"The Doyle & Debbie Show," the season opener for the Milwaukee Rep, is making history.
"Is this the first time a toilet's been on the Stackner stage? Probably," said JC Clementz, the show's director.
The prop potty, however, nicely sets the tone for "The Doyle & Debbie Show," a goofy Christopher Guest-esque parody that follows the washed-up titular classic country music duo into their latest honky-tonk gig – with the Stackner Cabaret playing the part of the honky-tonk beginning Friday, Sept. 5 and continuing through Sunday, Nov. 2.
Before the lights go up on the show – as well as the entire Rep season – OnMilwaukee.com sat down with Clementz to chat about doing country music right, doing parody right and hopping back in the director's chair since his "Forever Plaid" debut.
OnMilwaukee.com: How was that first directorial experience for you with "Forever Plaid"?
JC Clementz: For me, it was really great to have a premiere here at the Milwaukee Rep, which I kind of view as my artistic home, having been an intern here and having moved into the artistic department. This is a great community and a great place, and it really felt wonderful. Mark has put a lot of trust in me, and I’m really happy that I got to do my premiere here.
Obviously, I’ve directed elsewhere in town and in grad school, but for that first regional premiere, it was great. And it was great to do "Forever Plaid." I have a lot of background with music and men singing. I went to an all boys high school, and my family was a big group of singers, so I knew all of those songs.
Coming to "Doyle & Debbie" is the complete opposite. I really wasn’t a country music fan, so when Mark asked me to take the helm on this one, my first thought was, "Okay, I need to listen to some country music." I’ve had fun doing that; there’s a lot of it out there.
OMC: Especially of that old school country music.
JC: Right. And while this definitely is a parody, I’d say it’s also a love song to the genre. These people are so passionate that the only thing that they can do is put their feelings into song, and that’s really country music at its core. You can have songs about going and having a beer with friends, right next to a song about your dog dying, right next to a song about the politics of the time. I think that’s changed today.
OMC: It’s more country pop music nowadays.
JC: Definitely. But back in those days, these were serious things to them, and they just put it into song with that passion. Doyle and Debbie, even though it’s a comedy, are really deep characters, and they’re really interesting and fun to explore. When you have songs that Doyle has written – like "When You’re Screwing Other Women (Think of Me)" – you can’t help but laugh because you can actually imagine that song being written at some time.
OMC: This is your second show in the Stackner, a very intimate space.
JC: Yeah, I love working in the Stackner because it is so intimate. With both "Forever Plaid" and "Doyle & Debbie," the audience is another character. Doyle relies on his fans, and he has this connection with them, so he’s always sharing things with them. It’s very much a concert in a way, where they’re singing their songs but there’s dramatic action going on as well. You take the audience out, and it no longer works.
OMC: What did you learn from your experience with "Forever Plaid" on how to work with a smaller space and a smaller cast?
JC: You definitely learn that, with a postage stamp-sized space, there are certain things that you can do and certain things you cannot do. On the Powerhouse stage, big movements would feel tiny, but if you do big movements here, it feels huge.
You want to find variety in the space because it is small. You want to have different looks with lighting and with staging, and for me, with this particular show, I wanted to encroach. I want it to feel small, like those bars that just set up a little stage in the corner, and that’s all the room they have. It’s the opposite of what most people want to do in this space. Most people want to make it bigger so you have room to do lots of things. For this show, I wanted to make it smaller and cramped so you feel like you’re in that honky-tonk.
It’s also fun with this space because you have people sitting at tables, so there is a little bit more of an atmosphere in this space. And I hope that people feel free to get up and get a drink during the show, because it’s lively. It’s rowdy. It’s fun. We want people to hoot and holler and have fun with it.
OMC: As not much of a country fan, what drew you to this show originally?
JC: For me, my in to the show was definitely the comedy. These are quirky, bizarre characters. When I first read the script, we were doing season planning, and it was on a list of plays that we were considering. I was laughing out loud – and I don’t laugh out loud often when reading. I think I had tears going down my face at one point because there are just some really, really funny things in this script.
So for me, it really is that comedy, and it’s because we can all look at these characters and go, "Gosh, that’s my crazy uncle." You know those personality traits that are bizarre and a little over-the-top, but you also see the people in your life in there.
OMC: When you were going through country music, did you find some artists that you clung to and enjoyed and wanted to bring to the show?
JC: I mean, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, that duo I see so much in this – especially Dolly. It’s really great music, and she was really, really smart, and she put up with a lot of chauvinistic men in her life in this business. That was just the nature of the business, and she put up with it and persevered. I think that "9 to 5" movie was kind of her sticking it to the man. (laughs) But I see them the most.
It’s funny because one of our actors is from Nashville, and she definitely has a much broader sense of the music. So she’s naming all of these people, and I’m like, "Okay, great, another one to add to the list." It really is an exploration, and it’s kind of fun. I never thought I would be doing research on NASCAR for a play, but now I’ve learned the rules, and it’s complex!
OMC: Like you said, the key to a good parody isn’t just making fun of something. On some level, the people who write the great parodies love the genres that they’re spoofing.
JC: It’s very much in the style of Christopher Guest, and I love those movies. You see these passionate people who really care about it, and it’s that love that comes through for the genre that makes you go, "I’m rooting for these guys! Even though they’re bizarre and silly and singing about things I can’t relate to, but I see that."
OMC: Yeah, there has to be an appreciation; otherwise, it risks coming off as mean-spirited.
JC: I mean, Doyle is a chauvinist, and yet you root for him. It’s part of the DNA of that old school country Western music. But then you see Debbie fighting with him. And then you’ve got Buddy, who’s Doyle’s long-suffering band leader. We’ve gotten to the point in Doyle’s career where he can no longer afford a band, so Buddy hits at a laptop, hits the spacebar and plays along with his guitar. It’s the story of a man whose career has evaporated.
OMC: That’s interesting that you have that classic country music in what sounds like a fairly modern setting.
JC: It’s interesting because there has been a call in country music – I’ve been reading articles – as pop culture has influenced country music and has become more rock pop country. There are those traditionalists who loved the old stuff. So there have been calls for radio stations that play traditional country and then one for modern country. Doyle definitely lives in that vein, that red meat eatin’ American.
OMC: It’s definitely a music genre that’s working itself out right now.
JC: Yeah, but the influences are still there, which is why it’s fun to dig into this.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.