Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother 40 whacks;
When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.
That’s the Lizzie that most people think of when they hear the name Lizzie Borden. The axe-murdering disturbed little girl who chopped up her parents. Only she wasn’t a little girl, she was 32. And technically she was acquitted of the charges. She didn’t even testify at her own trial. There is so much more to the story of Lizzie Borden than meets the eye. Or the axe. Guerrilla Theatre Front— an ineffably indescribably theatrical production entity all its own— is producing the Baltimore area premiere of Lizzie, the hardcore rock opera about Lizzie Borden. With Music & Lyrics by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Book & Lyrics by Tim Maner, this is a powerhouse musical the likes of which the Charm City Theatre scene rarely sees. In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview, we sit down with the four extraordinarily talented ladies performing in the show and talk all about the experience.
Thank you all very much for giving us your time in this truncated rehearsal process. If you’d just tell everyone briefly who you are and a recent credit of yours that they might recognize, and of course who you’re playing in Lizzie, we’ll get going!
JacQuan Knox: Okay, my name is JacQuan Knox, I’m playing Alice Russell, and most recently I was the lead character, Betty, in Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s production of Welcome to Shakesville.
Parker Bailey Steven: I’m Parker Bailey Steven and I cannot for the life of me remember the last thing that I did. I’m playing Lizzie in this but— oh! You know what it was? It was Vinegar Tom. I wrote the music for Vinegar Tom for Spotlighters Theatre last season.
Caitlin Weaver: My name’s Caitlin Weaver, I’m playing Emma Borden, Lizzie’s sister, and the last thing I did was also Welcome to Shakesville with BROS. I was the villain. And before that was Company with Stillpointe Theatre.
Siobhan Beckett: I’m Siobhan Beckett, I play Bridget, and the last thing I was in was Rocky Horror with Haute Patooties (a pre-incarnation of Guerrilla Theatre Front) last year. Before that, I was in The Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allen Poe with Submersive Productions.
Caitlin: Which we did together way back when!
Siobhan: We were the same character—
Caitlin: We built a role together!
Siobhan: Heck yeah we did!
That is excellent! What was the general interest to want to get involved with Lizzie?
Caitlin: Lance (Artistic Founder of Guerrilla Front Theatre Lance Bankerd) told me about it a couple of months ago, just about the show in general, so I started listening to the music of the soundtrack. Immediately I fell in love with the music. I loved a lot of the information that you don’t always get just from the facts. A lot of this potential, possible story of Lizzie and why she did what she did, this musical presents a much more well-rounded view of her. It gives you a little bit more than “she’s an axe-murdering temptress.” So I really appreciated that.
Siobhan: Greg (Director of Lizzie, Greg Bell) told me about it. But it was super up my alley because I consider myself a multi-disciplinary artist. I’m an actor, singer, and a make-up artist. But specifically, with singing, I focus on rock, rock music, and unclean vocals. When I heard the soundtrack, I absolutely fell in love with it because I love rock opera and things up that alley there.
JacQuan: I heard about the show through Lance as well. And I was like, “Lizzie as in Lizzie Borden?” I had never heard of that, I mean, not that being a musical. About the nursery rhyme girl who killed her parents with an axe. And then I realized I actually did know a couple of songs from the show without knowing that they were from this show. And then after listening to the soundtrack the whole way through, I changed my mind to, “Oh hell yes. I have to audition for this.” I’ve done musical theatre for years. But doing rock music is way new for me, so I figured why not give it a shot? And here we are.
Parker: Greg is like my brother. We’re very, very close. So when he found out about the show about two years ago? Or whenever ago it was that it came out? He immediately sent it to me and said “Oh my fucking God, there’s a Lizzie Borden musical, and it’s rock, listen to it right fucking now.” And I did, and he then said “If I ever do this show, you better audition.” And I said okay. And then, well, here he is doing it. So I auditioned like everyone else did, and got really fucking lucky. So that was cool. Much like Siobhan, I grew up singing rock music. I always have been a rock musician vocalist, so again, music that’s right up my alley? It become something that I was pretty determined to weasel my way into. I sent a glorious tape. My audition video was me dressed as Spiderman singing “My Heart Will Go On” because I figured I needed to do something to get their attention! Also, I’ve always loved true crime and serial killers and all this kind of stuff. It was really interesting, like Caitlin was just saying, to hear another side of it that maybe hasn’t been entirely explored before or even explored ever.
