Thursday, May 17, 2012

And for our next trick...

I'm pleased as punch with the way things have shaped up this season at Bad Quarto, and with two shows down, it's time to shift focus to those things that the scholars call para-performance materials. In the coming weeks, we'll be laying tracks for The Ballad of Dido original cast recording, and sending that out to our generous sponsors who helped make that show a reality. We'll also be working on finishing up the performance edition of The Merry Devil of Edmonton (no, we haven't forgotten about the project that started it all).

You can definitely expect some changes in operations here at Bad Quarto, too. We're brainstorming some ways we can make some of the best plays you've never heard of available to broader audiences, and I expect will be exploring electronic performance venues for our next project.

I will, of course, keep you all posted as the details emerge, and scripts and soundtracks become available. Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

On Playing Mercury

While we were workshopping The Ballad of Dido, the American Shakespeare Center was performing Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, one of our writer and director Tony Tambasco’s source materials. Being exposed to Marlowe’s play was a treat, and I found it fascinating to learn which elements Tony was specifically deviating from and which he was borrowing. 

Tony and Marlowe’s treatment of gods is markedly different. Having seen Marlowe’s play, I found myself appreciating more how Tony was using gods and mortals in his story-telling. In Marlowe’s play, the gods control the story. Jupiter, Venus, Juno, Cupid, and Mercury appear and re-appear throughout the play. Dido, and her love, are clearly under the control of Cupid. The power of the gods is undeniable. 

In The Ballad of Dido, the mortal characters are given greater agency: though many gods are talked about frequently, Mercury is the only divine figure that appears. The manner in which he does so further places the burden of their own actions on the humans. Mercury appears to Aeneas in a dream. Aeneas clearly believes the visitation is a true one, but Dido argues that “dreams are false shades of the gods’ will.” The script doesn’t give any other reasons to doubt Mercury’s appearance, but it also doesn’t present the visit as concrete reality.

We were able to find further opportunities to confuse the matter, due to the fact that I, a short redheaded female, was playing Lord Mercury. One day in rehearsal I said, “I’m going to try something crazy with this scene,” and proceeded to play Lord Mercury as though he were a twelve-year-old girl.

I can’t fully describe where this idea came from. Partially it was because the text made me think that Mercury was akin to Sportin’ Life and I thought it was a bad idea for me to attempt to play that. Thus I needed to find a different way into the role that would contain no flavor of that. Partially it was due to the fact that I was playing three male roles and was looking for a way to keep them separate and interesting. 

Tony approved the choice, feeling that it worked because Mercury was the only god and would therefore be the most successful by existing as far outside the time and place of the story as possible. After playing the scene I could clearly see in my mind what Mercury’s costume should be. Tony saw the same image.

I think there is something to be said about the fact that misogynistic lines such as “varium et mutabile semper femina” (a woman is always a variable and changeable thing - thanks Vergil) were being delivered by a character embodying a sexual trope - the older female dressed as a Catholic school girl. Because our society fetishizes the Catholic school girl, Mercury’s characterization enters of the world of fantasy. The two main results are that the audience is then able to question the reality of the scene, and the responsibility for Aeneas’ actions rests solely with Aeneas. 

Is it Mercury or is it Aeneas’ subconscious that appears in the dream? I’ll never tell.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Two Household friends...

I was trying to decide how to start talking about the "bad quarto" of Romeo and Juliet, when I finally decided that (like in Sound of Music) the beginning is a very good place to start.  The prologue of the "bad quarto" is a microcosm of the textual variances in the rest of the play.

So, instead of talking a bunch first, I'll get straight to the text. 
Here is the text from the quarto (edited only for spelling):

Two household Friends alike in dignity,
(In fair Verona, where we lay our Scene)
From civil broils broke into enmity,
Whose civil war makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-crossed Lovers took their life:
Whose misadventures, piteous overthrows,
(Through the continuing of their Fathers strife,
And death-marked passage of their Parents rage)
Is now the two hours traffic of our Stage.
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here we want we'll study to amend.

