House Seats

S1 E3 | FULL EPISODE

Animal Wisdom

Experience Heather Christian’s concert-cabaret, Animal Wisdom. Filmed at The Bushwick Starr, Heather and company bring you “an improvised musical séance” about family mythology, folk tales passed down through generations, and talking to the dead. This “requiem mass” is grounded in blues and Methodist hymns and features powerhouse vocals. The show includes an interview with Heather Christian.

AIRED: March 27, 2019 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

Man: Will you come a little bit stage right?

Man #2: Places everyone.

Once you learn how to play music,

you will never be alone again.

My name is Heather Christian.

I'm a composer, performer, playwright person.

I wrote and am in "Animal Wisdom."

I've been calling it some weird things that I don't like.

On that list are a piece of performance,

a piece of music performance, an alternative requiem mass.

People call this music theater.

It's a gathering.

Everyone at the Bushwick Starr has just been,

like, right in there, pitching with us,

like, trying to make us -- trying to help us do this.

It's been incredible. They gave us the theater.

They gave us the theater to rehearse it in.

In a piece this immersive, it's actually impossible

to make a piece that is this,

where music is so much married into the structure of it

without being in the actual space

that you're going to perform the thing.

It's an invaluable resource.

♪♪

♪♪

♪ Pretty well-made fish

♪ Went masquerading as a vine

♪ We shook our canisters to show it ♪

♪ And taught our children how to pray ♪

♪ So they know which is which

♪ We live on rocks wrapped up in vine ♪

♪ We do not dive to see the floor ♪

♪ It holds our footsteps day to day ♪

♪ Or that root surfs

♪ As we play

♪ Oh, come meet at the catfish

♪ We dressed as a vine

♪♪

♪ We stand here fixed in time

♪ Guarding our houses as they fall ♪

♪ In maybe 87 years

♪ We spend unraveling a bow

♪ As it goes spinning wild

♪ As it careens into the night

♪ We take our temperature

♪ Longing for first love and a fight ♪

♪ That we first felt at first sight ♪

♪ Oh, love may be in a garden

♪ But you won't find peace

♪♪

♪ Grandmother is a red bird

♪ Grandmother is a red bird

♪ And red birds

♪ Trust the good word

♪ Grandmother is a red bird

♪ Grandmother is a red bird

♪ Grandmother is a red bird

♪ And red birds

♪ Trust the good word

♪ Grandmother is a red bird

♪ Grandma sang for Jesus' love

♪ Grandma sang for Jesus' love ♪

♪ Now she's an alabaster dove

♪ Grandma sang for Jesus' love

♪ Granddaddy's still in the car ♪

♪ Granddaddy's still in the car ♪

♪ Don't know what his intentions are ♪

♪ Granddaddy's still in the car ♪

[ Singing indistinctly ]

♪♪

♪ Will there still be some for those who don't belong ♪

♪ Will there still be some for those who don't belong ♪

♪ Oh

♪ Love is in the garden

♪ Love is in the garden

♪ Love is in the garden

♪ So praise be the wrecking ball ♪

Now, when I say, "Love is in the garden,"

I mean that.

I mean that because when my grandma Heloise died,

she threw her ghost into the plants,

so I go to the garden to talk to her,

and I rip up weeds when I'm heartbroken.

When I say, "Grandmother is a red bird,"

I mean that too.

I mean that because when my grandmother Geraldine died,

she threw her ghost into a cardinal.

Now, as a bird, she's been pretty hard

to pin down for conversation,

so I had a red feather tattooed on the inside of my arm,

which has not totally worked if I'm going to be real honest.

When I say, "Granddaddy's still in the car," he is,

and when I say, "Praise be the wrecking ball,"

I mean my brain.

That one is a metaphor.

[ Laughter ]

I don't know about y'all, but my brain is a wrecking ball.

♪ Praise be the wrecking ball

This piece was never supposed to happen in a theater.