What has been the most interesting thing that you have learned about Lizzie Borden and her story since becoming involved with this project?
JacQuan: My character Alice Russell. I did not know that she existed in Lizzie’s life. If I ever heard about Lizzie, it was just the fact that she killed her parents. And that was it. Nobody ever talked about why she might have done that or what other things she might have had going on in her life. In reading through the script and realizing who Alice actually was to her, it became one of those, “oooh!” moments. And that is really interesting!
Caitlin: It’s sort of a general thing, but a lot of what this piece is about is not necessarily fact. We just don’t know. What I realize after watching a lot of different movies or shows or whatever is that I like this version the best. This version is not the headline of “Axe-murdering temptress.”
Parker: She’s not Ted Bundy.
Caitlin: Exactly. The writers of this show have pieced together this idea that Lizzie was a woman in this time period who had survived all of these trials and tribulations of being molested by her father and having a lesbian relationship. Those things didn’t bode well then in 1892— sometimes they don’t bode well in 2019— but there was no real outlet then for her. I find myself sympathizing with an axe murderer. That is one of the most shocking things about this; that there is a humanity and a real story to why she did what she did. And you look back at the trial and you look at the pictures and you feel it all coming together and you have this moment of realization where you think, “This could actually be her story”, this version of it that the writers (Steven Cheslik-Demeyer and Tim Maner) have created could be really what happened. I didn’t expect to feel for her. I expected to come into this project and do a gory, rock-n-roll musical. But now I have all these feelings! Also the sister’s role in her story, which is never quite clear. A lot of people don’t even know she had a sister. The sister never gets mentioned in the rhyme.
Parker: I think for me it is the fact that she never testified at her own trial and the fact that she also was acquitted. No one seems to know that. Everyone thinks she did it and got convicted. But she didn’t. She was literally let go; she was acquitted because they could not prove that she did it. We’ve actually— the four of us and members of the creative team— all had arguments about this. I think I’m the only one who actually thinks that she might have not done it. Everyone else seems to think that she did do it. Now this might be partially due to the fact that I’m playing Lizzie and I don’t want her to have been an axe-murderer. But there is just a lot that surrounds her and her story that I just didn’t know about.
There are just so many facts you don’t get. The whole situation was just botched right off the bat. The police never locked down the crime scene. There were neighbors in the house right after the murders were committed. There are just so many interesting facts that led up to this massive case of the century. But definitely finding out that she never spoke at her own trial, that’s just so interesting to me. There’s actually a line in the show from her actual testimony— the only thing she actually said— “I’m innocent and I leave it to my council to speak for me.” I think that is pretty cool.
What about you Siobhan? What did you find interesting about Lizzie and her story?
Siobhan: I don’t know. There are a couple of things that I found interesting, diving more deeply into her. I had always just sort of imagined Lizzie Borden as this very young person. I don’t know why, maybe because it’s a nursery rhyme, but I had always sort of imagined her as a teenager or a young 20-year old girl. But finding out that she was 32 was interesting. She was 32. I’m 32 right now so I think of where I am in my own life with the amount of freedom that I have that she didn’t have and that puts it in a different context. Thinking of a 16-year-old versus a 32-year-old who felt that trapped in her own life. Also, just the fact that she was more than likely a queer person in real life. In our show, she has this relationship with Alice, which is really representative of some real-life relationships that Lizzie had later on that were very scandalous because she had already been in the news so much and she was very wealthy. This was basically tabloid fodder. This rich, lady axe-murderer was probably queer or bisexual and had this rich girlfriend and relationships with women and that really puts it in a different context for me and for our show. I also thought I was just signing up for a bloody, fun, Evil Dead-Rocky Horror kind of time. But this is actually a really interesting piece that really delves into women’s liberation and freedom, which I think is fascinating. Through murder.
