Willi Carlisle in There Ain’t No More: Death of a Folksinger. Photo by Robin Farrin.
One of the hottest out-of-town acts coming to the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival is a solo show out of Arkansas. Willi Carlisle’s folk operetta There Ain’t No More: Death of a Folksinger gives a slice-of-life view of Americana, spinning 5 years’ of collecting stories and folk songs in the Ozarks into a driving, dynamite show. The result has delighted audiences and critics alike, racking up a Venue Pick Award at the Tampa International Fringe Festival, a Patron’s Pick Award at PortFringe, and the Best of Festival (Overall) Award at the Orlando Fringe Festival.
Getting top honors at the Orlando Fringe is a big deal – it’s not only the largest Fringe festival in the United States, but also a major stop on the national and international touring circuit. Every single show is seen and reviewed by the two major newspapers, whose critics collectively curate the awards. Best of Festival means rising being picked out of a crowd of regional, national, and international star acts.
One of the ways in which this show shines is in pure musical virtuosity. There are no prerecorded tracks in this tour de force – Carlisle does all the guitar strumming, banjo twirling, harmonica playing, and other musical elements live. Nor does the narrative slow for instrument changes – slipping into makeup and masks, and in and out of different scenes where patriotism collides with McCarthyism, Vietnam, insecurity, and more.
As Creative Loafing‘s Ray Roa put it, There Ain’t No More “is sprinkled with dirty jokes, a strip-show, the occasional cheesy one-liner and just enough to music to almost make the damn thing a concert.” The Orlando Sentinel‘s Lania Berger praised it as “raw and authentic.” Not sounding Fringe-y enough for you? There are also some sock puppets mixed in there.
The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with There Ain’t No More: Death of a Folksinger director Joseph Fletcher and actor-instrumentalist Willi Carlisle in June about the show’s genesis, road tours, and more.
How did you get involved with this show and this tour? What are some of the goals that you set off to fulfill?
JF: Willi and I had worked on several devised shows I directed with my theatre company The Artist’s Laboratory Theatre over the last two to three years. So last fall, he started telling me about this idea for a show he had and wanting to take it to a fringe festival or two. We started looking into CAFF and other U.S. festivals. We didn’t get the lottery for the CAFF tour, so we applied individually to about 15 festivals and by luck got into 8 of them. That’s when we sorted out a plan for being out for four months together.
WC: Our initial goal was simply to make a project we both could fully artistically invest in independently and with great patience, without the restraints of organizations or grants. After that it was a good way for Willi to build his network for music touring and for me to reconnect with a lot of theatre people in many of the places we’d visit. The last big goal at the start was simply not to lose that much money doing it.
Now after about a third of the way through the tour it looks like we are going to make those goals. I think we have a show that can have a much longer life and have maybe entered into a new circuit we can participate in with success in years to come. We are already talking about CAFF again, Edinburgh, and new show ideas.
The GoFundMe page for the tour mentions that the show draws on “5 years of songs, square-dance calls, poems, fiddle tunes, and field-recordings”. That’s a lot of material to cut down – what was your process like? What were some of the last elements to be cut as you whittled this down to Fringe Festival length?
JF: Willi came in with over 100 pages worth of text that covered everything from original poems, essays, and thoughts he had written to field recordings and song lyrics he’d collected in his Folklore work. He had an idea for a few of the scenes for the show and a general idea for the framework of the thing. My job at first was more editor than director. We started by putting like things together and me asking a ton of probably mostly stupid questions trying to catch up to him and the work he already had done. I was and still am nowhere as steeped in the folk history and culture as Willi.
Two things started to happen simultaneously over the 2-month development process, we identified a personal narrative for the character and decided on seven distinct scenes that each covered an important aspect of folk culture. This let us do more reordering and to start weeding out the excess. We worked beat by beat, getting up on our feet to see how it felt at times, and then going back to the page. The first two scenes came real easy, the last two the hardest – we were well into rehearsal and the start of previews before those cemented.
We opted for a shorter 3-week, maybe 50-hour rehearsal process, a lot of the early intentionality/table work was moot having worked on developing the script for so long, so it was more about pacing, through line, and blocking. We then did a preview a week in Arkansas over a 1-month period to fine-tune and get us under the Fringe 60-minute limit.
WC: The last cuts were the hardest. I think what we miss the most from the show was a conversation about the racial troubles inherent in folk music. That went [out the door] because it wasn’t well-integrated into his [the central character’s] narrative and put the brakes on things, but in the long term, we’d like to bring it back. We also shortened his revelations in Scene 4 about his own misogyny.
There was a very lovely fiddle tune cut in Scene 2 where he expounded on the beauty of the fiddle tune waltz, but it got cut for redundancy. Otherwise it was death by a thousand little cuts to shave about 15 minutes off of the show.
We want to bring some of it back and eventually have 57- and 75-minute versions.
What are the stops on the current tour?
JF: Ready for a long list? Our first two fringes were in Florida: Tampa and Orlando. We are currently in 3-week stretch of music gigs spanning Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Philadelphia. We’ll be doing the show in Baltimore before heading up to Maine for PortFringe. [Editor’s note: There Ain’t No More was a Patron’s Pick for PortFringe.] We then have show bookings in Eastport and Tremont Maine, NYC, and the Catskills before hitting up Seacoast Fringe in Dover New Hampshire. Then off to DC [Capital] Fringe and straight to KC [Kansas City] Fringe. We close out in August with some music gigs on the way to Minnesota Fringe and the St. Louis Fringe.
It’s a busy 4 months, with a ton of zigzagging back and forth across states that makes no sense at all, but it’s just how the bookings went. It’s certainly an adventure, but it’s really beautiful seeing the country this way.
This is a powerhouse solo show that’s propelled in no small part by the music itself, but the on-stage movement is a significant factor as well. What are some of the challenges (as a director) of adapting this piece to the different venues at each stop?
JF: Much of that work was done early on in choosing to stage it in a 10’ x 10’ space. It supports the storytelling of the play by confining our very tall hero in a way that mirrors the constriction of the death he is trying to stave off. The added benefit is it fits easily in most Fringe venues. We also kept two diagonal alleys SL and SR of the chair open in case we lost US/DS space and needed to adjust.
The other part of the work is just being flexible and making due with the space. Focus on keeping the intentionality of the blocking and not on any specific stage picture. Usually when we go into a tech rehearsal, I’ll be fiddling with lighting while Willi looks at those moments in the show for spacing and we check in with each other as we are working.
The bigger concern is the acoustics of the room. The show is all-acoustic [and unamplified,] with a wide range of sounds from five instruments, very loud sung moments, and very soft acted ones. So it’s a balancing act adjusting the actor to the right levels. The Purple Venue in Orlando was really a hot space for sound, which means we toned down some of the loud stuff, but could go almost whisper quiet at the end…which I loved.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.