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Monday I performed We Outran the Sun at the Hudson Guild Theatre in New York. The following photographs were taken by my collaborator Michael Heck, during our short technical rehearsal that afternoon.   You can see the design changes and adjustments: the canvas placed on an easel, the use of an electronic piano and the subsequent idea of incorporating moving boxes, the projector placed on the floor instead of hung from the grid.  I was pleased with the performance, glad that a number of people who weren’t able to see the project this summer at Studio Tisch had the opportunity to experience the show.  I played a new encore, a song by the band Hem called “Half Acre,” about which I’ll probably write more at length later this week.  We staged the show on the set of the currently running production, Once Upon a Time in New Jersey (set design by Jen Price Fick and lighting design by Isabella Byrd).  All photography ©2010 by Micheal Heck.  Set design for We Outran the Sun by Damon Pelletier, lighting design by Kate Ashton.

(Using an electronic keyboard left no room for the monitor, hence the use of boxes)

(Rehearsing “Half Acre,” a song about home and Michigan by the band Hem)

(Adjusting projections in rehearsal, image of Michael Stuhlbarg on the canvas)

(Still somewhat amused that I created a project where I play the piano constantly)

(Note the canvas on an easel, and the projector on the floor, other slight changes)

(A sense of the set behind me, Damon walking across stage on the right)

(With designers and collaborators Kate Ashton and Damon Pelletier)

Tonight I perform We Outran the Sun again here in New York, at the Hudson Guild Theatre.  The premise of the Dark Night Series is that during the run of a play, a theater normally sits empty on Mondays (often referred to as a dark night).  The Prospect Theater Company started this series to utilize that extra day, allowing the theater to be lit even on a dark night, using these Mondays to showcase new work. Since their mainstage production is currently running at the Hudson Guild, we’ve had to adapt a number of technical and/or design ideas to the conditions of the space.  For instance, we’re unable to hang the canvas or the projector from the grid.  So the canvas for this performance will sit atop a wooden easel.  The piano we’ll be using is not acoustic, but rather electronic, which leaves us with less room for set dressing and no place to put the laptop/monitor.  After talking with Damon, we’ve decided to use moving boxes as sort of a makeshift table.  In some sense then, if the stage is my studio, it will seem that I’ve just started to unpack and then sat down at the piano to work. Which to a certain extent, is fairly similar to what my life is like (and thematically connects to the projections for Eva and Leo).

(Tennessee Williams in later years, photo © 1977 by Jane Brown)

I’ve mentioned before that I’m slowly working my way through the canon of Tennessee Williams, reading the rest of his work now that The Glass Menagerie has closed.  I recently picked an anthology of his later plays, and within its pages is a work called A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.  A minor play from a major playwright, it’s rarely produced.  In fact, I had never heard of it.  Though we now think of Tennessee Williams as among the greatest of American playwrights, toward the end of his career he had certainly fallen out with the critics.  He continued to write, in fact he was always writing, but his new plays had greater difficulty finding their way to Broadway.  To be quite honest,  A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur seems much more like a William Inge play.  Like the plays of his contemporary and friend, it deals with small personal despair, as opposed to the broader emotional canvas Williams normally used.  Set in a St. Louis apartment in the 1930s, it would seem to evoke The Glass Menagerie, but instead uses a school teacher as its central character, bringing to mind the women of Inge’s Picnic.

(Artwork by Dave Beck, from the original photograph by Michael Heck © 2010)

Why do I bring up this play?  Well, believe it or not, the first New York performance of Creve Coeur opened on January 10, 1979 and played – wait for it – at the Hudson Guild Theatre, the same venue where tonight I’ll perform We Outran the Sun.  That is one of the remarkable things about New York theater, the history you feel inside of certain buildings, where the echoes of playwrights and actors of the past are still faintly audible.  Creve Coeur is a lake in St. Louis, and in the 1930s was also home to an amusement park – the destination for one of the woman in this play who, in another nod to William Inge, is going on a picnic.  A fitting title for a play about despair and determination, Creve Coeur roughly translates to “broken heart,” meaning the play is about “a lovely day for a broken heart.”

I think today, perhaps, is a lovely day to outrun the sun.

