Scratch that Twitch

A boy's dream comes true with the local production of a rock opera extreme.

If you promise not to laugh, gather 'round while I tell you a story. Not just any story, mind you, but the story of one little boy's dream come true.

His name is John Paul Marchand, and unlike other little boys, his dream was not to become a doctor, lawyer or even an Indian chief. Nope, John Paul's dream, since he was the oh-so-tender age of 10, was to create a large-scale multi-media performance piece that, as he put it, "encapsulated all the things I loved--art, poetry, music, dance."

His plan was, at first, relatively small. In 1998, "I met a girl named Rachel Crook, who was the original Twitch and we were discussing doing a multi-media dance piece of my own atmospheric music, that was originally called Twitch, and it was going to have an environmental theme," remembers Marchand. "I was going to a lot of the freak shows at the time, and I was getting a lot of friends in the arts community."

Pretty soon, Marchand began asking some of the arty folks he'd been befriending--names familiar to Tucsonans, like performance artist/sculptor Mat Bevel and singer/songwriter Gabrielle Pietrangelo--if they'd like to collaborate on his idea. "And the idea just started growing, and growing, and growing.... Eventually, I had the idea to turn it into a rock opera, and that really kicked it over the edge. I started looking for a band, and writing it around that."

After approaching a variety of local bands to gauge interest--"this real hippie band, this jazz-rock-fusion band," all of whom laughed at his idea--he began writing skeletal versions of songs for the project himself, some based on songs he'd written previously. Eventually, he sprang the idea on his former roommate's band, local psych-rockers Sun Zoom Spark, and got the positive reaction he'd been looking for.

The band, and in particular, vocalist/guitarist Eric Johnson--who would eventually go on to serve as the production's musical director--took Marchand's "folk opera to rock opera status," according to Marchand. While Johnson was initially put off by the idea--"We were all convinced it was just (John Paul's) master plan to get laid," he said. "You know, this genius line: 'I've written this rock opera. Do you want to be a nature spirit?'"--eventually, he and the band saw it as an opportunity to collaborate with people with whom they otherwise wouldn't get the chance.

Indeed, just about all who are working on the project are quick to point out that the lines between Marchand's original vision and the efforts of those collaborating have blurred substantially.

"It's everybody," Johnson said, "and it doesn't happen that often where you have a situation where you have a concept to bring all these people together, and really just embellish on it."

Just as Marchand had found his musical partners, Crook, who was slated to play the title character, "became an international model, and flew off to Milan," he said. It was just the first of more trials and tribulations than anyone involved in the current production can begin to count. (Marchand estimates that, from start to finish, the project has seen somewhere around 150 people contribute to the final product in some way.)

As it ended up, Twitch's narrative revolves around, in Marchand's words, "the last of the nature spirits, aka faeries, which is sent by Mother Earth to warn the human race that we have to find a balance between not only the planet, but each other. In the story, everything is connected--the web of life, that sort of thing. She represents the schism that happens between the intellect and the natural world--that's why I called it Twitch."

And while the concept of a rock opera whose main character is a faerie that appears in order to present a "save the earth" message--in the form of a facial twitch, no less--might appeal to aging hippies, Tolkien junkies, and Tori Amos worshippers (Johnson himself admitted to an aversion to, "nature spirits, or little faeries or gnomes"), even those to whom the plot itself doesn't appeal have to respect the sheer tenacity and ambitiousness that has gotten the production to this point, and the sheer scope of what the production has become. "I was nearly homeless for a while," said Marchand. "It's going to be very vindicating. They don't know what it's like to work on something of this size ... When you don't have the money, you have the time."

Prior to the current live staging of the rock opera, Twitch was filmed--with a cast that has changed dramatically for the live production--for future screenings, likely starting in the spring. The majority of songs used in the production are available on the soundtrack CD, on Slow Burn Records (a full two years in the making), available at the Twitch performances over the next two weeks. It features contributions from Bevel and Pietrangelo, as well as "interim Twitch" Melissa Luna (who also appears in the film), Gary Bear, Black Sun Ensemble's Jesus Acedo, Cyclotron, Bryna Gallagher, and of course, Sun Zoom Spark and Marchand himself.

The theatrical performances came to life courtesy of Kristina Whitsell, who serves as managing director of Sparrow & Cicada Theatre Works. She said, "This whole thing was really a strange synchronicity--and we've had a whole lot of them with the production of this theatrically--but, when John Paul asked me to do it, I had been in discussion with some friends of mine that 'I really want to do a show with the theatre company, I've got to get it back on its feet. I want to do some kind of musical, and I want to incorporate all the musicians that I know, actors that I know, dancers that I know. And we need Puppet Works involved.' You know, there's so many great artists in this town, and there's never been a huge collaboration on a lot of people's parts." Within a month, she met up with Marchand and it was pure kismet.

The stagings will incorporate lots of video footage, some from the film, and some shot specifically for the performances, and will include live musical backing from Sun Zoom Spark (Twitch's "orchestra," as it were), direction by Delani D. Cody, set direction by Ben Simms, costumes by Angela Carter, choreography courtesy of somebody whose name got lost in a sea of folks thanked during our interview (check your program for a proper list of credits, please), and yes, a 15-foot tall puppet by Tucson Puppet Works.

Last week, Marchand said, "I saw the run-through for the very first time yesterday. They played it like an acoustic thing, and I saw the whole cast on the stage, and it was without costumes or the lights or anything, but it's a frickin' rock opera! It doesn't get much more rock opera than this."

And in the end, a boy's dream--which has come to fruition only from an outpouring of local talent's time and energy, with a physical paycheck for no one--will come true over the next two weeks. A full-fledged, homegrown frickin' rock opera, in the tradition of Tommy, Arthur, Hedwig, or Jesus, is being performed by a bunch of people you probably run into at Time Market. Isn't that worth 10 bucks and a couple hours of your time?