An Exclusive Interview with Gregg D. Garner,
Writer and Director of BREATHE, A New Musical
The premiere of an original 3-act musical is an event. There is hardly a more demanding, collaborative medium of artistic expression, so the appearance of an original work of this scale makes us wonder: What impelled a group to take this on? What artistic idea was so precious that it needed to be explored and questioned and presented with all the gusto that the musical format provides?
I sat down with the director, Gregg Garner, to explore this question. I met him in the theater, days before the performance, and he was gracious enough to answer my questions in between directing the lighting technicians on how the lighting of the stage should be done. That's right. Along with writing the script and all the songs for BREATHE, along with directing the musical from start to finish, he is also the lighting designer.
"What originally inspired you to start writing this musical--was there an idea or experience?" I ask in the darkness of the theater. "Well, nothing was really coming to mind, and I don't really like to force that stuff. I like to sit and wait. But as I was waiting, nothing was really hitting me."
Gregg tells me that he had even tried to start a musical, but it had ended up in some kind of dystopian future, and it turned out to be not what he was looking for at all. That's when he decided to take a different approach. "I started to ask myself hard questions," Gregg says, "And the question I decided to ask was: What are you most afraid of?"
"I thought about it, and what I am most afraid of is watching people I love suffer and die. More specifically, my children." The fear was far from an abstraction for Gregg. Life had already forced the issue. Physicians had told him and his wife that his son was going to be born with a hole in his heart, and that he would live a life of immediate decline and suffering.
"I thank God Justice was born a healthy, thriving boy."
"But when he turned 8 years old," Gregg continued, "he'd have these crazy palpitations, running into the 250s for no reason. You're so helpless in those moments." The search for diagnosis and a solution led him back to the hospital, where he encountered other children who faced their own threatening challenges. "In the end, with Justice's situation, he ended up being part of a very low percentage of kids that could actually live with his condition."
The whole experience made Gregg confront the fear of facing something you have no power to overcome. "For me, I'm a problem solver. I look for creative alternatives for how to do the things I want to do, and I typically don't allow a 'no,' or someone's statement of impossibility, to stop me. But when it comes to mortality, that's a whole other opponent. And it doesn't matter how gifted you are: you can't skirt the power of death."
In BREATHE, Gregg created a character who faces their professional limits in a very personal way. "I decided to create a story universe where a person handles major problems with the body for his profession. And he is quite brilliant. His name is Dr. Walker. He is a well-known, world-class physician. "
"Then what happens," Gregg continued, "is that his only daughter becomes sick. She goes from being someone who he never wanted to bring to the hospital, to someone who is now coming for treatment."
Dr. Walker has that necessary drive to overcome, to solve, but there are limits to what a human being can do. Gregg explains, "A big question I wanted to ask was: As gifted as someone can be, will they be able to identify their limits enough to recognize that to give someone their presence--to sit with someone who is suffering at the end--may be more of a gift, than the exercises of what, as with many gifted people, comes very easy."
The lead will be played by Skylar Aaseby. Because BREATHE is being put on by a theater troupe, Gregg already knew some of the talent he had to draw form. "When I write my characters, because of the theater company, and knowing the people in it, I can write my characters to fit certain personalities."
This was true of Dr. Walker's character, "I knew Skylar Aaseby could play Dr. Walker because he's quite an innovative guy himself. He doesn't let circumstances stop him from accomplishing what he wants to do. So he knows that sensation of coming up against a wall and finding a way around it. But he's also a tender-hearted guy."
Dr. Walker, a man split between being an insuperable physician and loving father, faces a fundamental human dilemma. There is such a drive in human beings to gain mastery over life, and so much innovation has come from it, but how do we keep ourselves from losing life amidst that drive--the life that is so precious and that we ultimately, despite our best efforts, can't hold onto.
I asked Gregg what question he wants people to be discussing after seeing BREATHE. After thinking a little bit -- "Wow. I have to narrow it down to one? That's tough," he tells me. He settles on this question: "How are we spending our time?"
Gregg continues: "Am I building up my knowledge base, and expending my energy, because I anticipate this moment in time when I can exert it, and overcome the obstacles and challenges that hit us in life, that challenge our well being? Or, am I going to be able to concentrate on what life is in front of me?"
"In simple terms, it’s like the decision between, Are you going to work overtime or are you going to get to your kid's baseball game? And I'm biased. I'm telling you. My bias is: get to the baseball game. And I hope this play helps more people get to the game."
BREATHE, A New Musical runs March 2nd-12th at the Arts at Center Street, with 7pm shows on Thursday-Saturday evenings, a 2pm matinee on Saturdays and 3pm on Sundays.