Interview: Theatre Life with the Creative Team of PENELOPE

Alex Bechtel, Grace McLean, and Eva Steinmetz on the creation of Signature's latest musical and more

By: Apr. 05, 2024
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Interview: Theatre Life with the Creative Team of PENELOPE
L-R Alex Bechtel, Grace McLean, and Eva Steinmetz.
Grace McLean photo by Stephen Plunkett.

Today’s subjects Alex Bechtel, Grace McLean, and Eva Steinmetz are currently living their theatre lives as the creative team for the DC premeire of Signature Theatre’s latest piece of musical greatness Penelope. The Greek myth inspired solo performer musical runs through April 28th in Signature’s ARK space.

To be clear as to who did what for this production, this talented trio co-wrote the book with Eva taking on the directorial duties and Alex writing both music and lyrics plus orchestrating the score as well.

As a composer, actor, sound designer, writer, director, teaching artist, and multi-instrumentalist, Alex Bechtel’s work has appeared on numerous stages throughout the country. Recent work includes: Music & Lyrics for Lightning Rod Special’s The Appointment (“Best of 2019” – The New York Times, Vulture, TimeOut NY, “Best of 2023” – The New Yorker), People’s Light & Theatre Company’s Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Panto, Shakespeare in Love, and Sleeping Beauty: A Musical Panto, Arden Theatre Company’s The Light Princess and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s Two Gents, Henry V, Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, Midsummer, Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night. He is the creator/composer of The West, Philadelphia Nocturne, and Cheer Up, Dostoevsky.

Grace McLean is a performer, writer, and composer. She can currently be seen on Boradway in Suffs. Previous Broadway credits include Bad Cinderella and Natasha, Pierre.... Off-Broadway and Regional credits include productions at New Group, MCC, LCT3, The Public, Vineyard, La MaMa, BAM, Weston Playhouse, ART, WTF. She writes and composes for theater (The Apiary; In The Green, Richard Rodgers, Lortel Awards) and film (Shayna Strype's Our Mine, Best Score Brooklyn Film Festival, Black Bear Award for Best Score Athens International Film Festival).

Eva Steinmetz is a Philadelphia-based theater director, filmmaker, and educator, creating new works that straddle the ordinary and extraordinary. Most notably she directed and co-wrote The Appointment with Lightning Rod Special (LRS), a musical satire that skewers the absurdity and hypocrisy of the American abortion debate (two-time NY Times Critic’s Pick; Time Out NY critics Pick; 6 Barrymore Nominations, including Best Director). Eva has created and developed over a dozen new works including Penelope, which received its premier production at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, The Caregivers (Pig Iron), Hart Island Requiem (Tidtaya Sinutoke & Ty Defoe), Sad Boys in Harpy Land (Alexandra Tatarsky), Wolfthicket (Lily Kind), and Krapp Hour (Anne Carson & LRS).

Penelope has everything going for it. The performance by Jessica Phillips is off the charts. The book and score both have a modern tone to them for modern audience accessabilty. For those who wanted a traditional starchy Greek approach to the material, please expand your horizons.

Thet trio of Bechtel, McLean and Steinmetz have scored big with Penelope and here’s hoping the show continues after it’s engagement at Signature Theatre.

We need new musicals. We need THIS new musical written by a trio of artists who are living their theatre lives to the fullest.

At what age did you know you were going to make working in theatre your chosen profession?

AB- I started performing in school plays and community theatre in my hometown near Reading, PA when I was 10 years old. I started writing songs and plays when I was 15. I had very few other interests. When it came time to choose a path for college it was a choice for me between either a major in theatre or creative writing. The choice to spend my life doing theatre has never struck me as particularly remarkable, since it always seemed so clearly to be what I was supposed to do. The remarkable thing, and the thing I will be grateful for till I die, is how little judgment or discouragement I received from my family. Their steadfast support of me being an artist is perhaps the greatest gift of my life.

GM- I come from a family of performers, so it felt natural to pursue a career in the arts.  My extracurricular activities were all artistic from drawing classes at a local museum (I was and remain terrible at visual art) to music lessons (I wanted to play the drums but my parents said “we have a saxophone” so…) to acting classes at South Coast Repertory, an awesome regional theater in my hometown of Costa Mesa, CA.  It was there that I really saw and experienced the community that theater creates - I had my first professional acting gig at age 11 in SCR’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”  Being around all those adults having nothing but fun showed me the connection between work and play that’s possible with a career in theater.

