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New musical, debuting in Philly, has major rock-star pedigree

Michael McQuilken and Jon Morris met the way so many collaborators do: working on a music video for a yodeling clown dominatrix. That seemingly random and almost definitely wrong combination of elements is indicative of the tone of both men’s work.

Michael McQuilken and Jon Morris met the way so many collaborators do: working on a music video for a yodeling clown dominatrix. That seemingly random and almost definitely wrong combination of elements is indicative of the tone of both men's work.

McQuilken is a cofounder of the performance ensemble Old Sound Room, which specializes in inventive multimedia shows. Morris cofounded the creative collective Windmill Factory, which describes its mission as "manufacturing the sublime" and which has created everything from public art installations to live rock shows for clients like Lady Gaga and Nine Inch Nails.

The two are undertaking their first full-scale co-production with JIB: or, The Child Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was, a "living film + rock show + ghost play" that opens at Christ Church Neighborhood House this weekend. Part musical, part film, part mime show (Morris is a veteran of Cirque du Soleil), the show follows three strangers, including the titular singer/songwriter, as they unknowingly collaborate on a musical score across time and space, with songs by musician/provocateur Amanda Palmer and songwriter Jason Webley.

The show originated as McQuilken's thesis project at the Yale School of Drama, whose record of turning out future stars (alumni include Sigourney Weaver, Paul Giamatti, and Meryl Streep, along with a laundry list of others) means soon-to-be grads grapple with the very real potential of fame.

"As [acting students] got closer to the end of their program, there was this great psychic distraction that began to overtake their life," McQuilken says. "The lion's share of them venture into their third year dreaming about becoming public figures, so I was watching people I was close with become very stressed out by that."

At the same time, McQuilken saw Palmer, with whom he'd had a personal and musical relationship before  graduate school (and before her marriage to author Neil Gaiman), grapple with actual fame and controversy through her work with her band the Dresden Dolls and in her solo career.

"Watching her navigate those waters was very much on my mind," McQuilken says, "so writing a story about a rock singer who is trying to deal with maintaining integrity and a genuine sense of truth in their work while combatting this growth of public attention was a theme that was resonant for me at the time."

For Palmer, writing songs in character as JIB rather than in her own often frank and confessional voice came as a relief. "It's very liberating," she wrote via email. "Writing in someone else's voice is the songwriting equivalent of writing fiction, and it means you can speak truths in a very nonliteral way. For one of the songs, I actually locked myself in a room and listened to six Katy Perry hits in a row. I suffer for my art, I tell you."

When the Windmill Factory became involved, the show attracted  elements that brought it experientially closer to the rock shows Morris and company have produced. Morris also contributed a vocabulary of gestures that unites JIB with the two other composers, linking the different characters through shared movements. Those elements, Morris says, help illuminate the play's themes of "how creative thought is linked across the universe. There are some truly sublime moments within this piece that really get to the interconnective tissue that connects us all as humans."

If that concept seems grand for a show about a rock star's ascent and decline, well, grand is what the Windmill Factory does. In whatever medium it works, Morris says, the company strives to achieve something that he calls "the sublime art pause -- a moment when you see a piece of art and time stops, when you feel like you're hovering above yourself and from that moment you see a world that's completely different than the world you had before. That's our goal in all of work."

That idea of human connection is part of what appealed to Palmer about working on JIB. "The amazing thing about theater is that it isn't recorded," the singer/songwriter says. "It isn't an intimate headphone experience; you know that these people are going to be listening to these words and these chord structures while sitting in seats, facing other human beings. It's a very inspiring way to write, knowing that the manifestation of your musings is going to be flesh and blood, not a little computer screen. We need more of that nowadays, I think."

The distractions of the digital age weighed heavily on McQuilken's mind while writing the show. What does it mean that his actor friends are stressing over the pitfalls of imagined fame when essentially everyone lives in the public eye these days?

"Our relationship to being seen and the ability to broadcast ourselves is very much at the heart of the piece," he says. "The piece isn't advocating for an answer; it's just a conversation about the ways that we're connected and the ways that we're divided in the world right now."

JIB 7:30 p.m. through Dec. 17, Christ Neighborhood Church House, 20 N. American St., $30, 215-922-1695,