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Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company
Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Inside Richard the Third’s Doom Rock Inspired Soundtrack

Shakespeare and doom rock are not two things one would associate. But in the world of Shakespeare Theatre Company‘s Richard the Third the two are intrinsically linked, thanks to composer Lindsay Jones. A lifelong lover of music, Jones has been playing since he was a teen and is entirely self taught. While working as an actor in Chicago, he began scoring plays as a side gig. Combined with his passion for music, it quickly became a legitimate career that’s seen him score a host of successful productions throughout the country. Now,  25 years into his career crafting innovative compositions for theatre, Jones lent his talent – and love for doom rock, punk and metal – to the score of STC’s dark performance.

OT: How did you come to work with Shakespeare Theatre Company on this play?
Lindsay Jones: When I first sat down with [artistic director] David Muse, he told me he wanted [the score] to be punk rock. I’ll be honest, I’m a huge fan of punk rock, but I never get asked to make punk rock. There just aren’t a lot of theatres in America looking for punk rock soundtracks. As he described it to me, he said he wanted it to start out very punk and full of energy, but as the play went on, to get distorted and ugly and dirty.

OT: How did you or the others involved in the play decide to approach the score using doom rock?
LJ: I started thinking of using doom rock, which is slow, and dirge-y but still super distorted – the soundtrack of your nightmares, basically. I wanted to start with punk rock [that became] doom rock as it went along. But it occurred to me that in the structure of Richard the Third, in the beginning of the play Richard says, “I’m planning this takeover, I’m going to slowly methodically knock out all of my enemies til’ I get to be king.” There’s not a lot of fast stuff in there. Once Richard is king, everything starts falling apart and becoming more frantic and crazy. Halfway through I realized I was doing this in reverse – it should start slower and speed up as it goes, so that’s what we did.

OT: What other elements played into the score’s composition?|
LJ: As I was walking out of David’s office after our initial meeting, he told me he had this other idea for the actors to be playing body percussion along with the music. I didn’t know how that was going to play itself out. They hired an amazing movement choreographer named Stephanie Paul, who in rehearsal worked with the actors to create complex sequences where they’re playing on their bodies with knives and sticks – all sorts of things. They’re pounding out complicated rhythms while sequences are happening. So I would watch videos of the actors doing these movement sequences, figure out what the BPM was and then create music that fit.

OT: That’s an incredibly unique element – and incredibly challenging to work with, I can imagine!
LJ: Rock music doesn’t usually have a lot of space for additional percussion. The whole idea is it’s super loud and regressive. The first challenge was just fitting everything in. We ended up [putting microphones on] the stage and performers, so I could pick up [the percussion] and amplify it to the same volume level as the recorded music.

The other challenge, which probably took us the longest time to sort out, is that these actors worked for several weeks creating percussion sequences and got pretty good at it, but they weren’t initially trying to perform these sequences along to anything else [like music].  As soon as I show up with recorded music at a certain tempo every time no matter what – it was a lot of telling them to start at a certain beat, keep up with a certain rhythm, listen to parts of the score – so they could hear the rhythm they have to keep up with.

So we’re telling them “okay actors, you’re going to speak, you’re going to play rhythm on your body and you’re going to attempt to stay completely in time with this recorded piece of music that’s playing along.” I have to give the cast a tremendous amount of credit. It was tricky but they hung in there, and wanted to make it work. When you see the performance now, it all seems like second nature. But at the time of putting it together, we definitely had moments of thinking “oh my god, what have we done?”

OT: How have your audiences received the score?
LJ: People who are casual theatre fans are really excited by it. The reviews have either said “wow, this is a totally crazy interpretation of this play and I really enjoyed it” or “oh my god, what did they do, I don’t know how I feel about it!”

One of the reviews called the score “post-Wayne’s World,” so if your relationship to hard rock music is Wayne’s World, I don’t know if there’s much I can do to help you.

OT: Scoring any play, but especially a Shakespeare classic like Richard the Third, is no small task. Why do you think this job is so important, and what keeps you in this industry?
LJ: I’ve started teaching how to write theatre compositions recently and one of the things I like to tell my students is that music is really the emotional context by which you’re going to receive drama. This speech I’m giving right now about how music affects – you could imagine that while I’m giving it there’s a slow building underscore that’s really inspirational and exciting. That’s going to totally frame the context by which you’re getting this information. If I gave the same speech with dark scar music, it completely changes the context by which you see it because now you’re imagining something terrible is going to happen.

