In the multi-colored three-ring circus of weirdness that is Jobsite Theater’s Shockheaded Peter, upstage center sits musical director Jeremy Douglass, surrounded by instruments: A toy piano, a glockenspiel, two melodicas, a musical saw and others. He adds bass parts to the songs using foot pedals, and trips the sound effects and interstitial music.
Douglass wears black and white makeup and a hat that makes him resemble one of the psychotic droogs in A Clockwork Orange.
Based, sort of, on a 19th century German children’s book, Shockheaded Peter onstage is like Cabaret with Willy Wonka as the grinning, white-faced emcee. “It’s sort of absurdist mixed with German expressionism, peppered with some upbeat polkas about dead kids,” Douglass offers helpfully.
This loopy show, which finds Douglass bookended by fellow top-drawer musicians Elwood Bond and Mark Warren, opened Friday.
It marks the first time the founder and director of the Florida Bjorkestra has been onstage since that fateful week – you know the one – in 2020.
“My last moment in theater was a rehearsal at American Stage with the improv group that I play with there,” Douglass says. “I want to say it was the 13th of March. The whole time during the rehearsal, we were all thinking ‘Should we be here? What is happening?’
“And after rehearsal, when we were all saying goodbye, it was ‘I don’t know when I’m going to see you … maybe a couple of weeks. Maybe a month? We had no idea.”
Performers, tech and lighting designers and operators, set and costume people – and administrators – were all thrown into the “no idea” pit when Covid-19 arrived.
“During the pandemic, somebody did a poll about, what are the most essential workers?” explains Douglass. “And artists were at the bottom of the list. Like, the very bottom. And that was a huge blow to all of us, to read that. That’s how we’re viewed – our work is the least important amount of work.
“But at the same time, we know everybody turned to shows on Netflix; everybody turned to art in their loneliest moments during quarantine.”
Shockheaded Peter represents more to Douglass than his return to the stage. It ended a lengthy period of worry and depression that began May 25, 2020, when a white Minneapolis police officer murdered Black citizen George Floyd.
Douglass, the father of two young children, was doing the best he could. “I created projects for myself,” he says. “I created deadlines. I tried to stay on a work schedule, to maintain something normal. I was bolstered by my positivity, by my optimism in the human race.
“And right around George Floyd, everything just crashed. I lost all of that stuff. It was like diving down into despair.”
He’d been working on a remote video, which would feature all the Florida Bjorkestra members singing and playing the Beach Boys song “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” each filmed in a different vacant bay area venue and then edited together.
“Suddenly,” Douglass recalls, “that message seemed so fuck–g trite. Everything that I had built myself up for in this moment, to try to hold on, seemed like the smallest, most insignificant message you could send into the world.
“As a white male, I didn’t know if I had a voice that was relevant to anything anybody’s going through. So I just closed up shop.”
Douglass gives a lot of credit to David Jenkins, Jobsite’s artistic and executive director, for staying close for conversation and encouragement, and for talking him off a precipice and back into creative mode.
At first, it didn’t work. Douglass had contracted to be musical director for Always … Patsy Cline, one of the first post-pandemic shows mounted by Jobsite and its parent, the David A. Straz Center, in November.
“I’m not proud of it, but right before the first rehearsal, I panic-left that show.”
Douglass’ prodigious talents, fortunately, speak for themselves, and he was subsequently asked to compose the original music for Jobsite’s Henry V in April.
“My involvement with them has always been fully predicated on my wife and I both being fully vaccinated, before I can get involved,” he explains.
Shockheaded Peter had originally been scheduled for earlier in this current season. According to Douglass, Jenkins held the production back until the musician and his wife, violinist Rebecca Zapen, could finish their vaccine regimen.
“And it worked out that this show got scheduled with enough time for everybody in the cast and crew to be fully vaccinated. I feel like I owe David a million dollars in emotional bucks.”
After Shockheaded Peter shuffles off its mortal coil July 3, Douglass returns to teaching for the American Stage summer program. Next, he’ll be part of Shout! The Mod Musical, opening Aug. 17 (or, rather, re-opening, as it was about to debut in the Straz’s Jaeb Theater when Covid happened).
So, full circle in a way.
On the horizon is the return of the Florida Bjorkestra (band vocalists Spencer Meyers, Kasondra Rose, Coleen Cherry and Amy E. Gray are in the cast of Shockheaded Peter).
The idea is to re-mount the group’s popular musical tribute to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“I feel like once I get through say, summer camp and into Shout, I’ll start planning Buffyfest,” Douglas explains, “probably for the fall. If the winds don’t change, you know?”
Details and tickets for Shockheaded Peter here.