BWW Interview: SALVAGE Playwright Tim Alderson - From Music To Farming & Back
Former music creative and fifth-generation farmer Tim Alderson's first initial foray into playwriting SALVAGE opens Saturday, November 16, 2019 at The Lounge Theatre. With music from his long-time cohorts Mark Heard, Pat Terry, and Randy VanWarmer, SALVAGE revolves around struggling singer-songwriter Harley's decision to pawn his guitar and look for some means of stable income for his wife and soon-to-come newborn. Damian D. Lewis directs the ensemble of David Atkinson, Christopher Fordinal, Nina Herzog and Leonard Earl Howze. Tim was gracious enough to make some time to answer my queries.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Tim!
SALVAGE is your first play. How long was the gestation period for this, your first theatrical baby?
The idea gestated for probably 15 years before I actually sat down to start writing in 2011. It was a fairly unformed concept during all of those years, but once I actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), the story began to rapidly take shape and move in unexpected directions. What emerged bore only slight similarities to the original thought. Since that first draft, it has evolved and improved with input from a few trusted friends and members of the two audiences who saw it when we workshopped it a few years ago.
How would you describe SALVAGE in a three-line pitch?
A young singer-songwriter on the verge of hanging up his dreams. A chance encounter producing heated words and heartfelt songs that begin to dislodge the awkward truth. An unexpected arrival that nobody saw coming!
Is your main character Harley based on yourself, or someone you know?
All of the characters reflect certain aspects of my personal experience and inner world. But, they also draw on certain characters in my life. There is a lot of my twenty-something self in Harley, yet Harley is also heavily influenced by Mark Heard. (In fact, every song that Harley sings was written by Mark.) I would say, though, that Harley lives more on the brighter side of the street than either Mark or I. That part of his personality is inspired more by Pat Terry (who wrote or co-wrote the other half of the songs in the play). Harley's career path and its associated disappointments and dilemmas bares resemblance in differing ways to all three of ours. We each had our own struggles with dreams and obligations and we dealt with those things differently at the crossroads. Each of the characters in SALVAGE has something to say about such things from their own personal experience.
If you were writing a letter of recommendation for Harley, what qualities of Harley would you include?
When we meet Harley at the beginning of the play, he is on his way to a pawnshop to sell his guitar and give up the only thing that he has ever done and was ever any good at. He does so without any real plan for what will come next. Writing a letter of recommendation for him would be tough, because he has no marketable skills or work experience. Such a letter would have to focus on his personal qualities. Harley is overflowing with earnestness, dependability, and integrity. He is intent upon doing the right thing all the time and in every situation. He has an uncanny intuition and deep connection to his own inner world and is profoundly perceptive and empathetic toward others. Though he feels the weight of the world, he is nevertheless lighthearted and just plain pleasant.
What character flaws would you leave out?
Harley allows his sense of decency and duty to overshadow his true giftedness. He puts others ahead of himself in a chivalrous, but misguided and ultimately counterproductive way. His wife, while appreciating his impulse to give up his dreams in order to do whatever it takes to support his family, says to him, "If you won't be who you are, then how can we be anything together?"
Between full-time farming and your non-profit Seeds of Hope, what made you start writing SALVAGE?
Everything in SALVAGE emerged from years of daydreams and ponderings during long hours driving endless miles of rural roads from farm to farm. I carried a somewhat amorphous and ever-evolving idea around in my head before I actually sat down and started writing. I never really had an aspiration to be a playwright. It's just that this idea was a constant companion that seemed determined to be appeased. When I finally did put pen to paper, the story began to rapidly take shape and move in unexpected directions. Weighing dreams and aspirations against responsibilities, obligations and the expectations of others can be paralyzing. And the accumulation of consequences from the choices we make can be scarring. Each of the characters in SALVAGE is struggling with this on some level. The words they exchange, whether encouragement or reproach, are meant as much for themselves as for anyone else. Bringing them to life was a way to turn them all loose and let them hash it all out on the page, and now on the stage.
Your entertainment experience background began in the music industry. Any of the up-and-coming musicians you managed or booked years ago still making music?