Caitlin: But the thing is, she was acquitted probably because all the men in that room had this opinion that “there’s no way a woman could have done that.”
Wait, Caitlin, are we supposed to feel good about that? That she might be an actual axe-murderer but walked because the men of the time believed only men were crazy enough or physically strong enough, etc., to commit such an atrocious crime?
Caitlin: I don’t know! It makes me think a lot about that because I mean, obviously yes, she could have, but was that the reason they let her go? Because she was a woman and they didn’t think that a woman could have because they didn’t believe that women were capable?
Parker: I mean, ten-year-olds have killed people. So it is definitely possible that she could have killed them. How fucking sexist is it to say that she couldn’t just because she was a woman? That said, whatever, she got off. Now, we’re screwed in the present day and age because nobody is going to say that we couldn’t have possibly done it just because we’re women.
What is the moment that speaks to you the most?
Caitlin: I have a song called “Sweet Little Sister.” Well, we have a song— let me try this again. Emma has a song with Lizzie called “Sweet Little Sister” and I think it’s my favorite but it is also a song that I am really struggling with right now. There are all these feelings that are happening. Part of it is that she kind of makes a deal— or it’s sort of played out that Emma kind of helps convince Lizzie to kill our mother—
Parker: DON’T CALL HER MOTHER!
Caitlin: I’m sorry! Right. Stepmother. She’s not mother. What am I doing? Mrs. Borden. They both want Mrs. Borden dead. Emma is sort of coercing her, but I think at the same time it’s more than that. There is a lot in the lyrics that suggest that Emma is deeply saddened how dark Lizzie is. Because she, as the older sister, has tried to protect Lizzie from those feelings and she’s tried to keep their mother’s love alive for Lizzie. But she’s failing. And because her own anger is getting in the way and shining out on Lizzie, Emma is realizing “oh gosh, no matter how much I tried to protect her, she’s not protected.” It’s my duty. My mom’s dead. This is my duty. To protect Lizzie. But at the same time, Emma is running away; she can’t handle it. It’s all these mixed feelings of wanting to protect my younger sister but also getting the fuck out because I’m going to hurt someone. It’s a really layered song. Yes, I sing it, so I’m partially biased to the song, but it ties into a lot of things in my life—
I noticed, you’re getting a little choked up talking about this number in such great detail.
Caitlin: Yes. I have an older sister. So like I said, it ties into my life a lot.
Thank you for sharing that. Who’s next? What is the moment that really speaks to you in this show?
Parker: I’ll throw in something here. Obviously there’s a lot of Lizzie’s stuff that’s incredible and it’s really difficult to pick between, it kind of changes on the day, depending on what’s happening. For a long time it was “Shattercane and Velvet Grass” which is a duet between Bridget and Lizzie. It’s this beautiful kind of Irish folk song.
Ah, that’s good to know, because I was told Shattercane and Velvet Grass is a cocktail that will be available for purchase from the bar during the performance.
Parker: It’s also a cocktail now. But it was our duet first. So I liked that one, as far as Lizzie goes. But also, “Taunton” (“Thirteen Days in Taunton”)— that’s her big trial song where she’s pumped about how she knows she’s not going to get charged with anything, and that’s a lot of fun at the end of the show. My favorite other moment is actually one of Bridget’s. It’s that moment that we actually like to call “The Fall of the House of Usher” but the song is actually called “The Fall of The House of Borden.” Bridget has this beautiful line about how— wait— what is the line again?
Siobhan: I’m literally just scream-wail singing about dead bodies rotting in the heat. It’s fascinating. And that’s one of my favorite moments too because it’s just so gritty and gruesome and disgusting. But it’s also this really beautiful melody and there’s this really interesting juxtaposition there, which is also why I like “Why Are All These Heads Off?” It’s a really poignant and intense but very disgusting moment in the show that we cover up with “Oi! Oi! Oi!” punk music. But it’s this moment where all of the girls on stage kind of get to let their anger out. But it’s also not the type of song that you would see in traditional musical theatre. It’s one of the things that really makes this a rock-concert and a rock show.
