The Egg’s ‘Jimi & Mr. B’ celebrates music, dance and theater traditions in New York

Actor Jeremy Pickard has accomplished at least one of his New Year’s resolutions this year: learning
Jeremy Pickard, who is Jimi in “Jimi & Mr. B,†works on a new skill — playing guitar — during rehearsal for the coming production at The Egg.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Jeremy Pickard, who is Jimi in “Jimi & Mr. B,†works on a new skill — playing guitar — during rehearsal for the coming production at The Egg.

Actor Jeremy Pickard has accomplished at least one of his New Year’s resolutions this year: learning to play the guitar.

Pickard, 25, plays Jimi, a young guitarist searching for his artistic voice, in “Jimi & Mr. B,” an original multimedia production that premieres at The Egg in Albany at 3 p.m. Sunday. In preparation for the role, Pickard was given a crash course in guitar basics, which included private lessons in New York City.

“I just learned in the last couple of months, as you will be able to tell, clearly,” Pickard said during a break from rehearsals at The Egg. “It was my New Year’s resolution, actually, before I knew I was playing this part. So it was a godsend.”

‘Jimi & Mr. B’

Where: The Egg, Albany

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

How Much: Free

More Info: www.theegg.org

or 473-1064

But learning to play guitar was only the tip of the iceberg. Pickard, along with the rest of the cast, will be singing and dancing as well as acting in “Jimi & Mr. B.” The play integrates a live band, professional dancers and video segments into its narrative, creating a full multimedia experience.

Reason to celebrate

The piece was commissioned by The Egg as part of the theater’s 30th anniversary. According to Peter Lesser, executive director of The Egg, the production’s goal is to examine the history of the performing arts in New York state.

“For actually many, many years, the board here has been wanting to create an event that would be educational as well as entertaining for young people when they come to the capital,” Lesser said. “We wanted to create a performing arts event that we could offer at least once a year to students when they come to visit the capital, and also to try to make an educational event that has to do with New York state. . . . We didn’t want to just have a lecture with some historic film clips.”

The project began to take shape about three years ago, when playwright David Gonzalez, 51, of Nyack, was commissioned to write the piece. Gonzalez, a Bronx native who plays guitar and based the character of Jimi on himself, wanted to create a narrative that would engage audiences, rather than a straightforward presentation on the arts in the state.

“I took the words ‘state of the arts,’ which was the overall mission, and started to turn them around in my head,” Gonzalez said. “There are a few quick double entendres there. So it’s the state of the arts, New York is the state of the arts. It’s also the state of the arts, which is the top of everything. But I started playing around with the words even more, and there was a third revelation, which is state of the arts as the condition through which an artist makes their work. That is the inner state of art making, the inner state of the arts.”

The story follows Jimi and his girlfriend Isa, a dancer, as they collaborate in creating a performance piece. Mr. B is a pseudo-magical character who becomes the couple’s guide, and together the three journey through the history of New York art, learning about the great artists in each discipline.

Because of the limitations of putting on a one-hour show for young audiences, Gonzalez narrowed the production’s focus to music, dance and theater, the three “principal performing arts.” And within each discipline, the focus had to be narrowed once again.

“It’s a little bit like juggling flaming swords,” Gonzalez said.

Martha Graham’s “Lamentations” dance, in which the dancer uses a large piece of cloth, is used extensively, and even serves as Isa’s final scene. Musically, the piece focuses heavily on jazz, one of Gonzalez’s favorites.

“I love jazz; jazz is my vocabulary. So it was a natural choice to me,” Gonzalez said. “But jazz is also distinctly American, it’s distinctly New York. . . . Jazz is a connecting music. So there’s a branch into blues, into rock. And we make a connection to classical music through George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ ”

Other musical and dance genres find their way into the piece. Jimi, who idolizes his namesake, Jimi Hendrix, is the production’s resident rocker. Mr. B’s musical numbers are inspired by New York minimalist composer Phillip Glass. Jazz and hip-hop dance styles are represented at various points in the play.

Cyclical in a way

“The play is all about combining different forms of art, and that’s exactly what as actors we’re being instructed to do. So it’s really cool,” said Jennifer Margulis, 23, who plays Isa. “The singing informs the dancing, which informs the acting, and it’s kind of cyclical in that regard.”

Margulis was invited to audition for the play by choreographer Michael Rain, who worked with Margulis at NYU. Pickard and Darrell Larson, 57, who plays Mr. B, both read in workshops of the piece about one year ago.

Larson was immediately drawn to Mr. B after his first reading. However, playing a somewhat mystical character has been a challenge.

“I didn’t want to play an imaginary or not real character,” Larson said. “I thought of Mr. B as a sort of representative and as an element, as a spirit, as a — without being grandiose about it — kind of a god, in that he’s from another realm, but it isn’t separated from the real world. . . . I wanted him to be a real human being on stage who needed to help these people.”

Jimi, as the play’s hero, becomes a role model for young audiences, something that Pickard has struggled with while portraying the character.

“I’ve been baby-sitting for the last couple of years the age group for which we will be performing. The one thing that I’ve learned from that is, I think it’s so easy to talk down to kids, or to play things down, or to consider their stories as simpler, or not filled with depth,” Pickard said. “And that’s been a struggle for me, . . . to say, OK, well, I’m not speaking Shakespeare, but I am playing someone that they’re looking to, being younger than a 15-year-old guitar player, and how do I assume the role of a role model while still being cool. I have to be cool, but I also have to show them that cool is not defined by stereotype, and that it’s not defined by liking one thing, or being into video games or this kind of music or that kind of sport. Cool can mean curious and excited about life, and I dig that; that’s what I’m all about.”

While the production is heavily concerned with the history of New York art, it makes connections to the present and the future as well. One of the project’s other main goals is to get kids to realize that art is a very real option for them, according to Gonzalez.

“There’s great joy in the experience. There’s significance of meaning in the experience of art making,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a way to be together as people. . . . It’s a real option for you. It’s not something that happens far away; this is something that happens here, now.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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