Indie Grits Festival, the uniquely quirky bash Columbia throws every spring, decided to open Wednesday with a production its organizers have never seen: “Collywobble,” a full-length rock opera by the Charlotte band Hectorina.
That’s kind of apt, if semi-crazy. Because Hectorina has never actually performed it for the public.
Pieces of it, yes, in mini-performances at Snug Harbor in Plaza Midwood. But the whole four-act narrative with costumes and props and puppets and laser beams shooting from the eyes of the giant owl? Not yet.
“This has been a long gestation period, as we’ve gone from the original concept album to this big multimedia show that involves 10 people,” says Hectorina front man Dylan Gilbert. “We still don’t know exactly what we’ll have onstage, but if something happens, we’ll adapt. We like to think of this as ‘fluidity,’ not ‘uncertainty.’”
“Nobody seems to know how to describe ‘Collywobble,’ and that’s a really good thing for us,” says Indie Grits co-director Seth Gadsden. “We like experimental work. When you can line up art and music and projection in performance, like they do – that fits us perfectly.”
A marriage made in alternative heaven, clearly. But how did they find each other?
The band, once known as Dylan Gilbert’s Overeasy Breakfast Machine, changed its name while releasing the concept album “Collywobble: A Rock Opera” in 2013. (The word, a British combination of colic and wobbles, means intense anxiety or nervousness, often with queasiness.)
Jonah Collywobble’s literal and metaphoric fall takes him from outer space to solid ground to life on the sea to life under it. He encounters a bloodsucking would-be girl friend, a sea captain obsessed with finding a portal to heaven and a mermaid with designs of her own. The climax comes when a giant owl guarding the entrance to the spirit world undoes the sailors.
The music careens cheerfully from hard rock to waltz to ballad to otherworldly eeriness. “If someone’s trying to explain our band, we make it hard for them,” says Gilbert. “If you listen to a few of our songs and decide you know where the music is going, you don’t.
“To me, the whole piece is a warning about self-sabotage. Some people think the ending is a happy one; some think it’s a tragedy. We intentionally left it ambiguous.”
Gilbert contacted producers Chris O’Neill and Mike Gentry for advice on putting a stage show together – “we all have a background in D.I.Y.” – got costumes and set from Jon Prichard and choreography by Caitlynn Swett. The show became more complex psychologically and physically. A pirate ship had to be built. That shamanistic owl required a more sophisticated piece of stagecraft.
Meanwhile, Indie Grits was also growing and changing. The event started mainly as a film festival in 2007 centered on The Nickelodeon, South Carolina’s only nonprofit art-house theater. It got longer and more diverse before the current organizers decided to boil it down to five days, Wednesday through Sunday.
“When Indie Grits started, it was twice as experimental as it is now,” says Gadsden, who came in 2013. “We’re showing two features this year that premiered at Sundance, and we hadn’t done that before. But we still have room for the most unusual stuff. We’re showing “This Is Yates,” about a guy whose father died when he was young and whose mother passed away, so he documented all these odd things that happened to him with a (junky) camera. We think it’s a rare, strong portrait of a young man from Fayetteville, but we’re not sure how people will take it.”
Now the festival offers music and a slow food section and a puppet lounge and a visual art component. For the first time this year, it will provide a yearlong filmmaking residency that pays $30,000 and frees an artist to do nothing but make work and participate in Indie Grits’ education program. (The S.C. Film Office is underwriting some of that cost.)
Although Indie Grits has to turn down more would-be entrants these days, it remains accessible to anyone with a wild vision and a Southeastern connection. Hectorina has both. That’s why the band will highlight the free opening night party at Boyd Plaza.
“We’re even planning to print playbills with a little description in them for the first time,” says Gilbert. “But this won’t be a finished product. We’ll continue seeing what works and what doesn’t.
“The audience will interact with the characters, which should be interesting, and we’ll have some leeway about how the set pieces move around. After three years (of planning), ‘Collywobble’ is still coming into focus.”