Three years ago, Shakespeare Dallas launched a project called, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare." The gist was simple: Over five years, the company's actors would recite every single word Shakespeare ever wrote in a monthly series of staged readings. This includes plays and poetry. According to the Folger Shakespeare Library, that's 884,647 words and 118,406 lines.
It's a huge undertaking that has been received with surprisingly large, attentive audiences (I mean, c'mon, Shakespeare plays are long even when they're edited down). They've performed uncut versions of many of popular works, like Taming of the Shrew, which has an opening scene often left out, which reveals Shakespeare originally intended it to be a play within a play. This week, the monthly series presents its first attempt at combining a few sonnets with music orchestration, provided by local band Home by Hovercraft.
With original music written by the band's front-couple Seth and Shawn Magill, setting the sonnets to the orchestrations like lyrics. They'll perform six of the "Sonnets with Sundry Music," along with The Phoenix and the Turtle. Shawn's also incorporated visual elements, with the help of local artists, turning this into what promises to be the most visually stimulating edition of Complete Works yet.
How did you end up working on this project with Shakespeare Dallas? Seth has been working with Shakespeare Dallas for many years - acting in shows at the park, teaching for their On The Go program, and participating in several of the readings in the series. After attending one of the readings in the Spring of 2014 that Seth participated in, I sent a casual comment to our good friend Cameron Cobb, one of the producers of the series. I mentioned that they should try integrating live music and active visuals for one of the readings, maximizing the wonderful technical capabilities of the space at ATTPAC.
A few weeks later, I received a note back from Cameron saying something like, "remember that casual comment you made a few weeks ago? well we'd like you to try it with the Sonnets program in the fall". It turns out they had already been discussing ideas for doing something different for Sonnets with Sundry Music and this suggestion fell right in line with their thinking. Soon I found myself in season planning meetings with the Shakespeare Dallas artistic team.
Will the sonnets be set to music? What will that look/sound like? Once I started working on this project, I knew that I wanted to do something more than just play the sonnets set to music - I really wanted to anchor them in a story so I started researching possibilities. Long story short, we'll be telling the story of Cupid and Psyche through on screen visuals and movement pieces intertwined with the songs. I stumbled upon this story as a possibility when I found that it had inspired Shakespeare, especially his Cymbeline and Midsummer Night's Dream works. As I started laying out the story next to the Sonnets that had been given me to work with for the series, I saw a really interesting correlation and it all started coming together.
For the visuals I wanted to create a collaborative piece of work, so I'm pulling in works from various fashion photographers I work with on lookbook remixes, several local visual artists (Sarah Magill and Samantha Rios) and creating visual collages that supplement the story. The art will reinforce a primary theme: "We are all Psyche"... Meaning that we all have these difficult journeys we encounter in life, sometimes due to the mistakes we've made, and that love is what inspires us to keep on going even when things seem the most bleak.
So did you and Seth write all the music? Seth and I pulled in actors and musicians who we knew could work with us to create a derived piece, and they are wonderful - taking all the ideas we are throwing at them and making them even better. We brought story and music ideas to the table and have been working collaboratively as a group to polish and refine the sound. The entire show is set to music and you can expect something with broad musical influences ranging from Ghostpoet to Tunng, Joy Division to Morrissey, to Home By Hovercraft, of course. We've been surprised and delighted by our discoveries so far.
Is there a certain musicality to the sonnets that make them easy to present musically? We've found that setting the lyrics to music has really brought them to life and allowed us to experience them in a new way. They fit with music so beautifully, writing almost felt too easy. This collection has a diverse range of rhyming styles that have also allowed us to experiment with different genres.
I have no doubt that Shakespeare and his collaborative partners sat around and tinkered on instruments that helped form a poetic foundation for the text, in much the same way we have done on this project.
Did you have a favorite sonnet before this project? and/or do you have one now? Being a music person, I've always had an affinity for the Sonnets with Sundry Music. My favorite one now is the third sonnet in the group. We found a really interesting treatment that we hope will be surprising for audiences who may be used to more traditional Shakespeare chamber music style treatments. The opening lyrics are:
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My flocks feed not, My ewes breed not, My rams speed not, All is amiss:
You can pretty much feel the music in these words when you just speak them.
Has this inspired your work in other ways? Absolutely! My research process brought me across a broader story wrapper that I'm now working on integrating these pieces into as a new work. It will be a full length play set in a more recent time period vs Ancient Greece, but with the Psyche/Cupid movement & music series embedded within the story. More on this later.
See Sonnets with Music, Part 1 at 3 p.m. Sunday or 7 p.m. Monday at the Studio Theater in the Wyly Theatre. $10 available at attpac.org.Additionally Home by Hovercraft performs at Patio Sessions this Thursday.