“The lyrics meander like brooks.” Daniel Tobias on ‘The Orchid and the Crow’
At 29, Daniel Tobias was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer. An atheistic, young, single bohemian, Tobias’s cancer uncovered a gap in his life, a hole he filled with an unlikely hero, a miracle; Lance Armstrong.
Now, almost ten years later, Tobias is ready to share his story. The Orchid and The Crow explores faith, sex and identity; fairytale recoveries and disgraced sports stars. Armstrong’s fall from favour has complicated things, but that’s part of the reason Tobias is staging the production. “Telling the story gives the suffering meaning,” he says: “That’s where a lot of the spirituality lies.”
Early on in the writing process, Tobias asked people to interview him and listened back to the recordings. The arc emerged very quickly, and the question of faith became apparent, especially in the anecdotes. Even as an atheist, Tobias found religion hard to get away from, something which is true for many people with Judaeo-Christian backgrounds. “You can’t help but ask: ‘why has God done this to me? Why me?’” Tobias says.
He reread the bible, looking for a secret, faith restoring story. “Maybe I’d missed something,” he smiles. “Even if the truth is we’re all just bugs on a highway and there’s no logic to which one gets squashed, we still feel like if we’ve got a nice house and reasonable health and a good job, it’s not going to happen to us.” Part of this comes from the modern tendency to “sanitise death.” “When a loved one dies, we make a phone call and have them put in a box to go underground,” Tobias says, noting that even shemira, the tradition of sitting with the body overnight, is dying out. We don’t want to talk about mortality; death is, in many ways, taboo.
The Orchid and the Crow is a one man show, and rehearsals are pretty draining. “There’s never a break,” Tobias laughs. Which is not to say there isn’t a team behind the Orchid and the Crow. “I’ve been so fortunate to assemble a team with so many different and specific talents,” Tobias says. David Quirk is script editing, Casey Bennetto is the dramaturg, and Christian Leavesly is directing. Clare Bartholomew, Jherek Bischoff and John Thorn are cowriting the music.
Each artist has a different background, which Tobias has been keen to incorporate into the production. The music is multi-genred. “I saw Bryony Kimmings and Tim Keys last year, and they were so unapologetic about their genre changes; they just left it to the audience to keep up.” The music is designed to be homages to rather than parodies of each genre. There is even a number in Italian.
Thorn is “amazing,” says Tobias. Perhaps best known for his spontaneous Broadway improvisations, he creates what Tobias describes as “orchestral pop.” “We’ve written an aria, something really operatic,” Tobias gushes excitedly. “Nothing needs to rhyme in opera, there’s nowhere near as much structure and repetition as in rock and pop music. We can let the lyrics meander like brooks.” The songs in the Orchid and the Crow function as both vignettes and plot points, as does the animation.
Tobias wants it to be a proper “theatre experience”, the kind of show you couldn’t create in another medium. It is the power of honesty that Tobias seeks to capture in this show; “people that tell the most vulnerable stories are the most inspiring.” He cites Hannah Gatsby, David Quirk, Daniel Kitson and Marc Marion as comedic motivations, all big users of truth and theatricality in their performance.
Death isn’t the only taboo Tobias broaches in the Orchid and the Crow; male genitals are obviously a necessary topic. Tobias’ circumcision comes up too. “I’m already talking about my balls,” he shrugs and laughs: “I kind of figured, in for a penny…” Despite the serious subject matter, Tobias insists the production is “a fun romp.” There will be plenty of comedic moments.
“Cancer is the ordeal,” Tobias says, “the obstacle that is overcome.”
The Orchid and the Crow runs from the 13th until the 22nd of February, 2015. The production is sponsored by the Malthouse Theatre’s Artist In Residency Program. Tickets $32 or $22 concession/student, and are available from the Malthouse website.