BWW Interview: Shaun Bengson of HUNDRED DAYS at Adrienne Arsht Center
HUNDRED DAYS is the uncensored, exhilarating and heartrending true story about embracing uncertainty, taking a leap, and loving as if you only had 100 days to live. With magnetic chemistry and anthemic folk-punk music, creators and stars Abigail and Shaun Bengson explore a fundamental question: how do we make the most of the time that we have? HUNDRED DAYS was written by The Bengsons and Sarah Gancher, Music & Lyrics by The Bengsons, Directed by Anne Kauffman, Movement Direction by Sonya Tayeh. It was the 2018 Lucille Lortel & Drama League Nominee for Outstanding Musical.
I was very excited to have an opportunity to interview Shaun about HUNDRED DAYS before watching the show at the Arsht Center as a part of their Theatre Up Close series. HUNDRED DAYS runs April 10-21, 2019.
What inspired HUNDRED DAYS?
We have been working on it for like 11 or 12 years already. It's a very important piece to us. It basically is the story of my wife, Abigail, and I- How we got married. We meet and fell in love very quickly. And after three weeks, we got hitched. Those three weeks were beautiful but also quite tumultuous and full of fear. And so, it was from that we started writing songs. After we had written a batch of songs, we started realizing that it was around this story. That began the journey that got us to this point.
It started as a fictional story. It wasn't until later that it became autobiographical. How did that come to be?
When we first started writing it, I think it was a little frightening and also felt like we didn't deserve to tell our experience. So we started out as these fictional characters and the whole first production that we did in San Francisco had these fictional characters in it. But in the feedback afterwards, it was very clear to everyone that they were stand ins for us like it was a wall we were placing between ourselves and the audience. Our collaborators over the last many iterations of the show have been working with us to have the courage to try to strip it down and get closer and closer to our actual story.
How did you both decide that you wanted to make it a performance?
We both have always been musicians and theatre performers. We met playing in a band. When I was putting my own band together, I asked her to sing in it and that ended up being our first date. Then, three weeks later we were hitched. So really making art together and our relationship started at the exact same moment. We were already writing music and shows and performing it together. These songs started out as songs we would play at our concerts. It was through doing that we realized that there was this story behind it. That is what lead us to start making it a theatre piece.
It is interesting that you mention it is a theatre piece because as I have researched people have been trying to quantify or label what you all are doing. Some say it's a folk-punk concert. Others say it's an indie rock opera, etc. What separates this from being beautiful music and turns it into a piece of theatre?
It is its own kinda thing but at its core its using music to tell a story so that right there gets at the core of what musical theatre and opera is about. The kind of music that we write- especially the kind of music that we wrote for the show- because it doesn't sound like a lot of opera or musicals we had to find our own sort of form to tell it in. But really it has always been about: How can we get most directly to the story? How can that story support the music that we have written?
The Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theatre seats 250 people and is a very intimate theatre space. How does that intimacy affect your performance?
I love playing in a theatre of that size and I do think there is a real intimacy. One of the elements we do bring in from concert and one of my favorite things from concert is just this acknowledgment that we are all in this room together and we are coming in from our own separate lives- separate struggles and we have this moment just to be here. We can just be here in those 90 minutes and be together. In a theatre of that size you really do get to connect. I think it's really nice for this story too because there is a lot of direct address and everyone can feel very together not like there is a wall we have to talk across. I really enjoy getting to perform in rooms like that.
You mentioned earlier that there are many iterations of the show. How has your show evolved and how has that process been like? Have songs evolved or changed, etc?
It's been quite a process. It is also our first big piece so as we have grown, as artist, this piece has also grown along with us. As we have also been figuring out our song writing and our storytelling that has also affected out show. We have always been trying to get to the same place with it which is has always been: none of us really have any guarantee about how much time we have with those we love. You never know when you are going to lose someone. Therefore, the challenge becomes not to be bogged down with that fear but use it to embrace the beauty of this moment we have. That core question has been in it from the get go. It has been about how to address that core directly. It has always been about from the get go this combination of concert and theatre. But I think what's changed a lot is there are some songs that have stayed the same from what we wrote years ago. They have evolved but are still in there. But there are some others we have written just in New York a couple of years ago. It really has charted out our growth as artist. If you saw one of our earlier iterations, you would still recognize the show but it is quite a bit different particularly from San Francisco. Since San Francisco, it has been a path of trying to find more clarity.
What is most interesting to me is that you are telling the story of when you first met but you have been married now for years so that must have changed the evolution of the story. How has it changed?
When we first got together we got married so quickly that it was little bit scary to let people know. We were so certain in our hearts but there was a lot of doubt. I feel like the people that really knew us, our closest people, got it immediately but anyone who was one step further in the chain was very suspicious. I feel so grateful that we have been together 12 years now. I have this feeling now that we were right. I feel like I can look back at my little 23-year-old self and say "It was okay, Shaun. You were right." It does change the show. What has been amazing too is that every new iteration has been about how to make it relevant to who we are at this moment. The question has just gotten deeper with me. I feel no more secure. The tenuousness of our time here feels all the more clear to me. So the question is still very much alive... Not to take this for granted and be thankful. We have a boy now, a two-year-old. He is the joy of our life and now these questions apply to him too. I really want to try and embrace every day and not take any of it for granted.
What message are you hoping the audience leaves the show with?
I feel like our hope and our dream is to say that yes there is a lot of darkness in our world and a lot of us have been through really trying times. That it's really easy to let that beat you down but in this show we are trying to say don't give up hope in the light. Even in those darkest moments, there is beauty in this world. There is love in this world. It can be through those moments of darkness that it can be exposed to us. But also it's a fun show. It's filled with jokes and happy music! We hope everyone will come down and have fun with us.
HUNDRED DAYS?was originally developed and produced by Z Space, Lisa Steindler, Artistic Director and piece by piece productions/Wendy van den Heuvel. Further Developed and Produced Off-Broadway by the New York Theatre Workshop on ?December 4, 2017, Jim Nicola, Artistic Director, Jeremy Blocker, Managing Director.
HUNDRED DAYS will be playing at the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theatre April 10-21, 2019.
For more information on tickets go to https://www.arshtcenter.org/Tickets/Calendar/2018-2019-Season/Theater-Up-Close/Hundred-Days/?performanceNumber=26519