Mark Heard was on the cusp of success when he had a heart attack on stage in the middle of a performance at a music festival and died six weeks later. He had just come off of three of the best albums anyone has ever recorded, and had earned a lot of respect in the industry. He seems to have had his greatest success since his death. All these years later, he is still relevant. A number of artists have covered his songs including Joan Baez, Rodney Crowell, and Buddy Miller. Miller won the Americana Music Association's Song of the Year award in 2005 with a song Mark wrote, "Worry Too Much." Over the years, a number of tribute albums have been released with various artists recording his songs, the most recent of which was released in 2017. Pat Terry has had an exceptionally successful career as a songwriter in Nashville, and is still at it. Others that I represented dispersed into other avenues of music or left the business altogether. There was a broader group of artists that I was associated with, but did not represent as an agent or manager. At one point in the 80's, a group of us were conspiring to start our own record label. That project ultimately became a label at A&M and resulted in album deals for Mark Heard (under his band name iDEoLA) and Tonio K, and some producing gigs for T-Bone Burnett.
Whose album covers did you design?
Mark Heard, Pat Terry, Tonio K and many others. I was particularly proud of iDEoLA's "Tribal Opera" album and Mark Heard's "Mosaics." For "Mosaics," I took a portrait of Mark and cut it into 144 squares and mailed one of those squares along with a square of blank paper to friends of Mark's all over the world with the instruction to render on the blank square, to the best of their ability and in the medium of their choice, whatever it was that they saw on the fragment of photograph they had received. I wasn't sure if it would work out, but when I got back all 144 pieces of art and assembled them, the resulting portrait of Mark looked amazing. The credit for Album Cover Art on that record was hilarious.
Did Mark Heard, Pat Terry, and Randy VanWarmer write the songs in SALVAGE specifically for your show? Or did you pick ones they had already written to fit in SALVAGE?
Most of the songs already existed. Mark was already gone when I started writing, but he was one of my closest friends, and I used his songs with permission from his wife. Pat was involved with SALVAGE from the beginning. He, Mark, and I were all very close and, as a trusted friend with similar life experience, he was an invaluable sounding board throughout the writing process. He allowed me to use one of his songs and two that he and Randy wrote together. These existing songs in many ways helped to shape the characters and the dialog. Pat and I co-wrote the only song that was specifically written for this show, "I Killed Jesus."
What incident caused you to give up your musical aspirations and return to farming?
It wasn't so much an incident as a collection of disappointments and disillusionment. I stumbled into the music business as a wide-eyed fan and staggered out as a jaded cynic. It was weird being back on the farm, but those were wonderful years working so closely with my dad in his world. I always felt a little out of place, though, and I missed the music. June Carter had a song on her last album called, "I Used to Be Somebody," in which she recalled her days touring with Elvis Presley and studying alongside James Dean with Elia Kazan at The Actors Studio. In the chorus she sang, "I used to be somebody. Dear Lord, where have I been. I'd like to be somebody again." That sentiment resonated with me. Not the idea of "being somebody" in the sense of fame or notoriety, but of being more authentically aligned with a life and community that felt more like my own. Those themes pop up in SALVAGE.
What motivated you to create Seeds of Hope?
I was looking for something new and I wanted to do something that actually mattered. I had sold my agriculture business without a thought of what I would do next. I took some time to myself and wrote SALVAGE, and then a friend of mine who had just survived a bout with leukemia was also considering his next steps. He's retired now, but at the time he was the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. He and I got to talking about the terrible disparities in food access and the devastating health consequences that result from that. We then began thinking about what we could do. He suggested I hatch a project that we could create under the umbrella of the Diocese and I came back to him with a proposal for Seeds of Hope. That's how it all began.
Any particular song you'd love the Lounge Theatre audience to be humming after SALVAGE's curtain call?
Yes. The song that ends the show is called "Rivers of Hope." It's a beautiful, hopeful, inspiring earworm of a song that I suspect will be stuck in people's heads when they leave the theater.
What feelings would you like the audience to leave the Lounge Theatre with?
I would love people to leave feeling hopeful, encouraged, validated and perhaps a little more forgiving, accepting, and supportive of themselves and those around them.
Thank you again, Tim! I look forward to meeting your Harley.
For ticket availability and show schedule through December 15, 2019; log onto www.Onstage411.com/Salvage