Icons and Idols: Interview with Composer Grace Oberhofer

Grace Oberhofer
"The Purple Room" is a new show that Grace Oberhofer worked on.

Grace Oberhofer is an award-winning composer who focuses on non-traditional music theater. A native of Washington state, Grace graduated from Tufts University and has worked as a performer, sound designer, and educator. An alumna of the BMI Workshop, Grace’s creations have been developed and/or presented by OPERA America, The Tank, New Georges, Corkscrew Festival, Seattle Rep, and Central Square, among others. Grace recently partnered with the Byzantine Choral Project to create “Icons/Idols: In the Purple Room” which is an immersive installation that runs through May 22 at New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St) in NYC.

“Icons/Idols: In the Purple Room” follows the story of a young Athenian orphan named Irene living in an era when Byzantine power was at its strongest, yet tensions between religious and political factions are threatening to rupture an empire. The audience will listen to the story unfold on their phones and are safely socially distanced as they are guided through the site-specific space…that is absent of live performers. Audience members listen to the show on their own phone/mp3 player/portable device, using their own headphones or earbuds. Information will be emailed in advance with instructions on how to download the audio before coming to the show. A wheelchair accessible version of the audio and show will also be available to book in advance for a timed entry. All visitors and staff are required to wear masks while inside the building.

The Byzantine Choral Project is a dynamic collaboration between playwright Helen Banner and composer Grace Oberhofer to make theater with a focus on female voices. Grace recently discussed this show, her career, and more via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for composing music and what was it about plays that most interested you?

Grace Oberhofer (GO): I developed an interest in writing songs at a very young age–my mom was an opera singer and voice teacher which had a huge impact on me. I remember at around age eight crafting a lyric journal where I’d invent a song, write down the words, and promptly forget how the melody went (to my great frustration!). Then, in middle school, I saw my older brother attend Tacoma School of the Arts (in WA), which had an incredible songwriting program. I attended high school there as well and I think that’s where my interest in composing really took off. And, because of my long-lived interest in theater and music theater, I pretty quickly started experimenting with composing for theater and musical theater.

MM: How did you initially get interested in theater and how did you break into the industry?

GO: I have loved singing–and singing theatrically–for about as long as I can remember. My dad growing up loved to recall how at age three I would squeak along to “Der Hölle Rache” from our tape recording of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Towards the end of elementary school, I started performing and doing summer programs with different local and community theaters, and I totally adored it. My interest in theater as both a performer and writer continued through college where I was a part of both opera ensemble and a mime troupe, as well as a whole bunch of shows, and it was there that I realized I wanted to work in theater professionally. In terms of the industry, I’m not sure I’ve “broken in” anywhere, or not in a traditional sense! I just took a U-Haul from Boston to Brooklyn after graduating and kept making art with friends and colleagues, and got insanely lucky with all of my long-term collaborators. I also was a part of the Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) musical theater workshop as a composer, which introduced me to a lot of wonderful artists. Through the projects that I’ve developed, I’ve been able to learn about different opportunities for development, and am grateful for support like the OPERA America Discovery Grant and the IRT & New Ohio Archive Residency that have really allowed my work to blossom.

Grace Oberhofer
Grace Oberhofer is an award-winning composer who focuses on non-traditional music theater.

MM: How did you come up with the idea for Byzantine Choral Project and what sort of work does it typically seek?

GO: The Byzantine Choral Project came out of a collaboration between Helen Banner and Colette Robert at the New Georges’ Jam. They chose to build something big, bold, and outside of their comfort zones, and settled on a choral play about Byzantine empresses and their rise to power. When they were seeking a collaborator to bring music into the work, that’s where I came in! I have always loved vocal-driven music, particularly for treble voices, and a colleague of mine at the BMI workshop who was in the Jam with Helen and Colette turned to me one day and asked, “do you write choral music?” I responded “uh, totally!” and I’m so glad I did. The main mission of the Byzantine Choral Project is to create innovative, bold works that feature diverse women and gender non-binary voices. Our initial choral play, “ICONS/IDOLS: Irene,” became part one in a series of four choral plays that follow three generations of powerful empresses as they ascend to power and fight–sometimes viciously–for what they believe.

MM: What inspired “Icons/Idols: In The Purple Room” and how personal is the story?

