From the Musical Director

Posted in Music, Rehearsal, Summer 2009, Twelfth Night on August 15th, 2009 by kellinewby

Here are a few words form Eric Auld, the musical director of Twelfth Night about writing and producing music for the show (with samples of the music):

Following a performance by spoken word poet Taylor Mali at the College of Saint Rose this past February, Melissa Quirk (our director for this summer’s production of Twelfth Night) and I headed out to a crowded bar in Albany to review the evening’s performance and, of course, to discuss some Shakespeare. After a few vodka cranberries, the conversation sounded something like this:

Eric: “You know what I was thinking?”

Melissa: “What?”

Eric: “You should have original music for the show. Yes.”

And suddenly I was Musical Director.

As primarily an accordion player, I was a bit confused at first, since accordionists rarely get egged on to produce/compose more music than is necessary. (You know the old joke: “What’s the number one request for an accordionist?” “Can you play Far, Far Away?”) I didn’t worry too much about the decision, though, since I knew the music could easily be expanded to include other instruments. So I agreed to take on the role. At the time, though, I wasn’t aware as to exactly how much work would be involved as Musical Director. I figured, “Four… five… no, no… six songs. Can’t be that much work, right?”

Well.

The first task was nailing down the theme of our production so I could work within a specific genre. From what I can recall, the three finalists mentioned at our first production meeting were: Circus, Rock Opera, and the late 1960s. After shaking my head vehemently at Rock Opera (WHAT?!), I could see either of the other two as a possibility. Luckily, because of both the nautical plotlines in the text and the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock approaching, both themes were merged into one: Late 60s Coney Island.

In order to find inspiration for such music, our “Musical Team” (including myself, Alexia Trainor as Feste, David A. Winn, Jr., Michael Trainor, Dan Soha and others) listened to music from the era, primarily Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, etc. etc. etc. We knew that summing up the music of the late 60s in one production would be an impossible task, so in order to simplify things, one initial division was made: the live songs would be performed acoustically and would have a folksy feel to them, whereas the recorded songs (for scene changes) would vary from “Feel-Good Flower Power” to “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida-esque” and would even include some circus themes. (Where else, after all, was I going to throw in the accordion?)

And thus the creative wheels began turning. Two types of music rehearsals took place: one with Feste and Feste’s “Posse” (the live musical accompanists) for the songs in the text, and another with Posse members and other musicians for the recorded instrumental pieces, which were to serve as variations of melodies used for the textual songs. This way, not only could the tunes become recognizable very quickly, but the experimentation with different genres could be explored even further. Take “Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain,” for example. The live, folksy tune could be slightly altered (with different instruments, tempo, rhythm, etc.) to give it a jazzier feel or altered even more to sound like as if it belongs at a sideshow on Coney Island.

Hey-Ho-Wind-and-the-Rain-Coney-Island-Melody.mp3 Hey-Ho-Wind-and-the-Rain-Electric-Version.mp3

Also, not only could this emphasize the musical feel of the scene changes, but, in certain cases (maybe more with “Come Away Death” than “Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain”), could even help associate the interpretation of the lyrics of a previously performed song with the interpretation of the scene change itself.

But back to the music rehearsal process. Though I wrote simple melodies for all of the six songs, rehearsals were nothing less than a collaborative effort. I wish the program didn’t read “Musical Composition by Eric K. Auld,” as this is a partial lie; I only brought in some starting points to take off from. As a group, we experimented with dynamics in these melodies to determine (in both the live and recorded versions) tempo, key, rhythm, harmony (for the vocal tracks), what instruments to use, volume, syncopation, repetition, resolution, etc. etc.—in order to attempt to nail down the sound and feel of these primary tunes and their variations. Oftentimes we would go back and forth between decisions involving something as miniscule as a sixteenth note and something as grand as the genre itself. One of my favorite suggestions that I heard was an unresolved ending for “Come Away Death” (suggested by David A. Winn, Jr.), which simply changed the final note of the melody from a tonic chord note to a dominant chord note. This change not only brings out the Doors-esque sound of the song even more, but, by leaving such a song as “Come Away Death” unresolved, it helps to emphasize the unrequited love and woeful dissatisfaction of the speaker. Just as the speaker asks for love and is denied it, just as he/she asks for death and is denied it, the listener asks for a peaceful resolution (what the ear is expecting), but it is never to come. (Ha, ha! Foiled again!)

