Oi! For a Muse of Fire

 

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Wyckham Avery as Pistol. From WHF’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

Hey folks! Keith Hock here, back again for the final week of our critically acclaimed Henry V! Last week I promised I would talk about our quick-changes and their function in our concept. I’m a man of my word, so I’ll get into them here, but since a) I don’t think even I could spend a thousand words talking solely about the concept of quick-changes and b) there has been an elephant in the room for this whole production that I have mentioned in passing but never addressed in the blog, I want to talk about it in light of another context; Punk Rock. In fact, I’ll do you one better, and I’ll bring EVERYTHING back together under this punk umbrella. Sound good?

Much to 14-year-old me’s disappointment I am perhaps the least punk person I know. I love rules, my concealed-by-work-attire tattoos are about being a contributing member of society, and I got my ear pierced at the mall. My whole lifestyle and aesthetic falls somewhere between “nice young man” and “lovable oaf”. But I’m not exactly a Chinese or Balkans scholar, either, and that didn’t stop me from dramaturging CHALK. So I bit the bullet and set out to learn all that I could about punk. Which I did in, without a doubt, the squarest and LEAST punk of all possible ways: I read about it. I went to my job at the library and I went to our catalog and I typed the words “Punk” and “Class Conflict” in the search engine and I read all the books and articles that popped up. Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye would not approve.

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“Shame on you, nerd.” Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins

Nevertheless, my nerd research pinged onto a key aspect of the punk philosophy, one that spoke deeply to We Happy Few’s collective heart; an aggressively democratic, improvisational, anti-authority, do-it-yourself attitude towards creating art and just generally living life. There are no barriers to creating punk art. All that is important is the desire to do it, and the wherewithal to follow through on that desire. Failure doesn’t exist. If you do a bad job all that happens is you made some bad art, and you learn from the experience and get better. [Or you don’t, as cast member and punk survivor Wyckham Avery pointed out to me in a rehearsal. Maybe you don’t get better. It doesn’t matter. Between quality and authenticity in punk culture, quality is the less important attribute by a wide margin. -KH] The point is no one can stop you from doing something you want to do, no authority can tell you that what you made was right or wrong, good or bad.

There is a lot of good stuff to unpack from this philosophy but the one that I really want to focus on is the egalitarian aspect. Why do you think we did away with the Chorus? The expository scenes at the beginning of each act and end of the play are all supposed to be delivered by a (confusingly-named) single Chorus character. But that’s boring, and who is this guy who gets to tell us all what’s going on? HE isn’t the one telling the story, HE wasn’t there. You know who WAS there? Pistol, and Nym, and Alice, and Quickly, and Gower, and the Dauphin, and Exeter; the ensemble. Likewise with “Once more unto the breach”, traditionally a Henry monologue that we broke up across the whole army. Henry isn’t a god, he’s just one man. He is no more important in this battle than any of his soldiers, so his second-most-famous battle cry gets spread around to everyone doing their own bit of fighting. [Henry gets to keep St Crispin’s Day because he is openly trading on his royal status in that one -KH] Long-time fans may recall this trick from our Tempest days, when we cast everyone who wasn’t Prospero as Ariel. The thematic thrust was different (creating a community versus demonstrating the ubiquity of magic on the island) but the tool was the same.

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L-R: Josh Adams, Andrew Keller, Scott Gaines, Britt Duff. From We Happy Few’s 2013 The Tempest. Photo by Jon Harvey

You might, by now, see the skeleton of how this is connected to quick changes and multiple characters. You may even see how it is tied to the illusory nature of theatre and why this play, in particular, rewards acknowledging the deception that I talked about on opening night. These conceits—democratizing the stage, drawing attention to class divides through intentional multi-casting, and openly acknowledging the artifice of the play exposed by Shakespeare’s own language—allow us to have our characters change appearances on the fly, sometimes even mid-scene. This was not exactly new territory for us, having cut our teeth on this very conceit in Hamlet, but it had been a while since we were able to do it with such clarity and intent.

Here as elsewhere we found ourselves a mighty ally in the Prologue’s metatheatrical reminder that the audience is watching a play. Thanks to the Prologue, we had fourth-wall-breaking playwright permission to appear as Actors on a Stage from time to time. We didn’t need Hamlet’s insanity nor the dream logic of The Tempest and Winter’s Tale to explain the rapid changes. This time they were actual costume changes in the context of a play. They just happened in broad view of the audience, rejecting the audience’s assumptions about how a play is supposed to be staged. This gave us some leeway in facilitating some quick scene changes; for example, we could have Kiernan traipsing around the French camp as noted coward Le Fer while carrying his Henry robe, because he won’t have time to get back where he stowed it before his entrance for St. Crispin’s Day. It also gave us more opportunities to play with our doubling, letting us do fun things like turn the Boy (on lookout duty during some nefarious dealings) into Exeter, the exact sort of Authority Figure she is supposed to be looking out for.