It's close, right?  So close.  And yet so far from the words of the prologue that we all know:
Two households both alike in dignity,
(In fair Verona where we lay our Scene)
From ancient grudge, break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-crossed lovers, take their life:
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their Parents strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love,
And the continuance of their Parents rage:
Which but their children's end naught could remove:
Is now the two hours traffic of our Stage.
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What hear shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
 With these two passages, one can start to see how Shakespeare's re-write process may have taken place.  In fact, the second version of the prologue is from the second quarto of Romeo and Juliet published only two years after the "first draft".  Based on these two passages, I like to think of the first quarto as a rough draft for everything that was to come.  In reading that first prologue out loud, it's very easy for me to see Shakespeare in a rehearsal for this new play listening to the actors speak the lines and taking notes on all the rewrites.  That first quarto prologue looks pretty great on the page, but once you begin to say it out loud (even without the second one in your head), the language is clunky.  It doesn't flow off the tongue the way most Shakespeare does.

To be very specific, let's look at just the first line: "Two household friends alike in dignity" versus "Two households both alike in dignity".  Why the word "friends"?  Shakespeare needed a word there to make the iambic pentameter work.  But the word "friends" seems like an odd choice.  He's about to write a play about two bitter enemies, but begins with the word "friends".  Is it possible that as the beginning of the sonnet, Shakespeare wasn't sure what sort of play he was writing and, once he figured it out at the end, didn't go back to revise before handing the script to the actors?  This question, and thousands of others like it, are the reason I love textual variance.  In changing a word, Shakespeare can change a whole character, or a whole play.

To sum up, the first quarto simply hasn't cooked enough.  Shakespeare, it seems, hadn't taken quite enough time to pick out all the right words yet, so what you've got with the entire text of the first quarto is a play that is so close to perfect and yet not quite there.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Premonition of Nostalgia

After opening last weekend in Staunton (with a preview show) and in Philadelphia, The Ballad of Dido closes this weekend. At least for now, unless we book performances at a fringe festival or another venue. So I am already starting to miss it. There have been many wonderful moments...

...Tony getting a text from his friend in Philadelphia, saying she couldn't get "Gaetulian King" out of her head...

...the preview audience laughing uproariously at funny bits in the show...

...the small but enthusiastic audience on Sunday afternoon in Philly, also laughing uproariously...

...Celi sharing with the cast that she heard a member of our preview audience humming a song from the show to herself in the dining hall...

...Our line-through in the car in which everyone said their line and also their motivation...
(My favorite quote from that event: ACHATES: What now, goddess born? AENEAS: I'm going to sing! ACHATES: I'm going to harmonize with you!") 

Several of us have friends or family who may come see us this weekend, and our Staunton show tomorrow at the Darjeeling should sell out (so if you're planning to come, come early!). But if our audience doesn't get anything else out of the show, I hope they can sense how much fun we have had and continue to have working on this project. As an actress, I feel like I've really only begun to scratch the surface of this version of Dido and what she can be, and as a composer, there are things I would like to change. So I hope there will be more iterations of this show, and with at least some of the same cast.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ear Worms/Next Steps

Something that's caught me off guard is how many people have told me, or we've noticed singing the songs from The Ballad of Dido after seeing ones of our performances. I don't think there's any better compliment we could have than having our songs sticking in the ears of our audiences.

This is a weird phase in the production for me because I need to stop thinking like a director and start thinking like a writer again. I don't know of many plays that didn't change between their first and second productions, and thanks to the great input I've got from actors and audiences alike, I've already got some ideas about how it might be better in the next iteration. The catch is, I'm not entirely sure what that is yet.

We still have a performance in Staunton ahead of us, not to mention one more weekend in Philadelphia, but I feel like I owe this company so much more than that. If all goes well, we might try our hands at a decent sized fringe festival, or perhaps a music theatre festival. Whatever the after life of The Ballad of Dido may be, our upcoming performances are your last chance to see this truly epic musical. Don't miss out!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bad Quarto does a... wait for it... Bad Quarto!

If you've looked at Bad Quarto's website recently, you've noticed a new face.
Hello all! I'm Shannon Schultz and I'm directing the next staged reading being put up by Bad Quarto Productions.

