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.