Wednesday, April 14, 2010

No Music Required

Wait here while I go find a new hobby

The primary mission of this blog is to write about music for improvised theatre - how to get started, what to do, some tools to help you craft amazing improvised music. But... Is music always the right fit for a show?

Of course there are times when a show wants a musician but can't get one for whatever reason. The show goes on, performers adapt, and it all works put in the end. That's not what I'm talking about.

I nearly always find that a truthful scene (perhaps a Truth, or just a scene played purely for story) benefits from no music. Music can lead and amplify emotions melodramatically, but you don't want that in a Truth. The feeling comes straight from the actor - the words, their delivery, facial expressions, body language... The audience gets such an intense focus on the character.

One of my favourite parts of a non-musical Truth is the long pause. Deafening silence. Even better if a proven-to-be-raucous audience is dead silent at that moment too. I look out for moments like that when I'm underscoring a scene, when I should stop playing and let the moment breathe, but I'm not yet very good at that particular skill.

On Sunday ImproMafia performed a long-form show by the name of Tall Tales. Conceived and directed by Alex Reichart, the show centred around three travellers stopping for the night. Faced with the prospect of no TV in their decrepit motel room, they decide to tell stories to one another, with the worst storyteller earning driving duties the next day. They each take turns, telling their Tall Tales one act at a time; other actors come on stage to bring the stories to life.

It's a great format, taking a narrated scene and spinning it with skills one might learn from a Shared Story Perspectives or a Cuthbert.

On the night, the underlying stories were anything but realistic - a wealthy beekeeper creates a human-bee hybrid, a man is robbed so a Tupperware addict can feed her addiction, a pizza delivery driver is trapped by a creepy old couple. Despite the fantastic premises, the scenes were played quite truthfully - no out-of-place gagging, no odd devices, just story. The actors gave scenes enough time to breathe. The whole night was absolutely perfect without music.

I’ve often said that things like sets and sound effects are just crutches for performers, and might result in the audience engaging less in the story. A mimed gun is every bit as shiny and cold as a prop gun; an implied graveyard is probably spookier than a backdrop.
Hmm… I wonder if music falls in to the same category? Perhaps the audience can already hear appropriate music in their heads while the scene takes place. The creepy old couple are probably accompanied by imagined creepy music. Well, there goes my job.

I know I could hear appropriate music in my head! I spent the first twenty minutes or so fighting an urge to jump out of my seat and hit the piano. The urge subsided as I started really getting in to the feel of the show – it really didn’t need or want music. Actually, it was quite nice to sit back and enjoy a great improvised show without having to be on duty. I was looking forward to hearing how another musician would handle the show, but in retrospect I learned a lot by watching no musician.

Photo by Grufnik


The Wah said...

Though the show was very good. I don't think having a musician would have lessened the experience. How can adding cues and layers make the theatrical experience less? The judicial use of a musican could have better separated the storytellers from the storyactors. Over the last year, working with musicians in long form Impro with Impro Mafia at the Brisbane Arts Theatre, I have come to notice the subtle but powerdul influence music has on a show. When done correctly it enhances the Improvised theatre experience immensely.

Kris said...

I do recall thinking that, if I was doing the music for the show, there would have been none at all for the storytellers' reality, and distinctly different music within each of the three stories.

Maybe my keenness to see some impro sans-music comes from a desire to have long-form shows with their own distinct character. I often wonder if someone could hear me playing and think "yep, that's Kris"... If so, I'd say that's a bad thing; I would hope that my accompaniment brought something individual to each of the shows, but I suspect not.

The Wah said...

Though you have a distinct style I don't think you have a cliched style. The hero music you made for every Prognosis: Death character was distinct from each other. Though most people have not heard it yet, I can definitely say the "Fists of Fury" Theme music is unlike anything you have done before.
It is true, you add your own personality and opinions to the shows you work on, but no more than I add as an actor.
If you are worried that maybe you are shaping the shows... well yes, you are. But that is a good thing. You wouldn't be invited to play if you weren't considered a vital component of a truly successful long form show.

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