No so long ago, Tony (our fearless leader) got this crazy idea that Bad Quarto needed to put on another "bad" quarto.  I put bad in quotes because most "bad" quartos can actually tell us a lot about textual transmission and rewriting and are often just as good, if different, from the "good" versions of Shakespeare's plays.

To that end, Tony wanted to put up the first "bad" quarto of Romeo and Juliet.  So, he set his brain to work on who he knew that knew the most about Romeo and Juliet.  He landed on me, probably because I wrote both my MLitt and MFA theses on Romeo and Juliet.  His conclusion was that no one in this town knows more about Romeo and Juliet than yours truly.

The only trouble is that I know very little about what makes the first quarto of Romeo and Juliet different from the folio text.  This journey will be just as much about finding out what makes Q1 Romeo and Juliet special as it will be about putting up a staged reading.

Once I have a cast, I'll be sure to post more of my ramblings.

I look forward to taking this journey with y'all.  Here's to Q1R&J!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Long Overdue Thanks

I've said this often when people have asked, but I think it's worth repeating here that I am truly blessed to be working with such a committed, enthusiastic cast and crew on The Ballad of Dido. Their efforts have inspired and sustained me through those dark moments when it all seemed like we might be reaching a bit too far with this, and their hard work in and out of the rehearsal room continues to show every time we get together. Thanks to them, the show will be magic.

There's another group of people whom I also want to thank: those generous donors who have contributed to our Kickstarter campaign to help bring The Ballad of Dido to Philadelphia. Thanks to them, the show will be, and I would like to give them all an electronic round of applause here. Thanks to:
Linda Brown
Rose A Leininger
Mary McDermott
Jeremy Fiebig
Alison Garrigan
Bryan Inderhees
Kelly Elliott and Josh Brown
Although I feel the need to mention that it wasn't just this group who helped fund The Ballad of Dido. A number of our donors have not yet confirmed they would like public acknowledgement of their gift, and as we live in a world of increased privacy concerns, I don't want to add anyone's name to the indelible ink of the Internet without their approval. Whether named here or not, I am deeply grateful to all of our sponsors for believing in this show. We'll do you proud when we open this weekend.

Thank you.

Friday, April 13, 2012

That One Song

One of my decidedly modern inspirations for The Ballad of Dido was The Threepenny Opera. I've always been a fan of that show, and was fortunate enough to have been able to direct a production of it with Clarkson in 2004, but what's I'm talking about is Brecht and Weill's original process. They didn't set out to create a new musical; the original plan was for a fairly straight forward German translation of John Gay's Beggar's Opera, which evolved into a German adaptation with some original music, and by the time they were done, only one of Gay's songs remained. 

I was initially planning on The Ballad of Dido existing as a rather more straightforward cut of Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, interspersed with relevant early modern and roots ballads. Now that we're finished, only a few direct fragments of Marlowe, Vergil, and a little Shakespeare still exist in the script, and all of the songs are original, except one: "Don't This Road Look Rough and Rocky."

"Don't this road" (or "Don't that road") is one of those songs you've almost certainly heard before. It's been covered by just about everyone who plays roots music, and appears in a couple instruction books in the genre, and as it is, it seemed a great fit for the moment when Aeneas tells Dido he's going to leave her. Well... with some minor adjustments to the lyrics. 

To a certain degree, leaving the song in the show was its own logic. I have previously talked a little bit about why I find American roots and classical epics to be a perfect fit, but the genre of music itself didn't feel like enough of an anchor when characters talk about places named Carthage, Troy, and Ilium (although the show would be right at home in my native Upstate NY, where those, along with Rome, Vergil, Homer, and Ithaca are modern cities). Having a (mostly) intact version of a traditional song at such a crucial moment in the story helps serve as an anchor for audience's ear. 

So just like Brecht and Weill before me, Rachel and I have that one song that made it through to the final cut. I know it might sound a bit arrogant to be drawing such a lofty comparison, but it makes me feel better knowing that our new musical follows in the footsteps of giants in some way. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Chronology of Events

The question came up in some of our earlier rehearsals about when all of the things that happened in the play actually happened, and the answer is that they didn't. The chronology of events that Vergil describes in The Aeneid are inconsistent with the archaeological and historical records. If Aeneas showed up on the coast of Tunisia seven years after the fall of Troy, he would have to wait about a hundred years for the first colonial ships from Tyre to arrive and lay the foundations of the city that would become Carthage.

