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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

How a 1937 Lifeguard Manual and Other Found Texts Became The Good Swimmer

A pop requiem for lives lost at war, The Good Swimmer is a visceral music theater piece by composer Heidi Rodewald (Passing Strange), lyricist Donna Di Novelli, and director Kevin Newbury. The show follows a young beach lifeguard who grapples with the legacy of the one she could not save: her brother who died in Vietnam.

Seven years in the making, The Good Swimmer started at a bookshop in Connecticut, where Rodewald and Di Novelli found a 1937 American lifeguard manual that somehow struck a chord. After reading only a few lines, they knew they had discovered something truly great—and Di Novelli got to work composing a libretto.

“It’s amazing… every single line is a metaphor. You can’t make it up. It wasn’t hard to write music for it because it was so inspiring,” according to Rodewald.

Photo courtesy of Greg Emetaz
“The lifeguard knows if he lets the good swimmer go in, others less capable will follow”
-lyric from the song “The Good Swimmer”, found in a 1937 American Red Cross Life Saving & Water Safety manual
Newbury: When Donna sent me this song, I knew immediately that this piece was mine and no one else could do it …. There's such beautiful poetry to this language; we need more pieces about saving lives right now. And I feel like this particular verse has an incredible urgency to it— it’s about empathy, saving lives, and communities coming together.

Photo courtesy of Greg Emetaz
“Fish bark and whistle and knock and drum
The waves slap
The whale moans
The roaring pound of surf
Sounds like
The roaring pound of surf”

-lyric from “Sonar”, found in a Naval sonar manual
Di Novelli: It’s a song about someone on a sonar boat listening to the sounds of the sea. There’s deep structure in the piece—we’re not saying the person heard only whales and then it turned into the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, but we’re making those connections and we hope the audience will make their own connections.

Photo courtesy of Ethan Kan
“A typeface called optima
Coating the granite
In a process much like silk screening”

-lyric from “Optima”, taken from a description of the Vietnam War Memorial
Newbury: It’s a beautifully haunting song... about a font. So much of this piece is about how we remember the dead, what it means to save lives, and how we honor the people who tried to save lives and died trying, under altruistic or false pretenses.

“Step on the ferocious tide”
-lyric from “Full Moon”, taken from a quote by Trieu Trinh Nuong, a Vietnamese woman warrior from the 3rd Century
Di Novelli: That might be my favorite lyric. It’s a collision between Antigone, which was the foundation for The Good Swimmer, and the Vietnamese heroes, the Trung Sisters. In The Good Swimmer, the sister can’t do anything to stop the war but she has fantasies of rescuing her brother based on what she has learned about the heroic rebellious women warriors in Vietnam.

“When a person fully clad finds himself in deep water…”
-lyric from the song “Undressing Underwater”, found in a 1937 American Red Cross Life Saving & Water Safety manual
Newbury: In that particular song you watch one young lifeguard slowly change his lifeguard uniform into his military uniform and that’s it. It’s that very gentle, simple idea—watching him change his skin and get ready to go to war and trade in his life-saving outfit for a military outfit. We want to be delicate so that you’ll find your way as an audience member.

Photo courtesy of Greg Emetaz

The found text for The Good Swimmer started with lifeguard manuals, but over the creative process, it expanded to texts from the Vietnam War era— from a White House daiquiri recipe to a pocket guide to Vietnam given to young soldiers upon deployment. Ultimately catharsis is found in the galvanizing truth: that we honor our fallen soldiers only when we defy the political drumbeat of senseless war.

The world premiere of The Good Swimmer comes to BAM Fisher from Nov 28—Dec 1.

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