Are We Listening?

4 09 2011

In my summer of excessive theatergoing, I have learned a few things about my theatrical tastes. Specifically: I am not in love with the genre of musical theater as I once thought I was. (Gasp!)

I am actually in love with the art of listening.

My interest in sound and the art of listening must stem from my own training as a musician and composer. I listen to music less frequently than some might expect, because I have a constant soundtrack in my head – familiar and original tunes, winding their way through my skull, often making unexpected connections. I read an article a few months ago about “musical hallucinations,” which suggested that the fullness of sound in my head could actually be considered a psychological disorder. But I suspect most musicians have this constant aural activity, and it doesn’t interfere with our everyday lives (too much). In fact, it comes in handy. I don’t know how I could compose without musical hallucinations. When I was bored in middle school, I could mentally start up a CD and tune out the teacher. Sometimes when I am sitting in a restaurant with a friend, I will point to the ceiling and identify a song playing on the radio. Following a confused look, my friend usually takes a few seconds to tune in to this alternate wavelength – then she hears it. What is background noise to others often occupies a central place in my soundscape. Are you listening?

Sound is something too often marginalized in theatrical productions, hence my affection for the genre of musical theater where sound occupies a central and privileged position. I have written before about the dynamic range of a musical that absolutely captivates me: the ecstatic shift from book scenes to musical numbers, from everyday speech to heightened song and dance. Within a musical number, I love how voices harmonize and bodies sync. Musical numbers require intense listening across the ensemble. Musical numbers also temporarily banish the constant soundtrack in my head: I became wholly absorbed in listening to – or, rather, listening with – the ensemble. I bob my head or tap my foot along with the beat. If I know the songs already, you might find me playing piano on my knee. I am not bored: my body is engaged in musicking along with the actors. The boundary between us is porous. I will leave the theater with their songs incorporated into my mental soundtrack; I will sit down and play them on the piano; my friends will sing along.

“Straight plays” can have this captivating, dynamic range of sound too. On my recent visit to Chicago, I saw 8 plays in 6 days — and the musicals (The Adventures of Pinocchio and The Original Grease) were actually my least favorite of the lot. From Collaboraction to Abraham Werewolf, from Steep Theatre to Steppenwolf, I was continually impressed with the vivid soundscapes of the “straight plays” I saw. Collaboraction’s 1001 and Abraham Werewolf’s One Night Only relied on familiar musical strains, such as Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score and classic Hall & Oates, to explore the self-conscious storytelling that constitutes our lives. The subway trains running beside Steep Theatre made for a chillingly atmospheric soundtrack to Pornography, a play set around the London tube bombings in 2005. Steppenwolf’s Middletown was concerned, in both content and style, with communication: the construction of language, the gaps and distortions, the meanings of sound and silence.

In LA, I recently caught the first preview of Stranger Things by Ghost Road Company. What drew me to this production in the first place was sound. This show wasn’t even on my radar until I read Steve Julian’s LA Stage Alliance article, which had me at David O. From Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands to the Blank’s The Cradle Will Rock, David O is one of the most eager and innovative musical collaborators in LA; I actively seek out productions with his music direction. The same goes for Gregory Nabours, who played the delightfully sarcastic accompanist in Celebration Theatre’s [title of show]. I am fundamentally opposed to song cycles, but his own song cycle The Trouble with Words washed away all my usual qualms about the form. Gregory is MD’ing Third Street Theater’s Falsettos next. I’m there.

Yes, I follow gifted music directors as much a I follow companies, directors, or actors. But really, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a hybrid graphic novel play with music? A good mystery is all about the timing, and Stranger Things still has a few plot twists to be ironed out. But many moments are positively chilling – and the immersive soundscape holds the audience captive for the duration of this spectacularly layered tale. David O has crafted sparse and spectral underscoring, in addition to a hauntingly simple waltz and a few piercing songs. The songs are fragmentary and Brechtian, cold and isolated, like the frigid environment in which the play is set. David O is himself a dead and ghastly figure, hunched over the keys, invisible to the characters in the play. (“In a perfect world of endless budgets,” O imagines, “my character would be the invisible ghost piano player Irma at the Magic Castle [in Los Angeles].  It would work well in the story if the piano could play itself.”) His underscoring sweeps seamlessly into Cricket S. Myers’ soundscape of whirling winds, haunting whispers, and gasping breaths that still echo in my head today. The creaking boards of Maureen Weiss’ set, the crisp flip of a page of sheet music, Helga’s stilted and unaffected speech … sound is style and substance in this show. Are you listening?

Back to Chicago: It was at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass (The Last Act of Lilka Kadison, my favorite) that I particularly grasped the dynamic power of ensemble – the power of listening – in a non-musical. Over and over again in my Chicago reviews, I point to the ensemble as engaged listeners, palpably aware of one another’s presence at all times. The actors were not grounded in themselves, but in one another. Their work was not a self-serving showcase, but a long-term collaborative effort built on communal process as much as product. I believe that when the actors are so palpably engaged, the audience is likewise engaged. After every performance at Steppenwolf, a company member leads a talkback. This is not a Q&A with the creative team, but a chat among audience members about the themes and questions that the play brought up. On the night I attended, 25 or 30 people stayed: enough to foster a dynamic discussion.

I find myself drawn to theater companies that emphasize the art of listening both onstage and off. These companies recognize their audiences not as passive spectators but as active and engaged collaborators, an integral part of the theatrical exchange. My Name is Rachel Corrie, which recently opened at Theatricum Botanicum, featured a rousing post-show discussion that almost the entire audience attended; even after the formal discussion had ended, audience members lingered to further discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Coeurage Theatre Company recently kicked off a very cool post-show entertainment called Live Theatre Blog, 20-minute “monthly blogs […] written to be plays performed onstage and streaming online for who ever wants to listen.” This crafts a space for the audience to linger after the performance, to extend the show beyond the curtain call. Gedaly Guberek introduced himself after The Trouble with Words the other night, and we had a great chat before the first installment of LTB. I was a little astonished that Gedaly recognized me from the online LA theater community. But he was listening …

How can the LA theater community better engage in the art of listening, onstage and off? How can we broaden our range of theatrical possibilities? How can we expand our audiences? The alternate wavelengths are, no doubt already there. Are we listening?

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4 responses

5 09 2011
Gedaly Guberek (@Gedaly)

Great post! Listening is an underrated skill, but entirely essential. Something I was told many years ago still sticks with me today: “You have two ears and one mouth. You do the math.”

How can the theatre community better engage in the art of listening? I believe listening is an a willful act, not something we do passively… I don’t think that many people in the community have made the choice to listen yet.

11 09 2011
Kat Primeau

MNIRC at Theatricum Botanicum?! I have obviously not been listening!!!
Lovely post. You rock, lady

15 11 2011
STRANGER THINGS: 66% – BITTERSWEET : LA Bitter Lemons

[…] SWEET A good mystery is all about the timing, and Stranger Things still has a few plot twists to be ironed out. But many moments are positively chilling – and the immersive soundscape holds the audience captive for the duration of this spectacularly layered tale. Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theater […]

14 01 2012
Celebrating 2 Years of Blogging « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] I have written articles on the blogger-critic, repetitive theatergoing and fandom, and the art of listening. I have used this blog for unabashed self-promotion as I composed, music directed, and […]

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