I have included events in this chronology beyond the scope of The Ballad of Dido. It's easy to forget that The Aeneid was written partially as a propaganda piece to create a mythical justification for the bloody Punic wars that Rome fought with Carthage, and lead to the latter's destruction, a century and a half earlier, in much the same way that former Confederate states try to create a founding mythology that excises the role of slavery from the history of the southern rebellion in the American Civil War.

I have also included significant dates pertaining to significant works about Dido that have served as inspirations for The Ballad of Dido.

~3000 BCE – Founding of Troy
~1400 BCE – Athens becomes a major hub of Mycenean Civilization
~1180 BCE – The Trojan War, combined forces from the Greek peninsula attack Troy, and lay siege to it for nearly ten years. The Greeks eventually defeat Troy through the now-famous Trojan Horse, kill or enslave its citizens, and burn its buildings and temples to the ground, not even sparing Trojan holy places.
~1000 BCE -- Founding of Carthage as a Tyrian colony.
~753 BCE -- Founding of Rome
~700 BCE -- Composition of The Iliad~700 BCE -- Composition of The Odyssey
573 BCE – Nebuchadnezzar destroys Tyre.
508 BCE -- Roman Republic established.
508 BCE -- Athenian Democracy established.
264 – 241 BCE -- 1st Punic War, Carthage’s power and influence weakened following their defeat at Rome’s hands.
218 – 201 BCE -- 2nd Punic War, Carthage is decisively defeated by Rome, and is reduced to a minor power.
149 – 146 BCE -- 3rd Punic War, Carthage is utterly destroyed by Rome. Only about 50,000 Carthaginians survive the war, and they are made slaves by the Romans. Over the course of about two weeks, Roman forces burn everything in Carthage that will burn, and tear down everything that will not.
29 – 19 BCE -- Composition of The Aeneid
27 BCE – Caesar Augustus becomes the first emperor of Rome.
1381 – 1386 CE – Chaucer composes The Legend of Good Women.
1594 CE – First printing of Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage.
1688 CE – Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas Premiers.
1985 CE – The mayors of Rome and Carthage sign a pact of friendship and collaboration to bring a symbolic end to the millennia of war between their peoples.
It's worth noting that the peace agreement of 1985 was always meant to be a highly symbolic gesture, but I have included it here because that is, after all, mostly what The Aeneid is. I like to think that, however many thousands of years it may have taken Dido and Aeneas to reconcile in the under world, we are all capable of making peace with the people we've hurt. If not in this world, than maybe in the next. 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

From Composer to Music Director

When we finished writing the music for The Ballad of Dido a few weeks ago, I wanted to sigh in relief and take a nap. However, then I remembered that next, as music director, I have to teach the cast the music. And also figure out how all the transitional "music plays under" cues will work...which is a pretty tricky issue of timing!

Oh, and I also have a few lines to learn. And by a few, I mean kind of a lot. These characters get very verbose and eloquent at times.

But somehow, everything seems to be coming together. It's been a long time since I've worked on a show with a cast that was this enthusiastic about the project. Everyone involved brings different strengths, and everyone is working incredibly hard to shore up their weaknesses. It actually surprises me to work on a song, then come back to review it a week later and find that everyone remembers what we did. They remember what instrument they're playing and what they're supposed to play, they remember what they're singing, they even remember the words (except, of course, the words that Tony and I continue revising)!

So here we are, about three weeks from opening, and I keep getting more excited--about the music, the script, the story, the cast, and my role. I've never heard of a show like this: a roots musical. Especially not one based on a story taken from classical literature. I always know I'm excited about a show when I start asking strangers to come see it, and yesterday, while buying guitar strings, I started talking it up to the owners of the local music store.This morning I told all my friends at the Harrisonburg Farmer's Market about it (the guy who sells me local honey actually wrote down the date of our Staunton show--which, if you'd like to do the same now, is April 26th at the Darjeeling Cafe).

