Musings on playing for Theatre

Most blogs suffer from one of two fates, lack of content or lack of time. I am currently suffering from the latter. I have at least 6 posts stored up in my head, but don’t have the time to write them all down at the moment. So my summary of Tony Hall’s gig at Islington Folk Club on Thursday is “Amazing”. I hope this will do!

So to business. The last two Musings were on playing for dance and playing for song. Playing for theatre however is one kind of performance that not many people get to do and I feel privileged to have done it not once, but twice. There is a distinction between being a pit band for a musical or playing incidental music for a play and doing what I did, which is integrating music with theatre, with both sides reacting to one another.

Back in 2010 I was involved with a show called Silent Cannonfire (publicised as Silent Canonfire). This was a silent play – no dialogue, no on-stage sound. A live version of a silent film, complete with captions. We were the equivalent of the organ, honky-tonk or band that would have accompanied the original silents. Since the subject matter was pirates and since there were a large number of folkies amongst the cast and crew, we were recruited as a folk band. The first run was at the Larkum Studio in the ADC Theatre in Cambridge and comprised Yarden Brody (of There and Back Again fame) on whistles, recorder and drum, James McNamara on fiddle and myself on box and Charango. We played a “pleasing rattle of fiddle-ridden sea shanties” (Varsity), which didn’t feature any proper shanties at all. But then reviewers can’t be expected to know what they are talking about. The other two student papers were rather better informed, The Tab describing the music as “excellent” and The Cambridge Student as “brilliant”.

What we actually did was think up a load of tunes that all three of us knew that sounded vaguely suitable, played them and hoped for the best. We had I think one run through with music before opening, which was insane. It was a success, but the music in places wasn’t as slick as it could have been. The bits that did work though worked very well and were carried forward to the next production.

We had more of a chance when the show was taken to the Fringe in August 2010. We had a day long run through with the cast a few months before the fringe, followed by some time thinking up tunes. Then we had I think 2 days of rehearsals directly before opening. This time Yarden couldn’t be there, so I assumed the nominal Musical Director role. Playing with me again was James McNamara (who thought of a lot of the tunes), plus Tom Furnival (whose excellent blog is here) and Tim Sparrow, both on fiddles, with Oliver Jones on tenor and descant recorders. Unfortunately I was the only one who could do the entire run, so there was a lot of training people up as people came up and down.

We did some fun stuff with the show. We had a four page cue sheet, which we had memorised by the second performance. The principle characters all had their own leitmotifs which were interwoven *ahem* seamlessly with the action. The Admiral had a whole series of tunes associated with his part which were twisted by me. His leitmotif was Rule Britannia played in a minor key (he was an evil Admiral), but we also played Byzantine Country Gardens and a jig which I made by scrunching up Jerusalem. We played Morris tunes, one sea shanty, Irish reels and a version of Scarborough Fair. There was a drum solo in the middle (cannibal village) and everything. There was an extended improvisatory passage where myself and whoever was with me picked a leitmotif each and wove in and out depending on what was happening on stage. And it turns out that a fiddle can do an amazing impression of a creaky chest opening. Fun doesn’t begin to cut it. And I can now put “Sterling work” (The Scotsman) after my name.

The play that I was in last week was different. It was The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol and was in the Corpus Playroom, a challenging venue with a split audience. There were some really exciting elements to the direction, the subsidiary characters froze in the asides and this gained some lovely effects. The portions of quoted text were read by the original actors in character. The lack of wings, flats or crossover was exploited by having a zone of red tape denoting the boundary of the performance space. The actors walked round the back of the stage outside the performance space of character and went into character as they entered, making their entrance more emphatic. It was a really interesting production with some fantastic acting – exactly the sort of thing where live music could contribute. Unfortunately I only got roped in 6 days before opening and we had a grand total of 13 hours rehearsal with the music. So by necessity we limited the involvement to once per act. It was also Russian folk music, about which I knew nothing (and even now only know 2 tunes). Those two tunes lasted us the entire performance. A lot of what we were doing though was sound rather than music: tension, inspirational beauty and chaos. And it all fitted together beautifully. The Cambridge Student described the music as “Inspired”.

I promised you musings, rather than a self-indulgent nostalgia trip, so here they are. When playing for a ceilidh, there is a connection between the dancers and the musicians. When playing for song, there is a connection between the singer, the musician and the audience. Theatre adds another layer of complexity. The music and the acting need to be utterly integrated, each bouncing off each other, but they equally need to be utterly focused on the audience. This very strong three way partnership between the musicians, the actors and the audience is challenging to achieve.

Adaptation is key. You have to constantly vary what you are doing depending on what is on stage. The music needs to reflect what multiple different characters are doing on stage, it needs to follow the cadence of the dialogue, it needs to shift depending on the physical movement and position of the actors. But this adaptation should be two ways. The music should react to the actors, but equally the actors should react to the music. They should consider one to not be complete without the other. Indeed ideally the musicians, audience and actors should forget about the music, in the same way that the audience should forget about the fourth wall. The music should be a fully inseparable part of the performance and without it the play should make no sense.

Of course, all of this comes only with a great deal of time and effort and this is why there is not much live music of this kind in Cambridge. If you want to have music running the whole way through then you can’t call up your favours amongst the music crowd and get them to rehearsals in the final week, it won’t be put together in time. You will have to limit the music so that it does work in the places where you’ve put it, as we did last week. In order to have music running most or all of the time then the musicians will have to be part of the rehearsals from the beginning. Not only so that they can get used to the way that the music fits with the play, but so the actors can get used to bouncing off the music.

Of course, I am at an advantage, because I am a traditional musician and the playing for theatre that I have done has involved a mix of traditional tunes and improvisation. This is advantageous because the tunes are either out of copyright or the writers are more than happy for them to be played in public (and for Silent Cannonfire I asked). And you can bend a tune quite a long way before it breaks. Playing a fast and regular reel and then suddenly slowing it down to an air, complete with rubato heightens the contrast on stage hugely, more than for an improvisatory passage changing speed or for a specially composed piece. The act of bending a tune is picked up by the audience and can be used to create or release tension and energy. As I’ve remarked on here many times, the notes are not important, it is the way that you play them that makes the difference. Folk musicians tend to be quite relaxed about bending tunes and improvising around them (although generally not as relaxed as jazz musicians) and in addition, folk music tends to lend itself to many different theatre scenarios. A group of seasoned sessioners will between them be able to think up or twist a tune to any scene on stage.

As a personal note on the end of this post, I love playing for theatre. I think it is fantastic, enormous fun. I love being around actors, they are such interesting people. I love seeing them slide in and out of character in rehearsals. The shows that I have been involved in have both had a very collaborative atmosphere to them, everyone working towards a shared goal, which is a wonderful environment in which to work. I love theatres. I love the complexity of them, with their confusing vocabulary and their relentless pace. And I love theatre. I love being transported off to some other place and time, I love being utterly absorbed in a flimsy human construction of painted canvas and spotlights. And I love the moment at the end, when the play is over and you return to the real world, when you see the characters that you have been following become other people and bow to the audience. And I love playing for theatre and being a part of that world.

p.s. The third run in Edinburgh of Silent Cannonfire was recorded rather poorly and can be seen here. It gives an idea of what we did, although it was early in the run for us and it got a lot slicker.

p.p.s. Myself and James, who put together the music for Silent Cannonfire in Edinburgh are hoping to record a session album of some of the tunes later this year. Watch this space!

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5 thoughts on “Musings on playing for Theatre

  1. Pingback: Old Molly Oxford and a Gig Plug | Music and Melodeons

  2. Pingback: Out of my depth | Music and Melodeons

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