Casting Wide: Experiments in Soundtracking Theatre

Since 2002, I’ve been writing scripts for large casts, simply because my part-time work at university often requires me to direct performances for casts of up to 15 young people, usually of mixed ability,  at the end of their first year. I have to choose the play before I’ve met the cast, so I don’t know numbers or genders. Tricky. This story’s about how I’ve experimented with writing and music in these performances.

The Small Poppies (2001)

I first directed David Holman’s Small Poppies in 2001. It was fine enough, though there were some elements of adaptation that had to take place to fit limitations of time and cast numbers. It seemed a lot of work to make a pre-existing play ‘fit’ the given circumstances and educational imperatives I was working towards. It was hard to find scripts that would work without significant re-working. As the performances were ‘closed’ – that is, for an invited rather than a paying audience, I was freer to adapt or create works for educational purposes. This also meant that I could experiment with how I was to use music in the performances.

The Little Prince,  Woodward Theatre 2002

The Little Prince, Woodward Theatre 2002

The Little Prince (2002 and 2012) Kroncong and World Music

So in 2002 I had a go at adapting The Little Prince,  coming up with a performative frame that allowed us to play more freely with the representation of the story. The idea was that a group of 1970’s school-teachers would perform the story for the audience, utilizing educational technology from the 1970’s – overhead and slide projectors, bits of sporting equipment. It also gave the cast the opportunity to design themselves some daggy costumes, and invent personae. The piece went well, though adapting it on the page was harder work than I anticipated. The best part of all (for me) was using music to glue the piece together.

I’d become obsessed with kroncong, an Indonesian form of music I’d discovered via Smithsonian CD’s documenting Asian music. Kroncong is a band-based music (ukuleles and other stringed instruments,  cello bass, flutes, vocals ) from Indonesia, with Portugese/Dutch roots. There are lots of different kinds of Kroncong – the form has evolved and responded to pop culture over the years, but I went for more traditional styles.  The overall effect (to western ears) is delicately arranged, other-worldly ballads, with a fado-like melancholia.

I used this music, in edited form, to ‘sew together’ my version of The Little Prince, which is highly episodic.

Playing with world-music forms subverts well-worn expectations of what a soundtrack’s job is. Apart from giving a modest, white-bread production a rich exotic feel, the music’s composition, arrangement and playing is expressive in ways that are unfamiliar to western ears. Like listening to a conversation in a foreign language,  one attends to rhythms, cadences and tone quite differently as you drift between trying to ‘make sense’ of what’s going on, or just absorbing the sublime patterns that humans make.

I continued this experiment 10 years later in 2012 when I re-approached a new production,  this time beginning with kroncong but drawing in  music of Islam, Celtic and Eastern European origins, strung together with the sound of the violin and other bowed instruments. Again,  very carefully edited (no fade-outs), these pieces enriched the ‘found’ nature of the new production,  which discarded the vintage overhead and slide projectors and replaced them with even more low-tech solutions of paper, chalk-boards and sports balls  to represent the multiple planets. Researching and editing the twenty or so ‘cues’ that made up this soundtrack was a rich, sensual experience.

Bitter Streak (2003)  Drum Loops

In 2003 I eliminated melody almost entirely to use drum loops for Bitter Streak, a play about how stupid theatre is. (I submitted this piece under a pseudonym for the 2001 George Landen Dann Award run by the Queensland Theatre company and was surprised to find it was selected as a finalist.)  Having edited the drums carefully out of the intros, outros and instrumentals of some of the funkiest songs on earth, I thought they’d really help the play motor along, lend their energy to the piece. But I don’t think they did. There wasn’t enough musical information in them to carry the emotional information in the narrative forward. The production was a lot of fun to do,  but the music was too generic. These rhythmic ‘grabs’ were musical grouting.

