History of STS, Part 2: The Music

In which STS founder and artistic director Jeremy Fiebig and I continue our conversation about where Sweet Tea Shakespeare came from and where it’s going. This snippet focuses on how we use music to enhance the experience and help to tell the story. (Speaking of music, we’re on Spotify now, under the username sweetteashakes. Follow us to listen to playlists from past shows, like this one from As You Like Lit.)

Jen: Music seems to be one of the most appealing of the insurance policies. As I mentioned, the first STS show I saw was Much Ado About Nothing in 2012; I didn’t see another until Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2014, and the inclusion of music had increased noticeably. Now, the preshow, intermission, and internal music is such a huge part of the experience that it’s hard to imagine the shows without it.

Jeremy: So there’s an interesting side note here for Shakespeare nerds. Music was intertwined in early modern performance of all sorts, and of course Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights use music throughout their plays. At Blackfriars, Shakespeare’s indoor playhouse, there’s an indication that musicians played during act breaks while theatre staff came and trimmed the wax from the candles that might otherwise drip on the audience. In some cases, the music became more popular than the plays themselves.

For us, music took a bit longer to fully realize in our productions — in part because we were waiting for the right folks to come along to lead it. Now, we’ve got a small handful of guitar players, and a couple handfuls of other instrumentalists, plus we audition vocalists as part of casting for the plays. We’re looking for folks who can pull at least double duty wherever possible and fortunately, over time, we’ve been able to build a culture of music here.

Of course, because it is such an essential part of what we do now, and because so many of us and our audiences come in invested in music in ways that they aren’t, say, invested in classic theatre, there’s always lively discussion about how we select our music and the thinking that guides our selection. For me, music selection is something that’s always evolving, but we’ve got some basic principles in mind.

As a general rule, we want to select music that adds to the “poem of the experience” of the STS event. To me, this means we should make song choices as Shakespeare would make linguistic or contextual choices. If, for instance, listening to “The Star Spangled Banner” would help frame, contextualize, and critique a play about nationalism (say like Henry VI part i), then that would be a potentially good choice and the kind of choice we’d want to make. That said, we would never choose to do the Star Spangled Banner because it is, in fact, a terrible song and it makes people feel awkward.

Part of the goal with music is to bridge the gap between modern experience and Shakespeare experience: demonstrate that we can respond to both things (old and new) identically.

Generally, we want to avoid being “on the nose” with a choice. Singing a song from the Hunchback of Notre Dame while doing Richard III might fit that. This is a general rule that we’re occasionally happy to break, as doing “Henry VIII I Am” while performing Henry VIII should be a lifelong goal for all Shakespeare fans. 🙂

Generally, we want to avoid bad music. This is not to be confused with performing music badly, but we want to avoid that, too.

Generally, we want to avoid music that is so culturally iconic that by doing it we are putting people into the mindset of THAT piece of music rather than the mindset of the play. See: “Hey Jude” or “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Another way of thinking about this is that we want to be careful about music that will enable the audience to get too far ahead of us because they’re so familiar with the piece.

Generally, we want to avoid sounding like we only listen to Top 40, or only the Alt station in town, or only the jazz classics, or only the hits of the 80s, 90s, and today, or only mid-century ballads, or only singer-songwriter. Mixes are good, with a massive bias toward newer music for reasons I’ve said above. This is probably the least understood element of how we choose music and the biggest change from our earlier days — people want a jukebox, you know?

The above ideals notwithstanding, the overall aesthetic of STS music should be “rustic/folk” readings of whatever songs we select with departures where justifiable and appropriate. Imagine what the Avett Brothers or Old Crow Medicine show would do with the song and that’s what we want to shoot for, more or less.

Generally, we do not want to do only familiar songs or only unfamiliar songs.

Generally, we want a mix of vocal leads and a mix of songs that feature one voice versus several voices.

Generally, we need to be thinking of songs that can be played with the following instruments: guitar, guitar, guitar, guitar, djembe, cajon, acoustic bass, banjo, upright bass, mandolin, uke, harmonica, accordion, concertina, air-powered keyboard, etc. Nothing — nothing — nothing should be plugged in — it is in our constitution to have all our sound actor-driven. And as I say this, I’m recalling a conversation I’ve had in the last few months where we might be open to changing that a tiny bit.

Generally, we want 2-3 “all skate” songs where everyone plays a part, even if those folks aren’t 100% musical.

Jen: Which songs that STS has done particularly stand out to you as ones that have exemplified what you envision?

Jeremy: I often go back to our 2015 Winter’s Tale production as the place where we started to get music right, and specifically to two songs, Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, and King Charles’ The Brightest Lights, as the place where we started to really and truly connect the musical content to the play content and create stirring,  moving moments as part of a complete package. Since then, there’ve been several, including Timber in The Cherry Orchard, Make in The Tempest,and The Infanta in Antony & Cleopatra.

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Want to experience the musical magic that WoCo is cooking up now? Make plans to see Othello, opening June 1 at the 1897 Poe House!