Music is incredibly powerful and influential. When you’re given the responsibility of creating music that’s going to match live drama, you really have a great responsibility to try to make the music as close to what the action is as possible, so that the audience is receiving the clearest and most expressive form of the story.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Richard the Third runs through Sunday, March 10 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall. Tickets $44-$102. For more on composer Lindsay Jones, visit www.linsdayjones.com. You can find the punk, metal and doom rock songs that inspired Jones’ compositions below.

Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Richard the Third – tracks and influences

Track: Richard III 

Influence – Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath 

Track: This Is War

Influence – Boilermaker by The Jesus Lizard

Track: To The Sanctuary 

Influence: Bliss In Concrete by Pelican 

Track: Full Speed Ahead 

Influence: Otsegolectric by Static-X 

Track: Zadok The Priest 

Influence: The Prophet’s Song by Queen 

Track: A Needless Coward 

Influence: This Isn’t The Place by Nine Inch Nails 

Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company
Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Modern Shakespeare: Richard the Third at STC

“Now is the winter of our discontent.”

The opening line of Richard the Third would have you believe that all hardships are over and only good days are to come. But as theatergoers attending Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (STC) upcoming production of Richard the Third will soon realize, anything but peace lies ahead.

Directed by David Muse for STC and running from February 5 through March 10, Shakespeare’s Richard the Third follows the titular role of Richard on his ambitious quest for the crown. A spiteful megalomaniac, Richard (Matthew Rauch) will stop at nothing until he sits on the throne, and thus invites the audience into a world of murder, villainy and even dark fun.

“Yes, Richard does horrific things in this play,” Rauch says, “but my hope and David’s [Muse] hope, I think, is that at least for the first part of the play, the audience reaction will not be ‘Oh, what a terrible person,’ but ‘Oh, isn’t he just deliciously evil’ and it’s terrible, but it’s fun to watch.”

Rauch emphasizes that just because the title of the play is Richard the Third, it doesn’t mean the story is only about him.

“It’s very easy with a face on the poster and the title of the play, for people to think there’s only one person involved,” Rauch says. “The truth is there’s about a hundred people involved and all of them are crucial.”

Some of those crucial people are the women around Richard, including his mother the Duchess of York, Margaret of Anjou and Queen Elizabeth. Rauch points out that while Richard can brilliantly manipulate people and events, these particular women don’t bend easily to his will and disprove the outdated notion that Shakespearean women are damsels in distress.

But a fourth woman equally as important to the play’s development, Lady Anne of Neville (Cara Ricketts), is the person who perhaps best understands Richard.

“Richard sees himself in [Anne] and she sees herself in him, in a way that she probably feels like she may break through to him,” Ricketts says. “He pretends it’s a possibility and she falls for it.”

Bust because Anne is ultimately manipulated by Richard, this doesn’t make her simple.

“My Anne is not a pushover,” Ricketts says. “There’s nothing soft about these women. The foundation for these characters has never been soft women.”

Ricketts adds she is ready to play Anne the way an audience 70 years ago may not have let her.

“During the 50s, you had preconceived notions about what a woman was in terms of society so that’s what you got,” Ricketts says. “Now I’ve got a chance to let loose the girdle and make it rip, so that’s what I’m doing while respecting what that character is.”

These preconceived notions of Shakespearean women are not the only ideas cast and crew hope prove outdated. Perhaps one of the most famous scenes in the play is the “wooing scene” where Richard interrupts Anne’s mourning of her father-in-law.

Rauch stresses that while many feel the scene is “creepy” and Richard comes off as “sexually predatory,” this is not the way they plan to portray Richard.

“The only event that needs to happen in the scene is that Anne consents to come to Richard’s house. Nothing else is implied in that scene or on the page and my hope is that it will not come off as sexually creepy,” Rauch says. “David [Muse] and I were never interested in a Richard who was sexually predatory, not because it’s not politically correct, but because we didn’t believe there was anything in the text that supported that.”

Changes in the character’s tones will not be the only noticeable differences in STC’s Richard the Third production. About 40 percent of the original text – mostly obscure English history – has been cut for a streamlined production.

