Singer-songwriter Elliot Smith made solipsism a sacrament, singing of loneliness and detachment in an unforgiving world. Uncompromising in his darkness, he found legions of disaffected fans and, unexpectedly, a 1998 Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery” in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. The bittersweet taste of fame only hastened Smith’s unraveling. Taking a leaf from Kurt Cobain’s book, Smith nosedived into depression, heroin addiction, and, in a shrewd career move, a 2003 suicide at age 34.
Director Daniel Fish was not a hollow-eyed Smith acolyte; but when he happened upon Smith’s posthumous CD, From a Basement on the Hill, three years ago, “it blew me away,” he said. Touched by the despair of the lyrics, Fish also recognized a rueful wit behind them. At the time, Fish was mounting a production of “Hamlet” at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey, and Smith’s album provided company as Fish explored Shakespeare’s mopey Dane. After the engagement ended, the music continued to tease at his mind. “The search that Smith expresses on that record really spoke to me,” said Fish.
This summer, Fish has created a theater piece for the Spiegeltent, the outdoor cabaret at Bard’s SummerScape. Calling it “The Elliott Smith Project” (an earlier tag, “Speaking in Clowns” was discarded), Fish warns Elliottheads, “This is not a biographical piece about Smith; it’s not about his life and not about his death.” Henry Stram and Teresa McCarthy will sing the music from Basement while backed by a three-piece band.
Restless in his creativity, the guilelessly cerebral Daniel Fish is an ideal midwife for a reimagining of the Smith canon. Fish has already distinguished himself as a director at Bard. His 2005 revival of Clifford Odets’s “Rocket to the Moon” emphasized the everyman operatics of a dentist and his unfulfilled dreams. In March, Fish deconstructed the classic “Oklahoma!” at Bard. Handheld video cameras televised close-ups on monitors scattered around the stage. Actors served the audience chili at intermission. Most audacious was the suggestion that the true romance was not between cowpoke Curly and spunky Laurey but Curly and the melancholic Jud Fry.
Composer Polly Pen, who worked on Fish’s “Hamlet” and his Julliard staging of “Twelfth Night,” acknowledged the director’s fearlessness. “He’s brave in the way that anyone looking for the truth is brave. He tears things apart.”
Fish began work on “The Project” last October, deciphering the text of Smith’s lyrics, which often were inaudible. He moved forward with purpose only this past March, after Smith’s family gave their approval. Reflecting this mercurial director’s creative process, the specifics of the show remain in flux. “I am creating my own narrative and it’s different all the time.” Fish is no autocrat during rehearsals. “I really try to respond very much to what’s happening in the present in the room. [It’s about] letting accidents happen; accidents play a pretty big role in the evolution of the piece.”
“The Elliott Smith Project” opens on July 26 at the Spiegeltent, part of Bard College’s SummerScape. Additional performances July 28 and 29, August 3-5. $25. (845) 758-7900; www.summerscape.bard.edu