Abigail Washburn is a claw hammer banjo player, singer/songwriter, world traveler and, most recently, theatrical writer. She’s a former member of The Sparrow Quartet and a LEAF favorite. Read an interview with Washburn here and learn more about her recent musical project here.
Mountain Xpress: How did the debut of Post-American Girl go, and what’s it like to experience a work inspired by events and ideas from your life unfold on stage?
Abigail Washburn: Post-American Girl is a part of the N.Y. New Voices series for the Public Theatre in NYC. They choose a few musicians every year to try to create a piece that uses their musicianship and storytelling to do an out-of-the-box, 90 minute theatrically-inspired performance. I chose to collaborate with Chinese Shadow and bunraku puppeteers, an actor, Chinese Opera percussionist, guzheng player, and two U.S. string players. What unfolded creatively for me is the story of a young woman leaving home for a foreign country and harnessing the lessons of emotional growth and an expanded world view through the lens of being, first a foreigner in a foreign land, and then feeling a foreigner in her own country and ultimately finding her own unique purpose in a rapidly changing global order. The bulk of the lessons reveal themselves through dialogue with her Minnesotan mother (bunraku puppet) and her adopted Chinese mother (Chinese shadow puppet) as well as the songs that transition the audience from scene to scene.
Working on Post-American Girl has been the most creatively demanding experience of my life. Not only did I not know “how” to write for theatre, actors, puppets, etc., but I’d never tried to create a 90 minute long-arc piece based on my life. It was like endlessly milking the inner teet of creativity for every drop of wisdom and humor my story has to offer. I probably wrote 200 or so pages of useable material (a composite of a lot of free writing) and ended up using 60 pages that we called the script. And, based on feedback from several theatre mentors at The Public, I probably re-wrote the script 30 or so times. I ran into emotional road blocks when it came to trying to understand the story I was needing to create verses a more objective reality of my perspective on my life’s events. I ended up needing to think of the play as a story inspired my life’s events extrapolated into expressive moments for stage that could communicate the reason I thought I lived through those moments, the emotional poignancy vs. a fact-touting mission. I learned that story and reality are most likely the same thing.
You’ve always been very collaborative in your music, but moving into theater is a new direction. Has the Post-American Girl project inspired you to pursue other forms of performance in the future? I do love collaboration because I love the amount of self-reflection it requires to surrender to a shared creative outcome. It helps me learn who I am and where my inner roadblocks and generosities lie. I get to expand my sense of possibility for myself and the world each time I open myself to collaboration. There’s always a feeling of standing on a precipice and jumping in and trusting that I will land in a better place than I could have imagined on my own. It’s terrifying, liberating and faith-building. Post-American Girl came form an opportunity to collaborate with the Public Theatre. They gave me a team of a playwriting specialist, director, theatre philosopher and producer to work with- so amazing! Every time I sat down with them I learned so much it made my brain hurt and I had to go away and think and write and process for days. The possibility of theatre, that stage and the potential for transformative art to happen in front of an audience is limitless. It is magic waiting to happen. And it reminds me that any moment I am lucky enough to have on stage with an audience is about sharing limitless possibility and magic… a basic tenet of life that is always waiting for us to turn to it and welcome it in.
You’re expecting a baby just a month after LEAF — how has being pregnant affected (changed? enhanced?) touring and playing shows over the last several months. And do you think you’ll bring your baby with you on the road in the future? [Washburn and her husband, musician Béla Fleck, are scheduled to tour together this fall.] I’ll be due three weeks after LEAF. My midwife told me to be careful about touring any time in the last month of pregnancy because the baby could come at any moment. I asked myself, “Should I play LEAF if I could end up having to give birth there?” And I thought, “If my water broke on stage at LEAF, I bet most of the audience would be filled with midwives and spiritual ladies ready to bring this child into a beautiful world… I’ll just lay down and LEAF will catch the little guy!” So, needless to say, LEAF is the only gig I’m playing in the last month of my pregnancy. So, get ready you all!
I’ve been very active touring, performing and speaking during my pregnancy. In some ways I think I’ve gained some super powers from this little being developing inside me. I’ve been to China, Australia and New Zealand and all over the US on tour, I did some new speaking about the importance of the unique innovative voice inside each of us at a corporate conference, created material and performed with Wu-Force and then wrote and performed my first theatre piece. All this creative activity fills me with hopefulness about the potential of our life force to have a wonderful experience here. It makes me want to bring a baby into this world. I’m eager to see who this little one is and how we will live a creative life together. And, yes, his poppa and I are going to hit the road together as a duo for his first experiences out this September and October. We hope to get to perform together throughout the rest of our lives.
I was reading some reviews of WOMAD Festival, which you recently played, and it got me thinking about world music (as a genre). Seems to me that world music — in the “Peter Gabriel / Real World label” sense — no longer exists; that we all have access to music from all around the world these days and what was once world music is now fusion. I’m wondering what you think about this, and if there’s a reason to preserve the “otherness” of the genre vs. whether or not something will be lost due to fusion and assimilation. I think World Music is an effective magnet of a term to bring together a certain type of listener who wants to look beyond the immediate realms of music accessible in their culture and experience the sounds of other cultures. The term, to me, represents the intentionality of the listener drawn to the music and helps those listeners find one another. Now, what the content of the genre of world music is or should be is not clear to me. One tenet that I value in thinking about world music is authenticity. My favorite culture to culture collaborations stem from a musical moment that captures 2 authentic unique sources derived from local tradition that entangle intentionally but openly and discover more about the special offering of their own tradition from the engagement. I believe that world music that magnifies the beauty of local and unique traditions through collaboration is profound, revelatory and successful because it perpetuates both the root of tradition and it’s potential to innovate organically. You know it when you hear it.
Since you and Ben Sollee are both playing LEAF, and Casey Driessen lives near by, any chance Béla will join you, making a Sparrow Quartet reunion possible? I was hoping for this, but, alas, Casey Driessen and Bela are both off in different directions that weekend and unavailable. However, Ben and I have been dropping notes back and forth to one another excited about the idea of a collaboration. We toured together as a duo for many years before the Sparrow Quartet existed. I’ve missed our collaboration and eager to unearth some of the old and move into the new. We’ll definitely be finding a special moment to be together on stage.
Photo by Shervin Lainez.