“The Shakespeare Theatre is, I would argue, literally the best classical theater in the United States,” Rauch says. “They know how to do this here and they have created such a web of support.”

Rauch adds that despite the play’s age, audience members will find a lot of similarities between the 500-year-old story and modern society.

“[This is] a story about a deeply complicated, manipulative, brilliant person who rises to power and the people who are complicit in his doing so,” Rauch says. “All you need to do is read the front page of the New York Times to find parallels to that story.”

See Richard the Third at Shakespeare Theatre Company from February 5 through March 10. Runtime is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets start at $44. For more information, click here.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company
Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Lucky Steals Show in Waiting For Godot

Hope and despair, slapstick comedy and profound philosophical musings, each are abound in quick succession in Samuel Beckett’s iconic and mysterious play Waiting for Godot.

Irish acting company Druid is performing their rendition of the hard-to-interpret play at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through May 20. The metaphorical mystery in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot leaves an endless amount of room for interpretation, but Druid’s rendition is certain to keep audiences laughing as much as it will make them think.

The play tells the story of two tramps, seemingly stranded on a barren countryside road. Vladimir (nicknamed Didi, played by Marty Rea), a usually cheerful intellectual and Estragon (nicknamed Gogo, played by Aaron Monaghan), the wearier of the two. The pair bicker, play games and tell stories endlessly, while they wait for the arrival of someone named Godot. During the eager, sometimes hopeless, wait, the tone alternates between heartbreaking and hilarious.

“I think Beckett wants us to go through all the different emotions in this play. There are some very sad, emotional moments and kind of a despair at times but then he does the opposite, there’s great hope and great love and great laughs at times at ourselves and our existence,” actor Garrett Lombard says.

The two tramps, draped in shabby clothes and plagued with ill-fitting boots and itchy hats, encounter only three other characters: Pozzo (Rory Nolan), his slave named Lucky (Lombard) and an unnamed boy (Malcolm Fuller).

The tramps wonder about and at times judge Pozzo’s treatment of Lucky, who is constantly burdened with a stool, a basket, a suitcase full of sand and a rope around his neck.

“[Lucky is] a very subservient character, very low-status kind of guy, and he basically wants to please his master by doing his job of carrying his bags and giving him his coat and his stool and his whip and whatnot as best as he can,” Lombard says.

Perhaps the character most difficult to interpret in Waiting for Godot, Lucky stumbles around the stage, answering to Pozzo’s every beck and call, without saying a word – until his famous, breathtaking monologue that earned a raucous round of applause from the awestruck audience.

“He comes out with this incredible, mad, long, stream of consciousness speech, about the human existence and what we have ascertained about trying to explain this and trying to explain the universe and ends up, during the speech, almost losing his mind completely,” Lombard says.

The monologue nearly drives Pozzo, Didi and Gogo out of their minds as well.

This landmark moment makes preparing for the role of Lucky a colossally strenuous process. In addition to his monologue, the character spends most his time either hunched over or flopping down in exhaustion. According to Lombard, prepping for the character required a lot of stretching and staying in the best possible shape.

Apart from the physical aspects, the getting in the mind of the character was an isolating process, Lombard says. Lucky is constantly serving Pozzo and does deliver an enormous speech, but he never actually banters with other characters.

“It’s a bit of a lonely process. You don’t get to have the kind of fun that Didi and Gogo have in the rehearsal room. But it’s a really interesting one to work on as an actor, even if it was a little bit lonely at times,” Lombard says.

Critics have debated the symbolism of Lucky’s name, as well as his role. Some say Lucky is aptly named because unlike any other characters, he knows what his purpose is – to serve Pozzo. The name could also be sarcastic, which is in line with the play’s dark humor.

Catch the show until May 20 at the Lansburgh Threatre. Tickets start at $44 and can be purchased here. More information can be found at www.shakespearetheatre.org.

STC’s Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Photo: Scott Suchman
Photo: Scott Suchman

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Give Depth to STC’s Hamlet

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may have famously failed to play upon Hamlet as a pipe, but at Shakespeare Theatre Company, they firmly fingered all my stops. The production is STC’s latest take on Hamlet, at Sidney Harman Hall through March 4, and it is one which I cannot recommend enough.