This was supposed to happen in a church

or some kind of disused holy space,

but, like, theaters are deconsecrated

and reconsecrated all the time,

so I guess we're not that far off.

Anyways -- And at least this one is already haunted.

I went to NYU Tisch Program,

thought I wanted to be a performer,

thought I wanted to do musical theater.

My mother was a dancer.

I was a musician, it made sense, but I found out very quickly

that I was completely uncastable.

I sound nothing like I look,

and there are no roles for people that sound

and look like this.

So as a mad attempt just to work in the city,

I started writing my own music.

♪ We do not dive to see the floor ♪

♪ It holds our footsteps day to day ♪

♪ More than root surfs

I'd written poetry, and I'd written short stories,

and I'd written plays for a long time, but --

And there's a certain kind of completeness of the release.

When you put text to music, it's a more complete release

of whatever it is that you're holding.

♪♪

♪ And it's better this way

♪ It's better this way

♪ Keeping quiet

♪ Like the week crawled you out ♪

All right. We should start from the beginning.

In case it wasn't clear, I talk to dead people.

I grew up with two ghosts.

The first is a ghost of a real dead person.

His name is Victor.

So growing up with a ghost in your house in Natchez

is kind of par for the course if you live

in an old house downtown, which I did.

The second ghost is Johanna.

Johanna was -- Well, I mean --

She said she was my guardian angel.

Oh.

Johanna is invisible. Victor is not.

The light, the dark.

Okay? The lights.

Johanna is not the first,

but she is the brighter of the two, the light.

Johanna really likes me.

We play this game called "Get Married"

where we get married!

We do the vows and things,

and then we lay flat with each other,

smoosh our faces up against each other

and roll down the hill in front of my house.

I was 6. She was 11.

I was the groom. Ha!

♪ What you got Johanna

♪ What's the angel say

[ Singing indistinctly ]

♪ Come on outside and play with Johanna ♪

[ Singing indistinctly ]

♪ I want to dance forever

♪ I want to hop all day

[ Singing indistinctly ]

♪♪

♪ But we

♪ We hear you underwater

♪ Do not fear

♪ Be every wild thing's daughter ♪

♪♪

♪ God rest ye merry gentlemen

♪ Let nothing you dismay

♪ Remember Christ our savior

♪ Was born on Christmas day

♪ Oh

♪ Why you want to

♪ Why you want to watch me

♪ Why you want to

♪ Why you want to watch me

Johanna was my first love.

Sometimes I think I made her up.

Sometimes I think I made you up.

Right.

[ Singing indistinctly ]

♪♪

♪ Oh, ha

♪ What you got, Johanna

♪ What's the angel say

♪ Before I go, Johanna

[ Singing indistinctly ]

You better watch out for my claws

♪ Oh, we

♪ We hear you underwater

♪ Do not fear

♪ Be every wild thing's daughter ♪

♪♪

[ Singing indistinctly ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

So I started writing this very, like,

what I considered to be, like, '90s shoulder pad show about,

like, one woman and a ghost in her house,

and then, sort of around the same time,

I got struck with what I considered

to be career-ending performance anxiety.

I developed panic disorder

due to this cataclysmic event that happened in my life.

Lightning struck my apartment building.

It burned to the ground.

And I got carried out of the building.

Like, out of a flaming building.

It was this, like, traumatic event.

I lost everything except a piano.

I lost everything but my piano,

and I was homeless for a while,

and it was just this huge -- Anyway.

Of course, I ended up screwed up.

And every time I got on stage after that,

I would have this panic attack.

I would have panic attacks. I thought I was dying.

I thought it was killing me.

So I quit, and I decided I was just going to write music

for a while and figure it out,

and I couldn't really reconcile what was happening

to who I had always identified myself as.

I've known that I was supposed to be doing this since I was,

you know, like, early enough to have memories.

Like, this has been clear.