GO: ICONS/IDOLS: In the Purple Room is an adaptation of the first ICONS/IDOLS play, Irene, inspired by the Byzantine Empress Irene, often referred to as Irene of Athens in Byzantine history. She is the first in a series of empresses who began to convert the Byzantine Empire from iconoclastic to ionophilic, which set the groundwork for most Christian orthodoxy. Helen has crafted a narrative that reimagines Irene’s history, thinking about those who she would have interacted with, and the trade-offs she would have had to make to gain power. She’s done an incredible job looking into these rich histories and bringing them to life. We’ve adapted the story of Irene as a shortened audio narrative (that was recorded by our performers entirely remotely!) to pair with a visual installation crafted by the brilliant Afsoon Pajoufar; this was our way of creating a theatrical experience with the health and safety of our audience and performers in mind.

MM: What’s your favorite part of the show and why?

GO: I have a nostalgic favorite part of the show, and a more recent favorite discovery. The first is the aria that Irene sings inside of her locked chamber, called “Look On Me”. It’s an aria that Helen and I wrote back in 2016, and when she sent me the initial lyrics the song basically wrote itself. It’s a wonderful call to magic and will forever be one of my favorite songs to be in the chorus of. My other favorite part of ICONS/IDOLS: In the Purple Room happens after Irene has been imprisoned in the palace for years due to the discovery of her pocket icon, when her husband dies and the power structure of the empire is turned on its head. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the final chamber that you enter in the installation, once this power shift begins, is so charged and epic. It’s a really great turn.

MM: Was it a challenge to plan for live theater during a lingering pandemic?

GO: It was certainly a challenge to create live theater during the COVID-19 pandemic! Helen and I spent a lot of the past year working to revise parts of the ICONS/IDOLS choral play series, and we ended up imagining an audio-narrative adaptation of the first play, Irene, relying on a remote recording process to build it. With this idea already in play, we began to picture what it would be like to listen to the audio narrative in a theatrical space, and the installation was developed from there. Throughout the entire installation design process, we emphasized health, safety, and comfort of our audience in the space, crafting a timed ticketing system and specific “route” as a part of the theatrical experience. Through these goals, we were able to create a theater piece that I’m not sure would have existed otherwise, and it’s such a deep joy to get to share a show with members of the NYC theater community who are ready to step back into a theater space, albeit socially distanced and masked.

MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about this piece thus far?

GO: I’ve been so delighted by all the wonderful feedback we’ve gotten about the piece from audience members and from reviewers who have seen the piece! I think the most heartwarming experience I’ve had has been from performers and collaborators who have come to experience the show as audience members. It’s such a unique thing to get to be an audience member at the show that you helped create, and I’m so glad that it’s been a moving experience, especially at a time when live performance is hard to come by.

MM: Why do you put such emphasis on female voices in theater in particular?

GO: One common theme amongst my writing collaborations is that of amplifying women and gender non-binary voices. I think I’ve always noticed, particularly within the world of music theater, the limitations that often were imposed upon women characters, and how these women, though often prominent, were so frequently surrounded, manipulated, and created by men. In all of my work, I tell stories about women–either real or imagined–who are not perfect, but rather, amazing. Helen and I both focus on creating stories that showcase the strength and fallibility of every character, and ICONS/IDOLS has always been developed with that in mind. Additionally, by working with entirely women and gender non-binary performers in a story that follows incredibly bold and fallible historical figures, we’re able to subvert traditional gender archetypes and let these incredible voices be heard.

Grace Oberhofer MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?

GO: Another project that is just around the corner is actually an extension of ICONS/IDOLS: In the Purple Room: we were able to record the full choral play of ICONS/IDOLS: Irene with our performers this past winter, and will be releasing it as a multi-episode audio narrative sometime this summer, which will be just wonderful to share with folks near and far. I’ve also been working recently on a dystopian bunny musical called Hot Cross Buns with the stellar Julia Izumi, and am in early development on two different children’s shows with librettist/lyricist Lisa Mongillo and playwright/director Allison Benko, respectively. In a more pop-music vein, I have a music video premiering [virtually] on June 5th, filmed by the amazing Elizabeth Mealey and choreographed by the dazzling Yessenia Rivas, for “Fig Tree,” a track I created based on a passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Oh! And I have a band with two of my favorite humans, singer/songwriters Lincoln Gray and Megan McCormick, called Hatless in Public–we’re hoping to release some new music this upcoming year.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

GO: Oh geez, so many goals! But mainly, I’d love to keep creating epic music theater works on stage, in audio form, and perhaps venture into other mediums as well. I’m also excited by the idea of experimenting with the drama of music theater in different contexts, such as within both the popular and classical music worlds. I’m really fascinated by hybrid forms of art and love seeing how those “in-between” spaces and structures develop.

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For more info visit http://NewOhioTheatre.org or https://byzantinechoralproject.com To learn more about Grace Oberhofer, visit her official website: http://graceoberhofer.com