Meet a NYFA Artist: Ethan Lipton

Meet a NYFA Artist: Ethan Lipton

NYFA speaks to Ethan Lipton (NYFA Fellow in Playwriting/Screenwriting, 2008) about his latest work, No Place to Go; his band, Ethan Lipton and His Orchestra; and the benefit performance of his play with music, Tumacho, at Clubbed Thumb (Andrew W. Mellon Foundation NY Theater Program Grantee) on Dec. 16.

NYFA: Tell us about your band, Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra. How did you become involved in music alongside your work as a playwright?

EL: I’ve been writing plays since college. I would also write a song now and then, but I didn’t begin to perform those songs in public until my early 30s, after I moved to New York. I didn’t play any instruments or have a band, so I sang a cappella, in two- or three-song sets, at little variety and burlesque shows. There wasn’t a lot of intention behind these performances. I think I was mostly trying to keep myself engaged creatively as I began the process of finding my way into the New York theater community. I thought singing a cappella was a really terrible idea, but each time I did it and found that it hadn’t killed me, I felt a curious kind of satisfaction.

Over time, various musicians began to approach me after gigs to say they could hear the arrangements to the songs I was singing solo. I started to play with some of those folks, and eventually put out a couple of live albums that featured a few different musical line-ups. Those albums have a real “slice of life” quality to them. They’re documents of a time and place. But after I’d put out the second one, I realized I wanted to get my songs across as music, as something you could get lost in without the interpretation of a live audience, and I knew that would mean putting together a solid band and recording studio albums. My current bandmates — Eben Levy on guitar, Ian Riggs on bass, Vito Dieterle on sax — had all played with me before, but it was while recording Mr. Softy, our first studio album, that we began to gel as a band. We’ve been together ever since.

In 2008 I was accepted into the Public’s Emerging Writers Group, and that exposed my plays to a larger audience. I had always kept the playwriting and songwriting separate — I liked working in forms with different needs and challenges — but in 2011 Shanta Thake, the director of Joe’s Pub, asked me to be part of her New York Voices series, in which she was commissioning five NYC music acts to create a narrative evening of music. I think Shanta wanted to create music theater that would start from the music side, rather than the theatrical side. At the time, I’d just learned that the job I’d had for 10 years — the job that allowed me to stay in NYC as an artist — was moving out of state. And this was right when the recession was hitting and Occupy was starting to make itself heard. When Shanta asked if I had any ideas for the series, I thought about losing my job and that time in our country’s history, and I said yeah. This is something personal I can write about that might have resonance for others. I didn’t know what form the piece would take, but I knew I wanted it to involve my band. The show “No Place to Go" was born of that.

NYFA: Congratulations on the success of No Place to Go. As you mention, it’s a departure from your previous work because you’re on stage singing and acting. What has it been like to have combined the two?

EL: I’m less judgmental as a performer than I am as a writer. When you’re on stage, you have to stay in the moment, whereas a writer can watch something and tick off a never-ending list of dissatisfactions. The best part of performing is probably that you have something to control. As a writer, you’re completely helpless once the show begins. I get a stomach ache just thinking about watching one of my plays. Doing seven shows a week, like we’re doing now with “No Place” at the Gate in London, definitely has its challenges, but this is the only show I perform in, and we don’t get to do it that often, so it’s mostly a pleasure. I should say too that, though watching one of my plays is agonizing, it can also be an enormous joy to be part of an audience that is hearing your work for the first time. 

NYFA: Describe your thought process more. You lost your day job. What about that experience prompted you to write a show about it?

EL: An arts curator asked me do it. Honestly, I don’t think I would have thought to make this piece if Shanta hadn’t thought to present me with an opportunity at just the right time. I hope that offers some inspiration to other arts curators. You folks really do have the power to open channels and bring new work into the world. 

NYFA: In No Place to Go you adopt a stage persona who is conflicted, sad at times, and a bit egocentric. What do you love about him, and why?

EL: He feels human to me. I hope the character is one you can relate to, but if he came off as being above the fray or having a lot of solutions, I don’t think he would have been a fair representation of the person who suddenly finds himself out of a job. Most of my own feelings around the experience were about being uncertain, angry, sad, stuck and confused. I don’t think anyone really wants to have change thrust upon them, and though most of us figure out ways to adapt, that piece is really about not knowing how. 

NYFA: This month, Pam MacKinnon will direct a reading of your new play,Tumacho for the Clubbed Thumb Benefit. What sort of experience can the audience expect?

EL: “Tumacho” is also unlike anything else I’ve written. It’s a Western with songs. It’s about a community trying to deal with brutality and hopelessness, and it has a big cast and big heart. And hopefully, it’s hopefully funny. A lot of my plays and songs use humor, but I’ve never put much stock in that part of my work — I’m typically more interested in creating a piece that has integrity and nuance and depth, and offers something to tickle your brain. Maybe the funny part comes easier for me, so I trust it less. With this play, though, I wanted to take the reins off and write something that might be — if it works — unapologetically funny. I wanted to make a piece that would please the 8-year-old me who first fell in love with theater, something that could make your belly actually jiggle. I hope it still tickles some brains, but my target is the gut. I’ve also tried to sneak in some political things that I find to be fairly subversive. Although, now that I’ve said all that, I’m pretty sure it will be boring, cold and regressive.

NYFA: What’s next for you and the band?

EL: On December 19 we play Joe’s Pub and on January 12 we’ll play in the Under Radar Lounge. In early 2014, we’ll tour “No Place to Go” for short runs at Juniata College (PA), the U of Iowa and Grinnel College, the Modlin Center (VA), Arts Emerson (MA), Bates College (ME) and the Kimmel Center. Then we’ll get to work on our fourth studio album.

NYFA: What music are you listening to?

EL: I was just listening to some Cliff Edwards, and I like the most recent Vampire Weekend album.

NYFA: For you, what’s the best part about watching a show/performance?

EL: Every now and then I see a performance that changes how I see the world. Sometimes the wait between those experiences can seem long, but there’s no better feeling I know.

— Interview conducted by Katherine Booth

Images, from top: © Ethan Lipton
Amy Aronoff
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