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L-R: Natasha Gallop as the Boy, Niusha Nawab as Bardolph, Robert Pike as French Corpse. From We Happy Few’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

This is what I was talking about when I said it was so difficult to examine one aspect of this play without bringing up two others. The punk framework of …rejecting traditional frameworks dovetails perfectly into the Prologue’s acknowledgement of artifice and our own exploration of the clear but underrepresented class divide in the show. Our own propensity for multicasting and on-stage character changes lends itself equally well to examining class divisions and reminding the audience where they are and what they’re doing.

If you would like to see this seamless combination of form and function on stage, time is running out! We are running for the rest of this week and then MUST CLOSE on Saturday the 29th of April. Don’t miss your chance! Tickets are available HERE!

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An Interview with a Composer

The musical component of our production of THE TEMPEST takes center stage in this interview with Composer John Todd, who created music that will, in turn, help to create our world in the play. John Todd is a lawyer with a passion for music living in Massachusetts. As the name suggests, he is the father of our beloved director and We Happy Few co-founder, Hannah Todd, and therefore it seemed fitting to have his help in designing the sound of the island.

WHF: How did you come to be a part of this project?

John Todd: Making music together has been a big part of our family life.  When the kids took up instruments, I composed things I could play with them or they could play with friends.  Hannah and I have been singing together since she was a toddler, and she herself has done some composing.  In fact our first collaboration was setting to music some reminiscences of my mother (Hannah’s grandmother) for her 70th birthday, and later we set some Shakespeare sonnets to music for my father’s 75th birthday. It was a natural outgrowth of that collaboration that Hannah asked me to work on this project.

WHF: Can you talk a little bit about your approach to composing music for THE TEMPEST? Was there anything in particular that inspired you or that Hannah (our director) gave you as a guide?

Todd: The Tempest is a very musical play, full of songs and Shakespeare’s own musical directions (“solemn and strange music”).  In WHF’s production, everything emanates from the actors and their bodies — the magic, the music and the evocation of the island itself; so the songs and incidental music are a cappella, without instruments.  Hannah and I talked through what she was trying to achieve in each scene and how the music or song should drive the scene and the characters; then I would try to conjure it with the music.  Some things worked right away; others, we went back and forth a bit until it felt right.

WHF: What kind of tone does your music lend to the performance?

Todd: At first, I tried to give the music a kind of Elizabethan madrigal quality (it is Shakespeare, after all), something you can hear a bit in the first song, “Full Fathom Five.”  But after a few tries, we decided to aim for something more unmoored from a particular era or style, particularly for the music “of the island” like Ariel’s and Caliban’s songs and the feast music.  It’s the interlopers whose music has roots in our world, as in the sea chanty “The Master, The Swabber.”

WHF: We are adamant that this show is not a musical. But it is a show with music. Can you explain how the music fits into the performance?

Todd: Shakespeare infused the play with music, and while the music should be subservient, at times Shakespeare has the characters themselves stop, listen and wonder as the music manifests itself.  So we didn’t have to be too shy about the music, try to hide it unobtrusively in the background, because that’s not where Shakespeare put it.  At the same time, our aim musically was to capture the mood and character of the scene, from Caliban’s harsh, otherworldly cry for release in “No more dams”, to Ariel’s hidden existential sadness in “Where the bee sucks” (“shall I live now”).

WHF: Please tell us about the timeline of preparing the music. What part will you play in the rehearsal process, if any?

Todd: I created initial versions of all the music working from Hannah’s first edit before rehearsals began; but we knew it would need to evolve as part of the very collaborative process that is at the heart of this production.  Once we had the actors – and their various voices – and as the scenes took shape, we monkeyed with the music to make it work.  Fortunately, the production has been blessed with a very talented music director, Ben Lurye, who has been able to shepherd the music through that collaboration, keeping it fully integrated with the evolving movement and direction.

WHF: Do you have a vision, or hope, of how audiences will react to Shakespeare set to your music?

Todd: While this isn’t a musical, the music should serve the same ends – it should feel like a natural outgrowth of what is happening on the stage, and bring added dimension to the characters, which is what Shakespeare wanted.  Hopefully, it also reflects the peculiar character of WHF’s vision of a clash between Prospero’s world and ours and its resolution.

WHF: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the project?

Todd: Only a father’s deep pride in what Hannah, and Raven, have accomplished, and the real joy in being part of it.

I’d like to thank John for taking time to speak with us and shed a bit more light on the musical component of our take on THE TEMPEST. Can’t picture (or hear) it? You’ll have to come to the show and experience it! Click here and get your tickets today!