This month, The Barbican and Theatre Royal Stratford East present I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky – a re-working of June Jordan’s popular libretto. The operatic production focuses on the lives of seven individuals as they struggle to cope with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, and mixes pop, jazz, gospel and blues. Personal dramas play out against a backdrop of social and political themes including racial conflict, sexual identity and political circumstance and, as all rationale is lost due to personal tragedy the characters are forced to reassess their lives and confront a host of unavoidable truths. Dazed spoke to the co-director of the production and associate director of the theatre, Matthew Xia to find out more about this musical journey...
Digital: What first attracted you to adapting June Jordan’s lyrics into a stage
Matthew Xia: Over the last few years, Theatre Royal Stratford East and The Barbican have developed a fantastic relationship. It started with the Australian theatre company Back To Back and their site specific show Small Metal Objects. We co-produced that show at Stratford Station and since then we have gone on to continue exploring how we can work with each other. They’ve housed a few shows we’ve produced, including the Olivier Award-winning dance piece Boy Blue’s Pied Piper and the Jimmy Cliff musical The Harder They Come. Robert Van Leer, Head of Music at the Barbican had seen the original production of I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky and knew that if we pushed it through the Stratford East filter it would come out the other end as a magical and incredibly authentic story.
DD: Did you have actors in mind already when you began pre-production? How did you go about bringing the libretto to life?
Matthew Xia: If only we had people in mind at the beginning! I can honestly say that there isn’t a single person in the cast that I previously expected to cast. It was a six-month casting process. Six months! The longest casting process I’ve ever been through, but with good reason: John Adams writes very complicated music, so our actors had to be proficient in learning these songs. On top of that, they also had to be fantastic actors with the most amazing voices I could find. I can honestly say that they tick all of those boxes, I saw well over three hundred performers ranging from musical theatre singers to opera singers and recording artists.
DD: Can you relate to any of the characters in the production? If so, whom?
Matthew Xia: I think I can relate to a lot of the characters in the show. They all see themselves as outsiders, looking for a way in, searching for an understanding of their place in the world. I’m happy now with where I’m at but I constantly question what else there is; what are the other options and what the catalyst is that’s going to make me go out there and take advantage of them. Also the themes and the conflicts that the play deals with are universal, or at least they are if you live in a metropolis.
DD: The production addresses issues such as instability, mortality, chaos and destruction. Do you think it is important to live every day as if it is your last?
Matthew Xia: With a great deal of common sense, yes. I’m not advocating some insanely hedonistic life style as that will lead to chaos and destruction. Whilst I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky uses those themes, it uses them as the catalyst that opens the characters eyes to other possibilities and clarification. The piece is optimistic and full of hope, it tells us that sometimes the destruction of our ‘stability’ can help push us to make those pertinent decisions that we would be happy to ignore if it wasn’t for some major event, in this case an earthquake. There is an interesting statistic which my co-director Kerry Michael has brought up in the rehearsal room to remind everyone how high the stakes are at a time like this: after 9/11 the rate of sexually-transmitted diseases in New York shot up drastically, these events really shake our false belief in our own immortality.
Do you have any other projects that are coming up you can tell us about?
Matthew Xia: There are a few but I’ll keep it short. The first is the day after I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky opens; it’s called Bolero Remixed and is just that. I’ve composed four new versions of Ravel’s Bolero and interspersed it with the original, it will be played by a 50 piece Orchestra and supported by 100 dancers. It’s on the 3rd of July at 12pm in Canada Square Park, Canary Wharf. Following that is another show I’ll be directing called Re:Definition a concept album for the stage, starring a whole host of the London’s very best urban artists; Omar, Shola Ama, Ghetts, Maverick Sabre, Crazy Cousins and more. That will be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on the 22nd and 23rd of July.
I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky runs from 2-17 July at Theatre Royal Stratford East. The performances take place from 2-17 July at Theatre Royal Stratford East and are part of Blaze, the Barbican’s six-week summer music festival happening across East London.