Stretching the Canvas in Ethan Lipton’s Tumacho
Playwright and lyricist Ethan Lipton creates fun theatrical worlds and lyric-driven music about socially-relevant topics. In Red Handed Otter, for example, produced by The Playwrights Realm in 2012, a community of office colleagues work through quiet disappointments and revelations of character through their passionate relationships with pets and each other. Music is at the heart of Lipton’s creative life, which began first in solo shows, then bloomed into musical collaborations like his band Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra.
Lipton’s latest piece Tumacho, a demon-possessed, full-length, comic-gothic Western play with music, had a short run at Clubbed Thumb’s 2016 Summerworks at The Wild Project in New York City. Tumacho is a classic American Western story with some metaphysical components including a demon and an animated cacti portrayed by puppets set in a small town where outlaws and oddballs band together to fight against a common threat and along the way learn to work together and to forgive one another.
Lipton fell in love with theatre as a kid, studied it in college, put in a few years making art and little money in Chicago, and eventually moved on to New York City where he’s found artistic homes and created music and drama on stages around town. We spoke recently about these distinct stages of his creative life, how his Clubbed Thumb commission Tumacho has brought the different threads together, and what’s coming next.
Lipton attended UCLA then moved to Chicago in 1992 to “live and learn things and write plays.” He returned briefly to LA when colleagues at Buffalo Nights Theatre Company, the group that produced his student play Hope on the Range, subsequently produced his first full-length play Meat in 1996.
The return was short-lived when he determined that LA wasn’t a good fit for an aspiring playwright and that he “needed more fuel and more inspiration and to be around community that was pursuing stranger impulses.” He was in search of his people.
I like talking about community. I was raised with an imperative to think about the world and to think about other people. When I went into the arts, I think my parents at first thought I was going to go do something pretty self-indulgent. I think that’s a way in which I have tried to sort through some of those values and ideas in a field that is not fundamentally about activism, not about change. It’s an opportunity to talk and think about how we deal with each other.
While developing his playwriting voice, Lipton wrote what he called “little songs.” The impulse in his lyrics came from the rhythms around him. “I sort of hear them and sing them over and over until they feel complete. I’m not a vocal acrobat, so part of my song writing process has always been to leave space for the musicians in the song.”
It’s very different from playwriting in most ways. I usually write songs walking or standing in the shower or driving. That process is about making oneself available to whatever is out there. Playwriting is a very willful, constructed exercise in sitting down and going one word at a time.
In the early 2000s he started performing his songs in public at little variety shows, two or three at a time. “I would be sometimes standing up there in front of a small crowd, tapping my feet for many seconds, until the next phrase.”
This was a little bit theatrical in part because I come from a theatre background but also because it made people a little anxious to see somebody up there singing without any kind of accompaniment. It was actually natural to me, but there was a little tension built into it.
Musicians began to approach Lipton after these solo performances saying they could hear the arrangements in his tunes for which he was leaving space. He’s collaborated with a number of musicians over time, but a core group of three—Vito Dieterle on tenor sax, Ian Riggs on stand-up bass, and Eban Levy on guitar—have been his Orchestra for over a decade. He describes his music as “lyric forward” and inspired by troubadour songwriters he grew up listening to—Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Willie Nelson, John Prine. American music with jazz, folk, country, blues, and rock tempos in the mix.
Lipton has built a number of long term relationships with individual actors and designers, many of whom worked with him on Tumacho. “I’ve joked throughout that process that I feel guilty for dragging them all back downtown because it took many of them so long to escape.” David Zinn, for example, designed the cartoon-realistic Wild West set for Tumacho, and did costumes on Lipton’s first play in New York 100 Aspects of the Moon, part of Clubbed Thumb’s 2005 Summerworks. Tumacho began five years ago as commission from Clubbed Thumb, was developed with colleagues, including director Leigh Silverman and Clubbed Thumb Producing Artistic Director Maria Striar, and by the 2016 staging included five actors who’d worked on it over time, four who were brand new to the adventure.
Lipton has also forged deep ties to the Public Theater where he was a member of the 2008 inaugural class of the Emerging Writers Group, a writing community that has extensive programming and access to all Public plays and performances. “We were the happy guinea pigs. It was just a year then, not two years. I would have stayed for twenty if they’d let us.” Within a year or so, Lipton was included in the first class of New York Voices, a commissioning program for the Public’s Joe’s Pub that encourages “artists to explore their own storytelling, narratives, and songwriting.”
The Joe’s Pub commission resulted in No Place to Go, which debuted in 2011 and returned for a longer run in 2012. No Place to Go, a set of songs linked by a story of a playwright whose day job as an “information refiner” is moving to Mars, was a new kind of stage performance for Lipton. “This was the first time that I had tried to combine the two things, song and playwriting. I think in a lot of ways I didn’t want to because I took some comfort in one in relief to the other.”
Tumacho is the first play with music for Lipton, who is “much more open and excited now to combine the two.” The songs are by Lipton, music and arrangements by his Orchestra member Ian Riggs, and the single on-stage musician Mike Brun in the Summerworks production. The pieces are “inching together,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever arrive at one form for all of it, but maybe that’s what I’m doing.”
Don’t try to parse the title too closely; the play is set in a fictional place and “Tumacho,” the haunting demon, is a made-up word. “It just struck me as a funny word. I had this vision of this all-powerful demon, and that word was the one that came out. There’s a song early on where all of the townspeople are asking themselves ‘Am I too macho?’ and so it felt right on many levels and it just stuck.” This place between “sounds like” and “suggestive” is one where Lipton is happy to create art. “I like things in art that sound like facts more than things that are facts because they allow space for my imagination.”
Lipton’s first impulse was to write about violence and hopelessness. “I was particularly interested in the way we make space for inexplicable violence in our lives. Something terrible happens that we really cannot conceive of and we just move on. In some ways that’s wonderful and in some ways that’s really terrible and sad.”
The language and the situations in Tumacho alternately terrorize and amuse. “I’m interested in where the serious and the moving and the profane can co-exist. I feel they do in our lives and a lot of the great art experiences that I’ve had find a way to express those things at once.”
The absurd and comic tone for the play was inspired by a vivid memory Lipton recounted of seeing a play as a child at the Topanga Canyon Theatricum Botanicum. “I think it was Twelfth Night. I just laughed so hard at this play. And I remember that sense of awe, watching these grownups do make believe with total seriousness. and how awesome that seemed.” Tumacho became a play for the kid who fell in love with theatre with a belly laugh. “The structural dramaturgical obligation of making sense of all of these impulses was hard to figure out. But my guiding impulse was writing the play for that kid.”
One of the fundamental pleasures of make believe is to set up these very arbitrary rules and then follow them with total seriousness and to push them as far as you can. To see these seasoned talented people doing that with material that is occasionally quite immature in its heart is really moving for me.
Tumacho’s costuming and puppetry flesh out a flat Western landscape steeped in genre tropes and speak to instincts of theatre of the absurd. Lipton’s early playwriting heroes “were people like Ionesco and Albee and Guare, who wrote with a touch of the absurd.”
One of the reasons absurdist theatre spoke to me was because it rang true to how life felt a lot of the time in a way that I recognized from the cartoon worlds of my youth, where anything could happen—people could fall off cliffs and be resurrected— and real emotions could exist. I’ve used puppets a couple of times before; I just think of them as extra actors who can expand the canvas of the universe that we’re in. The puppets stretch that flatness wide and prepare people for something that’s going to be mostly pleasurable, mostly fun, mostly joyful, and hopefully touch them a little bit along the way.