Come-Away-Death1.mp3

After the weeks upon months of this (at which point we surprisingly weren’t entirely sick of the same six tunes), it was time to record it all, both for scene changes and a CD, since the idea of selling a CD to unsuspecting audience members was presented early in the process and nobody happened to oppose it. (Thus we are immortalized!) Todd Hamilton (Berkshire Idol Champion and T.D. for this show) was very gracious to donate his four hours at Skyboro Sound to us, and Jamie Choquette was even more gracious to reconstruct the recording studio for us (since Skyboro Sound is now officially closed) for those four hours, as well as record and mix the tracks himself. It was a fairly simple process, and Jamie got us in and out with what we had hoped for—the nine recorded tracks for scene changes—in that short amount of time. A big thanks goes out to Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Choquette. Also to Mike Trainor, for allowing us to record the live songs (for the CD) at Chez Ballou (a.k.a. “Mike Trainor’s mics”) and for mixing those tracks for us.

On a more somber note, the most difficult part of this process was losing Ellen Bindman-Hicks, a very talented young guitarist and vocalist. (See story a few posts down for details.) Though I only had the chance of rehearsing with her once, I’m glad that I had the opportunity to meet and listen to her for that brief period of time. She had an incredible amount of potential, and it’s always a shame and a true loss when such a life is unwillingly cut off at a young age. I just wish that we at Main Street Stage could have gotten to know her a little bit better.

So. After numerous rehearsals, decisions, changes, losses, transpositions, etc. etc., we have finally made it. It was a long summer… yes, a very long summer. The role of Musical Director encompassed more work than I originally had imagined—more work on top of playing the role of Duke Orsino as well. But that’s all one, our play is done—almost. One performances left. Come see and listen for yourself!

Hey-Ho-Wind-and-the-Rain1.mp3

Rehearsal photo essay

Posted in Rehearsal, Summer 2009, Twelfth Night on June 29th, 2009 by kellinewby

Here are some photos from a recent rehearsal that focused on Olivia and Viola’s first encounter (Viola is in disguise as a boy and Olivia falls in love her her/him).

In this shot, you can see what the set looked like as of a week ago, that is to say it was bright green tape on the ground and the All My Sons murals were still up.

tn-rehersal-oliv-and-mal

"Call in my gentlewoman."

tn-rehearsal-oliv-and-m-veil

My gentlewoman throws my veil o'er my face. Here, my gentlewoman has selected a fake beard as my veil.

tn-rehearsal-vio-and-oliv

Viola woos Olivia for Orsino (clearly, Olivia is impressed by all of this).

tn-rehearsal-vio-and-mal-ring

Malvolio returns the ring that Viola left with Olivia. Only Viola left no ring with Olivia.

tn-rehearsal-vio-gets-notes

Time for notes!

Rehearsal Process, part 2: Dropping In

Posted in Rehearsal, Summer 2009, Twelfth Night on June 19th, 2009 by kellinewby

Dropping in is weird.  And uncomfortable.  It is everything you might make fun of in an acting class.  But, it works.

Here is the process.  Let’s say there are two people in a scene,  Sebastian and Viola.  The two actors sit directly across from each other, feet flat on the floor, knees alternating (yes, that close).  The director and assistant instruct the actors to roll forward and create an actor pile.  The actors are then told to breathe deeply and evenly as they get massages.   They slowly return to sitting position and make eye contact.  There is no breaking the eye contact for the entirety of the exercise.

Behind each actor sits someone with a script.  This person feeds the actor lines and questions, instructing the actor to repeat only the word of phrase that comes from his or her lines.  It goes a little something like this:

Director: Spirit.  Are you a spirit?  Spirit.

Sebastian: Spirit.

Director: Father, son and Holy Spirit.  Spirit.

Sebastian: Spirit.

Director: Why do you say this?  Are you a ghost?  Spirit.

Sebastian: Spirit.

Director: Do you think she’s a spirit?  Spirit.

Sebastian: Spirit.

Director: Are you afraid of ghosts?  Spirit.

Sebastian: Spirit.

Director: Is Spirit the name of an airline?  Spirit.

Sebastian: Spirit.

Director: A spirit I am indeed.

Sebastian: A spirit I am indeed.

As you can see, it is a long, slow process, but it is meditative.  The purpose is get away from intellectualizing the script after the table talk sessions.  The director poses questions to both the character and the actor.

Last year, I was highly skeptical process going in, but by the end  I was a believer.  Most of the suggestions just float by and a lot of the power of the exercise is being that close to someone you don’t know for so long (you certainly feel like you know each other after an hour of uninterrupted eye contact).  Every once and awhile, a question will strike me powerfully.  During a dropping in session last year between the girl playing Juliet and myself (I was playing Lady Cap), I was asked, “When was the last time you laughed together?  When was the last time you were in her room?”  The answers that came from purely gut response motivated my acting decisions and the intimacy of the drop-in created a warm, family-like repore between Juliet and I.  It was very easy to grieve when I found her “dead.”

