Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Plaza Suite/Trust

It's shows like Eclipse's Plaza Suite and Open Eye's Trust that make it really hard for me to write about every show I see. I keep a personal spreadsheet with details on every one of these shows to keep my own little brand of OCD at bay. Among those details is a one to five star ranking, and it's the three-star shows, like these two, that kill me. They certainly aren't bad, but they're far from amazing as well. It's fluff theatre, shows to entertain and then be forgotten. Well and good -- they serve their purpose and sometimes serve it well, but what do I write when a show hasn't inspired any actual thoughts for me to convey?

Even now that I know I'm going to be writing about them all, I don't take notes at shows; I very strongly believe that if it's not memorable enough for me to, well... remember, it wasn't worth writing down in the first place. So what do I remember about Plaza Suite? Jon Steinhagen and Cheri Chenowith's Looney Tunes toned third act made me laugh; CeCe Klinger's apple pie realism was horribly miscast in a Neil Simon piece; the third act punchline is something much less comfortable by today's gender politics. What do I remember about Trust? Dan Granata and Jill Schmits walk away with the show; costuming a rock star should not involve a Rolling Stones t-shirt off the J.C. Penney's rack; Ben Folds has reached the point of nostalgia. There -- that's something. I'll use Trust to segue into my long-delayed contemporary music post.

Trust is backed almost entirely by a Ben Folds/Ben Folds Five soundtrack. Anyone who knows me well knows that the use of contemporary music in theatrical design (or any design, really) is a major interest of mine. This is primarily because people so rarely do it well. The amount of music available at our fingertips in the digital age dwarfs any other art form. And, oddly enough, I'm constantly amazed at how the good:bad ratio seems so much higher in music than elsewhere. Pop around the obscure parts of iTunes for a few minutes and you'll end up tripping over great music everywhere you turn. And yet, people insist on defaulting to the soundtrack of their college years anytime they needs something to kick a scene in the pants. The problem with using (even relatively) well-known music is that the people who pick the music because it speaks to them so much rarely think about the fact that it's already spoken to many people in the audience in a number of different ways as well. I've never been a die-hard Ben Folds fan, but I did enjoy the stuff he did with the Five, so when "Smoke" came on during Trust, I instantly checked out and went back to my own memories of that particular album. It certainly didn't help that the songs were used as a soundtrack to set change. If you treat your music as filler, don't be surprised when it usurps what's actually happening on stage.

And there's that whole problem of trying to be on top of the game: I remember sitting down at Raven's columbinus and my first thoughts being on the pre-show mix, something along the lines of "Oh, they're trying to approximate today's youth. How quaint." I wish I could remember exactly what was in the mix -- the only thing I can distinctly call to mind is something by Bright Eyes, but Bright Eyes an album or two ago. And then the big interpretive "Bittersweet Symphony" section came (which I'm sure is in the play -- and will age horribly -- , so I can hardly fault the production) and I kinda rolled my eyes while the old people next to me kinda didn't know what these kids were talking about. Of course, it's not that a design always has to be on top of the curve, but in many situations it can be very helpful. But keeping on top of music trends is a job in and of itself, and unless you are someone who takes a preternatural interest in it, odds are if you're familiar with it, it's no longer on top of the curve.

Which brings out the audience factor. You can't write or direct musical choices for an audience, because you're guaranteed to alienate someone. The young 'uns are mostly going to mock you for being out of date while the old 'uns will mostly be very confused. You have to write or direct musical choices that are appropriate for the show, the characters and the situations. That means knowing what's appropriate. In James Sherman's Relatively Close which ran at Victory Gardens this summer, he has created a rebellious teen who is also a slam poet. Sherman also has this anti-establishment high schooler (who dresses like a half-hearted punk, although that may have been a costumer's mistake -- again with the rock star costuming, it's not really that hard...) name drop the tremendously rebellious Kanye West and 50 Cent. And his slamming, featured at the end of the first act, is more in the vein of third rate flowing. Of course, if Sherman was intending to make some sort of commentary on how this character's intentions are ineffectual, perhaps those would be good choices. Not so in this play: he's just writing a stock character in a stock which he is terribly out of touch with. The matinée I was at had a mean audience age of 80, so the majority of them had no clue who the jokes were referencing and I'm sure a wide swath of the few that did laugh were doing so primarily because they understood that 50 Cent = crazy youth. If that latter half was his goal, he slightly achieved it. Of course, if that was his goal, his goal was for crap.

