The creator of a new play about Kurt Cobain has explained how the Nirvana frontman “made a huge difference to the LGBTQ+ community”, and how her work is a reflection on “depression, alienation and detachment”.
Aberdeen opened at London’s Soho Theatre this week, receiving its press night last night (Thursday December 7) after receiving critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe. Penned and acted out by writer and comedian Cassie Workman, the one-woman poetry play is a homage to Cobain as she “traverses time and space in a bid to save the life of her hero, in his US hometown of Aberdeen, Washington”.
“I’m transgender, and transgender people go through a second puberty,” Workman told NME. “During that time, you look back on your first adolescence and the things that were important when you reassess them from an adult perspective. One of those things was Nirvana. Looking back as an adult on Kurt Cobain and his life and how deeply that affected everyone in my generation, I thought it was really interesting grounds for a story. I became obsessed with it.
She continued: “I started writing, then I decided to go to Washington to research where he lived and see the places where he hung out and where he died. While I was there, standing under the Young Street Bridge, I had this epiphany that I should turn it into a poem. The entire show is in rhyming couplets.”
Cobain and Nirvana were renowned advocates for gay rights and spoke out against homophobia during a time that was rife with prejudice off the back of the AIDs epidemic of the ’80s. In the liner notes for the 1992 B-sides compilation album ‘Incesticide’, Cobain wrote: “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different colour, or women, please do this one favour for us: leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records”.
Workman explained how moves like this meant a lot to her throughout her life.
“It was very hard to be queer back in the early to mid ‘90s, or even just being an ally would get you a lot of negative attention,” she said. “He definitely made a huge difference to how the LGBTQ+ community was perceived. The coolest person in the world was saying, ‘This is OK’ – and that really means something. As a queer icon, he’s incredible. He deserves all the credit that he gets and he was certainly a big influence on me.”
‘Aberdeen’ is a new play about Kurt Cobain by Cassie Workman. Credit: Jake Bush
Speaking of how the genesis of the play came to be, Workman explained how she travelled to Aberdeen and discovered Washington to be “a really magical and spiritual place”.
“There’s so much beautiful and grandiose countryside, then a lot of these logging towns,” Workman remembered. “Aberdeen was one of these logging towns where people left in droves and it became a ghost town. Seeing that and how different it was to the rest of Washington really hit me. Up until then I didn’t have a name for the show, but I decided to call it Aberdeen because it seemed to explain so much about him.
“I felt a connection to him because I also grew up in places like that. I know how that can come to symbolise depression, alienation and detachment. That world that you come from stays with you wherever you go. That was at the core of Kurt Cobain’s tragedy – he had everything in the world, but he was still in his mind this misunderstood kid in Aberdeen.”
She went on: “To translate that to the page, I thought it was appropriate to do it in verse because he was a musician and this is such a huge story that needed the gravity of that old world – that Shakespearian style. I turned it into a modern day epic myth because I felt that’s what it needed to be, just from the scale of everything in his life from the geography to the fame. That scale was begging for an epic poem.”
Among those to heap praise upon the play was Fleabag writer and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who described it as a “howl” of a poem.
“I don’t know if she’s referencing [Allen] Ginsberg there or not, but there’s certainly a scream and a longing at the core of it,” she said. “There’s a grief that can’t be put into words. That invisibly flows throughout the whole thing. One of the things is this abyss that keeps occurring and trying to destroy everything in the world. I describe it as a howling abyss, and often when people feel really bad depression, there’s a sense of a hungry howling. It may be to do with that.”
“It’s a very, very stripped back play. It’s such a hefty and text-driven piece that I didn’t want to overcrowd it with a bunch of unnecessary stuff. It’s in the round, and I literally just walk into the middle of the room. There’s no set and there are no props. I just say an hour-long poem. That sounds like it might be bad, but I promise you that it’s not!”
‘Aberdeen’ is a new play about Kurt Cobain by Cassie Workman. Credit: Jake Bush
Workman went on to reveal that she hasn’t had any communication from Cobain’s estate regarding the show, but that hopes his widow Courtney Love will be able to come along and see it.
“I know that she lives in London, and I’m a huge fan of Courtney,” she said. “I don’t think Kurt would have lived as long as he did if it weren’t for her; she really was a rock for him. I’m very appreciative of her and I went to great lengths to make something that I thought the family would approve of. The last thing I want to do is hurt the people who are still here who remember him.
“I would really love her to come and I’d love to get her thoughts on it. I’d hope that she’d like it. That would be amazing.”
Nirvana fans aside, people will find something to enjoy in the play away from Cobain’s history, Workman claimed.
“I sit down and I meet everyone in the show afterwards, and about 50 per cent of people say, ‘I’m not a huge fan or Nirvana and didn’t know a lot but I enjoyed this because I had a family member who felt the same’ or ‘I have battled depression’,” she said.
“I’ve helped them put these things in perspective. The whole reason I wrote this was to try and help heal the pain and trauma around suicide, drug abuse and depression. You don’t have to love Kurt Cobain because he’s just a vehicle for this idea in the story, but if you do happen to love Kurt Cobain then you should definitely come and see it.”
RuPaul (center) with Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
Asked if she might be willing to put together a similar production in tribute to another artist, Workman replied: “I do think about that sometimes and if I could make a series of works like this, and I pretty much immediately think, ‘No’ – not necessarily because nobody can touch Kurt Cobain in my mind, but more because writing the show almost killed me. It was extremely emotionally taxing.
“I went insane during the writing of it and deliberately didn’t protect my psyche or emotional state at all when I was writing the show because I wanted to get to the deepest possible depths of the abyss in order to get the best possible show. I’ll probably never do that again, because it’s too dangerous and not a good thing to do.”
Aberdeen is at Soho Theatre in London until December 16. Visit here for tickets and more information.
Nirvana, meanwhile, recently re-released third and final album ‘In Utero’ to mark its 30th anniversary. Speaking to NME about the anniversary, bassist Krist Novoselic discussed the chance of the band using AI to finish old songs. “That’s a good idea!” he said. “I’m going to bring that up with Dave [Grohl] and Pat [Smear]!”
Discussing whether there are unfinished Nirvana songs that could be completed with the help of AI, he added: “I don’t know. We’ve got to start talking about this. That’s a good idea. There could be. There’s a point where it’s like, ‘Is this Nirvana or AI?’ There’s a lot of that stuff already on Youtube, and that’s a debate that’s going to have to be settled when it comes to copyright and disinformation. It’s like 2001: A Space Odyssey – ‘Don’t do it!’ ”
Of the potential of a reunion, he added: “I’d like to. I always love. There was a time after Kurt died when I said to myself, ‘I’m never going to play these songs again’. That was part of the grief I went through. We don’t want to overdo it, we try to make it special and be grateful.
“When the opportunity comes, we do it if it feels right. In the meantime, we just remember Kurt and do our thing.”
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