ES- My parents were musicians in the Los Angeles Opera and I remember being very young (maybe five or six?) and sitting in the audience with my dad during a piano rehearsal. At one point the production stage manager stepped out on stage to ask the maestro a question and I thought she just looked like the coolest person ever, with her headset and her giant binder. I wanted to know her secrets! Honestly, though, I’m not sure that I’ve ever really known how things were going to play out. I keep choosing theater because I continue to love it and it continues to feel possible.

Where did you receive your training?

GM- I went to the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, CA for High School, and studied jazz voice with Ella Fitzgerald’s last protege Carmen Bradford. I then came to NY to study drama and art history at NYU, during which time I continued studying jazz voice with Carmen’s mother Melba Joyce.  I’m still interested in the voice and the myriad ways various pedagogies understand it - I’ve spent time at the Centre Artistique International Roy Hart in Cevennes, France and during the pandemic I took some foundational classes in Speech and Language Pathology.

ES- I studied theater directing at Bard College, where I also had the incredible experience of managing the beloved student theater, “the old gym.” I also spent a semester abroad at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, studying classical acting. A couple years after moving to Philly I did the two-year graduate certificate program at the Pig Iron School, where I met Alex and many others who have since become dear collaborators. I’m currently in my final year at Temple University, getting an MFA in filmmaking (but I’ve got no plans to leave theater).

AB- My undergrad training, in Musical Theatre Performance, was at the University of the Arts. My grad school training, in Experimental Ensemble-Devised Theatre, was as a part of the inaugural class at the Pig Iron School - where Eva also studied, and where a lot of our shared language for making work originates.

Eva- Who came up with the initial idea for Penelope?

Penelope began not so much as a theatrical idea but rather as a metaphor Alex was using for his own breaking heart. During the height of lockdown in 2020, he and his partner had to quarantine in different cities, and over the course of the year, their relationship ended. He started writing a breakup album with songs about Penelope, or from her perspective, and he’d share the demos with me. I served as a kind of informal dramaturg on that initial album, and it didn’t take long for me to say, “Alex, I think there’s a show here.”

Interview: Theatre Life with the Creative Team of PENELOPE
Jessica Phillips in Signature Theatre's production of Penelope.
Photo by Daniel Rader.

Grace- Was Penelope always intended to be a solo piece?

GM- That’s a question for Alex!  But my understanding is that yes, this is a story about a woman whose identity is largely wrapped up in her relationship to this absent person, her husband Odysseus.  That solitude and the rub of it, the irritation but also the sort of liberation of being alone, is what drives the piece.

AB- I’ll chime in briefly to say that in the years of workshopping and developing the piece we toyed around with a couple different ideas of who else could be present, but none of those notions got very far - Grace describes why perfectly.

Interview: Theatre Life with the Creative Team of PENELOPE
L-R Erika Johnson (Percussion), Jennifer Rickard (Violin),
Imelda Tecson Juarez (Viola sitting behind Rickard), Jessica Phillips,
Ben Moss (Piano/Musical Director), and Susanna Mendlow (Cello) 
in Signature Theatre's production of Penelope.
Photo by Daniel Rader.

Alex- Can you please talk about the overall sound of your score for the show and also as you are doing the orchestrations, how did you decide on your instrumentation?

In terms of style, the score of Penelope is the closest I’ve come in composing for theatre to what I consider ‘my music’. Often when I write for theatre, I’m called upon to dive into musical genres and textures that fit the aesthetic or dramaturgical life of the show. But Penelope sprang directly from a moment in my personal life — writing music to help myself process something I was going through — so even later when Eva and Grace joined the process and we walked the material away from a strictly personal space, it felt right for the music to come directly from my instincts and emotions. It’s scored for one singer and 5 musicians (Piano, Percussion, Violin, Viola, Cello). Folks often ask if I chose to work with strings in this piece as a nod to Penelope’s weaving. I wish I could say yes; that would be so smart. But, like the music itself, the orchestration was a reflection of my immediate instincts. It just felt right. I love the orchestration of this show - for one thing, the band is onstage and in full view of the audience; often the only thing that is “happening” on a staging level is that the musicians are playing a piece of music without words while Penelope is holding space and moving through an internal process – I love that. Additionally, since the number of players is so small, each instrumentalist has their own incredibly specific part to play in the clockwork of the overall orchestration which, adding the actor playing Penelope, makes up the whole of the show. In a way it’s 6 solo pieces, and an ensemble piece, at once. 

Eva- Can you please give us a brief overview of the show?