Parker: I think that’s what beautiful about this show too. Often I think rock gets a bad rap. Musical theatre people kind of give rock a bad rap because they think the music’s not as complicated or as challenging—
Caitlin: It’s hard! The harmonies? They’re hard!
Parker: The harmonies that we have—
Caitlin: The timing too!
Parker: Right. They have to be so tight with one another and with the band, it’s incredibly difficult to do. But I also like that it’s like “Come see this rock show” so all our rock-friends come. But then “Come see this musical” so all our musical theatre friends come. And they’re both going to be like “Holy shit!” and not know what to do with it.
Caitlin: And then like true-crime fans…
Parker: It’s become this thing where all these different types of fans and different people can come and see this show and enjoy it, which I think is a really important thing. All around the show is just very well written, in content, in music, even stage directions that are written are just incredible. The music— we’ve got some wonderful notes on the music as well. I have to “demon whisper” into mic., that’s one of the notes.
Caitlin: Swell fuckery.
I’m sorry— what?
Parker: Yeah, one of the notes says “swell fuckery” because there’s just this huge swell of sounds that all come together.
Caitlin: Or— “take them to church”. The notes in the music— musical stage directions— are just nuts.
That’s pretty epic in a very unusual way. JacQuan, what about you? What is the moment in the show that speaks to you?
JacQuan: I think for me it’s Alice’s song in Act I, “Will You Stay?” And then in Act II, Lizzie sings it back to her in a song called “Will You Lie?” I just remember the first time reading it, it really, truly captures their relationship quite well. Their relationship sorta kinda gets started, but then it dwindles as the story progresses and the story gets more focused on the murders and the trial, but then towards the end Lizzie is like, “Okay, Alice, I really need you to do this thing for me.” And Alice is like, “Uh, no…I don’t love you that much.” So of course, Lizzie’s response is, “maybe if I just sing your song back to you, that’ll change your mind.” I really love that moment because the melody is kind of the same but the orchestration is totally different.
Parker: You do the same to me—
JacQuan: Yeah. I sing it right back to her. And I love that too.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced thus far in the process?
Parker: I’m going to let you all take this one.
Caitlin: You guys have to go first this time.
JacQuan: Honestly, this whole process has been challenging in several ways. Emotionally, it’s super heavy for all of us. Vocally, it’s very strenuous. Also, the rehearsal process has been nuts. We only have four weeks. So it’s definitely this sense of “we really have to get to work” because we don’t have any time to waste. But I think for me, I think the hardest part was the emotional aspect of it. Finding a way to feel it and express it to the audience but keep it at a level where I’m not going to personally lose it. I think that is the most challenging part of this.
Caitlin: I feel similar. Just staying above the emotion is a big challenge. You have to feel it and express it but not let it take over. And it’s really hard, especially when the music is so powerful. You can feel it from your toes up and I want the audience to feel it but we also have to convey a story without choking through everything. It’s a little like surfing, ride it without drowning. And vocally I would say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t rock all that often either. And when I do, it’s not like this. We just did a rock opera. JacQuan and I, and that was difficult for me? But this is like that times a million. Every single song of the show is like that. There was one song in the last show that was like that for me, but now it’s every song in this show is that song. Vocally, I don’t have the experience that these two (Parker and Siobhan) do, to be able to maintain that roughness without destroying my voice.
Siobhan: I think part of Guerrilla Theatre’s process is really a challenge for me. The first time I’d done a full-scale Guerrilla Theatre Front show was last year with Rocky Horror and there are just so many elements that go into creating a show and truncating that into this short amount of time can be very stressful and a little scary. But it’s also very, very interesting. It’s very underground. And there is something very punk-rock about that process in and of itself that you are just doing things fly-by-night with as little money and as little time as possible. I think that’s fascinating but it can be a little challenging. I think the emotions in this show, since it is so well written, are things that we can all relate to on a very personal level, but then there are also some very universal themes in this show that I feel like no matter what people have been through in their lives that they will find something that they can relate to in this. They can find something that resonates with them.