The punk costuming was a whole different thing. Aside from the name dropping, the character seemed to (and for much of the show appears to) fit the punk persona, but apparently Sherman, unable to decide between crazy punks and pop star names that people would recognize, mashed punk kid and hip-hopper together, he himself remaining none the wiser. It's not even that I care which direction it went: the kid could've been a punk and mentioned anyone from the Dead Kennedys to the Casualties or he could have gone the hip-hop route and name dropped anywhere in the gamut between Public Enemy and WHY? and it would've been fine, but there needs to be a sense of reality, not just a glance at the latest album sales. There was so little time put into any sense of a three-dimensional character that the top of the pops was the only way to go and the character died completely.

Not everyone is utterly clueless, though. Strange Tree Group's The Mysterious Elephant had a pre-, intermission, and post-show mix that was not only esoteric, perfectly setting up the audience to enjoy it simply as atmosphere if they so chose, it also matched the tone of the show to a tee. Pavement Group's Lipstick Traces was the type of show that lives or dies by its soundtrack. It lived gloriously. And Theatre Wit's Feydeau-si-deau has one of the most inspired intermission mixes I've ever heard and a perfect example of how to properly use well-known music: bank on the fact that it's well known. When the lights came up at intermission to French dubs of Avril Lavigne and 50 Cent, I laughed out loud -- and with the designer, rather than at.

My default rule for the use of contemporary music isn't actually my rule at all; it's Greg Allen's. The Neo-Founderist has a list of 25 Rules for Creating Good Theater on the Neo-Futurists' website. The whole list is worth reading; I find myself referencing it quite often. But one of my favorites is #21:

"Rule #21: Include music. There’s nothing better for introducing new music to people than having it accompany stage action. Take the opportunity to re-contextualize known music through performance."

Well-chosen music can make itself contextually inseparable. For a perfect example, break out your copy of The Pixies' Surfer Rosa and skip to "Where Is My Mind?". For those who think they don't know what I'm talking about, jump to the very end of Fight Club when the skyscrapers are crashing to the ground. Never again will you be able to hear that song without hearing Ed Norton's voice in the background. This is what properly used music can do.

And if you or someone you know are attempting to attach contemporary music to a theatre piece and aren't quite sure what you want (or, inversely, keep finding yourself saying "Oh yeah! I LOVE that song!"), please get ahold of me. Honest to god, I'm not even playing here. I've reached my limit of poorly selected contemporary soundtracks. There is a wealth of music completely untapped that will fit far better than whatever you have in your decade old CD collection. I'll meet with whoever you want me to meet, I'll watch however much of the rehearsal process you want me to watch, I'll mine whatever genre or tone or intended demographic or whatever else that you want me to mine, and I'll get you a soundtrack design, be it pre/inter/post-show mix or full on scene accompaniment, that doesn't suck. Cause I can only cringe so many times before I get stuck that way, and I feel my limit coming on.


You see? There're still things I feel strongly about! It's just really hard to find a way there from three star shows...

On a positive note, I've taken full advantage of the late summer theatre lull to completely catch up on my To See list, to the point that I'm finally able to see things on opening rather than closing weekend! Just in time, too; Dracula opens on the 19th and I gots to get my Harker on, meaning my show intake will be cutting down drastically enough to get me just as far behind as I was before. As for this week, on Friday it's Collaboraction's Heroes and Villains, and Saturday is Trap Door's No Darkness Round My Stone. What did I tell you? That's two, count them, two opening weekends!



Paul said...

Re: music in a show:

One of my favorite productions of the past decade was "Closer" at the Station Theater in Champaign, IL (directed, I believe, by Jarrett Dapier of Dog & Pony). They use Massive Attack throughout, but especially "Exchange" during the Act II dance sequence. I walked away from that show knowing two things:

1) I'd get back on a stage some time in my life; and

2) I would own that album by the end of the weekend.

Right on both counts.

Nick Keenan said...

Massive Attack. Amazing. See, that's evocative music.

But yes. You're right on.


I wouldn't say there are hard and fast rules beyond that: I've seen a play subvert Journey in an interesting way, and that's music usually FRAUGHT with personal associations that have no place within the world of the play.
I really enjoyed Dan's work in Trust, natch, but yes, really cringed at how Ben Folds was used ... and not used.

At least, if it's a show about rock, turn up the volume.

That said, I've been interested lately in the prospect of one-song designs - a song that is played with in different ways and repeated until it shakes off some of its associations and becomes part of the dialogue of the play with the audience. Think about that song "Polly" from Shining City. I think there's ways to play with pop associations that SERVE the work.

