By Jacob French, Company Member and Master of Note
When my experience with Sweet Tea Shakespeare (STS) began, it was because of the music. My wife, you see, had been cast in one of the shows and shared with me that STS had live music prior to their performances.
“You should really come along and play!” she pleaded with me. “You’re always complaining that you don’t have anyone to play with.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I can be a complainer, so my wife’s comments were probably truer than I’d like to believe.
“What could it hurt?” I told myself. “I can at least strum along while standing nondescriptly in the background.”
Fast forward one year and now I’m the Master of Note (the company music director and “leader” – if there is such a thing – of our house band, The Suspenders).
Sweet Tea’s relationship between Shakespeare and music has been a steadily growing one. The music that once served mostly as pre- and mid-show entertainment has grown into an integral part of the Sweet Tea experience. No longer is the music confined to preshow; it now weaves its way in and out of the play itself – like a soundtrack to the script.
The process for The Tempest has been very similar to the process we use for all our shows. Company members, the artistic director, and I all add songs to a list that we feel match the feeling of the play. The artistic director and I then whittle this list down a set of songs that not only match the feeling of the play, but will also move the audience. Does this mean move the audience physically, like in a participatory dance? Perhaps. The real movement we want is emotional.
Once the final set of songs is chosen, I get to play composer and create the arrangements we use. While this process is somewhat time-consuming, it’s the part of the job that I truly enjoy. One of the many things I take pride in at STS is that we don’t cover songs exactly as they are performed by the original artist; we perform our version of the songs. This means you could get an Avett Brothers song which stays pretty much in the same style as the original, or you could hear a folk-rock version of Katy Perry or Ke$ha. The actual arrangement I create depends largely on who is involved in the Suspenders for each show. For some shows it’s only me on guitar with a singer. For The Tempest, the Suspenders are comprised of two guitars, a mandolin, a cello, a percussionist, and the vocalists.
Once arrangements are finalized, I assign singers to each of the songs and we begin rehearsals. This is where I could claim a lot of undue credit if I was that kind of person. The truth is, at this point my job is largely done. I could say that I lead the group through strenuous music rehearsals, nitpicking every little thing they do, guiding them to musical nirvana. In actuality, once rehearsals start, the process is largely collaborative. Yes, there is some coaching or correcting from me, but 95% of what you’ll hear at a STS show is the result of a great GROUP of people working TOGETHER to move people.
Whether you’ve been complaining about not having anyone to play with or you just want a good performance with great music, join us for a show or join us in its creation.
Perhaps you’ll pull up a lawn chair and drink a glass of tea while you take it all in.
Or maybe you’ll just stand nondescriptly in the back and strum along.
That’s what I did.