The Bengsons on Singing About Bee Sperm and Grief | Playbill

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Special Features The Bengsons on Singing About Bee Sperm and Grief

Their newest show, The Keep Going Songs, is currently running at Lincoln Center Theater.

The Bengsons in THE KEEP GOING SONGS Jeremy Daniel

Last August, Abigail Bengson’s brother, Peter Nessen, died. He was 55 years old. It was cancer, and it was sudden. Her last words to him were over Zoom. Then, in a sort of cosmic bit of timing, on the same day that Abigail's brother died, Lincoln Center Theater reached out. The theatre asked Abigail and her husband, Shaun Bengson, if they would like to make a new show to premiere in spring 2024.

“You're out of your mind with grief, and then someone comes to you. It felt like this lifeline,” says Abigail. The Bengsons, who are songwriters and performers, got straight to work on the project. And the product of their grief, and how they learned to live with it, is currently running at LCT’s second-floor space, the Claire Tow Theatre at LCT3. It’s called The Keep Going Songs, running through May 26.

“We’ve just worked on this every day since his passing,” says Abigail, sitting backstage in one of LCT’s rehearsal halls before a show. “And it's been a way to be with him. And a way to look towards what life is like after a terrible thing. How do you keep moving? How do you laugh and joke around and get fucked up and try again? And so the piece, like, mirrored our process of grieving really closely.”

She then looks at Shaun, who continues her thought: “We've been doing this [Keep Going Songs] concert for, like, a few gigs over the last couple of years before that. We're wanting to continue developing it and have some time and space to really dig into what it was. And it felt like the right, beautiful thing for us to let it bloom into this tribute for Peter.”

It's a tribute to Peter but also, a piece of comfort for anyone who has experienced loss (especially in the past few years). In The Keep Going Songs, Abigail begins right off the bat by telling the audience, “If you’re in this room, we assume you are going through something terrible.” Abigail then tells the audience about her brother, how he died, and how his favorite snacks were Twinkies and a pint of Guinness. The evening is structured like a concert, with cafe tables on stage as the duo tell their story, play a variety of instruments, and sing. “My brother's birthday is tomorrow [May 7]. And so that's heavy with me. But also, it's a wild kind of a gift to be doing this,” she says with a sad smile.

The Bengsons in THE KEEP GOING SONGS Jeremy Daniel

The loss that begins Keep Going Songs is actually compounded onto previous losses. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Bengsons were in lockdown and couldn’t work, Abigail had a miscarriage. And it was in the darkness of that time—thinking that their careers were over, mourning the loss of their child—the Bengsons did what they normally do when emotions are too overwhelming: They wrote songs.

“We would sing to ourselves, ‘Keep going, keep going, keep going on.’ And some days we'd be singing, we'd be happy. And some days we'd be singing, we'd be not so happy, you know?” says Abigail. The title track, “Keep Going Song,” is not actually in this new live show, though you can still view it on YouTube. But, continues Abigail, “that was the beginning of a practice around how we let art move us forward, without forgetting what's true.”

And what’s true is that there’s no getting over or overcoming grief. Instead, as Abigail puts it, “Grief is a ferocious love for what you can no longer touch.” What The Keep Going Songs details is ways of learning how to live with that sadness, while still making room for joy.

Explains Shaun: “It isn't so much that you get past it and then you're better. It's more that you incorporate it into your life.” A way that the Bengsons have been able to move through sadness has been by listening to science podcasts (their go-tos: Radiolab. 99% Invisible. Wait For It. Science Vs.). In fact, that was how they fell in love, through trading factoids about insects. In Keep Going Songs, Abigail details that a good way to process grief is by discovering new things about the world that fills her with awe. Such as: queen bees actually carry the semen of male worker bees on their legs, so they can inseminate themselves at will. 

For Abigail, taking a macro view on death has actually been a comfort—just as living things live and die and change, so do species on the planet. “It’s been really exciting and helpful to think about our own grief in terms of the way the planet moves, and the way that cultures move. And to put it in a context of what happens when a species ends, what happens when a species transforms, what happens when an age transforms,” explains Abigail. “I think every time someone dies, the whole world ends. And you have to start again. So here we are, we got through the end of the world when Peter died…and I'm kind of stepping out blinking into the sun going, what is this new world? How will I live in it? And that makes me suspect that the world is constantly ending and being born constantly, constantly. And we get to dance on those rhythms together, and maybe even find pleasure in that.”

The Bengsons have become experts in taking real-life events that seem earth-shaking and turning them into art. Their hit 2017 Off-Broadway debut, Hundred Days, details how they met, fell in love, and got married in just three weeks. Their next show, The Lucky Ones, details a traumatic family incident that happened when Abigail was a girl. They are also working on shows for Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop.

Even though the Bengsons have two kids together, and have been collaborating for almost two decades, they still beam at each other like newlyweds. They admit it helps to have personal time alone. But “the thing I love to do the most is to write and play music, and getting to do that with Abigail is just so fun,” says Shaun. Abigail responds by putting her hand on his heart. Shaun places his hand on hers, before continuing. “We are still driving towards the same things, things that we were initially most curious to explore.”

And one of those things is the fine line between deep sadness and transcendent joy. One of the last songs that the Bengsons sing in Keep Going Songs has the chorus, “I want you to want to live. I want to want to live.” And at that part, Abigail encourages the audience to stand up and dance with her on the stage. In fact, she takes some people's hands and physically pull thems up. One night, one of those people moving along and smiling was Abigail’s mother, who was also Peter's mother.

“Sometimes I felt like I was making this just to get through the next day and the next. And sometimes I felt like I was making it for Peter,” says Abigail, tearing up. “But the night [my mom] came, I was like, ‘Oh, dummy, you made it for your mom’…And having her there, I was like, ’Oh, wow, Mommy, I want you to love life.’ And she does. She does. I'm so proud of her. And we learned so much from watching her live.”

The Bengsons in THE KEEP GOING SONGS Jeremy Daniel
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