I actually am starting to feel like we might be ahead of schedule (in theater? how can that be? surely I'm forgetting something!). We've worked through many of the scenes with the music, including all the really complicated ones, and everyone has the chord charts and the recordings so they can work on their own--and I know they will. So, composition: done. Music direction: done.

Now if I can just memorize all these lines...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bass, Bronchitis, and Blocking

While I initially came aboard Dido as a vocalist and mandolin player, it became apparent pretty quickly that mandolin was not the most necessary instrument for the show. Sure, it can offer some lovely accents (and I still will probably be playing a bit), but it's not as important as, say, bass. So about three weeks ago, when Rachel asked if I could play bass instead, I said, "Sure, why not?"

I had never played bass before.

But with Rachel's instruction (and Josh explaining Tab to me), I started plunking away one note at a time, and pretty soon, I was addicted. I'd practice the bass part for the songs Rachel had already gone over with me, and then I'd try playing along to favorite songs on my ipod, and then I'd realize I'd been practicing for over two hours without noticing. I didn't think I'd be able to play and sing at the same time...until I did. It was a great feeling to get everyone singing and playing at once.

And then I lost my voice. Twice.

On the bright side, that let me pay more attention to blocking. I couldn't sing, but had enough of a voice to be able to do some scene work. Tony had taped out the playing space in the practice room, and this past week I got a chance to work through scenes with Josh, Celi, and Rachel. It was tricky at first, because the playing space is quite small compared to what I'm used to (9 x 14 feet, which I suspect is fast becoming our mantra). I think we're getting used to it now, though. Working in that small of a space has forced me to be more aware of my own body and my spatial relationship to others. It's helped me get rid of a great deal of superfluous movement (though I've got a ways to go yet), and think about my choices. Why do I get close to someone? When do I chose to stand my ground?

This idea has helped the most in terms of thinking about Achates and his interactions with Aeneas and Anna, and how my choices affect what an audience will see of those relationships. And it doesn't hurt that Tony keeps doing his director thing and asking good (and sometimes tough) questions. I don't always have an answer right away, but the idea sticks, and maybe I come into the scene with a possible answer the next time. Until we change it again.

Really, that's what's been so great about this show, how willing everyone has been to try new things, whether it's a different character choice or approach to blocking, learning a new instrument...and oh yeah, the script itself. No matter the question, the answer is always, "Sure, why not?"

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Other Early Modern Inspirations

I think I've mentioned once or twice before that the Romans almost completely destroyed everything we know about early Carthage, and now that rehearsals are under way, the cast has plied their questions about how ancient Carthaginians and Trojans would have done things. The best I can do in these cases is tell them that I don't know, but Vergil's appropriation of Troy for Roman propaganda gives us a little more freedom to treat the Trojans as archetypes of Romans, and we know quite a bit about Rome.

For inspiration of how political, military, and mercantile affairs may have worked in the ancient world, apart from just plain guessing, I've been looking to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage was first printed in 1594, and probably performed sometime in 1593, right around the beginning of Queen Elizabeth's reign, and while probably not a direct representation of Elizabeth's court affairs, I can't help but think that an early-modern Londoner would have seen the parallel between their own sitting queen, and one of the first queens in recorded history.

So I have felt free to draw on Elizabeth's reign, her relationship with parliament, and in some cases even documents of record from the period for how to portray the Dido and Carthage in a modern play. Fortunately, I studied Tudor-Stuart history with Mary Hill Cole, so I kind of have an advantage here. 

That said, I've had other places to turn. It bears mentioning that the story of Dido and Aeneas was the stuff of popular entertainment in Renaissance London, and probably prior. "Queen Dido" or "The Wandering Prince of Troy" was an often reprinted ballad in early modern London, and Chaucer wrote "The Legend of Dido" as a part of his Legend of Good Women (this one is a modern English translation) sometime around the 1380s. A little bit before the early-modern period, but I'll take it.

As I continue making the transition from writer to director, I will be eager to see how much of a useful dramaturgical function all the research I've done that is not directly reflected in the text will be. Generally speaking, I like to know as much as possible about everything related to a play text before I direct it, even if for the sake of my own confidence, so I can't imagine that it will be useless. I just need to keep it from getting in the way.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Who is Aeneas?

