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On a pleasant day last June, I sat down in a ring with a number of other people in the backyard of Highland Park gallery Chin’s Push. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into. Handed a script, I picked a character name out of a hat, and began a table read. A story unfolded before all the “actors,” none of whom had any prior knowledge of the plot, of an indie rock band called ■●, or “Square Circle.”
As the afternoon dwindled, the readers followed a mysterious tale set in the mid-2000s. ■●, a quartet, meet at the fictional Eastover College in Upstate New York. People come in and out of their orbit. They proceed to alter the music industry in their successful career as “the band without a sound” (as in, their music wasn’t easily categorized) in Williamsburg and Los Angeles. And as with any story of rock success, trouble follows them. And that’s just the prologue, according to Jack Levinson, an artist based in the Virgil Village neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Levinson’s ■● is a perfect example of world-building: the characters and the space that they occupy are far greater than the public output. The characters live and breath in another dimension -- ideas are spinning off the story at all times. ■● frontman Spencer Savard could be making coffee at home right now. “I was very much inspired by "The Simpsons" in terms of world-building,” says Levinson when I meet him for coffee near his home. “In addition to the TV show, there are all these supplementary stories and books, like Apu’s family history or something.”
Levinson started the story while still in school at Vassar -- where he developed his style of community-based productions with the interactive plays "Gay Sex" and "MOOCs" -- and has since built a complex world around it that has culminated in performances like the one at Chin’s Push, the development of a screenplay, and various offshoots like the recently unveiled “press archives” Levinson has posted on the band’s website. “A lot of people have told me they have flashbacks of reading blogs like Said the Gramophone and Pitchfork,” says Levinson of the fake reviews and interviews he’s crafted for the indie band.
Indie rock is now a bygone era of music, and Levinson’s ■● is both a wistful and critical look at the 2000s, when cultural appropriation was kosher and bands could be made up of four guys. “The story ends in 2012,” he says, “which is when I started writing it. By 2012, indie rock was not cool. It was a white, male, straight homogenous culture. And part of ■●’s story is that some of the members are wealthy. It’s impossible not to look at this era without a critical eye. But there’s still an element of compassion to each of the characters.”
Beyond popular indie bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes, and Grizzly Bear -- all of whom Levinson was a proud fan of -- Levinson looked to the timeless tale of the transcendent band. “I’m super influenced by the story of the Beatles,” he says. “Their backstory was central to how the public consumed them.”
But it really returns to the scene, and what it meant to people at the time. “I wanted it to be a colorful story,” says Levinson, who is a ghostwriter by day. “[Like] these 'Harry Potter' or Roald Dahl childlike characters, but who are caught in a specific cultural moment. A lot of people were mad at TV shows like 'The O.C.' for making indie rock mainstream. I feel like indie occupied that space on TV that hip-hop and R&B do today.”
The ■● story is a brilliantly written take on the world of musical success, and it is especially potent in a live setting, with actors who aren’t aware of what they’re getting into. He did the trial reading at his parents’ house and two at friends’ houses before taking it public at Chin’s Push. Then he took it to New York, where he did a reading at Molasses Books and the 99¢ Plus Gallery, both in Bushwick. The final read came at Otherwild, a boutique and design studio in Los Feliz. “The more I made it feel like a party,” he says, “the more people became theatrical.”
The best thing about the readings, Levinson says, was it gave him the opportunity to see how people interacted with the story. “People's responses were totally on display for me and for one another, not only in the way they performed their characters but in the expressions on their faces and the conversations we had right after it was over,” he says.
“I found that everyone really did process the story differently, found different aspects of the piece to highlight, from storylines to specific moments in the script to the formal level of what was going on in the writing or even around the dinner table. I think people felt disarmed but were able to get comfortable, which made all of the interpretations feel really honest. It gave me a really amazing look at how the story moved out of my hands and into the incredible variety of perspectives that a text meets, which can still be wildly different from one another even if everyone's sitting at the same table.”
After coffee, Levinson shows me his apartment, in which he’s plastered the walls with outlines of the story. It’s a level of complex world building that Levinson compares to a TV show. “I’ve seen a lot of TV writers outline like this,” he says. “Someone emailed me a picture of J.K. Rowling’s outline for 'Harry Potter,' and it was like this too.”
As for the medium with which he presents the stories, Levinson isn’t entirely sure what the next steps are beyond finishing the screenplay, which he’s happy to get out there any way he can. “I’m just happy to create a film people can imagine,” Levinson says. Hence the table reads, which he sees as being influenced by his upbringing.
“I was raised Reform, so I’m mostly culturally Jewish,” he says. “But just the other night, I was at a Seder, and I was watching everyone go through the Haggadah [a text read aloud at Jewish Passover], and I thought how much it was like the table reads. I liked the fact that Judaism informs some of the participatory elements of the story. The readings are a success because they are informed by community building, which I associate with being Jewish.”
The sense of community is palpable in not only the table reads, but in the ■● story itself. Levinson has given the story just the right touch of indie drama that it comes through as authentic, sincere, and a bit strident -- not unlike indie rock itself.