It's about an all-female punk band in the eighties, the daily grind of touring and the dynamics between them, and what happens twenty years later when they have a reunion show," Caitlin Wells says, sitting outside Scratch sporting dark glasses and a punkish shock of yellow hair. She's talking about Yes to Nothing, the first show of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern's new season, which also marks Wells's debut as a solo director and her last show in the Triangle before moving to New York City.
Written by Little Green Pig member Mara Thomas, the punk-rock musical focuses on a band called The Rags, partly based on The Slits, who faced music-scene sexism while coming up in London alongside The Clash and The Sex Pistols yet still ferociously strummed their way into music history.
Staged like an actual concert, the show also runs in actual rock venues, starting at Slim's in Raleigh this weekend before moving on to Nightlight in Chapel Hill and the Pinhook in Durham. Before the premiere, we caught up with Wells to talk about setting it in the American Midwest instead of the U.K., striking out on her own as a director, and how the issues at play remain sadly relevant today.
INDY: Tell us about the origins of this play.
CAITLIN WELLS: Mara Thomas has been playing in punk bands for a long time. She read Viv Albertine from the Slits' memoir, Clothes. Music. Boys., and it resonated with her as a woman who's really into the punk scene. She and [Little Green Pig artistic director] Jaybird [O'Berski] are tight, and he encouraged her to make the show. It's her first play. Tamara Kissane and Richard Butner have both been kind of mentoring her. It was a really rad process because she would bring me chunks and we would riff off each other. We've gotten to guide it together.
What drew you to this script?
I love live music, and the idea of not doing it in a stereotypical theatrical way, grounding it in the reality of live music and from the perspective of women. I have a lot of friends who are women in music, and they have a lot of stories about the bullshit they deal with in that realm because of their gender identity. Because the play is set in 1982 and 2002, you see how things have changed and not changed. There is some optimism; it's not hopeless, but we do have constant garbage to deal with, and that comes through so intensely in the book. The Slits were coming up with The Clash and The Sex Pistols, but they received very different treatment because they were women. Viv doesn't paint anything in an ideal way—in and of itself, a women being real is political. And to have nine women onstage being real, playing intense music and getting gross and being aggressive, feels, again, like a really political act.
Are you or were you ever into punk music?
I got into punk when I was living in Spain. I fell in with a bunch of skaters and surfers who kind of opened my eyes musically. We transposed the show from London to the Twin Cities, to drop it more in Mara's reality—she's from the Midwest—and I went to school in the Twin Cities, so getting back into Hüsker Dü and The Replacements and all these venues has been fun as well. All of the actors had to learn to play instruments.
How do you prevent a theatrical performance like this from turning into a concert?
There was no pushing back against that. The whole thing is staged in real time. First, they're loading in; they have their amps on skateboards and they're sound checking. And the show ends with them playing their set. They're running through the venues, jumping offstage, grabbing beers from the bar, maybe hitting on an audience member or arguing with a heckler. It's very scripted, but it's all very real, and there are moments when who knows what's going to happen.
Casting was obviously really important.
I was really intentional when I put out the call to try to rope in local musicians. Dana Marks plays with local bands, and Nelle Dunlap from Gown is a cellist and bassist but had to learn guitar. Meredith Sause, I think, played drums when she was a kid. William Dawson from Squirrel Nut Zippers got them set on their instruments and taught them the songs, and Owen Fitzgerald from PROM jumped in as music director, which was really important.
This is your first outing as a director. Why now and this play?
Well, with Delta Boys, we're all directing and acting, so it doesn't feel like that much of a jump. To do your best work, you have to trust your collaborators and make a safe space where anything can happen and everybody feels empowered, and I felt really set on creating that space for this show in particular. It would feel against the point of this show to do it any other way, or, to be honest, have a man do it. And I'm about to move, so this is the bookend of my time in the Triangle. It feels right because it mixes all my loves—theater and live music and activism, being real and raw and pushing the boundaries. Folks should be ready to stand, unless they have mobility issues, because it's a rock show, and bring ear protection, maybe, because it's loud dang music.
And it seems especially timely after Downtown Raleigh Alliance event director Craig Reed just resigned over accusations of misogyny.
Yep. There's one guy who plays all the male roles in the show, and a friend who saw it said she knows all those guys. It feels good to put it out as a tribute to all my female friends who have to roll with that in music.