It's always a welcome challenge to create a role in a new play or musical.  There's none of the baggage associated with a well-known piece, no expectations from die-hard fans of the show who know "exactly" how you should play the role or giant shoes to fill from great actors who have done the role on Broadway or some other hallowed place.  And while there are some previous works underlying our show (Vergil's Aeneid and Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage), this is a new adaptation of the story and the field is pretty wide open here.  Nobody really knows what Aeneas was like, how he looked or sounded.  I get to start from scratch, with just the text to guide me.

So what do we know?  He is the second cousin, once removed, to Priam, king of Troy.  He is (reportedly) the son of Venus, goddess of love; Achates, my right-hand man in our adaptation, even calls me "goddess-born."  A lot.  Another nickname for Aeneas is "dutiful Aeneas."  Apparently in the source material, there is a lot of attention paid to Aeneas' struggle between his emotions and desires, and his perceived duty, that being to build the foundations of the Roman empire.  And that's about all we know of him.

It may seem like very little, but it actually gives me a nice canvas on which to start creating a character.  He's royal blood, so there's some automatic nobility built in.  But he's also the son of a goddess, which is just kind of cool.  And the conflict between trying to do what he wants, and knowing he must ultimately do what the gods tell him to, will surely give me some interesting choices to make.

Oh, and I guess he'll have to be able to play the guitar, since we're accompanying ourselves on our own instruments.  I'll talk about that in another post.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Early Modern Inspiration

It should come as no surprise, being a grad student in a program that focuses on the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, that my inspiration for The Ballad of Dido lies in an early modern source. In this case, Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, which opens tonight at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse. I won't be able to see it because I'll be stage managing a tech rehearsal for The Byron Project, our MFA acting show, but I am excited to.

The truth is that Dido, Queen of Carthage isn't very good, and my excitement at the prospect of directing Marlowe's first play dissipated as I realized that his first play, written while he was a student for a boy's company, was extremely wordy (even for an early modern play), and more resembled Ovid's bawdy rendition of mythology than Vergil's epic. If anyone can make a good performance out of that not-so-good script, the ASC's resident company can, but that wasn't the sort of story I wanted to tell.

And that's where I realized that I did have a story that I wanted to tell, which to the best of my knowledge had not been told: Dido's story from Dido's perspective.

While I am indebted to Vergil for most of my inspiration for this project, I also owe a debt of gratitude to Marlowe for helping me figure out what story I did not want to tell.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ancient Geography

I'm excited to say that our initial rehearsals are off to a great start, but one of the continuing questions I get from the cast is "where is <<name of ancient city>> anyway?" I thought I would help answer their question with Google maps, and it seemed like a good idea to share that with all of you.

View Dido in a larger map

Something missing from the map is that sailing the open sea was very risky business in the ancient world. Both Rome and Carthage lost entire fleets to bad weather crossing the comparatively short stretch between Sicily and Tunisia. The ships of the Trojan War period were probably less advanced, though not by much, and would have pulled a shallow draft at least as shallow as the biremes and triremes that came to dominate the Mediterranean centuries later.

As such, this meant the Phoenicians and Trojans, when departing into their respective exiles, would have had to keep the shore in view, sometimes while sailing through unfriendly waters. While ships of the period did have sails to help power them, the speed and maneuverability of a ship was almost completely dependent on the strength of the oarsmen driving her.

In leaving Carthage for Italy, the Trojans would have had to sail across open sea, faced with the threat of pirates and bad weather, and nothing more than the strength of their own backs to get them through it. It kind of makes you wonder that any of them would have left. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Ballad of Dido: Music, Mission Accomplished!

This week, both colleges where I teach were on spring break. So, for a nice relaxing vacation, I had to finish writing at least rough drafts for all the music for Dido. And then introduce the cast to their songs. To my own surprise, we actually accomplished this! On Tuesday night, Tony and I met for our final jam session (me with my guitar, Tony with various instruments and coffee) in the Red Room of the Masonic Building. That night we wrote the three final songs, and over the past few days, I have met individually with everyone in the cast to give them an idea of the music they'll be singing and playing.