Dead Black Silence (2005) Live Drums

Incorporating a live rock drummer into a performance  however,  was a different story. 2005’s Dead Black Silence, was a production based in student devised work about life soundtracks. I wanted to include a musical ensemble in the work,  and approached the music department to see if I could entice their students to be involved,  to break down the silly silos between artforms. Their enthusiasm and availability dwindled as production week approached, and in the end there was only one musician available. It was Hik Sugimoto,  a drummer, who set up his rock kit centre-stage, and belted out skilful rhythms between scenes, and offered moments of delicate response to performance on cymbals during them. So much better to see musicians onstage than hidden in a pit, or trapped by a digital recording. The script wasn’t well-formed enough to bounce off the music he made: I’d like to try it again some day.

Unlucky for Some (2006) Minimalism

In 2006 I thought I’d try something a bit more arty, and decided to create a performative setting of 13 Roger McGough poems called Unlucky for Some (from Waving at Trains,1982)  which may or may not be about mental illness and homelessness. They’re delicate poems, not without humour, and there were enough of them to give a large cast something to chew on. It was a thrill for me to have negotiated the rights with the publisher to adapt his poems in this limited setting.

Unlucky for Some in performance, Woodward Theatre 2006

Unlucky for Some in performance, Woodward Theatre 2006

The speakers of the poems emerged from a café setting, where people went about their business in extreme slow motion. This provided a particular challenge for the actors. Behind them was projected video of a street-scene, also in extreme slow motion, the idea being to draw out the irony of urban street café culture and street cafes nestling in such close proximity to people who live on the street. Both are almost ‘in the gutter’. But this was implied, rather than explicit. I used live feed cameras as well, so it looked pretty cool. in a ‘Knock on Wood’ kind of way.

Though it was hardly agit-prop, the truth was the students had limited interest in the social issues embedded in the work. In fact I was pretty surprised at how blatantly conservative some of their attitudes were, but then theatre’s not really as radical an art form as it would like to think. English writer Baz Kershaw says that staging issues of social deprivation within the privileged walls of atheatre,  will mean that a play  “…succumbs to what it attacks.”

cd-coverThe main thing was to frame the poems and their performance well, in a meditative setting. Music helped. I drew it almost exclusively from the only solo album by Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, carefully editing the music so it worked in the play. The music is rather weird and thoughtful. His whispered vocals; strange, dissonant wind instruments,  acoustic piano and guitar, it’s hard to know what to make of it. I liked its minimalism.

I shifted into writing original works, but hung on to music as part of the writing process, including musical directions in the script, as well as using it to buoy my spirits in the long nights of writing.


Gate 38 (2007) Song Picturisations

In 2007 I was commissioned by the Queensland Theatre Company to write something for MacGregor State High School, which wanted a new piece for its graduating students (many of them dancers) to perform. Talking with them, and conducting a workshop or two, I was able to divine themes and settings that were of interest to them. My job was to provide them with a script that would showcase their abilities as performers and interests as young people. I came up with a scenario set at an airport, the narrative having four strands, each concerning a friendship or work group who have to negotiate their actions and interactions when the world’s quite possibly going to end. It was called Gate 38.

Given the number of dancers involved, I wanted to make sure they had something to do, and asked the cast to provide me with a CD of songs they liked. I decided I would incorporate some of these tunes into the action, using the principles, but not the style, of bollywood. Bollywood films often incorporate music (seemingly) gratuitously into the storytelling,  though it’s actually in a long line of music-dramatic storytelling or of the Parsee tradition. Some call it song-picturisation.

i-5-airport-sign-400x400I suggested the use of certain kinds of tracks in the script, rather than nailing down the use of one song in particular. A dance number set in a fast food restaurant might be set to a ‘pumping dance floor filler’ like Ciara’s ‘Get Up’. An unrequited love might be expressed by a boy lip-synching Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’ . Both were huge hits at the time.

I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out contemporary pop music to incorporate into a play – not because I don’t like it, but more because the material will be dated within a matter of months. So the script invites (future) directors and casts to substitute their own songs into the mix. Its selection by the Australian Script Centre as part of its Large Cast Anthology has meant this work continues to be produced in schools around Australia.

Lines Down (2008) Found Sounds

TransistorIn 2008, I wrote Lines Down, which is a play about a group of students in a university Drama course negotiating script to create a performance.  Of course it was to be performed by a group of students in a university Drama course negotiating script to create a performance. A satisfying lacuna.

