Meet Jeffrey Saver
Fall 2019 Granada Artist-in-Residence
Composer and veteran music director Jeffrey Saver is UC Davis’ Department of Theatre and Dance Grenada Artist-in-Residence for fall quarter.
There is no better man to join the university theatre community at this moment than Jeff. A man who always has a joke to crack right next to an anecdotal teaching moment, he is the type of person you could tell all your worries and fears, and walk out of the room laughing. His list of credits is weighty: Saver has conducted Sondheim’s masterwork Sweeney Todd in an acclaimed regional theatre production as well as Kander and Ebb’s CHICAGO the Musical on Broadway. He is currently music director for the department’s production of The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and directed by UC Davis’ own Peter Lichtenfels, professor of theatre and dance, and doctoral student Regina Maria Gutierrez Bermudez.
Publicity intern, and a student of Saver’s, Noah VanderVeer-Harris recently sat down with Granada artist for a conversation.
NVH: Hello, Jeffrey Saver! JS: Hello Noah! How are you?
NVH: Fantastic! I’ve got a couple of questions for you today. First, just tell me the highlight of your existence. From working on CHICAGO, to the most interesting venue you’ve worked, tell me what things stand out in your career. JS: My career or my life?
NVH: Take it as you want to – I want to hear what comes to mind. JS: I think the thing I’m most proud of is the honor of being a father. Sorry, but you asked!
NVH: No apologies. That is wonderful! JS: I don’t know how much I’m actually proud of. I’m grateful for so much. Certainly grateful to be a father. So proud of the people they’re becoming. I may have a small bit to do with it, but it’s mostly them, and them seizing the day as it were, and that gives me a great sense of pride that somebody’s in the world trying to do something good. And I find that connected to my work because it informs my work. I think it’s impossible to work in something like theatre and it not be connected to the world around us.
NVH: I want to ask as well – you are a natural teacher, from how you’ve crafted this class we’re in, to the words of wisdom you give us daily – do you feel more comfortable in one area, teaching a class versus teaching your daughters? Does it translate easily for you? JS: It doesn’t feel like a struggle. I think it’s more complex when you’re having trouble communicating something that is sort of formulating in your mind, and you’re trying to find the best and more concise way of saying something… concise is often good, I’m not good at being concise and I wish I were better at being concise… Or, you’re not getting through to somebody and it could be a family member, it could be a student, or it could be somebody playing in the orchestra, or a cast member, or a stage manager. Those are communication skills, and it’s a lifelong process, and I’m still working at it. So, that’s what I got to say about that. But in terms of teaching, I heard Mr. Sondheim talk about this once, and I completely agree, he feels that teacher is one of the most beautiful words in the English language; it inspires us, because we were both blessed with great teachers. But you’re constantly learning too, so it’s a little bit selfish in a way…(Smiling) Selfish in a way where I wonder if I’m not getting more than you guys are!
NVH: I’d counter that and say that the teacher-student is an exchange, and it is never – hopefully never – a one-way situation. Teacher-to-student. There should always be a willingness to learn from the people around you. I think that creates the best art. It opens the most doors to creativity and learning. JS: True – for the most part! As soon as you say ‘This is the way it should be’ and should is a good word, but it can be a dangerous word. I’ll give you an example. What we have to do in the theatre, we rely so greatly on our imaginations, and your imagination is going to be different than your classmate’s. And that is your great tool! I worked with someone who once taught me that ‘The best idea in the room wins,’ and I like that a lot! Because then it’s not about ego, it’s not about ‘Look what I did,” it’s about ‘Look what we figured out – we’ve collaboratively figured it out!’ But I was a student at the University of Cincinnati, I was in and out of school, I was there at the college conservatory of music, and I left and I went back there…
NVH: Thank you for answering two more of my questions! JS: Yeah no, it took me about seven years to get a degree, I was three different majors, I was in and out of school, for awhile working in Puerto Rico, for awhile on cruise ships, back and forth. I was a music theory major, then I was a composition major, then I ended up being a piano major. The last couple years just because of politics. A lot of times schools want to pigeon-hole you and say ‘oh you do this’ because they’re very comfortable with that, but I didn’t make anybody comfortable because I like too many things, and they didn’t like that. I just wanted to explore a lot of different things, and I did! And I still do!