It's been an interesting ride for me, writing this music over the past few months. I used to write songs a lot in college, but I think I may have written one or two in the past ten years--until Tony asked me to write the music for Dido. There are eleven different songs in the show, and many of them reprise in variant forms. (Yes, I counted.) Whenever I thought I was running out of ideas, I tried something different: "What about a walking bass line?" "I think it's time to break out the dropped D tuning!" (Tony's response: "What's dropped D?", to which I replied, "It's magic." About two minutes after I put my half-capo on my guitar and started playing random riffs in dropped D, Tony exclaimed, "You're right! It is magic!" And the magic of dropped D, as applied to The Ballad of Dido, will probably be the next thing posted on stay tuned!)

It's funny: I haven't missed writing music over the years that I haven't been doing it. I thought I was getting all my creativity out by performing music that others wrote. But there have been a lot of fun moments as we've worked to create something completely new. For the funny songs, I knew I was on the right track when I played or sang something and then burst out laughing. And it's been a wonderful experience, this week, to play those same songs for the cast and see them react the same way. And then there are the serious songs, which get a completely different reaction from us all.

Now, just as I feel like celebrating my accomplishments, it's time to put on my Music Director Hat. I've already started with that task (which right now looks even more overwhelming than writing the music!). I made a list of all the songs in the show and who will play guitar and sing the bulk of each. But now I have to go through the latest version of the script and find all the underscoring, and figure out what that underscoring will be and who will play it, and how we'll manage all that logistically with only five actors to portray a number of characters AND to be the band. And then I have to figure out, besides guitar, what instruments we can use for each song, and who will play them. And then I have to teach all the music to the cast, and help them play and sing it to the very best of their ability.

All that before the end of April! And so, here we go....!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Lost to History

One of the questions I've been fielding a lot through this project is how historically accurate I planned on making this show. Unfortunately, the Romans effectively destroyed any Carthaginian records that could have told us more about Dido at the conclusion of the Third Punic War. The only sources we have that discuss Dido are of Roman or Greek origin, and as Carthage was a major competitor with both the Romans and the Greeks, these sources need to be regarded as something less than Gospel truth.

The chief source of the story of Dido is The Aeneid, an epic poem composed by Vergil (often modernized to "Virgil") sometime between 29 and 19 BC, which followed a several decades long period of civil war that brought an end to the Roman Republic and rise of the Empire. Vergil was attempting to give his people a national epic that connected them to the Trojan War, the source of the Greek epics The Illiad and The Odyssey. This means, however, that The Aeneid is, at least in part, a propaganda piece.

What's fascinated me about this story, though, is the way that Vergil leaves Aeneas in an uncomfortable place. This is when Aeneas goes to the underworld to seek a prophecy from his deceased father, and encounter's Dido's shade. Here's the text from the MIT Classics Archive:

Not far from these Phoenician Dido stood,
Fresh from her wound, her bosom bath'd in blood;
Whom when the Trojan hero hardly knew,
Obscure in shades, and with a doubtful view,
(Doubtful as he who sees, thro' dusky night,
Or thinks he sees, the moon's uncertain light,)
With tears he first approach'd the sullen shade;
And, as his love inspir'd him, thus he said:
"Unhappy queen! then is the common breath
Of rumor true, in your reported death,
And I, alas! the cause? By Heav'n, I vow,
And all the pow'rs that rule the realms below,
Unwilling I forsook your friendly state,
Commanded by the gods, and forc'd by fate-
Those gods, that fate, whose unresisted might
Have sent me to these regions void of light,
Thro' the vast empire of eternal night.
Nor dar'd I to presume, that, press'd with grief,
My flight should urge you to this dire relief.
Stay, stay your steps, and listen to my vows:
'T is the last interview that fate allows!"
In vain he thus attempts her mind to move
With tears, and pray'rs, and late-repenting love.
Disdainfully she look'd; then turning round,
But fix'd her eyes unmov'd upon the ground,
And what he says and swears, regards no more
Than the deaf rocks, when the loud billows roar;
But whirl'd away, to shun his hateful sight,
Hid in the forest and the shades of night;
Then sought Sichaeus thro' the shady grove,
Who answer'd all her cares, and equal'd all her love.
Somehow, that moment of turning away from Aeneas silently and returning to be with her first husband  was very powerful to me, even at the naive age of 17. Granted, Dido is no longer relevant to the story Vergil is telling, but something about me has always smiled at the way that Dido has the chance to offer some olive branch to the epic hero, and does not.