Musically I wanted to experiment with a ‘found’ soundtrack. I decided to use a transistor radio, tuned to a local radio station. It was operated by an arm, the owner of which was unseen. The implication was that the arm might have belonged to a cleaner who enters the rehearsal space at night time, inbetween the fictional events depicted onstage. The sound source was diegetic, yet the sound itself from the ‘real world’. I was hoping for happy accidents, and indeed they happened. The ‘real’ audio, broadcast from somewhere nearby,  ‘in the now’ I think lent a kind of real-time credence to the experience of the characters. But I could be wrong.

I tuned the radio to 4BH, an easy listening station that apparently plays ‘the greatest music of all time’ which upped the chances of the signal it picked up being  familiar tunes or chatty patter. I wasn’t ready for the signal to be completely randomised: any station, any time.

The radio was only active when the stage was empty. The screen showed mundane moving images of empty corridors or night-time car-parks that I shot around the uni campus. Therefore the music had no human referent, and played in the cleared spaces between scenes.

songs in your pocket

songs in your pocket

After all the time I’ve spent carefully researching and curating music into drama it gave me a perverse thrill to throw it open to chance. In the performance of Tuesday,  November 4, the hand came out, turned the radio on and a familiar acoustic riff pealed out. The lights went down,  and the vocalist said “…Hello darkness my old friend..”  (Sounds of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel).  Tuesday November 11’s show was opened by the “lie la lies” of The Boxer. Elvis’ Presley’s CC Rider, Sherbet’s Howzat and Billy Joel’s I Love You Just The Way You Are and Uptown Girl spoke obliquely to the themes of the play. Even the audio trash of AM radio advertising seemed to attract value when it’s put onstage.

Hearing the news of the day crackling out during a live performance really attunes you to the ephemeral nature of what you’re doing when you’re putting on a show. It’s only there once. And then it’s gone.

Duty Free (2010) Gypsy Swing and Underscore

Tom and Bec Duty FreeIn 2010, I created a monologue-based piece about overseas travel experienced by young, middle-class Australians in their identity-forming ‘gap year’. Duty Free. It was deliberately meditative and anticlimactic in structure, though some of the monologues and characters were linked if you looked closely enough. The monologues were broken up by quirky ensemble movement sequences depicting action in airports, on airplanes and in customs. I decided to soundtrack these with Gypsy swing. I’ve loved Quintette du Hot Club de France since I was a teenager, and was lucky enough to see Stephane Grappelli live.

I used Gypsy Swing music, edited very closely to fit with the transitions we designed on the floor. Some vintage,  some contemporary. I got the cast to ‘map’ the music visually in whatever way they liked, and to share their ideas about how the music was structured before we really got into choreography. Gypsy Swing’s energetic,  sprightly and virtuosic. It’s simply fun. It gets used by the advertising industry to evoke good times, tinged with nostalgia and class.

I also used more contemporary pieces, such as Jonsi and Alex’s Happiness (at very low volumes) to underscore certain monologues towards the end of the piece, as if music was ‘invading’ the space as we got closer to the workings of the character’s hearts.

Duty Free in performance, The Studio, QUT 2010

Duty Free in performance, The Studio, QUT 2010

These projects,  and other similar ones I’ve not mentioned here, mostly use music to stitch together segments of dramatic action, cover transitions between them and sometimes underscore them. Sometimes the transitions have ended up more interesting than the scenes they adjoin. In the rehearsal room,  music has been my faithful friend. It’s been there to lend a polish to the unfinished, to shape scenes from the inside, or to dance to when you’ve run out of ideas. It allows me to procrastinate with a soundtrack while I’m supposed to be writing the play. Or so I thought. For me,  collecting, compiling and curating a potential soundtrack IS a writing exercise.

So I’ve been playing with traditional uses of music in western theatre,  but pushing outwards to see where its limits lie as a tool for making meaning,  looking for ways to tastefully innovate and let music inform on-stage (and on-page) action without subverting the primacy of the spoken word.

images of former students used with permission

One response to “Casting Wide: Experiments in Soundtracking Theatre

  1. Pingback: Plays by Ear: Music in Playwriting | lifeinthelongtail·

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