So existential crisis ensues, and then I decided

I'm going to write a requiem mass.

I'm going to write a requiem mass.

I'm going to exorcise whatever this is.

It's got to be so difficult for me to perform it

that I can't have an anxiety attack on stage.

♪ Back at the house

♪ Quiet as a kite

♪ Never know

♪ Never know my angel

♪ With a teacup of rain

♪ Scratching at the pain

♪ We see

♪ Never know

♪ Never know my angel

♪ Who

♪♪

♪ Who

♪♪

♪ In the choice of this chair

♪ In a quiet in the air

♪ Shut the door

♪ Shut the door, my good girl

♪♪

♪ Because behind your teeth

♪ Is a garden to me

♪ So shut the door

♪ Keep it in your

[ Gong rings ]

♪ We won't let you go

♪ We won't let you go

♪ We won't let you go

♪ We won't let you go

♪ We will not

♪ Let go

The whole thing was never supposed

to be entirely in my mouth.

That was not my intention, and it just sort of happened

that way because, like, an actress that I thought

I was going to cast got a show on Broadway

and couldn't do it anymore, and then, oh,

we couldn't cast the other person

that was supposed to be her replacement,

and oh, now it looks like

I'm the only person who can do --

Oh, no.

So it all ended up in my mouth, and when that started happening,

I was like, "Well, now it's real impossible."

So I wrote little things into the show to save myself.

There's, like, a little campfire circle that happens,

like, behind the piano at some point during the show,

which is, like -- It's a Band-Aid.

It's a Band-Aid.

I know that, like, 35 minutes into a show

is when I get super, super nauseous

and I feel like I'm going to black out

if I don't go offstage.

So now, 35 minutes into the show,

we just acknowledge that that's happening,

and we go behind the piano, and we have this little moment,

and I can check in with my band.

It kind of fixes it in the moment enough for me to proceed.

Guys, I'm so sorry. I just --

Yeah.

I'm sorry.

Most of the rituals in the show I've made for everybody,

but some of them I just made for me.

Give me 20 seconds.

♪ Leave your family back behind ♪

♪ Don't expect salvation from a cold heart ♪

♪ Ah

♪ Ah

♪ My promise to fit

♪ Music is a...

♪ And I don't live

♪ Ah

♪ Ah

♪ Never mind it doesn't fall

♪ The moment is the only thing that's here at all ♪

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Okay.

All right.

I grew up in a place that is, like, very different

from who I am now, and the overwhelming thing

that I have felt in this country over the last,

I guess it's been a year, but it's been festering,

is the inability to communicate, like, this inability

to communicate with people that I share blood with,

and it's heartbreaking.

♪ So are you going to do your tablework ♪

♪ Or stay and stay inside

I feel like what my contribution could possibly be --

or the contribution I can entertain

is being an empathy facilitator.

We're all the same kind of animals.

I don't think we actually have so much that is disparate.

We think that we do, and I think that it has to be approached

on a, like, one-to-one level.

I don't know that you can do that with a piece of theater

that is entirely performative.

You kind of have to show your cards first.

Now, you should know tonight that when I say things like,

"Oh, Lord," when I say things like,

"God," what I mean is big.

I mean big, big, big, big.

I mean nature. I mean science.

I mean the collective unconscious.

I mean the coincidence of how we got here and why.

I mean big, big, big.

Now, I think when I say, "Jesus," what I mean is small.

I mean my life span. I mean your life span.

I mean the 87-some-odd years that we got on this planet,

what we can do with that should we manage

to get over our bodies and get over our brains

and get out of bed in the morning.

That is all to say I'm going to say, "Oh, Lord,"

but you don't have to say, "Oh, Lord."

If you believe in goodness, you could say, "Oh, goodness."

If you believe in the universe, you could say, "Oh, universe."

If you believe in the Goddess, you can say, "Oh, Goddess,"

and if you don't believe in nothing,

you can just say, "Okay."