But yeah. When directors break out their ipods for sonic research, a big blinky red warning light goes off in my head. Because I know we're about to have this conversation, and it usually gets a little rough: Because people love their tunes, and really have thick blinders about how sound works dramatically whereas they don't have blinders about visuals, costumes, or text.

It is certainly wonderful when that happens and a director surprises me with an astute choice, though. That happened a couple times this last year, so I think people are starting to get it.

Paul Rekk said...

Oh, you're right... My absolute favorite of Allen's 25 Rules is #26: There are no rules.

But exceptions are the advanced course; right now I'd be happy with some of the basics.

I've been a regular on a number of mp3blogs lately and have become enamored with the sheer wall of new music that continues to replace itself despite the fact that few people seem to be paying attention. And a lot of it is quite good!

One germ of an idea that has been incubating in my head for a while is exploring other meanings and interpretations of the term "musical theatre" -- one of the ideas would be the merging of long-form music video with theatre; a story which is not enhanced by the soundtrack, but is born of and implicit with it.

These are the things I literally see in my head when I listen to most music. It makes me wonder if others (directors scanning their iPods, for example) just don't have that psychovisual reaction, and why not? I can't imagine not having my own personal music videos. The brain's a damn fascinating thing.

katjen said...

Incongruous house music is a huge pet peeve of mine too. I probably think about the Strange Tree mixes a little too much when I’m getting them together, and I probably get a little too into it overall, but when people notice (which, by the way, thanks for noticing!) and think that the music choices work and add something to the show it’s really satisfying and it makes me really happy. Even if 90% of the audience doesn’t register what they’re listening too and why it does or doesn’t work I tend to think they’re still going to be affected by it. The music is a way to commune a bit with your audience beforehand and to guide them to a place (again, whether they realize it or not) where they’re going to be more receptive to what you’re presenting. It’s a way of getting them on your side and hopefully sympathetic to your characters before you even introduce them, and not taking that into consideration is just wasted opportunity. Strange Tree did a show a few years ago about a young man who witnesses something so horrible he’s locked himself away in his attic bedroom for an undisclosed amount of time. He’s nervous and fragile, and we wanted our audience to care about him from the moment they stepped into the theatre. We used a lot of Elliott Smith and songs with voices like his – gentle, and maybe a teensy bit unsettling which was this character all over. Funnily enough we also used “Where is My Mind” during the pre-show, and the Fight Club link did occur to me. I thought to myself, Yeah…. I’m thinking of those crumbling buildings. And then I decided that that was fine, that was great. That’s exactly what’s happening inside this character (plus those ghostly “ooohs” come into play later on). The song was just too weirdly perfect not to use even with the pop cultural connotations, but I totally agree that that’s something that needs to be considered – nothing can be there just to be there. Because then it’s just there. And if you’re using something so immediately recognizable to the majority of the audience you better be trying to say something with it. House music is no different than lights, set, and costumes – they’re all there to do the same thing, and it always surprises me how frequently this particular aspect gets ignored.

Just out of curiosity, did you happen to catch The Nebraska Project by Bruised Orange this summer? It was a play that was born of Springsteen’s Nebraska album, completely inspired and influenced by. I’m not really familiar with Springsteen’s music myself, but that show evoked such a specific mood and place that I feel like I know that album even though I hadn’t heard a song from it previously.

In re: to your thought about a new kind of “musical theatre”, when I was scouting out colleges years ago I sat in on an acting class that was presenting their final scenes. The only one I remember had no dialogue. It was a woman in a kitchen with a bottle. She put on a song, some bluesy number that immediately made her and the chairs and table a little rougher, her dress a little more worn. And then a man entered. He was concerned and she flirty. She made him dance with her and he reluctantly complied. She poured him a drink which he didn’t touch until he did and then he drank it slowly, forcing himself to be comfortable, and when she leaned in for the kiss which, despite his obvious misgivings, he seemed more than ready to accept, she got sick. It was sad and beautiful and sexy (even with the mimed vomiting) – the awkward drunken flirtation, the uneasiness on his part giving way to tenderness while the guitar continued howling – there was a whole world in that scene. I remember it more clearly than things I actually worked on myself in college. I’d love to see a show like that if it could sustain itself – just letting the music be the words and acting that. I never asked but I’ve always wondered what came first – the scene or the song, but when it’s that fully integrated I don’t suppose it matters.