Having arrived in Seattle in late 2011, John Coons may be a relative newcomer to Seattle, but his appreciation for a blend of classical and pop elements (and pure versions of both genres) have made him quickly at home in the local music scene. On the east coast, Coons was an Emerging Artist with PORTopera for three seasons and shared the stage with varied acts, such as Ben Folds, Foreigner and Amanda Palmer. He sang as a soloist with the Boston Symphony POPS, Pittsburgh Symphony, Portland Symphony POPS, Rhode Island Philharmonic and is part of the cast in Seattle Opera’s new work, Our Earth.
Coons has his own projects, including a one-man show he hopes to develop into a Web series called “Six Months for Six Weeks.” Meshing performance and new media seems something else appropriate for our area, and Vanguard Seattle sat down to talk with him about the nature of the work.
Vanguard Seattle: You have continued to perform on the east coast while establishing yourself here, so you know the ropes on both sides of the country. What is easier and what is more difficult about working as a classically trained musician in this region?
John Coons: There’s a lot less competition in Seattle than in Boston, which is saturated with opera singers. But there are also fewer opportunities in Seattle. As a result, most of the classical singers I’ve met here are more diverse in their stylistic repertoire. In Boston you can be just an opera singer, but out here everyone at least dabbles in something else. And that fits me just fine.
VS: Was that the catalyst for creating the one man show?
JC: I arrived in Seattle in September 2011 with a few of these songs in tow. They wanted to be part of a larger, unified work, but I had decided by then that a concept album wasn’t the right home for them. Some friends who are involved with the PortFringe theatre festival in Portland [Maine] encouraged me in January 2012 to submit something for the summer festival that year. A one-man show seemed the right way to go, partially to keep the logistics simple. I submitted my proposal, was accepted, then realized that I had four months to complete this nugget of a story I had wanted to tell since 2009. I had first envisioned it as a graphic novel. I started seeing it as a concept album in 2010, but in 2011 it had shifted to being a dramatic work in my mind, so the timing was just right.
VS: So it premiered in Portland, Maine?
JC: It actually had its premiere a week before PortFringe at Boston’s Cloud Club, which is the artist colony where Amanda Palmer lives. That was really rewarding to me as an artist, because I got to return to Boston and show how I’d grown in Seattle and because it was Amanda Palmer that first challenged me to include more personal and honest storytelling. That was a big step for me. Just admitting on stage at a show that my dear Catholic mother would see—just admitting in that venue that I’d had sex was a big step for me.
VS: Where else have you performed it?
JC: I performed it at the now defunct Grill on Broadway as a fundraiser for Washington United for Marriage. That felt great to give back as a gift to Seattle for a relevant cause—thematically and personally. I also took it on a second tour, back to the east coast. I performed it in Boston again and NYC’s Don’t Tell Mama in the theatre district. That was actually my New York premiere.
VS: Would you have ever guessed a few years ago that your New York premiere would be a solo show, not an opera gig?
JC: No. Not in a million years.
VS: Tell us about the story in your show.
JC: In March of 2009 I had a very intense six-week relationship with another twenty-something in Portland, Maine, knowing the entire time that he was about to move to Oklahoma. The show focuses on the relationship and the six-months following it, which happened to coincide with the 2009 gay marriage debates in Maine.
VS: Hence the title “6 months for Six Weeks.” Can you expound on that?
JC: In our lives, we are used to the exchange rates of events and the different currencies that come with them. The timing of things is what gives these events their charge, even if they seem relatively minor at the time. If you miss the bus by 30 seconds, it can throw you off for 20 minutes. That is a simple example of how seemingly small scales of time can have lasting effects. With relationships, it may be harder to see that connection with the event and what follows. The six months following the relationship had all the fingerprints and DNA of the original events. And I guess now so do the last 3 years. [laughing]
The need for the show came out of the fact that someone could challenge me and change my my life’s trajectory so much in a mere six weeks. In the show, I say if I could give a gift to every person on the planet, it would be six weeks. Six weeks like that.
VS: And how does the story of the relationship mesh with the marriage equality debate at the time?
JC: The show is a meditation on relationships in every form and how different relationships have different demands. Some relationships can demand one night, some six weeks, and some demand a damn ring. I kind of wondered who gets the final say on what a relationship is worth or what it demands. We are told all the time that society determines what each relationship is and demands, but as every relationship is unique, it ought to get the final say. Which is not to say that others don’t get to have a say at all. If your friends can see something is a disaster, they still have the right to tell you to shut it down. [laughing]
At a time, though, when the entire state and nation was arguing about what my relationship should be and what value it should have, I found that I didn’t even know what I wanted out of a relationship myself. In some ways it took creating the show to realize that I had a successful relationship at all, and just because I didn’t have a wedding ring to show for it doesn’t mean that it was a failure.
It’s a love letter. It’s a thank you letter. It’s an editorial. Some amalgamation of that.
VS: And now it’s becoming a Web series. Tell us more.
I wanted to try it out as a Web series for a couple reasons. First, just to reach a wider audience and to let people experience it in the intimacy of their own homes…and beds. [laughing] Second, I think the medium itself offers a lot of possibility. The piece as a whole is very confessional in nature, and therefore it is at home among vlogs, blogs and Craigslist rants. The internet allows for one-way intimacy, where people share anything, but with a certain anonymity and control over what they share. They edited heavily without hearing the other side. People are crafting persona without face-to-face interaction. Brecht would probably love it—the alienation of the audience. So as for the show, it almost feels more honest to make it a dramatic work online, acknowledging the performance of it. I say almost because it feels very different from a live show, and I don’t want to stop doing it as a live show.
VS: That brings up the question, with so much noise and a saturation of confessional media, what do you think the show offers to the audience that is unique?
For one it looks at relationships from multiple standpoints and angles, from the personal, to the satirical, to the societal and political—how a relationship can be perceived as a threat to those outside of it. It’s hard for one show to go from robot dads to the inner-workings of an anti-equality voter, and do so with real empathy. How do you skewer their arguments while still trying to recognize the humanity in them? It’s a theme that even comes up in the relationship: How do you disagree with someone’s viewpoint while still validating the way they process things and their values? I think the media and the dialog that exists is extremely polarizing and without much empathy, and it wears on us individually and as a community. The show offers a jumping off point for conversation that a lot of media doesn’t, because many people want to control the punctuation. They make their point and then—period. I’m happily more of an ellipsis…
John Coons recently launched a modest fundraising campaign to turn “Six Months for Six Weeks” into a Web series. You can learn more about the project and hear Coons perform one of his more popular, satiric songs “Two Moms” in the video on the Kickstarter page.