Theater interview: Joe Popp works his magic in Jobsite's Pericles

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CL: What attracted you to doing Pericles?

JP: You had mentioned Macbeth. The original director for Macbeth was going to be Paul Mullins, who had done a lot of work with the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. And Lisa Powers was at that time the artistic director for American Stage. She said, "You must be nuts. You can't do Pericles. There's all this incest. No. Forget it. Do Macbeth." Paul had to go off the show because he was offered a production with Steppenwolf so Lisa took over as director. It was his idea to incorporate some of my band's existing songs into Macbeth, but he planted the seed for doing Pericles back then. I thought I'd read it and see what it was about. I read it and it's the story of an epic journey. It's Shakespeare's least produced work, and they don't even know if it's his. There's all this weird underlying history of the play, so I thought that was kind of cool, too. We did an adaptation that follows the story line, but it's entirely rewritten into modern language. There are only a couple of stanzas from the original play that are lyrics to a song. Everything else is out the window.

CL: It has a mafia theme, correct?

JP: Yes, it has a Sopranos tone to it. I originally had the concept and I presented it to David Jenkins (Director


for Pericles and Artistic Director for Jobsite Theater) and he said, "We'll vote on producing it but you can't just say you want to produce a show. We need music, and we need a book." So I wrote this 30-page book and about nine songs and they voted on it and they got it in. We got Neil Gobioff and Shawn Paonessa (perennial Jobsite contributors) to do the book.

We didn't really communicate as much as you'd think. They said, "You do lyrics and we'll do the book." We did everything through FTP. Same with all the actors and music. I work at a college recording studio, so I have really great facilities.

I've lived in New York for nine years. I'm the technical director for the recording department at City College of New York. Now I'm on sabbatical. I get a cool year off with pay. So I took three months of vacation and twelve months of sabbatical. I'm going to go back to New York and travel, do some other stuff.

CL: What kind of challenges did Pericles present to you?

JP: The challenge was adapting it into a sensible story, which I kind of put off on Shawn and Neil. It's so insanely epic. It covers a huge amount of time. He washes up on shore. His wife is sealed up in a coffin. Originally with mine, there was no way you could produce it. I had a car crusher in the beginning. I had them in the subway. She ended up in a barrel. I had all these crazy production ideas. That's usually where I start. I think about what I want for production elements and I write the story around that. It's no way to write a play, and I don't claim to be a playwright, even though I've written three. The challenges are just trying to make the play poignant and sensible, give it meaning that is relevant to today, also personal meaning. It's almost like writing a song. It means something to you and people interpret it in different ways.

It's definitely a fun show, and the cast, crew and everybody involved is amazing. That's why I love working with Jobsite. I got an opportunity to work with Michael Greif, the director of RENT a couple of years ago, and we did this adaptation of The Boy in the Bubble, and it had this huge production value, there were 25 people in the cast, but it chopped me off creatively, whereas David says, "I want to make sure you're happy doing your thing." And that's why I'm back here working with Jobsite. I saw their second show, Brown Bread, and I thought, these guys are on to something.

To me, I think their shows should sell out immediately as soon as they announce them. That was my struggle when I left here. I felt as thought I had to go somewhere to get fed. We did a show with them that I wrote in New York. It was called Maxwell, and it sold out in two days through word of mouth. We didn't put an ad in the paper. That's the advantage of New York. The disadvantage is paying my $1,500 a month rent for a shoebox with a toilet in it.

CL: Can you talk about some of your musical influences?

JP: Well, I like what I like. I don't like reggae but I like Bob Marley. I don't like country but I like Johnny Cash. My early stuff was like The Who, Cheap Trick, Zeppelin, The Beatles, the standard classic rock stuff. Minute Men would be my power trio influence. They were one of the most influential bands in my life. But I also got into the pop-punk thing. My band actually opened for Green Day, the whole Fat Wreck Chords stuff. That's really what my bands end up sounding like, and there are a lot of those elements in the show, too. The punk guys never thought I was punk enough, and the pop guys thought I was too punk, and we can never really find our place in the world.

CL: Do you have a band now? Are you working on any other projects?

Yes, I have a band called The Hornrims. I'm purposely not working on any other projects right now. I just want to take my sabbatical and go drive my motorcycle around and just kind of not do music for a while. As I get older, it's harder to lug your stuff around, your guitar, your amps, your pedal board, especially in New York. You don't have a car, so you're traveling by train or foot. Taxis are expensive. It was originally going to be the full band in Pericles, then my bass player's wife got pregnant. She had her baby the day we started rehearsal here.

For the show we have bass and drums on a CD, and then I play live guitar over the top of that. There's no piano, no synthesizer. It's all just bass, drums and guitar, purposely for that minimalist feel. Every show I've written, they do my stuff on piano and it sounds too theater-y. The piano is C based where as the guitar is E based, which is more like rock. I don't like the synthetic instrument sound that you get with synthesizer. My bands have been all bass, guitar and drums.

The show is really fun, and I love what Jobsite is doing. They're edgy, they're all tattooed freaks, they're just crazy people, and that's why I like working with them.

We say, go see Pericles and prepare to be blown away.

Pericles is being performed by the Jobsite Theater at TBPAC's Shimberg Playhouse. For show dates and times click here.

I interviewed a dark, smoky bar in downtown Tampa. He was affable and talkative — I guess I expected more of a pissed-off punk guy. I mentioned that I had seen his punk rock Macbeth at American Stage in 1997. It was a kick-ass production that still stands as the best-attended event ever in that series. For that reason, I can't wait to see Pericles at Jobsite Theater.  Joe wrote the music and lyrics for Pericles and also plays guitar and functions as the narrator.

See what Popp had to say about how he turned Shakespeare's least-produced work into a modern, pop-punk-riddled tale of incest, intrigue and murder in the streets of New Jersey, where Pericles becomes Perry the mobster.

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