full tapestry of song. Shaun Bengson’s vocals were, at times, were a roughly hewn counterpoint, and at others, in a harmonious union with his wife’s voice. Shaun held together the elements of the opera through his musicianship and the acceptance of his character’s fate.
Afterwards, the group collected together, and asked the audience for their input, which most were eager to share. It wasn’t what most would expect, such as incremental advice or suggestions for improvement. The small audience had been personally touched by the message that the shortened opera had expressed and they responded with their own stories of loss or their fear of losing someone that they loved. After more than half an hour of discussion, everyone went their separate ways and I was able to talk to Abigail and Shaun over a beer.
J.T.: With you two being a couple, taking on a subject like this…you have to project and extrapolate that story onto the other person. Does that become bothersome at times?
Shaun: I think that that is where this piece actually came from. When we fell in love, we fell really quick. We were engaged after only like three weeks of dating, it was also at that moment that we also felt our mortality, you know what I mean? Falling in love with someone is also like falling in love with something that is flesh and blood and something that will eventually die. So, that’s where this piece came from It was Abigail’s original idea, like 2½ to 3 years ago and it has taken us this long to do it because it was just too painful to look at. I mean, it’s like a whole evening of looking at one of us dying.
Abigail: A lot of our work has been kind of political and things that we do and our passionate about, but they are pretty outside of ourselves, so this is the first piece where every song we were writing was about this. Everything that we were fucking doing was about this. We were trying to ignore it. We said the opera was about something else for a long time until, finally, we looked at each other and said, ‘You know what this is about, don’t you? Let’s just get to writing the opera that’s writing itself. The one that’s actually happening.’ Because it’s coming from a really pure place, it’s absolute gratitude and absolute terror, and that’s what it’s about.
J.T.: I can see one other correlation between the opera and where you would almost go through the stages of death with this because you went through the denial, you went through the anger and then you accepted your fate. There are also correlations with birth as well.
Abigail: (laughing) That’s exactly right! There is even the rebirth of becoming a married person.
Shaun: I was thinking that, even in mundane ways, there was a real ‘testing period’ once we were engaged because we got engaged so quickly that, whether our friends got it or not, or whether we would shut them out or let them in, our life looked incredibly different a year after we got engaged than it did a year before. Everything was different, from the people we were around to the things that we were doing…it really was a kind of death and rebirth.
Abigail: We changed everything.
J.T.: But then you start looking at the moments again, and those are the most painful. I mean, like you two together, doing this opera and revisiting your own mortality so often, how many walks do you have together? How many romantic baths do you have together? Would you take for granted the small things after facing the inevitable with this opera?
Abigail: For me, it was falling in love that…it’s so fucking cheesy, but it’s true…that made me, and not always in a comfortable way, but sometimes in a desperate way, want to have those moments and know I was having them. I didn’t just want to take a bath…I wanted to take the bath and it was happening in the moment.
J.T.: Putting too many expectations on something tends to overshadow the moment. Things like that have to be organic or else they become eclipsed by expectations.
Abigail: Right! But that is exactly what the opera is about! I guess it’s more about consciously enjoying each other as much as we can, not taking things for granted and living every moment that we’re living.
Shaun: We just read East Of Eden for the first time and we had never read Steinbeck before. There’s this character, Adam, and he has a whole decade of his life that is lost to the Army which was filled with lots and lots of boredom and, suddenly, ten years had passed. The quote in the book is something like, ‘Time passes without notice without any posts to hang the hat of memory upon.’ That has been another point that we keep coming back to, a point of real inspiration for this, finding these posts to hang the hat of memory upon, so instead of ten years going by in a flash, it’s like one year that feels like ten years.
J.T.: Well, of course, this project has had to draw you two together on some level…
Shaun: It’s so much ‘our life’ that it’s hard to pick apart the pieces…
Abigail: No kidding!
Shaun: I just think it’s amazing that I get to do this with the woman that I love. There is also the point that the simple act of creation can be really hard because we both really, really care about it, so sometimes we’ll be writing something and we’ll find ourselves avoiding each other or fighting and we wonder what the cause is, then we realize it is the writing, that it has become so emotional to create something that it bleeds into our lives.
Abigail: What we are creating with is the stuff of emotions.
Shaun: Sometimes we’ll get really emotional about something and misconstrue that, like, ‘Oh no! She’s upset with me!’ or ‘I’ve upset her,’ but it’s just dealing with the emotions of creation.
J.T.: That goes in line with another question that I have. Both of you are very emotive and very fervent about what you do. Do the lines ever blur between what the project is and what real life is, because you may become so wrapped within the role…
Abigail: Gosh, you know, right now…if we never sang another song, we would still be in love. I feel that it is my job to help Shaun to be himself in the world and visa versa. It’s something that we try to build together and a huge part of who we both are is this work, so building it together is an extension of who we are. It’s not that we’re literally going through what this character is going through, but, at the same time, I do feel really connected.
Shaun: We do believe that while theater isn’t therapy, but when we are doing the characters and the situations obviously came from things in our real lives and what we are going through, but when we’re doing it, we are trying to draw inspiration from the emotion that it arouses and use it to access it.
Abigail: That is probably why, this time, we are inviting other people into the process much earlier than we have before…
Shaun: Because it could get really inward looking and neurotic.
Abigail: We’re also super-perfectionists and we usually don’t show people anything until it’s done. Part of inviting people the process so early with this piece is, by its own nature, an insular work.
Shaun: I think the one thing that you point to that is a real danger is the danger of it becoming ‘precious,’ like our pretty little gem that we try to keep to ourselves.
Abigail: And that’s why we have to keep bringing it out so that we remember that it is something to give away.
J.T.: Well, theater isn’t therapy, but it is a realization. There are subconscious things that you are going to stumble across that may surprise you emotionally. What is something that you would want someone to take away from this?
Shaun: Wow, that’s a good question…the thing about our shows in general, and I know it sounds all hokey and hippie, but the most important thing to us is the creation of a loving space. The only thing that would make us feel badly about our shows is if we walked away feeling ‘slick,’ like we pulled something over the audiences eyes, so the core of what we do is to try and make everything an open, loving space and draw all that energy into it. In terms of this specific show…
Abigail: I think that that still stands. I mean, I have my big britches about what they’re going to take away (laughing)…
Shaun: (laughing) I guess I don’t know what I want them to take away from this…
J.T.: That’s the most honest answer I’ve ever gotten to that question! Well, what are other people’s impression of the show?
Shaun: A lot of the people that we have told the story of the show to, or have played some of the music for, have immediately had personal anecdotes that they have related to it. Whether it was having someone die or having a loved one go through some sort of illness. That part has been somewhat gratifying and serendipitous so far.
Abigail: Even tonight, during the feedback afterwards, I feel that people are reaching into their own lives and were are really lucky for the generosity of their stories. I think that is what this is all about really. It’s finding someone who is your anchor in this life that raises the stakes. You take care of yourself better for the other person because you have a responsibility to that other person to be here as long as you can.
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