We are thick in this city with a wonderful glut of talented, passionate artists. Alan Alexander III is one of them.
Alexander is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, producer and playwright who grew up in St. Louis and has called Portland home since 1984.
In 1988, he became one of the founding members of Dub Squad, a racially and sexually integrated musical performance sextet who toured with UB40; performed with Ziggy Marley, Third World, Jimmy Cliff, Judy Mowatt, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals, and David Lindley; and headlined their own tour of Japan as part of the World’s Fair Expo ’90.
In tandem with the success of the band, Alexander founded a music publishing company created to publish and produce the band’s original music – Dub Squad Music. Today, over 25 years since its inception, Dub Squad Music publishes and produces original music for recording artists, film companies, video producers and performance artists.
Alexander has composed source music and original scores for several film and television productions, including “Hear No Evil” (20th Century Fox), “Alien Invaders” (National Endowment for the Arts) and “Stuff” by director Larry Johnson. Alan recently completed the script and score for “Alan’s Confectionery (the musical),” which debuted before a sold-out audience at the 2015 Fertile Ground Festival.
Last month, Alexander was awarded a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council to fund a public performance of his latest production, “Homeless (the musical).” RACC awarded $733,608 in grants to 92 area artists and 52 nonprofit organizations for artistic projects that will take place in 2017.
“Homeless (the musical)” will be performed at this year’s Fertile Ground Festival. Performances will be held at 7 p.m. Jan. 27, 28 and 29 at the Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St.
The Portland Area Theatre Alliance launched Fertile Ground in 2009 so Portland theater companies could showcase their new work. The festival runs 11 days – Jan. 19-29 – with more than 45 producers putting on shows at 44 Portland-area venues.
Suzanne Zalokar: A musical about homelessness – how do music and homelessness complement each other conceptually?
Alan Alexander III: Musicals are popular because music is associated with emotion. If you are sad and you break into song, you are really sad. If you’re angry and you break into song, you’re really angry. Feeling joyous? You guessed it. That’s the function of music in musical theater: It accentuates and amplifies the emotional content.
S.Z.: Where did the idea, or motivation for this musical come from? What is the content that you hope to amplify with this musical?
A.A.: There are a lot of people involved – cast and crew. We hope that when people leave the theater, they will have more of a personal connection to the next homeless person that they see. A bit more empathy and see homeless people as people.
When we started this, I did a survey on Twitter. We got about 170 responses. The basic questions was, “If you see a homeless person on the street, what are you most likely to do?” And the four choices were: give them money, give them food, refer them to services and the last one was ignore them.
Half of about 170 respondents said they would ignore them.
A.A.: That was on Twitter, a blind Twitter survey. I did that back in June. It was my way of finding out what the general feeling was.
S.Z.: I wonder what the response would be if we did that survey now, in light of the cold weather? Portland has come together to do some amazing work on behalf of our populations experiencing poverty and homelessness the last two weeks. What is your experience with homelessness?
A.A.: Back in the ’70s, when I was in my 20s, I had a brief period, about three months. I relocated, and I was unable to find housing for a brief period.
My experience with homelessness was in a warm climate. I didn’t experience anything like that in a cold climate.
S.Z.: You are running the show at the Clinton Street Theater at the end of the month. For those interested in attending the performance, what can we expect?
A.A.: We have a great cast and crew. The timing of Fertile Ground doesn’t give you a whole lot of time to rehearse. People are busy, and it’s always happening right after the holidays and the snowstorms. But we’ll be ready.
It’s a stage workshop, which means it is still evolving but is ready for some sort of public presentation.
Basically we are going to do it off book. Actors have memorized their lines – you see a lot of folks at Fertile Ground will do a staged reading. This is different. We have a live band. It’s a story; it’s not a lecture or showcase. It is a story with characters that have a story arc. Hopefully you will care about these characters when you get to meet them and find out who they are.
My last musical was performed at Fertile Ground in 2015. I went for the first time the year before in 2014. It is a great festival.
When I went in 2014, I was able to find out what worked and what didn’t. This helped to guide our show in 2015. It was a staged reading. We sold out two weeks in advance. We were one of the first shows to sell out in Fertile Ground that year.
We realized we need a bigger venue, which is why we are at Clinton Street Theater this year.
I usually buy a pass and go to at least 10 to 13 events and see every musical. They have about a half-dozen musicals every year. This year, I won’t see as many because I am heavy in the production mode myself, but it is a great deal. You get a pass for 50 bucks, and you can see 10 to 15 plays over the course of 11 days.
It is all original work created right here in Portland – those are the only two criteria: original and local.
People are coming from L.A. and New York now because it is one of a kind in the United States. You know, once again, Portland rules!
ALSO AT FERTILE GROUND: Eliza Jane Schneider delivers voices of homelessness
S.Z.: A critical point in your musical comes with the threat of a sweep of the camp where the protagonist, Matilda, is staying. This is all too familiar to the people of Portland experiencing homelessness and sweeps.
A.A.: We don’t really address the nature of sweeps, per se. We do address the effect that it has on the campers. It is a call to action for the people in the camp.
We’re not trying to offer solutions. We aren’t trying to take side on any issue. This is about people. You as an audience are there to relate to these characters and the decisions they make as individuals.
We had in attendance someone from Street Roots and someone from Outside In. We got a little feedback from the table reading, just finding out what people on the ground think about what we’re doing.
S.Z.: What changes came out of input from those folks?
A.A.: They mostly had to do with character development. These characters represent four archetypes based on research done before the script was developed.
There are lots of reasons why people end up on the street, as you know, but drug addiction and mental illness, domestic violence, abuse, these are some of the common ones.
These characters represent some of those archetypes. In doing so, we wanted to make sure we didn’t create situations where we were being two-dimensional or stereotypical in our portrayal of these characters. It was about character development and making sure these were three-dimensional people.
‘Homeless (the musical)’
Producer: Dub Squad Music
Book, music and lyrics: Alan Alexander III
Additional music and lyrics: Kathryn Grimm
Director: Jon Garcia
Music director: Steve Cleveland
Starring: Barbara Passolt, Bruce Jennings, Sami Yacob-Andrus, Myles Lawrence, Lindsay Reed, Kyle Urban
Orchestra: Steve Cleveland, Kathryn Grimm, Leah Hinchcliff, Edwin Coleman III