Parker, you’ve been very quiet…what’s the biggest challenge here for you?
Parker: Definitely the hair extensions. Seriously, I don’t think there’s much I can add to what the three of them just said. We’ve talked about this so many times. Not one of us gets off easy. Every single character is just deep in shit the entire time. I almost feel like I get off easy with it, in a sense, because there are a lot of moments as Lizzie, I have to disassociate. That is convenient. Because then I can kind of move myself away from it. We’ve all discussed it. There’s a lot of stuff that’s raw and that really hits home with us. I don’t think that any one person will come into this audience and not feel that. Just like Siobhan said, it’s a show. It is a show.
If you could take any woman from history and have her get her own rock musical, who would you want and why?
Parker: I mean I feel like a lot of the really good ones already have them? I was actually just in Denver and went to the Molly Brown House. Fun fact, her name was never Molly Brown. It was always Margaret Brown but for the musical they needed it to rhyme and Molly rhymes better than Margaret. I would have said her, but she’s already got one…so… I’ll pass that question to them while I think on it.
Caitlin: There are so many that deserve this? But one that just sticks out in my mind because there’s already a song about her is Mother Jones. She’s just this bad-ass. If we’re specifically talking about a rock musical? Then it’s her. She is this productively angry old woman with a fire under her ass that no one else had. Utah Phillips tells her story really well. At one point she goes, “Let’s go get the sons of bitches!” and she turns to see if anyone was following her. Nobody was following her. She just had a pitchfork about to battle the militia by herself. She was just this pure force of angry nature when it came to injustice. So she definitely deserves a rock musical.
Siobhan: I don’t know how to answer this because I have so many! This is so hard.
Parker: Does Ella Fitzgerald have one? I think that would be fucking cool. I would love to see a lot of the old jazz and blues singers. And they’re women of color too, which is even more important because we have so many shows all about white people; I’m bored with them. I want to see other people’s stories. And there are so many people lost in history that I bet so many people don’t even know about. Find some of those forgotten people and bring them out in their respective genres. There’s just so much you can do with musical theatre now. We just came out with, what, Hadestown? And that’s a folk-jazz musical. I want more of that.
Siobhan: I’m going to cheat, because I have two. Joan of Arc is the one who just definitely popped right into my head. She’s such a fascinating woman. And then an obscure one that I thought of was Buodica. She was a Celtic Queen whose whole kingdom was attacked, and she’s actually what Merida (Disney princess from Brave) is based off of, she’s this very strong, Celtic figure, and she’s covered in this Braveheart war paint all over her body, blue swirls and things, and she’s just absolutely fascinating.
Parker: I’m just going to say it right now, that if you actually go and write that? And you don’t cast me as that character, I will slap you senseless. But also, back to the question, Courtney Love. I want to see that fucking story. Just because of the drugs and the husbands and the children and the rock. People accuse her of murdering Kurt all the time. So you could go down that route; there’s just so much that you could do with that.
JacQuan: It’s funny that you ask that question because for a long time my answer was always Tina Turner. But then she actually got her musical. My wish came true. Now I have to find someone else. So I’m going to piggyback and say Joan of Arc. That’s a really cool one I’d love to see.
What has this project taught you about yourself, as an artist? As a woman? As a performance maker? What have you learned?
Parker: Wait, didn’t you promise no brain-breaking at the top of this interview?
Caitlin: I’m going to need to marinate on that for a second. That’s a hard question. I think the reason I’m having trouble thinking about it is because there is so much.
Parker: You don’t have to do something as drastic as taking an axe to someone to be heard. We are fortunate enough that in this day and age we can be heard. I think that it’s important that people feel safe enough to tell their story and not have to resort to things like this. I think that that applies to everyone. I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve really learned from this show.