Penelope chronicles a day in the character’s life as she waits for her husband Odysseus, who was gone for 10 years fighting the Trojan War, and then took another 10 years to get home. The show is a piece of concert theater––the character is simultaneously the lead singer in a band and the protagonist in a play. So, there are songs in the tradition of musical theater, there’s some cabaret-style storytelling, and there are moments when the narrative is held by pieces of chamber music. Over the course of the show, Penelope performs ordinary everyday activities, like praying or sitting while it rains outside, she has some more epic encounters and dreamy wanderings, and she grapples with the complexity of what it might mean if her husband comes home. (For folks who don’t really remember the Odyssey, or who never read it, no need to do any homework. We’ll give you all the info you need for our adaptation.)

Grace- Some audience members might find your source material for Penelope to be a little heavy for their tastes. What do you say to an audience member that needs to be convinced that Greek myths can be accessible to all in a theatrical setting?

Greek myths contain the seeds of the stories we tell about ourselves to this day.  Indeed, myth as a genre is a rich resource for story and interpretation and reinterpretation. What works so well about our Penelope is that she speaks like us, acts like us, feels the same things we do - loss, love, joy, boredom, frustration, confusion at the way her life is going. I think there’s something human and hopeful at being a contemporary audience and finding connection with a character who has existed for millennia.

Alex- You are also a performer besides being a composer/librettist. Do you prefer being onstage over offstage or are the two disciplines equally satisfying?

I wouldn’t say I prefer one over the other. I haven’t been onstage in a while, and I miss it quite a lot. I still feel like I have things to give the artform as an actor, and I’m hopeful opportunities for that will come up soon. I do find it interesting that in a moment when my acting career slowed down my writing career began picking up steam. I know many people for whom the two can be in balance and thrive and play off each other ::cough:: Grace McLean ::cough::, but I wonder if there’s something about my writing process that doesn’t make space for compartmentalization of my time and artistic focus. I’m curious about it.

Grace- You are about to open on Broadway in Shaina Taub’s Suffs. How does one rehearse for a new Broadway musical while creating a new musical for all of us in beautiful Shirlington, VA?

Alex and Eva are the dreamiest of teams. We schedule check-ins and writing time together and because we’ve been working together for a few years the trust is high and the foundation of the piece is strong.

Eva and Alex- Now that Penelope is open, what does the rest of 2024 hold in store for you?

ES- I’m in post-production for my MFA thesis–a short film starring none other than Grace McLean, which I’m hoping to start submitting to festivals this summer. I work full time at Pig Iron as the theater company’s Artistic Producer, so I’m catching up on a lot of emails, applying for grants, and doing some fun planning and dreaming. This summer I’m workshopping a new experimental play called The Grüb, by a long-time friend and collaborator Johanna Kasimow. I’m also producing and directing Poor Judge, the Aimee Mann project Alex mentioned, which will be part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival this fall. And, yes, if you know anyone who wants to help make Penelope happen again, please send them our way!

AB- I’ll be making new music for productions of Pinocchio at the Arden Theatre and Merry Wives of Windsor at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. In September, Eva and I will work with Pig Iron Theatre Company and lead artist Dito Van Reigersberg to premiere Poor Judge - a new experimental dance/theatre cabaret using the music of Aimee Mann. For the 2024 Holiday season, I’m the composer/lyricist for Peter Pan-to at People’s Light & Theatre; a new spin on the classic tale in the style of a British Panto. And I’ve begun work on a movie-to-musical adaptation that I can’t announce details on yet, but about which I am tremendously excited. Meanwhile, all of us on Team Penelope will be hard at work trying getting Penelope back onstage again as soon as possible.

Interview: Theatre Life with the Creative Team of PENELOPE
Jessica Phillips in Signature Theatre's production of Penelope.
Photo by Daniel Rader.

What would you like audiences to walk out of the theatre thinking after seeing a performance of Penelope?

ES- One of my favorite things about humans is that they can have such different and unique responses to the same thing. That said, I’d love for people to leave Penelope feeling like they’ve been witnessed in their own loss and loneliness––like she gets them. The cherry on top would be if they then feel impelled to do the work of healing and connecting.

AB- Penelope is a really personal piece for me. My hope is that in spending time with the show, audience members see reflections of themselves, their lives, their loves, and their longing. I hope - whatever they think - that their time with Penelope is personal for them, too.

GM- Although this is a one woman show, it’s also very much about a relationship and the way two people come together to make a third thing, an “us.” I want people to think about the work that goes into making that third thing, and also the work that goes into maintaining a sense of self in the midst of a relationship.

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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