I’m excited to announce another New York performance date for We Outran the Sun.  The song cycle/multimedia piece I created with my friend and filmmaker Michael Heck will be featured as part of the Dark Nights Series at the Prospect Theater Company.  The performance will be Monday, October 25 at the Hudson Guild Theatre: 441  W. 26th St (between 9th and 10th Ave).  Tickets are $15 and are already on sale, by phone at 212-352-3101 or at www.prospecttheater.org online.  If we aren’t sold out, tickets might also be available at the door – but I wouldn’t wait until then.  Looking forward to performing this again in New York.

(Outside the Hudson Guild Theatre in the New York neighborhood of Chelsea)

The Prospect Theater Company is a New York based non-profit theater company, founded in 1998 by graduates of Princeton University.  The Dark Night Series attempts to utilize the performance space during the nights of their season when the theater is dark (meaning no performance that night, traditionally Mondays).

Needless to say, I’m quite thrilled that this project continues to find life.  If you missed it this summer at Studio Tisch, here’s your chance to see We Outran the Sun.  If you did see it this summer, tell your friends and spread the word.

(Items atop the piano at the Studio Tisch performances of We Outran the Sun)

Tonight I’ll perform We Outran the Sun at Triad Stage in Greensboro, NC.  We Outran the Sun will be the opening performance of their smaller, second stage (the Upstage Cabaret) and will help celebrate the beginning of their 10th anniversary season.  We opened The Glass Menagerie this past Friday, and I have to say it’s been such a privilege to work on this role and this play, and to be back at Triad. I’ve rarely felt as artistically engaged (and also taken care of as an artist) as I do here.

I also had visitors over the weekend.   My parents drove down from Michigan and saw the show twice.  I took them on a tour of the set, pointing out to my mother the various glass animals that are named after people in her family.  My parents have been remarkably supportive of me as I’ve pursued a career in the arts, and have seen almost everything I’ve done.  I sometimes feel like a social planner; every time I book a show out of town, my parents get out an atlas and plan a trip.

(Bev and Doug in Vermont to see me in the musical My Ohio this past spring)

My dad’s brother Doug and his wife Bev also drove to Greensboro this weekend. They live in Illinois, not far from St. Louis, where the play is set.  Doug and Bev are in some ways the opposite of my parents: my parents are basically teetotalers, while Doug and Bev enjoy a good night out on the town.  When they came to see Picnic last year here in Greensboro.  I would spend the evenings out with them at Natty Greene’s (a brewpub downtown) and then get up early in the morning to have coffee with my parents.  During grad school at NYU I think they had a hard time understanding why I would spend so much money on a graduate degree in the arts, something I now consider from time to time as I begin to pay back my loans.  I certainly think it was worth it, but it is a career that often appears to be predicated more on connections and luck.  It didn’t help that I had classes like circus and Afro-Brazilian dance.  We laughed over glasses of wine (Doug is an awarded winning vintner as well) and I would try to explain my training.

(Alex Morf, me, Blake Delong, and Meg Fee in The Just by Albert Camus)

Several years ago now, in between years of grad school, I did a play by Camus called The Just at Chautauqua.  Doug and Bev had never seen me in a play before, and they decided to travel with my parents to upstate New York.  I’ve never specifically asked them, but I think when they saw The Just, a dark political drama about young terrorists in czarist Russia, they realized that this was not just something I liked to do, but also my profession.  Since then they have often travelled with my parents, and have seen performances in St. Louis, Vermont, and now twice in Greensboro.  Bev has even taken to calling them my groupies.  I have to say, it means a lot to me.  They followed along with the blog as I created We Outran the Sun, and they’ll be in the audience tonight.

When I performed the song cycle in New York, as an encore I sang a song from Inside the Hand, a play I’ve written.  But I decided a few weeks ago that I would perform something else here in Greensboro.  It’s a song by young British folk artist, Laura Marling, called “Rambling Man.”  I’ve been listening to it a lot recently, in reference to Tom Wingfield, the character I play in The Glass Menagerie.  In the final monologue he says, “I travelled around a great deal.  The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from their branches.”  I understand these words; I often work in regional theater, far from my life in New York.  But I also have family that follows me, bringing with them a piece of home.  Follow this link to hear a simple demo recording of “Rambling Man.”

