Saturday, September 25, 2010

Week 2: Entry 1: Musical magic

I've been a songwriter now for some years. This is something I share with Frank Wedekind. He used to sing his cabaret songs in the haunts of Munich to the accompaniment of his lute. Some months ago, I ordered an antique 1920s German lute off ebay. I never really expected it to arrive - or if it did, I thought it would be in matchsticks. However, all the way from Bremen - and completely in tune - arrived the German lute. I fell in love with it immediately.

The first part of Tilly No-Body that I wrote back in September 2009 was a song called 'Tilly Dances' . Late in their marriage and after a good many difficult times, Frank and Tilly Wedekind re-kindled their romantic flame. A fanatical journal writer all his life, Frank would note in his diary whenever he and Tilly made love, the words: 'Tilly danced'. This image struck me as very poignant and romantic. And it inspired me to write the first of 5 songs for Tilly No-Body.

In addition to the songs, I also knew that I wanted a soundscape to be a significant part of the piece. Solo pieces bring with them all sorts of challenges, not least the lack of other actors on stage with whom to work. However, I firmly believe that as an actor, anything can be a partner - the audience, a prop, a piece of set, an item of costume, and indeed a sound.

My composer/sound designer is a wonderful musician and great scholar, Dr David Roesner. David and I have known each other since 2003, when we were both hired as new faculty in the Theatre Department at the University of Exeter, UK. Within 4 years, David was the Head of the Department. I meanwhile had winged my way to the US.

David's scholarship has won him acclaim, and his insights into and practices of music theatre (NB not 'musical theatre', which is a rather different genre) struck me as exactly what was needed here. Not to mention, he is German. Not to mention, his mother - Margret Greiner - has been my German language collaborator on the project since September 2008 when I met her with her husband, Bernhard, who was a visiting faculty member at UC Davis for a quarter.

When it comes to rehearsing Tilly No-Body, the tricky thing is that David is between Germany and the UK, while we're in California. Initially, he suggested that we Skype him into rehearsals. However, the time difference of 8 hours would mean that our 6pm-10pm rehearsals would be taking place at 2am-6am for David in Europe. While most theatre people are night owls, there are limits! Instead, Reed (our Stage Manager and Assistant Director) has been recording extracts from rehearsals, putting them on a kind of YouTube link, and enabling David to see what we've been up to in rehearsals in the comfort of his own time and space. This process has proved incredibly successful. In fact, David has been extraordinary in his ability to respond to the daily rehearsal notes and to reconfigure or remix music as and when required. He really is operating from a place of intuition and creative intelligence on many occasions. Perhaps the most impressive has been his response to my writing a new song...

After one run through, Miles, Reed and Sabba all agreed that the gap between the penultimate song - a reprise of a song called 'Sitting on a Powder Keg' - and the final song, 'Tilly Dances' seemed a little long. Could I write another song?

As it was, I realised that one of the speeches that I'd given to the Frank puppet - an extract from his play, Censorship - was a little dry. I had already looked to see if I could cut it, and yet every line of text seemed important. So, what would happen if I turned the speech into a song? What happened if we suddenly saw the Frank puppet sing?...

...The speech in question involves Frank recounting a tightrope walker whom he saw in Palermo. The girl had performed tricks - including a strip tease and somersaults - while walking on an elastic rope with knives positioned underneath the rope...

Palermo... That's Sicily, isn't it? What about a Latin-ish sounding song? A kind of Spanish guitar type of sound, with maracas, or castanets, and almost a little bit 'camp'?

Overnight, I wrote the song 'The Girl on the Elastic Rope'. I played it rather primitively on my guitar and sent it to David as an MP3 file, along with the lyrics and chords. Within 2 days, back came the most wonderful accompaniment. Had I been a better musician, it would have been exactly how I would have played it. Not only was I overjoyed that David had written so perfect an accompaniment, but that he'd done it from half way around the world without being in the rehearsal room with us. Bravo, Maestro!

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