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In Residence: Heidi Rodewald and Collaborators Dive into ‘The Good Swimmer’

‘In Residence’ will be a periodic feature of this blog as we check in on the activities of our residency artists throughout the season. For more information on the complete list of artists who will be working on projects at UCLA thanks to space and time residencies with CAP UCLA visit: cap.ucla.edu./artinaction/residencies

Heidi Rodewald, who you may know as an essential creative half of LA.’s own “afrobaroque” rock band Stew and the Negro Problem, is branching into an exciting new creative direction that we are incredibly proud to be a part of. It’s always intriguing to get a glimpse into an artist’s process, and last night Heidi and her partners Donna Di Novelli and Kevin Newbury shared some of that with a handful of high profile CAP UCLA donors and staff, offering insight into her new musical project and playing a few recently recorded demo tracks from the work-in-progress.

The three have been closeted together here at UCLA for the last week, living in the dorms and working on their upcoming stage project, “The Good Swimmer,” an ambitious, melancholic and thought-provoking pop requiem that explores kinship, heroism and grief as told through the experiences and sorrows facing a family of lifeguards in the early days of the Vietnam war. The storytelling is based on “found texts” including The American Red Cross Livesaving Manual, the story of Antigone, The Army Guide to the Culture of Vietnam, and quotations from ancient Vietnamese warriors The Trung Sisters.

Di Novelli has been extracting song lyrics from the texts and Rodewald is setting them to her distinctive brand of pop-rock. When paired with Rodewald’s haunting and riffy compositions, the initial randomness of the varied texts alchemizes into a kind of erasure poetry that, even when heard in a sparse room with just our imaginations as a guide, created a compelling visual of what this unique stage work will look and feel like when it comes to life as early as next year.

Rodewald is no stranger to applying her substantial rock sensibilities to the stage. She has embarked upon this new project with obvious relish and the seeming effortlessness that comes from being simply a quintessentially cool L.A. chick. She said she especially liked the challenge of working with found texts.

“I like homework assignments,” she joked. “I’m from rock bands and it is so interesting to work with something like this. I give myself the assignment of ‘I’m gonna make this sound like a pop song.’”

Di Novelli first encountered Rodewald’s work when she saw the Tony-award winning “Passing Strange”(which Heidi wrote and performed with her longtime musical partner Stew) on stage at the Public in New York in 2007.

“I thought, ‘I have to work with this woman,” she said.

Kevin Newbury, erstwhile “Good Swimmer” director said he jumped at the chance to get involved.
“It’s a unique piece that has something to say, in a way I haven’t seen before.”

Newbury said the staging will be simple and versatile, letting the dialogue inspired by the found texts, the unique lyrics and constant original music that will underscore the entire piece drive the theatricality of the work.

Next the team is planning to do an intensive workshop with actors—they are intrigued by the prospect of seeking out performers who are the same age as the 17 through 19-year-old four main characters of the piece, knowing the natural vulnerability those performers might bring to this deeply nuanced libretto. (There will also also be a small greek chorus of female lifeguards clad in the iconic red bathing suits of the ‘40s and ‘50s).

Heidi, Donna and Kevin said it was an invaluable experience to have the time and space carved out at UCLA to simply be together as a team, try things out, shed ideas that aren’t working, investigate new directions—all with no pressure to produce anything beyond their own investment in the creative process.

That’s what our residency program is all about, giving safe harbor to new or risky ideas, investing in the possibilities and aspirations of an artist, and manifesting new ones.

Keep your eyes and ears pealed for more from this team as “The Good Swimmer” continues to take shape.

We thank Heidi & Co. for giving us a glimpse at their work in an exciting and nascent stage and look forward to hearing more from them in the future.