So right now, in between getting things up and moving and making physical choices, amdist the chaos of clowning, sometimes we turn down the lights, breathe deeply, look each other in the eye and let  the heart of the play speak to us.

Stealing Treasure

Posted in Rehearsal, Summer 2009, Youth Theatre on June 1st, 2009 by mtrainor

Here’s some insight into how Nutshell Playhouse (writer/director Don Jordan and actors Matt Colviello, Alexia Trainor, Wendy Walraven and Mike Trainor) create their theater shows for children:

Don says, “Okay -- try this, Marx Brothers style …”

Matt, Wendy and I are three pirates looming over a pile of golden treasure. Matt grabs a big handful of treasure and stuffs it into his bag. Simultaneously, I grab the handful out of Matt’s bag and stuff it into my bag. At the same time, Wendy grabs the treasure from my bag and stuffs it into her bag. This continues until all treasure is plundered. Satisfied looks all around.

We check our loot. Matt and I are confused. Wendy seems happy.

“Make sure your hand goes into the bag at the same time as the one you’re stealing from … so when they go for another handful, you’re putting the treasure into your bag …”

You’ve seen these riffs before, for sure. They show up in everything from Loony Tunes cartoons to Marx Brothers to the Three Stooges.

Don gets a big kick out of these gags, and choreographing them. This one becomes kind of dance-like and stylized. It’s a celebration of this old joke, and of the style.

It comes out naturally. A typical rehearsal involves reshaping the show in some way -- all in good fun. Don’s script hits all the plot points, and the actors and Don come up with riffs by ad-libs and goofing around (I wouldn’t call this part of the process “improv” -- that would make it sound somewhat structured, which it isn’t). Someone does something funny, we keep it and tune it. That’s it. Or someone is inspired by someone else’s ad-lib and it grows from there.

Acting in these shows, I like becoming acquainted with this kind of humor. The jokes play with your perception -- like the mirror gag in the vid below. They’re not just “jokes for children” either.

The beauty of using this style for children’s theater, I think, is 1) kids are seeing these great jokes for the first time and 2) parents get to rediscover this style of humor, and the love of it.

This is in addition to the original music, mime, puppets, clowning and great characters that appear in these shows, which I hope we’ll touch on later.

Table Talk

Posted in Dramaturgy, Rehearsal, Summer 2009, Twelfth Night on May 30th, 2009 by kellinewby

As we go through the rehearsal process, I hope to update you on how we work.

The first part of the rehearsal process is what M calls table talk.  Essentially, we spend the first two weeks sitting around a table with a bunch of dictionaries, a dramaturg, a director and a stage manager.  During this time we:

  1. Figure out exactly what we are saying
  2. Discuss the importance of the beat within the context of the play, Elizabethan culture, and the period in which we’re setting the production.
  3. We begin the character work.
  4. Eat and get to know each other.

It is a time of discovery.  First we read the scene aloud, focusing on the words.  No acting allowed.  This is a great time to look at each word, listen to the iambs and take in the sound of things.  Next we look up words in the reference books strewn about the table, including books that give definitions based on what they meant in Shakespeare’s time as well as various copies of the play with footnotes galore.  M. encourages us to look up words we understand in addition to words we do not because we often find alternate meanings that give us a new perspective.

Then we have an in-depth conversation about all the things we’ve found.  The dramaturg will tell us about his research and help us out with particular lines.  The conversation is lively and creative.  It’s like a really great lit class.

Sometimes M. then has us “unpack” the text.  She is insistent that we don’t paraphrase the lines.  It’s about finding all the nuance of each line.  It can be a little silly.   So, for example, in Olivia’s line: “I heard you were saucy at my gates”, I might say something like this:

I, me, myself, eye ball, heard, listened, eavesdropped, was told, gossip, you were saucy, cheeky, bratty, unruly, naughty, plucky, marinara at my gates, barriers, doors to the outside, chastity belt [everyone giggles and throws out other ideas], Bill Gates, gated community…

You get the idea.  It is a long slog to go through an entire beat this way, but it does yeild one or two interesting associations when we do it.  It also makes you think about how well you know the meaning of a word, and the meaning of your line.  It helps the director see the sort of instincts you’ve got about motivations early on.

This is also a time for the director to begin asking questions that she wants us to consider as we move forward.