Abigail and Shaun Bengson.
What would you do if you met the perfect partner—only to find that your life was soon to be cut short by illness? That's the question at the heart of the new indie rock opera by married couple and musicians Abigail and Shaun Bengson, who tour together in their band, the Bengsons.
Their new show, Hundred Days, is a novel combination of rock show and improvised theater. Think if Hair were written by Arcade Fire. We recently caught up with the duo after rehearsals at the Mission's Z Space to talk about love, death, music, and Paula Abdul cassette tapes.
San Francisco: We were just watching you rehearse the big show-stopping number. So what the heck did we just see?
Abigal Bengson: It’s the moment in the show where two people who have fallen in love and are facing an illness seize their destinies. They’re saying fuck you to time. It’s full of folly and a bratty, youthful lust for life. You also saw choreography, which isn’t on our resumes.
You guys are rockers. Not dancers.
AB: That’s what’s cool about our choreographer. He makes us feel safe.
Did you start by writing the songs or by writing the show?
Shaun Bengson: It first came as a grouping of songs. It started around the time we fell in love. Falling in love is a loss of a certain sense of immortality. It is upending to place so much of yourself in a fragile vessel. We were married very quickly. I was starting my own band and Abigail came to sing in it. That first rehearsal became our first date. It became an us band. Three weeks later we decided to get married.
So this show is drawn from that?
SB: It is. But it’s very much a piece of fiction. The characters aren’t us.
AB: I feel like it’s a question that everybody might ask themselves. What would happen when life becomes an emergency? I have to live as much as I can right now. "Every minute counts." It’s a beautiful thing on a postcard, but for your body it’s torturous.
It’s semi-improvised, which is easy because you two know each other. What about the rest of the cast?
AB: Our cast is so brave. We needed people who could be rock stars on stage. You can’t learn that without doing a ton of crappy gigs with a rock band.
Did you book them a few gigs?
SB: Yeah, we just chucked some beer bottles at them.
AB: And heckled.
So unpack this idea about love and mortality?
AB: I fell like it’s a pretty old bargain. I used to go on airplanes and when there was turbulence I’d giggle. But the first time that I flew with Shaun, I was terrified. Because it mattered. My life mattered to something beyond myself. I’d say that’s the jumping off point of our story.
SB: The other thing we’re trying to get across is that it’s just a matter of when, but we’re all going to face this same thing. Whether you get to spend decades or a few months. In the end it’s not going to be enough.
Being in love is great—but it’s kind of a drag too. You can’t just jet off at the drop of a hat now.
AB: Well, unless you’re in a band.
SB: That’s the nice thing about us getting to do our work together, we can be as fully codependent as we desire.
AB: But any kind of complete love requires a certain kind of pain.
SB: Think about mythological gods who sacrifice their immortality for love. It’s a very Jungian thing.
The idea there is that you can be immortal, sure, but you can’t hang out with everybody else?
AB: That’s right. You can’t have love and immortality.
SB: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
AB: Love can also play tricks on your memories. When we first got together, we had no shared memories. I loved him, but I didn’t know how he liked his eggs. I started remembering elements for my past with Shaun there. My birthday party when I was ten years old—he would be inserted into that photograph. It was my mind reshaping things to allow for that bigness that I felt. I wove him back into my life in the past.
What did you give her for her tenth birthday?
AB: Yeah, what would it have been?
SB: I fell like I gave her a Paula Abdul tape.
AB: Yes! [Singing] “He’s a cold hearted snake.” I did get that when I was ten years old.
Separate track entirely. Where are you guys based?
SB: Well, we’re loosely based in the East Coast, but we don’t keep a place anywhere. We landed here in January and we’ll be here through the show in April.
AB: That’s the longest we’ve been anywhere for the last six years. We’ve unpacked our suitcases.
SB: We bought a hamper.
AB: Yeah, we cook oatmeal every morning. We’re in Glen Park.
The reason I ask, is I don’t know how much you’ve been following much of this gentrification conversation, but it seems to me at least reasonable to put it to you. Can anybody afford to make art in this city?
SB: It’s a great question. I find the Bay Area crazy supportive of new work. The community I think is fantastic. But I have no idea how people live here. I don’t get it.
AB: And we lived in New York. You’d think that once you’ve lived there you’ve had the worst. You’ve had the $18 dollar turkey sandwich. And then we came here, and were like—crap.
AB: The contrast is, though, that there is that the most interesting work being done here than almost anywhere, because of places like Z Space.
SB: A place with great wealth has great potential for investment in work. Art exists through a patronage system, or has for a long time.
Where to after April?
SB: We’re not sure yet.
AB: There’s a lot about our lives that we don’t know about after April.
Is your idea to tour the show around?
SB: Yeah, that’s what we hope. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.
AB: We can’t wait to hole up somewhere together, watch a whole season of some tv show, and eat ice cream with a ladle. If that’s not love.
AB: That’s love.