NVH: Again, that teaching and learning relationship. JS: A lot of people find that niche - that one thing. Leonard Bernstein was one of my teachers, and he was also a fantastic composer, fantastic pianist, fantastic conductor, so so eloquent, so giving. Jack of all trades, and a master of none of them. So, regardless, that should word is dangerous. Instead of saying should, one could just say “Well, here’s one way of doing it, but here’s another way too!” And I feel like I’m always in a teaching/learning relationship. As a conductor, I have to get a concept that’s going to work with me, and a group of musicians, and they all have different experiences, so we all have to get one concept and breathe together? I may have an orchestra of 60 people, or 40 people, or 12 people… How do I get us all in-sync? And that requires a lot of patience, a lot of listening, a lot of paying attention. And then we do that thing which we do in the theatre, called collaborate, which is also one of my favorite words. It’s a combination of give and take.
NVH: Absolutely. So, may I ask what has been the most interesting part of your collaboration with Peter Lichtenfels and Regina Gutierrez on The Threepenny Opera? What has that collaboration been like, working with those two on such a unique show? JS: Well they are very unique individuals, so I guess I’d start off with a baby complaint, but it’s a good complaint! Trust me when I say that. I think they are such rich humans, I feel that I want to have more time just to get to know them. Because they are so interesting as people, and so naturally with their experiences they bring a lot to the table, so I‘m listening a lot. And Peter and Regina both in different ways, and maybe you’ve been able to observe this better than I have, they have a sort of, they have… they’ve worked together before so they have…
NVH: An unspoken communication. JS: Yes. Even though they come from different worlds, they finish each other’s sentences. They actually remind me of a collaboration that I watched of Sam Shepard and Joe Chaikin at an experimental theatre in the ‘60s called the Open Theater. Sam was a sort of country guy, tall, lanky, loved the blues, and Joe was this little excitable neurotic Jewish guy who loved classical music. Two different worlds! Yet, put them together, and I got one of my best collaborations, and I didn’t ever see it coming. So this is not so different than that. They come from different worlds, and I love the point of view that they bring, I also love the way we respect each other, and now I feel very comfortable. I can talk to Peter about anything.
NVH: And I’m sure he values your input. JS: I’m sure he does and vice versa, because Threepenny Opera is a very complicated, imperfect, crazy, ugly, beautiful work. All in one. You don’t get that with many pieces in the theatre. It’s epic. And it is not an easy nut to crack. There are more unsuccessful productions of Threepenny than there are successful ones. So why do people keep doing it? I think two reasons. One, there are nuts to be cracked, and riches to be found. And second, I think that it has, for better or for worse, so many things that apply to today… they find the ugliest, most bleak of situations, and find beauty in the middle. That is no small feat, and so to be able to do that, to explore that with the students is an honor, and to be able to do that with them now feels really important. The thing that I love most about it is that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else, with anyone else. It’s so exciting! Every single night, I can’t wait to get in the room with these people. That’s the best part of my job! (laughs)
NVH: Wonderful! So I would love to finish this off by saying— JS: Yeah, we have class in a minute! (laughs)
NVH: We do, we do! (laughs) I’m excited to keep hearing you give all this fantastic advice and these anecdotes, and everything else you bring to the table. So, please share with me one final lesson for the UC Davis community, for what it means to be a part of this world, and a part of something greater than yourself. JS: I am not sure that my answer would have been the same 10 years ago. I feel like we are responsible for one another.
NVH: What would it have been 10 years ago? JS: Probably a variation on that. I’m just feeling it deeper now. I do not want to get into politics, but I’ve never felt such a separation and a fear of ideas. And that’s scary. That feels fascist. And it’s separating us from our humanity. I’ll put it to you this way – and I don’t feel that this has anything to do with democrats or republicans or any of that – if someone asks me what party I am, I’ll say “I’m a human being.” I happen to make music, and I don’t want to hurt anybody. I want to help people. But in what circumstance, ever, should a parent and a child be separated? Border or no border, when is that okay? And if we can’t come to terms with our basic humanity…well, what does that have to do with UC Davis? Everything. Because we’re in the world. So everything that we do first has to start with our humanity. I think being able to help one another in a pragmatic and hands-on way, and to say “we should focus on what we can do, not what we cannot do, to help each other” because you cannot put a blind eye to it. …Well, I guess you could, but I do not think that would be a wise choice. I just feel very strongly that we are accountable for one another, not just ourselves, and that will inform everything you do, and incidentally you may get a degree in something. But I want you to be able to use it, in a good way.
NVH: Fantastic, thank you Jeff. JS: Thank you!