Steppenwolf playwright, electronic music composer collaborate on illustrated short 'Red Folder'
When Rajiv Joseph entered first grade, his teacher gave every student a folder. The left side held pending assignments. The right side held completed assignments. Within a month, the left side of Joseph's red folder was bulging with incomplete work.
"It filled me with angst, which I think any 6-year-old should be exempt from," said the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member and playwright, who grew up in Cleveland.
His experience, however stressful, inspired "Red Folder," the latest in Steppenwolf's all-virtual series.
Joseph considered telling his story but could never settle on the right format. Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced theaters to cancel live performances, including Steppenwolf's premiere of his play "King James." It was another disappointment during a year in which Joseph had productions scheduled from January to October in La Jolla, California, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
"It was going to be a big year. Then it all stopped," said Joseph, who kept busy refining his plays and writing Zoom-friendly scenes and monologues for theaters shifting to a digital format.
But to Joseph, virtual theater isn't theater.
"If it's recorded on screen it's television or film," he said. "What we accomplished was not as good as television and not as good as film."
It occurred to the lifelong doodler that illustrations might suit a digital format. So when Steppenwolf asked him to write a play for its virtual series, he delivered "Red Folder," accompanied by his own drawings. Steppenwolf video producer/editor Joel Moorman suggested animating Joseph's drawings with help from animation artists Christopher Huizar and Rudy Schultz. The result was an "illustrated short" narrated by fellow ensemble member and Tony Award nominee Carrie Coon with a score by contemporary composer/percussionist Chris P. Thompson.
A lyricist and librettist himself, Joseph knew from the start he wanted musical accompaniment, but he wasn't sure about the style. He considered asking Steppenwolf to score it with stock music until his brother Dinesh insisted "Red Folder" deserved an original score and sent Joseph a CD by Thompson, Dinesh's former Julliard School classmate.
A collaboration ensued -- though collaboration doesn't come naturally to self-described introvert Thompson.
"It's in my nature to love solitude," he said.
But working with Joseph and Steppenwolf turned out to be a dream project.
"Rajiv is an easygoing, wonderful person to work with," Thompson said of the playwright who, along with Steppenwolf, gave him carte blanche.
The result was an electronically produced, microtonal score incorporating tones that fall between the notes of a typical 12-tone Western scale. The "Red Folder" score is familiar to ears accustomed to the Western canon. It hints at jazz and, to an extent, follows sonata form although Thompson introduces intriguingly dissonant accents.
Embracing microtonality for its expansion of pitch possibilities, Thompson says the style of composition is "really just a clearer version of what we're already used to."
He likens it to ordinary, color television becoming Technicolor TV.
Working on "Red Folder" allowed Thompson to realize his long-held ambition of composing a film score, and it sparked another.
"This has whetted my appetite in the direction of theater," he said. "I get the sense of openness and adventurousness and experimentation in theater ... I like that."
Thompson and Joseph hope "Red Folder" exists beyond Steppenwolf's virtual stage, perhaps, Joseph says, as a connected series of tales about school.
"It's been such a thrill to do it. It's very dear to me," Joseph said. "It's my favorite thing I've done during the pandemic."
For now, his goal for "Red Folder" is the same goal he has for all his plays: to entertain and engage the audience.
"I find it a beautiful and moving piece," he said. "I hope they do, too."
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When: Begins Wednesday, Jan. 27
Where: Streams at steppenwolf.org
Tickets: Admission is available with the purchase of a virtual membership to Steppenwolf NOW, which includes six productions for $75. After release, all productions are available for members to stream through Aug. 31. $50 memberships for essential workers, artists, students and teachers. Free for Steppenwolf's 2020-2021 Classic Members, Black Card holders and RED members. See steppenwolf.org/now or call (312) 335-1650.