[ Laughter ]

Oh, Lord!

-Oh, Lord! -Okay!

I was little once.

-I was little once. -So were you.

-So were you. -We came as babies.

-We came as babies. -We caught like the flu.

-We caught like the flu. -Bless us and watch over...

Audience: Bless us and watch over...

Christian: ...all this stuff that we do.

Audience: ...all this stuff that we do.

-Amen. -Amen.

I don't know that I'm capable of writing a traditional musical,

to be honest with you.

I just -- I don't find anything tasty,

as an artist or as an audience member,

from a character standing in a certain light temperature

that gives you the same information

as the quality of their voice, as the quality of the music,

as exactly the thing that they're telling you,

that the costume is giving you,

that the set piece is giving you.

It's a saturation of the same kind of information.

My brain just kind of goes like, "Life is not like that!

Life is so complicated."

I am more interested in --

I'm more interested in counterpoint.

I'm more interested in, like, these larger, fuller emotional

experiences through the voice that I think you can liberate

by saying just left of what you mean.

♪ Crippled and blind

♪ Lord, crippled and blind

♪ Playing with your soul

♪ But you ought to set your mind ♪

♪ Oh, tell it

♪ You ain't going to believe it, baby ♪

♪ Oh, tell it

♪ Oh, yeah

♪ You ain't going to find

♪ Nickel or dime, child

♪ Nickel or

♪ Yeah

♪ Lord

♪ Yeah

♪ Lord

♪ Lord ♪ Yeah

♪ Lord ♪ Yeah

♪ Lord ♪ Yeah

♪ Lord ♪ Yeah

♪ Lord ♪ Yeah

♪ Lord God so

♪ Bring it through the water

♪ Through the crust and the rock ♪

[ Singing indistinctly ]

♪ So you don't get caught

♪ Lord, Lord, Lord so

♪ Bring it through the water

♪ Through the crust and the rock ♪

[ Singing indistinctly ]

♪ So you don't get caught

♪ Oh, Lord God so

♪ Bring it through the water

♪ Through the crust and the rock ♪

What? You got to go higher!

Chair won't help you now!

All: Give up and die.

Christian: You and me, girl.

We're going to take it on the road,

and I know that we're going to go to the UK.

I would really like to get it, like, in some, like,

real disused places, like old gymnasiums

and, like, schools and in front of some people

who don't necessarily consider themselves

to be, like, theater people.

I want to interact with it on the road.

That's what I want to do.

♪ Your wild impressions of love ♪

♪ Can sing a

♪ Hosanna

♪ Hosanna

♪ Hosanna

♪ Hosanna

♪ May you find some company

♪ Now that I cannot be with you ♪

♪♪

♪ May you lay down here finally ♪

♪ And remember the hell that we fought through ♪

♪ Oh, and may the light you scatter ♪

♪ Grow the vine

♪ To live in the gardens that you left behind ♪

All: ♪ Hosanna

♪ Hosanna

♪ Hosanna

♪ Hosanna

♪ Hosanna

♪ Hosanna

♪ Hosanna

♪ Hosanna

♪♪

Christian: ♪ God go slow

♪ Slow down

♪ Oh, God go slow

♪ Slow down

♪ God go slow

♪ Slow down

♪ Oh, God go slow

♪ Slow down

♪ And God go slow

♪ Slow down

♪ God go slow

♪ Slow down

♪ God go slow

♪ Slow down

♪ And God go slow

♪ Slow down

♪ Grandmother is a red bird

♪ Grandmother is a red bird

♪ And red birds

♪ Trust the good word

[ Singing indistinctly ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ Applause ]

♪ Grab your piece and grab the rest ♪

♪ The lion is at my feet

♪ So, Michael, raise your shield ♪

♪ Michael, raise your shield

♪ Come from jailhouse

♪ Michael, raise your shield

[ Singing indistinctly ]

♪♪

♪ Please, Michael

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