From March 8 through April 9, Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater is taking a trip into space with The Outer Space. Written by Ethan Lipton, this show combines both music and theatre to create a transcendent storytelling experience. Lipton and his fellow band members, Vito Dieterle, Eben Levy and Ian Riggs, tell a story about a couple who moves to space to “get away from it all” and the problems that follow. Paste chats with Ethan Lipton about creating The Outer Space and returning to the Public Theater.
Before The Outer Space, you also did another show about another planet—Mars [No Place to Go]. Why did you decide to write and sing about space again?
Ethan Lipton: It was something that I thought I would probably not do again, but it ended up feeling like the right place to set that show and talk about the experiences that are set there. Once again, it opened up a whole range of possibilities. No Place to Go is about a guy who doesn’t go to outer space. His job is being relocated there, so this show, The Outer Space, it’s not a sequel, but it’s a follow-up which imagines what kind of experience that character might have had if he had actually gone.
Outer Space focuses on a couple, and the wife wants to get “away from it all, meaning the city. How did you decide to revolve the show around the “grass is always greener” problem?
Ethan Lipton: Well, I knew some people who bought a spaceship, and it seemed like some of the experiences they had were pretty universal, just as far as wanting to figure out a way to live sustainably and grow together. The whole idea or importance of being at home physically and existentially, so that’s where it came from.
With how clear the picture the music in Outer Space paints, you don’t need a giant set to show the world of the story. What’s the process for crafting the lyrics and music?
Lipton:We’ve been playing together for 12 years. We would just songs and we would play them in front an audience. With No Place to Go, that was the first time I decided to combine the two forms, but in both cases, I write lyrics and melody first. I hear things in my head, so it comes out with the form. We always arrange the songs as a band that’s a very collaborative effort. With this show, this is the first time when each band member wrote some music pieces on their own and brought that to the table, but the text, that’s me. I collaborate a lot with my director, Leigh (Silverman), who gives me feedback as I’m working. Part of everyone’s job is to make sure the music is pushing the story forward, so everyone’s involved in that conversation.
How long has Outer Space been in the works?
Lipton: It started with a residency in the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia about 18 months ago. It was summer of 2015 and all four of us—the band members and I—went down there. I had nothing at that point—usually when you do a residency you come down with some material, but I was starting from scratch. I thought I might write a different kind of story. We all went down there together, which was great, because as a band, sometimes it’s hard to find time to do a deep dive into a project. A lot of times, we’re rehearsing for three hours there and two hours here, but being able to do a residency and really dig in, I could do some deep thinking about the first couple of songs before I even knew what the story was. They had some time to make some compositions. We weren’t sure what we would do with those yet, and then we emerged from that first residency with three songs and sketches for three more. I went back with some more songs and I started to write the narrative, then we just workshopped it from there. We did an early out-of-town run at the Kimmel Center in December for three nights, then it continued to change as we got to New York.
This is at least your second time back at the Public Theater. What’s it like returning with a new show?
Lipton: It’s unbelievable. If you make theatre and you know what that particular building is in the history of American off-Broadway theatre, it’s one of the most cherished and incredible institutions that we have. To be a part of it is really special, and then to be playing in Joe’s Pub again—we got to do our theatrical run of No Place to Go. Joe’s Pub is the first thing we had got to do like that ever. That was five years ago. To be able to come back and do something like that again is awesome. If you’re a musician, to be able to set your levels every night, little things like that are really nice. To have the room sound the same way every evening, that’s a really delicious simple pleasure. But also having the incredible support staff—managers, people dealing with sets and costumes—it’s a great experience. I also write plays separate from this, but my band members are musicians. I think for all of us, it’s not old to us, we really appreciate all the work that everyone puts in. Other nights, we’re just gigging at whatever music room we happen to be playing in, so it’s a very different circumstance. It’s a unique challenge of trying to do the same show every night, but also keep it fresh and growing. It’s also part of the fun.
Shanta Thake, who runs the Pub, she commissioned No Place to Go and she got this piece to happen as well, so she’s been an incredible champion as well for me and the band. When I first started playing, we used to play the Pub here and there. For a long time I was writing plays and playing with the band, I felt awkward and sheepish that I worked in these two different mediums. I knew it was good for me personally. I enjoyed the work and I cared about both of them really passionately. Shanta was one of the people who said “these forms belong together—the theatre and the music.” I give her a lot of credit to do something for which there wasn’t a genre already. It feels right, and it’s been great.
During the show, which is continuous with no off-stage time, you didn’t have a teleprompter and had just memorized everything. When you’re speaking or monologuing as the narrator, does that stay the same as well?
Lipton: That is 98 percent the same every night, depending what three lines I mess up or get in the wrong order. It’s a script. We update the script, but now it’s pretty much set. The show is about to open, but yesterday I asked Leigh, my director, “should I use the word ‘old’ or ‘older’ in my sentence? We’re still making small, finite adjustments. But we think of it as a musical. We’re trying to tell the story a musical would tell. I try to stick to the script.
You usually don’t get the characters’ internal thoughts the way you do with this show.
Lipton: No Place to Go had a lot more events in it. It had more story or story points in it. This show has less Story, but it is an internal journey, how a person is processing a particular experience. Being a narrator talking about it in the third person allows me to go inside and outside, it’s been a fun part of the process. I wasn’t sure how that would work, but it feels like it’s been natural and like we’re communicating with the audience.
There’s a metaphor in the show where the husband has a bug in his ear and it kind of acts as his subconscious. How did you come up with that?
Lipton: It was unconscious. There’s a bug that’s mentioned in the opening song, later on, I just had some thought about bringing that metaphor back as a character. Then I reworked the bug in a way that helps tell the story. I didn’t have the idea originally that the bug would try to escape that emerged in the moment. It ends up being effective, because it’s just one human being up there talking, so whatever we can do to enliven the rest of the world is helpful.
Do you have a favorite song in the show?
Lipton: The song “Yoga, Not Yoga” I enjoy and it’s also difficult to perform, because it’s super-long and I have to do what the song is saying in order to perform it. I have to breathe deep, not get too far ahead of myself and stay in the moment. But I also really love the song “The Sun,” which is the song the husband sings to the wife. This is the most samples in electronic music that we’ve ever used in the show, and I really like that presence. It’s new territory for us as a band. It seemed write because of the space-y themes.
I thought the costumes and set worked well in this show. The costumes felt like nostalgia, retro space uniforms, despite the futuristic topic.
Lipton: The same person did the costumes and stage design that we had, David Zinn, who is a great designer. But he was saying this was not a cutting-edge spaceship. It’s in the text, but that was his way of bringing that to life. This idea that this is an old spaceship that needs some work, so our outfits were a little nostalgic. The space references are a little DIY. It’s not the most awesome futuristic spaceship. Ben Stanton did the lights, he does theatre work but he’s also worked with Regina Spektor. The lighting really helps with the storytelling. It gets us into and out of different parts of the show, especially because there’s no other actor talking with me, so the lighting is super instructive for the audience.