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Interview: Theatre Life with Abigail Bengson

One half of the singer/songwriter/performing group The Bengsons on thier work for Where The Mountain Meets The Sea and more.

By: Jun. 19, 2024
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Interview: Theatre Life with Abigail Bengson  Image
Abigail Bengson. Photo by Jonathan Potter.

Today’s subject Abigail Bengson is one half of the singer/songwriter folk song performing group known as The Bengsons. Their songs and music are currently helping to underscore and tell the story for Jeff Augustine’s play Where The Mountain Meets the Sea. The show is currently running in Signature Theatre’s ARK space through July 7th.

The Bengsons are based in NYC and VT and have performed across the country and around the world. Their video for “The Keep Going Song” has been viewed over 4 million times, and three of their singles have been featured on So You Think You Can Dance (FOX). Other theater work includes Sovereignty Hymns (La Jolla Playhouse), The Keep Going Song (Actors Theatre of Louisville), My Joy is Heavy (Arena Stage), Hundred Days (La Jolla Playhouse, NYTW, US Tour), The Lucky Ones (Ars Nova), Anything That Gives Off Light (Edinburgh Theatre Festival), You’ll Still Call Me By Name (New York Live Arts, Jacob's Pillow), and Iphigenia in Aulis (Classic Stage Company). The 25/26 DC theatre season will see a new show from The Bengsons premiere at Arena Stage.

They have received the Jonathan Larson and Richard Rodgers Awards and nominations for the Drama Desk, Drama League, and Lucille Lortel Awards.

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea is one of those shows that might hit home with many of it’s audience members. The story of acceptance rings true for so many. The Bengsons songs help to accentuate that point. Their work is definitely a reason to attend a performance.

Abigail Bengson is one half of a writing performing team that should have as much notice as possible. Please do your part and purchase some tickets to Where the Mountain Meets The Sea and help Abigail (and Sean) Bengson continue to live their theatre lives to the fullest because they totally deserve to.

Interview: Theatre Life with Abigail Bengson  Image
The Bengsons. Photo by Marielle Solan.

Had you been writing separately before you met and were married?

We were both singer songwriters working in bands separately. We'd both studied ethnomusicology.  We both had really musical backgrounds.  But we had never written with anyone else.

Where did you receive your training?

Sean was born in Kentucky and then grew up playing in the folk scenes in the Midwest in Ohio. He played in folk punk bands and did sessions with amazing local folk musicians and then he went to Indiana University in Bloomington and studied ethnomusicology there.  I grew up in the Hills of Vermont which has an extraordinary folk music scene and singing music from all over the world in choirs and in all kinds of song circles, which was a blessing. I then moved to New York City after college and started playing in bands.

What was the first professional writing job you had working together?

I do think that as a musician these lines are a little bit blurry, but I guess we had one of our first big commissions from Ars Nova in New York City. We were getting paid as composers when we were writing our first show called Hundred Days which was thrilling. Being commissioned felt like a huge graduation. It was a beautiful thing.

Is your approach to writing musicals always the same or does it depend on the project?

It absolutely depends on the project. It’s really deeply personal every time and it’s really intimate, I'd say what's the same about it is that it always requires a sort of diving into mystery and curiosity and vulnerability but then so much of the work is to listen as deeply as you can to the piece itself and respond to what the story is trying to tell you.

That can manifest in a lot of different ways. But Sean and I, whenever we're writing, there's certain practices we always follow. Like, we have to walk a lot. We can't sit still and write. There’s also a lot of trading things back and forth and a lot of dreaming.

Interview: Theatre Life with Abigail Bengson  Image
L-R Robb Morrison and Awa Sal Secka in Signature Theatre's
production of Where The Mountain Meets The Sea.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

How did you get involved with Where The Mountain Meets The Sea?

We were brought in by now two of our dearest friends, Josh Brody, who was the original director on the show, who is brilliant and kind and wonderful, and his wife and partner, who is also a genius, the dramaturg Sarah Lunnie. I think that one of their first dates was to our show Hundred Days.

They knew our work and they knew us kind of from far away. As soon as we met them, we wanted to work with them and make art with them. They're both incredible. They were very close with playwright Jeff Augustin. Of course, once we read Jeff's plays and then when we got to get really close to his work and close to him, we saw what a brilliant mind, what a deep heart, what a sort of gentle, wild creativity he had. We would have written anything for him.

Interview: Theatre Life with Abigail Bengson  Image
L-R Robert Corneilius, Robb Morrison, Awa Sal Secka, and Isaac “Deacon Izzy" Bell
in Signature Theatre's production of Where The Mountain Meets The Sea.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

When you were handed the script for Where The Mountain Meets The Sea, did you have specific ideas about where songs could be placed?

We went through a long journey of writing the work together. I think Jeff did have feelings about always having a thread around folk music written into the piece.  And so there were already some places where Jeff had said, “Oh, I think, you know, there's a song here.” “There could be a song there.”

The characters themselves always referenced music so there were clues along the way. And then we, Jeff and Sarah and Josh and Sean and I really did a lot as the songs were written. Then we had to do big restructuring because music changes things a lot. And we did that work together.

Your score for the show consists of only six songs. Was that a conscious choice or were there other songs that were cut during the writing process?

Yes, we thought of it as more of a play with music than calling it a musical at that time. Although that might just be semantic. We knew that these characters had a lot to say and there needed to be a lot of space for these extraordinary monologues that Jeff had written. A little bit of which we turned into music. Mostly we left those alone because his prose is so beautiful. We did write a lot of underscore as well so depending on what Signature’s production is like (I have not seen it yet) there is music pretty much from beginning to end.

What does the rest of 2024 hold in store for you?

Honestly, we've been working really hard for a long time and so right now we are taking a couple weeks off with our two children and enjoying some time together.  We're going to be in the Bay Area playing a bunch of shows this summer and then in the fall, we have a bunch of writing to do so we'll be gigging for a month and then writing for a couple months after that.

With the gracious permission of Abigail Bengson and Signature Theatre, here are two versions of one of the songs from Where The Mountain Meets The Sea called"Everything to Me".

The first version you will hear is the original demo as performed by The Bengsons followed by the version performed in the show by Awa Sal Secka and Robb Morrison.

Special thanks to Signature Theatre's Marketing Manager and Publicist Zachary Flick for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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