Sunday night after the last Studio Tisch performance of We Outran the Sun, we took down the canvas and projector, removed gels from the lights, locked up the piano and moved it out of the theater and into a small rehearsal room. I can now say that I’ve done a one person show, even if the character I played was myself. Though it blurred the line between concert and theater, I suppose other characters did share the stage with me through the projections and music. The performances went really well, a bit daunting but also thrilling. Having something come to life from your imagination is an incredible experience, and to borrow a phrase from my friend Krista Hoeppner, I think it was worth seeing (words I try not to use lightly). The first show felt a bit like what I imagine skydiving to be: after much preparation, you force yourself out of the plane and try to enjoy the scenery. As the nights progressed I worried less and less about whether the parachute was going to open.

(With a little editing, looking back at the 3 year old version of myself)

I went out for a drink with my friends Gabe Ebert and Lena Hart after the first performance. We were all in a production of Much Ado About Nothing a few summers ago at Chautauqua.  Gabe and I also played a lot of music together that summer, including a medley of the Death Cab for Cutie song I included in my Universe Project and the Sufjan Stevens song “Chicago,” which we played at Bratton Late Night.  Gabe recently understudied the role of Ken in Red, the drama about Mark Rothko which won the Tony for Best Play this year, and he also is a fantastic guitarist. We talked about what it takes to create and produce your own work, how it involves equal parts inspiration and stubbornness. To a certain extent, in both art and life, sometimes you have to will something into being. You work and you create, and through a sheer force of will it can become real.

Strangely, everything is back to normal here in New York. After a few incredibly busy months and a weekend of surreal performances, I can cross off an item from my list of things to do before I’m 30: seeing something I’ve written get produced. I’ll be recording a Comparative Religion textbook for the next two weeks or so, and then will be flying home to spend time with my family in northern Michigan at Arcadia (where I worked summers in college with Dave Beck). From Michigan, I’ll fly directly to North Carolina. I’m returning to Triad Stage in Greensboro, where this fall I’m playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Not only is it a theater I love to work at, but it’s also one of those classic roles I’ve always wanted to play. I’ll “pack up my life in box” just like in the lyrics to the portrait of Eva and Leo, and spend two months working on that beautiful play. I’ll also have central air conditioning in August, which is not to be underestimated.

(Under the GW Bridge before taking promotional photos ©2010 Michael Heck)

A few people have asked me if I’ll continue blogging. I hadn’t planned to; the idea behind the blog was to promote and document this particular project. It’s also much more work than I imagined, a bit like writing a short story every day. I may return to it in a more intermittent fashion, adapting it into a personal blog, but for now I’m planning to take something of a break. I do also think the project will have a continued life beyond this initial workshop production. Mike filmed the Saturday performance, both a static shot from the back of the theater and also additional footage on his handheld HD camera. When we get an edit of the performance, I plan to use the DVD to submit the project to different theaters and also for particular grants. Since the project is mobile, I can easily perform it when I travel to theaters out of town as well.  I’m not quite finished trying to outrun the sun.

Many, many thanks to everyone who has followed along, from casual readers to those of you who signed up to get the posts as emails. I really meant it when I said that you’ve been just as much a part of the process (and intent) of the project as those who were able to come to a performance this past weekend. I also want to thank Michael Heck, my friend and collaborator, without whom I could not have created this piece, at least not in its current incarnation. My hope is that We Outran the Sun made people reflect a bit about their own friendships and relationships, and also about the fact that it is possible to will something into being, to create something where there once was nothing, to outrun the sun.

