“ Look at them all through the darkness I’m bringing! They’re not sad at all, they’re actually singing!”
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is set in a future in which electricity is no more. Instead of gathering around the tube with dinner trays, people gather around the fire and tell stories of times past. Where do these stories come from? The Simpsons, of course. If the Beatles are the world’s most listened-to poets, then The Simpsons have to at least be among the most-watched theatre. And I would argue the world is much better for it.
The show may not be, in its 26th season, what it once was as a cultural phenomenon and as a show, but there is no denying the show’s influence. Who among us doesn’t remember the summer of waiting to find out who shot Mr. Burns? Who hasn’t had “Baby on Board” stuck in their head after re-watching (speaking of the Beatles) “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet”? Then there are the Halloween specials, the Silent Bob episodes (Mr Burns riffs heavily off of “Cape Feare”), the time Selma married Troy McClure. Despite its reputation, the movie was good, too. What I’m trying to say is that The Simpsons is a great show. You know this.
And now, theatre company Outside the March has brought Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play to Toronto. For the rest of May, OTM has taken over Big Pictures Cinemas, and turned it into the Aztec Theatre (Simpson’s heads will get the reference) for the duration of the play’s run. The play follows citizens of the post-electric world as they (mis)remember and perform old Simpsons episodes around the campfire. Eventually, a travelling troupe develops to put on the performances.
I asked Simon Bloom, co-director of Mr. Burns and founding member of Outside the March, a couple of questions about the play, and The Simpsons, in anticipation of their Toronto run, which begins Saturday, May 9th.
E Martin Nolan: I’ve heard it said that the greantess of Shakespeare and Duke Ellington lies in their works’ emotional range. I buy that, but I wonder if that is said of artists of that type because they are primarily known for heavy, tragic, and/or grand works. Artists like Gershwin or Joan Rivers don’t generally receive the same treatment. Ditto with The Simpsons. I would argue that that’s unfair, that those artists, like The Simpsons, have incredible comic, but also emotional, range. For instance, it’s very sad when Marge finally threatens to divorce Homer.
Do you think it’s because The Simpsons begins in comedy, and expands its emotional range from there, that the show would only rarely be spoken of in the tones more associated with “serious” artists, who are more likely to dwell in tragedy or sadness, and use comedy as a counterpoint?
Simon Bloom: It’s a debate that actually emerges in the play in a slightly different form: The Simpsons providing Meaningful vs. Meaningless entertainment.
I think primarily because The Simpsons is a cartoon, it tends towards a “light” treatment from people who see it as funny rather than profound. Interestingly, I think that this actually allows The Simpsons to act as a kind of Trojan Horse: it lures people who want to experience meaningless entertainment, and then follows that up with a heavy dose of Significance.
Our attitudes towards cartoons are shifting, though; with the rise of the graphic novel (Spiegelman’s Maus comes to mind), people are starting to take cartoons more seriously, and are starting to mine them for greater significance. When I was completing my undergraduate degree, they were just starting to introduce classes on graphic novels.
E Martin Nolan: The past 15 years have seen a flurry of, frankly, stupid sounding musicals based on past pop phenomenons. Spiderman, U2, Bob Dylan, etc. Maybe I just don’t get musicals, but a lot of the ones I hear about don’t make sense as musicals. Now, Motown: The Musical, or The Book of Mormon—even The Lion King—those make sense to me as musicals. The Simpsons certainly make sense as a musical. The musicals in the episodes are amazing.
What’s it like for you to trade in the musicalization of pop culture, and what’s it like to enter the more specific tradition of The Simpsons musicals? As I edit this, I’m thinking of “Dr. Zaius.”
Simon Bloom: It’s a gift, to be honest. The Simpsons is so inherently referential, it gives the composer the opportunity to riff on popular culture and music—and not just for the sake of including music that people enjoy, but rather in service of the spirit of The Simpsons itself.
The play is also about the way in which cultures construct narratives, and how that can evolve into myth. So the notion of transforming popular songs and moments—be it from The Simpsons, Scooby Doo, Britney Spears, or the hundred other references that find their way into the script and the score, makes for both an entertaining and meaningful experience.
Simon Bloom is the co-artistic director of Outside the March. He is a director, instructor, and designer. As a director, his work has been produced across Canada, including Halifax, Montreal, and Toronto. Outside the March was founded in 2009 by Co-Artistic Directors Mitchell Cushman and Simon Bloom, along with core Associate Artists Amy Keating, Sebastien Heins and Katherine Cullen. OTM is dedicated to immersive, site-engaging, new, wide-reaching, and communal theatre.
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play runs from from May 9 until May 31st, at the Aztec Theatre in Toronto (1035 Gerrard St. East).
Synopsis: In a post-apocalyptic world devoid of electricity, a small group of survivors band together in search of food, shelter and the most precious resource of all—classic lines from The Simpsons. Part pop musical, part chilling contemporary allegory, and part Simpsons celebration, MR. BURNS is an animated exploration of how the pop culture of one era evolves into the mythology of another.