JacQuan: In the same vein, though, I would say that we’ve come so far but we’ve got so far to go. There are so many things that listening to a lot of the conversations that we have in rehearsal and the whole battle of “did she do it? Did she not do it?” or why would she possibly have done it?, taking all of that in and relating it back to what Parker was just saying— that you don’t have to do something that drastic— there are still so many people here who still desperately feel like if they just speak that it’s not enough. Especially my character, Alice, she feels she is stuck living this lie. And almost 130 years later there are still so many people who still feel like that.
Caitlin: The same sort of thing. Realizing how timeless so many issues are, you see them get better, sometimes, but they still always exist. A lot of the pain that Lizzie felt and her sister and Alice and Maggie— oh shit, or Bridget…see? I did it.
Siobhan: Fuck you.
Caitlin: Ahem, Bridget…it all resonates with us because we’ve all— maybe not been in that exact situation— but we’ve all felt a kind of pain and are still figuring out how to cope with it in a non-violent way. It sucks that those are the same problems then as they are now. It sucks that we’re all still experiencing some of the same bullshit. It makes me really angry, actually. That’s another reason why it’s great that it’s rock music. I can just scream my fucking head off and shout, “Look! Look at what you’re doing! Look at what we’re doing! And look at how you’re hearing this story from 1892 and how it’s not that different from right now in 2019!”
Parker: I think off the back of that too, Alice’s character has really shown that if you see someone struggling, reach out. Fucking do something about it. Someone might not always be able to speak. They might not feel safe enough. But if you can go out of your way to make them feel safe enough? You might prevent someone from axe-murdering someone else. You have no idea how much you could help someone just by reaching out. I think that that is something that everyone needs to remember when they see someone struggling.
Siobhan: I think something that I learned, just on a personal level as an artist is that there are more shows like this now that are rock-based and that is just really interesting to me as a rock musician. And as just a fan of rock music. There’s always been a couple of musicals that I gravitated towards like Hedwig & The Angry Inch, Rocky Horror, and Jesus Christ Superstar, and Chess. And that was it because there really weren’t that many rock musicals or rock operas out there. So it’s really interesting that more and more of it is now being made. I think that is really representative of our generation and I think it’s a really cool, creative new outlet. It’s the same way that I’m interested in things like immersive theatre. I like things that are new and that push the envelope. I think that this is new and different and creative and taking risks and I really like that about this as an artist.
Parker: Stevie Nicks and Joan Jett!
Parker: I’m sorry— it just came to me— those are my two women I want to see musicals about! We need to backtrack— it’s Stevie Nicks and Joan Jett!
Caitlin: Yes, those two. But also getting back to what Siobhan just said and to piggyback off of it, what’s cool about this city is that we are doing exactly that. We’re doing Lizzie. And not to like shamelessly plug the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, but there’s a company in town who is dedicated to creating original rock operas twice or three times a year here in Baltimore. This music— the rock music of shows like Lizzie— is so this city. It’s so grungy and underdog-y. This is where this kind of stuff belongs.
Why should everyone come and see this production of Lizzie?
Parker: Because if you don’t, I will find you and axe you to death?
Caitlin: Because it’s four badass women on stage?
JacQuan: You stole my answer.
Parker: If you’re tired of seeing all-male rock bands, come and see this.
Siobhan: I mean they literally just said all the things? But it does seriously have something for everybody. It’s rock. It’s musical theatre. It’s bloody. And it’s almost Halloween so come get your fix. Plus it’s badass ladies with rock music. And there’s spooky shit.
Caitlin: Also it’s a whole evening, not just a show.
Parker: Yeah there’s a bunch of really cool local artists who will be selling stuff in the maker’s market leading into the performance space. It’s really not just a show, it’s an experience and you should definitely come and be part of that experience.
Caitlin: And don’t forget that there’s going to be a Lizzie Borden Museum here with the show too.
Final question, and this one is hard, largely because it’s not really a question, but a difficult task. You have to sum up the Lizzie experience in just one word. What word do you use?
Lizzie plays with Guerrilla Theatre Front for just 8 performances on October 4th, 5th, 25th, and 26th, 2019 at Creative Labs— 1786B Union Avenue in Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available at the door or in advance online. Advanced tickets are strongly recommended.