(Artwork by Dave Beck, from the original photograph by Michael Heck ©2010)

We outran the sun / Found ourselves where we’d begun

We are still the same / And yet somehow more ourselves

And the sun, it slowly catches up with me

When I was a boy, I would always go to my grandparents’ house in St. Joseph, Michigan for a week each summer.  My grandfather Clyde Herbert Carlson worked for the Whirlpool Corporation for 40 years, first on the assembly line manufacturing washing machines and later in the tool shed, basically a supply closet where people would go when they needed equipment at the factory.  Throughout his years at Whirlpool he repeatedly turned down promotions because he didn’t want to leave the factory floor, he didn’t want to leave behind the other guys.  The tool shed was the perfect place for him, a destination where everyone would end up during the day at some point to get the supplies they needed.  My grandfather was a people person, and this particular job brought him a fair amount of joy.  I of course never knew him as a Whirlpool employee, he retired before I was born.  But I always admired the way he could talk to anyone and everyone.  During the week I spent with him and my grandmother Eva each summer, we would inevitably end up at the grocery store at some point.  We would start out together, but my grandpa would always wander off about half way through the trip.  We would find him at the end of the checkout line sitting on a bench, talking to whomever was there, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity.  He had a way with people which seemed so easy and free, both disarming and charming.  He could talk to anyone.

(My grandparents Clyde and Eva Carlson, during World War II circa 1944)

The longer I stay in New York, the more I understand the daily social patterns people create.  Visitors often get the impression that New Yorkers are rude: no one makes eye contact, everyone seems to be in a hurry.  I’ve grown to realize however, that much of controlled interactions that typify New Yorkers are defense mechanisms.  If you stop and say hello to everyone you pass on the street in my hometown, it may add twenty seconds to your day.  If you do the same in New York, you will be bombarded by Greenpeace advocates with clipboards, panhandlers asking for money, and practitioners of Falun Gong.  In the Midwest, you have a car with a frame of steel to separate you from the world, in New York we have to create that separation ourselves.  Or do we?  I went to Kmart on 8th Street this week to pick up a few odds and ends, and when I got to the checkout line I thought of my grandfather, and they way he could make anyone feel like they were his equal.  When the clerk asked me, as everyone always does, “How are you?” instead of saying good or fine, I looked her in the eye and I said, “You know, I’m tired.”  She looked at me as if for the first time and said, “Yeah, me too.  I can’t wait until my shift is over.”  I asked her when her shift was over and she laughed and said she had just started.  I smiled and added that I knew the feeling.

(My grandparents at their home in St. Joseph, Michigan circa 1999)

I constantly hear about the futility of trying to change anything, that no one person’s impact amounts to much at all.  But the small moments of connection we make in our lives, those honest and truthful moments where we truly share ourselves with another person, they change and fracture the course of a day and eventually the course of a life.  I saw my grandfather do it time and time again, and as I get older I’m trying to figure out just exactly how he managed it.  I think with time and patience, I’m starting to get closer; I’m trying at least.  St. Joseph, Michigan is on the shore of Lake Michigan, and my grandfather took me to the beach in the summers as well.  I would swim in the water and he would sit on the beach and worry, wearing a long sleeve shirt and pants.  He would yell out to me when he thought I was in too deep and he constantly remind me of the rip tide. Dave Beck (“I Can Breathe Underwater”) and I worked together at Camp Arcadia in northern Michigan, which is also on the shores of Lake Michigan.  The sound of the waves evokes such tranquility and calm for me.  Like my grandfather’s example, it’s something I try to remember as I make my way through the crowded streets of New York.  It also found it’s way into the portrait of Dave Beck.  Tonight is the final Studio Tisch performance of We Outran the Sun here in New York, and it seems fitting to share the mp3 of that song.  Just follow the link below to listen.

I Can Breathe Underwater by Matthew Carlson

Tonight will be the first night that someone in a portrait will be at a performance. Gretchen and Freddy are coming tonight, and Stacey and Chris will be at the Sunday performance.  I sort of can’t wait to share it with them, but it has also brought to mind the people in the project who won’t get a chance to see it.  I have two more performances of this workshop production as part of Studio Tisch, and I fully intend for the project to have further life.  For example, I hope to do it this fall when I’m back in Greensboro, NC to do a play at Triad Stage.  The project is mobile enough, just me at the piano with my laptop, that I hope to take it to different theaters when I work out of town.  No development needed, only a small theater or cabaret space and a few hours of tech and I’d be ready to perform.  And of course I’d love to have a run at some point at a theater in New York.  All in good time I suppose. So there certainly is a chance that the other people in the portraits will get to see the project.  But it’s also made me think that I’d like to share a bit more of their portraits on the blog in the interim.

