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Fortunately for Philly audiences who love Martha Stuckey, she didn’t listen when an old boyfriend demanded that she stop singing.
During her residency last year at the Kimmel Center, Stuckey decided to break out of the funky, spangled, big-haired persona of her alter ego, Red 40 (of Philly’s “funk-pop clown supergroup” band Red 40 and the Last Groovement). At a director’s prodding, she found herself delving into a long-buried high-school heartbreak and mining the experience for a new show, which premieres April 12.
Me or the music?
“Suddenly I was telling a story about a high-school boyfriend who broke up with me because of an ultimatum,” Stuckey says: quit singing in the church choir in her Minnesota hometown and join her boyfriend’s family business selling kettle corn, or he’d break up with her.
“I remember sitting on my parents’ porch in my childhood home and thinking, I can’t quit church choir,” she remembers. “I can’t quit music. I’ll fall apart… so I guess you gotta go.”
It was simple but also painful and complicated, and Stuckey realized that in some ways, that story was still playing out in her adult life in “echoes, or rhymes.”
“There’s so much to unpack in the way that we start seeing ourselves in the other person and vice versa. And the way that comes to define us, and the way that we fight it from defining us,” she says. And in exploring this material for a new performance, she wanted to combat the way that “society tells us the more banal details of a young woman’s life aren’t worth telling.”
“A fairytale thriller”
The new show, Due to the Sensitive Nature, pairs Stuckey’s vocals and storytelling with steel-guitarist Isaac Stanford, plus a few longtime Red 40 collaborators, including drummer Ben Diamond, guitarist Matteo Scammell, and keyboardist Dan Finn.
That steel-guitar sound, which Stuckey says “elicited this underwater world,” brought her to a whole new style of songwriting and shaped the feeling of the show, which she calls a “fairytale thriller with a little bit of sci-fi.” The narrative weaves music and personal stories into a wider arc that “meanders between what’s happening in the space and also in my memory.”
Sam Tower directs, with lights by Alyssandra Docherty, costumes by Hanna Hamilton, and projections designed by Scotty Gunderson.
Taking off the armor
As Red 40, Stuckey says, “I was writing from a character. It was my own armor, my own filter and distance.” Using the autobiographical moments that she hadn’t previously considered useful in her work opened up a whole new artistic and narrative space. The thread from those teenage moments when she chose music over a controlling partner could “explode out” into all kinds of experiences of relationships and womanhood, including danger, love, and what it’s like to feel sexy.
That meant centering on her personal inspirations rather than the seductive generalities of “gender dynamics and heteronormativity.” Ultimately, in her creative process, that meant “sticking with the juiciness, instead of the textbook definition.”
Martha Stuckey’s Due to the Sensitive Nature is coming to the Kimmel’s SEI Innovation Studio Thursday, April 12, through Saturday, April 14. Tickets ($30) are available in advance online. Parents are strongly cautioned that the material may not be appropriate for kids.
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