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Cartoonist Ben Katchor on Making a Musical Out of Instruction Manuals

From left, Ben Katchor; The Slug Bearers of Kayrol IslandPhotos: Patrick McMullan, Carol Rosegg

Ben Katchor has long been a cult favorite for his comics — most notably, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer — which reflect his affection for old-school New York and turn everyday sights like coffee shops and street signs into a kind of subversive urban poetry. Fans will not be disappointed by the revival of his play, The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (or the Friends of Dr. Rushower), currently playing at the Vineyard Theater, which takes place within the world of his drawings, projected onto several massive scrims at both the front and back of the stage. Katchor talked to Vulture about art, life, theater, and the inspiration he finds in toaster-oven instruction manuals.

As a cartoonist working in theater, how would you compare the two?
Comics are an economical way to figure out stories. There are zero expenses. You just need a place to live. Whereas theater is the most luxurious art form that there is: You need live actors, and everyone has to show up at a certain time and do a lot of rehearsing. Are they going to catch a cold that day? Are they going to show up? You realize how fragile all of it is. But it’s a great thing. When you’re watching a great actor try to figure out his scene, it’s like watching a cartoonist making a drawing, but they’re doing it somehow with their body. It’s amazing.

How would you sum up the play for someone who hasn’t seen it?
It’s an absurdist romance. It’s about the romance of poetry and humanitarianism.

The show also seems to be making a statement about consumerism.
There is a trend in the world now toward the immaterial — with people digitizing books and making tiny portable electronic devices. But if you want to make table phones and toasters, they need to be augmented artificially. The weight needs to be augmented. There is nothing physically to them, they’re just little microchips and plastic casings. We’re at this strange point in time where a lot of life we’d like to have miniaturized so we can carry a library in our pocket. But on the other hand, we still have hands and physical bodies, and we need to deal with the physical world. It’s a dilemma of technology.

You wrote the text, and Mark Mulcahey wrote the music. How did that work?
I would give Mark this large body of text, and for him it was sort of like a found piece of poetry. He had to find the poetry in this text. It wasn’t written as a rhyming verse or conventional song. It was written as prose. And he would look through this and find sentences that evoked a line of music and then build on that. And it worked.

But it's not really like most musicals.
One of the big expectations of musical theater is that it will be this kind of overblown romanticism. If someone comes to see this show with that expectation, they will be in for a surprise. There’s a real pop band, and it hasn’t been put through the musical-theater sensibility of what pop music should be in the theater. And the whole poetic sense of the music is based on everyday diction and everyday speech. It’s literally the language of instruction manuals, as opposed to the clichés of lyric poetry or typical song lyrics. That should be the surprise for an audience, but if they know my work, maybe they’ll just see this as a new kind of story.

Are instruction manuals some kind of personal obsession of yours?
Yes. I love found poetry. I love to read phone books, and I love catalog copy. I love Johnson Smith catalogs and old Yellow Pages and instruction manuals, especially some of them when they’re translated, when they’re for a product that’s made in the Far East and it’s some strange translation that they’ve gotten done by someone who doesn’t have a complete grasp of the English language. Yeah, I seriously like found poetry.
—Jesse Ellison