(Myself, Kevin, Lanny Green, and Shaina at a Wizard of Oz rehearsal in 1996)

Kevin Beebee, a high school friend who played the Tinman to my Scarecrow in the first real piece of theater I performed (not counting elementary school musicals) came last night.  We used to play Canon in D together on the piano before each performance.  About a month ago I also saw Shaina Allen when she was here in New York with her husband.  She played Dorothy in that same production of The Wizard of Oz.  The audiences have been a mix of people from all different portions of my life, as well as – of course – people I don’t know.  But having Kevin there, who was a part of the very beginning of my life as an actor, meant a lot to me. And of course, turned my thoughts back to my high school friends who are featured in “Right Foot to Red Circle.”  Watching the interviews every night in performance and playing the songs, it really feels like I’ve seen or spent time with the people in the portraits.  I called Dave Beck today, and it was strange to think that they haven’t been having the same experience.  That of course will change tonight.

(Shaina Allen and I fourteen years later, about a month ago at a bar in New York)

But for my high school friends, who are scattered across the country, I thought I’d post the projections that accompany their song.  Below should be a link to the projected film that plays while I’m performing their song, “Right Foot to Red Circle.”

Like most children who learn the piano, I wasn’t always the most willing student.  I got tired of practicing, I wanted to play sports, I had moved on to other instruments.  I was eventually allowed to stop taking piano lessons after the 8th grade, something I still regret somewhat.  When I did take piano lessons, I worked my way through a series of pieces by the Italian composer Muzio Clementi.  Clementi was a contemporary of Mozart and Beethoven, but you don’t hear his sonatas at the concert hall very often.  Talk to anyone who has spent some time as a piano student however, and they will probably be able to hum a few bars of the Clementi sonatinas they were forced to learn as children.  Bouncy, somewhat schematic and technical, the Clementi sonatinas have been fodder for piano teachers ever since he wrote them.  The beginning of the portrait of Chris Grant, “You Only Live Twice,” includes a faux Clementi introduction and interludes that contrast the more rock and roll verse/chorus structure.

(L: Stacey Linnartz, R: a portrait of Muzio Clementi by Aleksander Orlowski)

Last night I played the song cycle for the first time in front of an audience.  I haven’t really thought of myself as a pianist in a long time; it’s listed on the special skills section of my resume, but it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when someone asks me what I do.  Yesterday though, I sat at the piano and played for about 75-80 minutes.  Well maybe half that, since the projected interviews also take up a good portion of the show.  I played everything a bit faster than I planned, which tends to happen when you add an audience and suddenly have your nerves to contend with.  But it was great to finally share the project with an audience, and for the most part I was really pleased with how it went.  I had somehow forgotten how personal the project is, and again heard afterward from people how they felt they knew me better.  So if you want a crash course in Matt Carlson, I suppose you should head to the Shubert Theater tonight at NYU.

(Winged Victory, which inspired the projections for “It’s Okay to Break”)

I slept in today, finally got groceries (there was nothing left in my cupboards), and cleaned my apartment (my parents are coming to see the show this weekend).  Seemed strange not to be editing film or rehearsing or writing lists.  I’ll probably go for a run, and then head down to the theater.  I haven’t shared the portrait of Stacey Linnartz until now because I never had a recording that I thought was good enough.  A couple days ago I recorded this demo, and I’m satisfied enough to share it with you now.  It’s become one of my favorite songs to perform.  The title is “It’s Okay to Break.”  I think my piano teacher (and hopefully Clementi) would approve.

It’s Okay to Break by Matthew Carlson

Well, here we are.  Opening night at Studio Tisch.

(Lighting by Kate Ashton, Set by Damon Pelletier, Photos ©2010 Michael Heck)

Tonight I’ll perform We Outran the Sun for the first time in front of an audience.  I wrote the first song almost a year ago, long before I had any idea of the larger framework.  While I was writing the second song, I began to think that it would become part of a song cycle in the somewhat archaic tradition of Schumann and Schubert, a series of portraits.  In February I brought in the first seven songs to the Grad Acting Alumni Writer’s Forum.  I invited some friends to come listen to what I’d been working on, and help give me some feedback as to what exactly I was creating.  I didn’t know if it was a concert or an album or maybe, just maybe, an evening of theater.  Freddy and Stacey were there that night, and someone else mentioned how interesting it was to know the songs were about actual people. The spark of the idea behind the interviews began that night, as a way to incorporate the people in the portraits more tangibly in the performance itself.  Ben Graney also mentioned that the songs made him want to shoot music videos for all of them, and looking back on it, that’s exactly what we ended up doing.

