Theater In Conversation
LEN JENKINS THE DREAM EXPRESS: The Outlaw Lounge Act Returns
You know, whoever you are, the very fact that you’re sitting here tonight implies that you may very well have ruined your whole fucking life already.
When I first saw Spin and Marlene Milton, aka The Dream Express, I was so enchanted by this lounge act I hopped the next boxcar out of NY and have been following them ever since: Flagstaff, Peach Springs, Spokane, and Memphis; from the infamous Briarpatch Lounge to the world-renowned Thunderbird Lodge. My only regret is missing their 2003 Christmas show in Teaneck, where, legend has it, they reenacted Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (I was in Alaska canning salmon). But lo and behold, The Dream Express, performed by Steve Mellor and Deirdre (Didi) O’Connell, will be making a stop at The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City this holiday season.
We seem to be here, but where the hell is everyone else?
This work embodies Jenkin’s penchant for shaggy dog stories, seedy motels, music, soapbox philosophy, eccentric characters, EC Comics, carnivals, horror films, hucksters, and slightly shady individuals from
the wrong side of the tracks. They all add up to his continued obsession with the American vernacular. In Jenkin’s words:
JENKIN: The piece was inspired by every late night lounge act in every cheap hotel lounge or bar I’ve ever hung out in, a lot in Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York. The clientele is everyone who can’t sleep, everyone looking for love, everyone with no place to go, everyone who’s in between jobs, in between loves, in between lives. The bands were often couples, a man and a woman, sometimes partners in life, sometimes just in the show—some in their early 20s, others in their 60s...playing covers, talking a bit about this and that, occasionally playing an original song.
Rail: Anything particular going on in your life that brought you to these places?
JENKIN: I’m always looking for the forgotten side of America, the places the “media interstate” has passed by, the places with echoes, and by chance I had to stay in one hotel in Florida, actually a Howard Johnson, that had a succession of lounge acts in their lounge/bar—two local rockers picking up $50 a night, or a husband and wife (him on piano) doing a lot of 40s numbers—and I would always go down and see the show, sometimes the only customer for the late set. Then I wrote the original piece, and started actively looking wherever I went—retro-hip places like the Dresden in L.A., but more the kind of nameless lounges in Ramada Inns or faded hotels on Main Street in small towns.
Amnesia is your birthright in the USA. And if you don’t remember you got it, you got the worst case of all.
The Dream Express has been an evolving collaboration among Jenkin, Steve Mellor, Didi O’Connell, and John Kilgore.
JENKIN: We’ve been doing the show off and on for over 12 years now—the show keeps changing. The version we’re doing at the Chocolate Factory we call SET III, with a lot of brand new sections in it. It’s our chance to say what we want to say and sing what we want to sing. In the beginning it was a play I wrote with music that they performed and I directed. But as we went on it became more and more a thoroughgoing collaboration, and at one point I asked them to write songs—in the show we currently do, three of the songs are originals by Steve Mellor, and one by Didi O’Connell, and both of them contribute in rehearsal to the text and the staging. John is our composer and arranger and recording engineer.
Rail: What’s the secret to keeping it fresh and keeping everyone interested over a 12-year period?
JENKIN: When your collaborators are supremely talented, and all of us love and respect each other, and the show is open to everyone’s contributions. We always thought, the older we get, the better the show would be.
Rail: I think of the lounge act performers as having a patina of sadness, loneliness, even desperation. Our empathy about their lives is a part of the act in a way, no?
JENKIN: It certainly is. Spin and Marlene Milton have a lot to say, and sing—but they also allow the audience to see who they are, how they live, for better or worse.
Rail: So, in the end The Dream Express is a very American entertainment, with songs, lots of them, sung by Steve and Didi.
JENKIN: A show that helps you make it through the night—even a rough one—and to have this raggedy back side of show business really be a gift for anyone who comes through the door and gives us their time and attention.
The Dream Express will run at The Chocolate Factory from Dec 1-Dec 19. www.chocolatefactorytheater.org