When I phone Sander Hicks, he’s excited because it’s the day The Haiku Year, a collection put out by his publishing company, Soft Skull Press, that features poetry by Michael Stipe and Grant Lee Phillips, is going to press. But it’s Hicks’ new musical, Sealove, Manager, which has its heart in D.C.’s suburbs, that I want to talk about. The play, which is oddly charming in its frenetic goofiness, “post-Marxist” politics, and post-modern wordplay (which owes a debt to Pavement), zipped through D.C. a few weeks ago. Although the playwright, actor, producer, publisher, punk-rocker, model, and copy-store manager (among other things) now resides in the East Village, his work is shaped by his experiences at the edges of this city and its punk scene, and his ideology is a response to the area’s technocratic and bureaucratic careerism. Hicks is influenced by “everything that had been conditioned by the D.C. punk scene…dissent, resistance, beauty, energy, and empowerment.”
In the summer of ’96, Hicks emerged from a Lake Placid writers’ retreat having written Sealove. “I would swim and swim and swim and get up and write,” he says. “I was thinking about the weather and the water, and about nature in the suburbs, how it seems so out of place.” In Sealove’s Virginia setting, the creek is poisoned, and the characters can’t find the “fountain source.” The protagonist is also “trying to find love in a world where it’s elusive” as well as acceptance by his uptight mother and skate-rat brother Jo-Jo. The play was inspired by Hicks’ own summer of ’93, which he spent laid up in Falls Church after a highway accident caused by letting a hitchhiker take the wheel of his band Subterfuge Corporation’s van during a “life-ending tour.”
In explaining Sealove’s musical framework, Hicks says, “I had access to a piano” and to composer Dan Levy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “I was writing from this punk-rock background; I sat him down and had this initial presentation and sang in this Tom Waits style.”
Hicks says Sealove is also about “seeing D.C. in a different way, seeing clearly the differences between New York and D.C.” He finds that “the architecture influences thinking; [you get] straight-edge from an interest in morality.” D.C.’s punk scene offers an alternative that’s “more rebellious than violent, patriarchical, or hedonist.” New York, he says, is “saturated with experience”and it’s a theater town.
“It’s easier to do theater there,” Hicks says. “I’ve never been able to get produced by a D.C. theater.”
When I ask him why he wants to work in theater, Hicks explains, “There’s things in theater you can’t do in film and video….[It’s] my love for people; [I] want to create a scene, a bond like people at a punk-rock show, the bond between people at a play….Every night, it’s such a rush to do the play.”
To the question of whether he intends to return to this area, Hicks says, “There’s always a temptation to move back. I would think it would be simpler to live in D.C., but you can’t go home again.”John Dugan