Before I left for Vermont to do My Ohio, I met with my friend – the filmmaker Michael Heck – and asked him to be a part of this somewhat undefined project (a project I didn’t yet completely understand myself).  We brainstormed ideas at a cafe in Chinatown, and then I left to do a musical in Burlington.  I did the first interview in Vermont, on a Flip Video in my hotel room at the Green Mountain Suites, with my good friend Dave Beck.  When I returned to New York, Mike and I began an intensive two months of filming and editing.  We also received DVDs from my friends who lived outside of New York: from Michigan, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Germany.  I met with Kate Ashton and Damon Pelletier, who agreed to design the lights and set.  The last few weeks included many hours of editing footage, both interviews and projections.  Now suddenly, I’m in a theater again, sitting at the piano.  I started this project at the piano, and now I find myself there again.

If you’re in New York, I hope you can make it this weekend.  If you’re not in New York, thanks for following along.  Know that you’re just as much a part of the project and the process as those who will sit in the theater tonight.  Also, another look at the multimedia: the James Bond sequence we shot with Chris Grant, to accompany the song the closes the show, You Only Live Twice.  Enjoy.

http://www.vimeo.com/13238355

I love running in the rain.

When I left my apartment yesterday for a run, I didn’t plan for it to be in the rain.  The sky was overcast and the air was cool (or at least cooler than it has been), so I decided to lace up my running shoes and strap my iPhone to my arm.  Among the many fancy things my iPhone can do is track my runs with GPS and give me a read out of speed and distance.  It also holds a fair amount of music, and so it has become my constant running companion.

(At work this week in the Shubert at NYU, photos ©2010 Michael Heck)

Mike and I were in the theater until about midnight last night, watching the subtle changes we had made to the projections and interviews during the day.  We also watched the loop of introductions for the first time together.  Without taking too long to explain, the show begins with a video loop of each person in one of the portraits introducing themselves.  The loop will start before the house even opens and continue in the preshow until I walk onstage.  Today, however, is about lighting.  Heather is writing cues in the Shubert right now, so I took the opportunity to come out to the lounge here at NYU Grad Acting and write.  Later this afternoon I’ll run through the whole piece for the first time.  Everything is moving so quickly, and yet at the same time, it’s happening exactly as we planned.

As I started my run yesterday it began to rain.  I pulled the sleeve of my tee shirt over the arm band that held my iPhone but decided to keeping going; it had enough protection from the rain, it would be fine.  As I continued to run the six mile or so route I take through Riverside Park, it began to rain harder.  I usually find running in the rain exhilerating, but my mind kept returning to the expensive piece of electronics strapped to my arm.  I wondered how much my sleeve could really protect it from the rain, and whether the damage would be covered by my warranty.  As I began the last mile or so, it began to downpour.  And suddenly I laughed at myself.  There was no further way I could protect my phone, so what was I worrying about?  I had made my choice to keep going and there was nothing else I could do, so why not just enjoy that last mile in the falling rain?

To a certain extent, I’ve already met the goals I set out when I started this project.  I wanted to make art that was personal, and I wanted to share the creative process with people who might not know what goes into the work that I do.  Now of course I’d love for this project to have a further life, to have a run at a hip Off-Broadway theater, to record an album of the material and find myself in Rolling Stone.  But my initial impulse, to create art for and about my friends, I’ve done.  After Gretchen and Freddy watched the projections and audio I posted of their portrait, Freddy texted me and told me that it was something that they would have forever, that they would show to their children some day.  Nothing I’ve ever made has had that kind of permanence, or frankly, that kind of impact.  People all across the country are following along via the blog.  Like my iPhone in the rain, the rest of it is a little out of my hands.

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