At the theater, I speak with Ryan Spahn and Kelsey Rainwater, who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively. The two delve into their characters (down to their course of study at Wittenberg), regale me with stories of the side jobs actors work and explore that je ne sais quois that makes this Hamlet great. The readily apparent distinction of their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is that Guildenstern is a woman, but the more salient distinction is the complexity of their take; though it is cool that Guildenstern is a woman, because why not?

“We had to figure out what we were going to do,” Spahn tells me, “because the trap of this duo is that they can be clowny, and only that.”

To give greater depth to their characters, they took their time in mining the duo’s relationship with Hamlet.

“At first I thought we were just good friends who had fallen out of touch,” Spahn continues. “But then as it developed, I [came to] feel like we were really good friends. But we were also jealous of him because he had it so easy because he comes from such wealth.”

“And we did not,” Rainwater adds for emphasis.

Spahn and Rainwater have a way of picking up where the other leaves off. Spahn continues.

“So we had 10 or 12 years of friendship with him where that [tension] grated on us.”

Rainwater adds, “We understood each other in a way which Hamlet never understood us. It did start out like we’re all chums, we’re all on equal footing. But then once outside of school, we realized that that’s not it at all, that we don’t belong in his world.”

Spahn says that’s also the tricky part with this plot point.

“We’re all just friends, so why turn on [Hamlet]? For us, we realized we’re almost angry at him because he had it so easy. Even if no one in the audience can tell, it grounds us and our path in something that we very much need to do.”

Rainwater agrees.

“This is our chance for success – finally.”

Spahn tells me that they draw on personal experience for the part.

“I think we can just relate to this as actors and artists. When you have close friends or loved who skyrocket to success, or even something so simple as you wanted a job and someone else got it…you deal with jealousy so easily in this field, that anytime I can use it onstage helps me in my real life to not feel it. You can get it out. I think we talked about that.”

He turns to Rainwater and she nods. I follow up by asking them what they studied at Wittenberg with Hamlet. Rainwater laughs and goes first.

“I like to think I studied philosophy. Like Hamlet’s really good at this, at philosophizing, so maybe I should try, and then I took the class and realized I was way over my head.”

Spahn responds deadpan.

“I assumed we did something like poli sci, [something] that was really general so that when we graduated, people were like, ‘What do we do with you? You have no skills.’”

It turns out that this is not far from the truth in Spahn’s case. In New York, he applied to a temp agency and was told he had no skills. Still, the interviewer invited him in for an hour to see if he could figure out how to work an office phone. He went in and could not.

“I went home and I was like, ‘Well that didn’t work.’ I eventually went back to school, but I never went back to a temp agency.”

Spahn and Rainwater speak openly, and it’s this clarity that marks their acting. Michael Urie plays Hamlet in a similar vein. Spahn and Rainwater describe this as the contemporary style that’s popular right now.

“You’re trying to be in the moment,” Rainwater says, “to listen and to respond to what’s given to you.”

“There’s less showmanship,” Spahn adds.  

This contrasts with the acting of Keith Baxter, who plays the Grave Digger, the Player King and the Ghost. Baxter once acted alongside Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight, and his style is more performative and gestural (re: classical).

Spahn says having such different and cross-generational styles of acting is something director Michael Kahn was intent upon. And it works. According to Spahn, it works because of the cohesiveness of the company. He cites that cohesiveness as the source of the play’s success, too.

“One of the most successful things we did – particularly because there are so many different acting styles – is getting a cast of 20-25 people in the same play that you believe actually know each other; that they’re performing in the same style of production. Often you’ll see things and it feels like suddenly we’re in a different play, and this one doesn’t feel that way, and that’s a hard thing to do. I think it speaks to how well this company gets along.”

“We party all the time,” Rainwater says, though the bro voice she adopts and the way she laughs says otherwise. Spahn picks up what she’s saying though.

“We’re sort of all really into each other. Even Keith Baxter knocked on our door last night at 12:15 in the morning and was like, ‘I was having dinner with somebody and they liked the play. G’night!’” he says, putting on a sabled English accent.

The play is one which I’m sure my editor would prefer I’d quit gushing about at this point, but there is so much about it which recommends itself. The use of technology is subtle and fluent. The actors, and in particular Michael Urie, are funny. The whole is captivating and convincing. And Hamlet only runs through March 4, so you better get your tickets ASAP. For tickets and more information, visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-3230; www.shakespearetheatre.org