Of course, Vergil was trying to provide a mythological foundation for the Punic Wars, and this may have just been his way of commenting on how hateful the Carthaginians were as opposed to how badly Aeneas had wronged Dido.

Justinus' Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus (book 18) provides a more generous view of Dido (here called Elissa) from a historical perspective. Aeneas has nothing to do with this story precisely because the Trojan War happened in the 11th or 12th century BC, and Carthage was founded sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries BC. If Aeneas ever did come sailing through Tunisia, he would have been too early to witness even the beginnings of the Tyrian colony that would grow to be one of the largest city-states in the Helenistic world.

Ovid's Heroides gives us a letter from Dido to Aeneas, but this falls well within the parameters of the Dido that Vergil gives us in The Aeneid. Subsequent writers and composers have given us their own takes on the story, but historical accuracy, and to a degree, even literary accuracy, is simply not possible.

Of course, once we have recognized what is impossible, we can start to imagine what is possible, and proceed from there using the clues we have to build a structure, and our imaginations to fill in the rest.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Ballad of Dido - Poster

Hey everyone, check out the poster for our Philadelphia performance! It features our own Rachel Quagliariello.

If you're a business and would like to get your logo on the poster, or sponsor the production in any way, please send an email to [tony (at) badquarto {dot} org]

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Song of the Ancient Queen

While you're enjoying your Valentine's day, we here at Bad Quarto Productions are excited to be getting back into show mode for our new musical The Ballad of Dido, which will perform this April in Philadelphia PA and Staunton VA.

The Ballad of Dido tells the story of Dido, the mythical queen of Carthage, and her love affair with Aeneas, the hero of the Trojan War who would go on to found a kingdom in Italy that eventually became the Roman Empire. Based on Vergil's Aenead, Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage (which is, coincidentally, part of the American Shakespeare Center's Actor's Renaissance Season here in Staunton this Spring), Ovid's Heroides, and other classical sources, The Ballad of Dido recovers the story of the ancient queen told from, for the first time in almost two thousand years, her own point of view.

One of the reasons we know so little about the historical Dido is that the Romans were very thorough in destroying Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War. The only surviving sources of the story of Dido and the early Carthaginians come from Roman and Greek sources, and since the Romans and Greeks competed with Carthage politically and economically, those sources tend to serve propaganda purposes. At a time when female rulers were vilified (Dido was a grandniece of the biblical Jezebel), Dido stands out as an example of a strong female ruler who managed to lead her people to found a new home, and ultimately create one of the most successful city-states of the ancient world.

Which sort of begs the question, why are we telling her story through American roots music? The simplest reason might be because I'm a mandolin player and I like it, but my reasons run deeper than that. Being a mandolin player means playing a lot of folk and bluegrass tunes, and I can't help but notice the overwhelming sense of dispossession in this genre of music. Roots ballads tend to be songs of loss; loss of love, loss of home, and loss of family, and that is the same feeling that the ancient epics The Illiad, The Odyssey, and The Aenead all convey. Each of these is about someone, or an entire race of someones, who have been deprived of their home and loved ones, acknowledge their own impending deaths, and are doing all they can to just keep moving for another day to try to find a better life for themselves and those who they have left.

Roots music is the music of refugees, and in the war torn Mediterranean geopolitical landscape of the 7th and 8th century BC, just about everyone was looking for a safe place from the constant fighting. By and large the music of this period is lost to us, but those folk and bluegrass tunes, so familiar to our ears, capture the spirit of the heroes the Greeks and Romans wrote about two millennia ago. 

We hope you'll join us for our productions of The Ballad of Dido this April, and stay tuned for dates, times, venues, and updates from the cast and crew!