Sweet Tea Shakespeare invites you to join us for a season reveal party featuring a concert by our house band, The Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers (affectionately known as WoCo).
The event will take place on Tuesday, June 11 at 7p.m. at the 1897 Poe House (801 Arsenal Avenue). Food will be available for purchase, along with craft beer and wine.
Grab a lawn chair and come on out for some foot-stomping, heart-stirring music and to get a sneak preview of the stories that Sweet Tea Shakespeare will be bringing you next season.
By Rachel Brune, Audience Wright and WoCo Member
A certain (ahem!) number of years ago, I went on a songwriting bender. At the time I was playing regularly with a folk-rock band, and so all of my writing ideas were coming out in ABAB rhyme schemes with a CDCD bridge stuck somewhere in there. And yet, I was young and hadn’t experienced half the long, strange, wonderful, maddening life I’m living now, so most of my lyrics were either about the potential partners I met or didn’t meet, or some sort of allusion to literature or art that had particularly moved me. Or both.
Fast forward to current days …. Sweet Tea Shakespeare put out a call for original music for its production of Cymbeline. After a few days of hemming and hawing, and a healthy dose of impostor syndrome (dammit, I’m a writer, not a … oh yeah), I typed up the lyrics to four or five pieces from the last twenty years I’ve been writing songs, and sent them on their way.
So now, my song “Gold,” written back in those early days, will be performed during the Cymbeline pre-show. It’s got the right cast of characters—the manipulative queen, the callow youth, the absent young woman in his life–but it also has something more than it did when I first wrote it.
It’s hard to put a name to what that something is, but it’s wrapped up in the fact that the song itself has evolved over time to more than just a Robert Frost reference. As we started playing Gold during the first STS music rehearsal, I realized the song was not the same one we used to play.
The arrangement is different, for one thing. Instead of playing guitar, I’m now on bass (an instrument I didn’t even own, let alone know how to play at the time I wrote the song). And where my friend Lynn used to sing the harmony I wrote down, Cymbeline’s own Queen, Marie Lowe, developed a sparsely beautiful second harmony line to sweeten the chorus just enough to be intriguing and amazing.
When writing a song, you never know if it’s going to appeal to people or not. So many times, what I thought was clever or pretty or a good beat in the privacy of my room turned out to be embarrassingly naïve or parochial or just plain bad when shared with other people. Other times, what I thought was the best way to go with an arrangement was only the second- or third-best way to go, as the other members of the band took the blueprint of the lyrics and chords and added on all the musical architecture the song was missing (and I didn’t even know it).
It’s good for the heart to be able to play with a group of people that you can trust musically, creatively, and artistically to take your humble offering and turn it into something you could never have achieved on your own. That is why I offered this song, that is why I continue to try out for plays and submit proposals to work with Sweet Tea Shakespeare, and that is why I hope I will see you in the audience for Cymbeline as we share the final output of this creative, collaborative process.
Folk rock on, my friends!
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.
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!
By Catherine Kelly, WoCo musician
Hello, everyone! My name is Catherine, and I am a relative “newbie” to the Sweet Tea stage. Behold, which opens tonight (yay!), will mark my second show with Sweet Tea Shakespeare, with my first being Romeo & JuliLIT in October. Both Behold and Romeo and JuliLIT have become cherished performance memories for me, and it’s with great pleasure that I share some thoughts from my experiences this season.
First, I’ll provide a little backstory. I come from a musical family in which violin is the instrument to play. Both my grandmother and mother have worked for years as professional violinists and instructors, so naturally, I was given classical violin lessons almost as early as I took my first steps! As I got older, my most radical act of teenage “rebellion” was to insist on taking voice lessons and applying for voice programs, instead of violin, at university music schools. (Honestly, this was one of the most rebellious things I ever did–in my own mind, anyway. In reality, my family was absolutely thrilled I was studying voice. My teenage years were obviously not that riveting.) Eventually, I earned a Master’s degree in Vocal Performance, and I began performing professionally as an operatic soprano and, from time to time, a violinist.
Opera has taken me to places I never imagined I’d see. Shortly before auditioning for Sweet Tea Shakespeare, I’d completed a performance season in Vienna, Austria, where I sang the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. This was a dream role for me; Figaro is my favorite opera. When I moved back to to North Carolina and saw postings for auditions at STS, I saw an opportunity to pursue yet another dream of mine, one that is pretty different from my opera dreams: playing in a folk band.
As a classical musician, I’m accustomed to reading notes on a page and playing/singing exactly what the composer writes. Playing folk or pop music requires the ability to improvise, since the music isn’t always written in detail. My first rehearsals as a violinist for Romeo and JuliLIT involved quite a bit of experimenting, wrong improvised notes, and “Oops, sorry’s.” Jacob French, our brilliant music director, would ask me, “Hey, do you think you could add a little solo in this bridge section?” And I’d respond, “Uh… I can definitely try.”
I’m proud to say my improvisational skills have greatly improved since those first rehearsals. Now, when Jake asks me to fill in with a solo, my response is, “Of course!” Every rehearsal is teaching me confidence in playing in a genre that, prior to my experience with STS, felt a bit foreign to me. And I’m absolutely loving it.
A big underlying theme in studying classical music is finding beauty in every note, no matter the length, no matter the dynamic. Making music is always more meaningful when the performer can love each and every note. There are things I’ve learned while playing with Sweet Tea that I’ll use in my classical repertoire from now on, too; namely, to play or sing each note, whether I wrote it or not, with an improvisatory energy, with the feeling that I might be making up each note on the spot, allowing the music to pour out from the heart.
I’m thankful for Sweet Tea Shakespeare for this opportunity to grow as a performer and as a person. Making music with an endlessly talented, vastly supportive group is my dream career. I’m so thankful to have found a place to create in such a brilliantly fulfilling way.