Encore: Richard "Scrumbly" Koldewyn, Music Director
Friday, November 20, 2015
Interview by Laura Brueckner
Although most Bay Area theatre-makers have had the thrill of trying something new, few of us can say we’ve been at the forefront of a genuine revolution in performance. Someone who can is Scrumbly Koldewyn, composer and founding member of the Cockettes, an experimental, psychedelic, sex-positive, extravagantly costumed “genderfuck” performance group that burst onto the San Francisco counterculture scene in 1969, earning a place of honor in American theatre history alongside the pioneering SF Mime Troupe and Pickle Family Circus. Decades of performing, composing, teaching and music directing later, Scrumbly is an artist on top of his game. Now the music director for SF-based Thrillpeddlers, the maestro continues to show audiences the power of fearlessness.
|Performer, composer and music director Scrumbly Koldewyn. Photo: David Wilson
Where were you born & when did you move to the Bay Area?
I was born in the “Inland Empire”; San Bernardino, to be more precise, about 50 miles east of L.A. I moved to San Francisco in 1964 to attend SF State.
Were your parents or any other family members in the arts?
My parents were both musical, but the extent of their singing was in church. My mom was in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for a year or two. My 10-years-older-than-me sister studied piano, and it was her influence that guided my taste in classical music and Broadway when I was young.
Tell us about your most formative experience as a performer?
In high school, I was in most of the plays produced by the Drama/Music Department. But in Bye Bye Birdie, I played Mr. MacAfee, doing my take on Paul Lynde's performance. I discovered my natural comic side, and the audience reaction gave me a level of confidence on stage for the first time.
Growing up, who were your creative heroes—and who are they now?
At 10 years old, I admired Tchaikovsky, Lerner and Lowe, Rogers and Hammerstein. Later, it was Bach and Mozart, the Alan Hovannes, Karl Orff, Rolling Stones, The Doors, Stevie Winwood, Ken Russell, Kander and Ebb, Rogers and Hart, Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, then Sondheim, Noël Coward, Frank Lesser, John Cameron Mitchell; at least these come to mind now. I love Nazimova, Herman Hesse, Carmen Miranda, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Ute Lemper, Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau...on and on.
The Cockettes was an important creative force in the Bay Area. What was your involvement in the group, and how that has morphed over time into your work with Thrillpeddlers?
The Cockettes was the answer for me on how to open up to my potential. I didn't like the theatre world, and was pretty distrustful of the music world as well. So much competition and not enough nurturing or openness to creativity. The Cockettes were anti-established theatre, anti-rehearsal (some more than others) and all about spontaneity. Using what little resources we had to put who we are on stage, we were transformers of junk into beauty, and conspired with the (huge) audiences to put on a real theatre event every night, really (A)LIVE theatre so vital and immediate that the audience was part of the show, sometimes dialoguing with us like audiences from centuries ago, with wild reactions, stomping and screaming as in the French film, The Children of Paradise, shouting encouragement and funny remarks, sometimes joining us (naked) on stage.
I used music I knew from my parents, then expanded into less familiar music from the 1920s and ‘30s, which became a specialty. Then, collaborating with two Cockette members in particular, I wrote songs for some of the revues and for the original scripted shows. And, as in that high-school Bye Bye Birdie, I found many new ways of applying my skills to great effect. This was all because it was so wide open, and everyone in the troupe was a diva, not just a few—friendly, nurturing, supportive, adventurous divas. This, of course, was the early ‘70s, still in the thrall of the late ‘60s counterculture.
But almost 40 years later, there was Thrillpeddlers—doing the same thing, keeping two nearly extinct theatrical genres alive in their Grand Guignol and Ridiculous Theater revivals. In the intervening years, I had done a lot of work in legit venues—musical directing, composing for musical plays and vocal harmony group performing and arranging, plus touring in Europe—so I was able to bring this now-more-developed expertise to flesh out the Cockettes' original material, adding anywhere from four to 15 songs to the original pieces. Thrillpeddlers continues to be unafraid to go where few will go, especially in their intimate house where the cast can equal half the audience count.
So much of the work you've done revels in excess, both in terms of style and content. What is it about excess that draws you?
I like that it can be unexpected (“Did they really do that?”), that it is fearless, that it is an ultimate kind of honesty, that it shows how frivolous the origin of the excess might be in the first place. That it can expose the huge lie the origin might be.
Would you mind mapping out for us what a typical week is like for you right now?
Sunday: Church service Sunday a.m. with choir; visit aged friend in rehab; email and biz; nap; dinner with housemate and friend(s); down time with friend.
Monday: Email and other biz, a.m.; rehearse mid-day with vocal group The Dreamers; rehearse play in evening.
Tuesday: Teach singing class at Stagebridge in a.m.; email and biz; Stagebridge performance; rehearse play in evening.
Wednesday: Email and biz; errands or housecleaning; session with student; rehearse church choir in evening.
Thursday: Teach singing class at Stagebridge; shopping; email and biz; downtime with friend; nap; performance in evening.
Friday: Email and biz; teach Variety [Performance] class at Stagebridge; nap; performance in evening.
Saturday: Email and biz; errands or housecleaning or laundry; performance in evening.
Additionally, there is composing, researching, choosing and preparing material for classes and rehearsals and some Photoshop graphics work, worked in whenever I can.
Amazing! What preparation would you recommend for young artists who want to become composers and music directors for theatre?
Try to study with teachers whose work you admire, listen and play all the styles and genres you are drawn to until your are totally seeped in them, follow where your interest is in a tangential way. To music direct, work in groups and bands, be in plays and continue to take lessons in voice or whatever you write for.
If you could go back and give 21-year-old you a piece of advice, what would it be?
Bigger, more over the top, expose yourself, write it down!