First Onstage

After quite a lively drive into Stratford (thanks, snow + wind), we finally hit the stage. For those of you that don’t know, the first onstage is the first time the actors get to go on their set, to feel how the space is, and (in this case) the way the room works with (or against) their performance. It’s a great day to calibrate expectations – even for those of our company who have played in this room before, the interplay between the text, the company and the room is different every time. Not to say that one has to start from zero – one can always bring one’s experience to bear in finding a starting point – but there is always a lot to learn, no matter how often or how rarely one plays in a room.

For me, this is especially true – as I’ve mentioned before in this series, despite my many years in Stratford I’ve not worked in the Festival theatre. Hearing the actors on stage and wandering around the hall while they work is very enlightening, and I start to build a kind of mental/imagined algorithm of sound I can refer to to frame the decisions I will make when programming the sound design.

Uh, I don’t think I can explain it any better than that – hearing the room and the actors in it somehow makes a blueprint? That then helps me place my sound in the space? Without hearing it? I think?

Can’t show you the full undressed stage, but this is where we (stage management, directing, lights and sound teams) are hanging while we observe

One thing that may be of interest to the sound nerds if no one else: the sound in the balcony is extraordinarily clear!

My main wonder is how I can support the energy of the very centralized playing space in such a wide hall. But the sound system is really transparent and there is a lot of coverage – more on this in another post – so it’s seeming to me that if I’m circumspect and discreet when I need to be (and big big big when I get the moment) I should be able to really extend the energy of the playing space into the house and into the hearts of the audience.

I’m excited!

because we all know who runs this burg

21st Century

As I mentioned before, many of the cast are doing multiple shows, so their days are chock-a-block with rehearsals, classes, coaching and shows. Which means that we (the Romeo and Juliet company) don’t work 8 hours a day every day, and not always with everyone, especially as the season gets underway. We’ll have Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary rehearsals, where we will have varying numbers of cast members, and the stage manager and director have to plan their days accordingly to figure out how to best use the time the schedule allows us.

For me, as sound designer and composer, that means that it’s not always useful for me to sit in the rehearsal hall. And anyway, there’s recording to arrange, meetings with sound techs and production in the Festival Theatre, and then of course other duties that I need to attend to in life and work as a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University.

We learned during the worst days of the Covid pandemic that we can use our digital and virtual tools to our advantage, and that has continued. This week while I’m in Toronto, I’m working out some rough music for the choreographer to use while she works with the cast to set the dance for the party scene in Act 1, where Juliet and Romeo get their first glance of each other.

I have 2 live drummers that I asked for to be onstage, and they will be in and out of the scenes in various ways. During the party, they’re the band, and a firey band they are! In keeping with our director’s vision, we are period-adjacent, so we’re not going too far out of the time where the play is written (although we are not being precious about it). The choreographer is using a style of dance called a Gaillard as inspiration, and we are using that rhythm to inspire the music for the band.

I’ve studied a lot of classical Arabic music and a rhythm that I love is the Yuruk Sema’i, a 6/8 that fits well with the Gaillard structure and tempos. The drummers will use this rhythm to accompany the dance. One of the drummers, Graham Hargrove is an accomplished hand percussionist and he plays the riqq (Arabic tambourine) beautifully, and our other musician Jasmine Jones-Ball will hold down the foundations.

But back to the 21st century – since I’m not in the hall this week until Friday, the choreographer and I have been working virtually. For a while now, I’ve been using Soundcloud to share private downloadable music with my collaborators, and usually keep a copy of all the music in Dropbox. Because I’m not there to play along with the choreographer, we’re trying out a bunch of different tempos. It’s a little clunky but for now it works, and luckily everyone understands the restrictions of the repertory workflow.

Some proposals for the choreographer

As she refines the dance, we’ll stay in communication so that I can construct a rough skeleton to work from when I communicate with the musicians. In the meantime, since I’m the musical director and one of the musicians for the recording (I’m a member of the Toronto Musician’s Association, the affiliated musician’s unions that works with the Stratford Festival), I can accompany the choreography in the hall when next I’m in (and we have enough company members to run the dance).

21st century, y’all.

Week 1

they’re back. they’re always back

Our time is tight – even though we open on June 1, virtually everyone in the cast is doing multiple shows, so the schedule looks like a jigsaw puzzle (hats off to the incredible SM team for keeping things on track and making sure us creatives keep an eye on our playground). The theatre (and by this I mean the stage and seats) is also having to deal with multiple shows, so our tech time is very precious and tight, as time needs to be found for various technical rehearsals and shows of the other productions in the space as well as ours.

That being said, Sam (White, our director) has been working with the goal of making sure we have a rough sketch of the first act by the end of Week One. And we’ve done it! Through this week, and watching this work, I’ve been able to get a sense of the logistics of how to deploy the sound through this very fast-moving play. Even getting a sense of the overall forward energy of the ensemble and Sam’s direction tells me a lot about how I need to prioritize the music and the sound design (which are not always the same thing).

My notes for the Prologue (which features an angelic Juliet, singing the “two households” text to music I’ve set) and Act 1 Sc 1 (including ideas for the onstage drummers accompanying the fight)
The drums I’m using to sketch out the music before the musicians join us

Next week: finessing and Act 2.

Design Presentations

Today was a day where the designers present the work they’ve done (to date) to the cast and company. It’s a really fun day where you get a glimpse into the world that the designers and director have built thus far, the playing space where the performance will occur. I say “fun” but if you’re a designer it can be terrifying (you should see my heart rate tracker for yesterday).


Usually it’s the set and costume designers that present, but lately over the years there is also space made for lighting, sound, music and projections as well. It’s sometimes difficult to materially present the work being done in those departments, but we often are able and invited to talk about our ideas and how we are hoping to support the story.

Set and Costume designer Sue LePage presenting the set with assistant set designer Freddy Van Camp

I led the company through some group percussion orchestrations, as the live music element of the show will involve 2 percussionists and singing. There are a lot of musicians in the cast so I’ll be roping them into the ol’ music party as well. I’ll get into that more in a future post.

And! After nearly a decade here I finally made it into a company picture:

We start working through the play now, and finding specific solutions to storytelling, staging, and design. I love watching the actors do this work – it reveals so much to me and helps me make new discoveries – artistically and logisitcally.


and of course, you have to run the gauntlet at the end of the day….#angrygoose

Stratford Festival – Romeo and Juliet PRO and first read

We started our time together on Romeo and Juliet with a pre-rehearsal orientation (PRO), which is a fairly new (at the Festival) practice of gathering, unpacking ideas and assumptions about how we do this work, and generally (and genuinely) creating a culture of care and support in the room. Stratford has been doing these for a few years now, and every year their team works hard to try and make the process more focused, relevant to each room, and current. This year’s was the best yet.

Our setup in the room for PRO

After a number of years here (8? 9? I don’t know) as sound designer and composer (often together, and often as sole musician, and waaaaayyyyy too often on multiple shows in the same season (but not this time because now I’m intelligent (temporarily)) I’ve worked in every theatre multiple times, except for the Festival Theatre. There is a lot of history in this building and it’s amazing to be in it as an artist.

I’m excited to work with our director, Sam White of Shakespeare in Detroit – we worked together last season on Wedding Band, a supercharged exploration of love, class, and race, and being in the room with her that season was the #1 reason I said “yes” when she asked me to be composer and sound designer for this one.

Sam runs an incredible room, full of community and lifting each other up – it’s extraordinary and frankly I’d work with her anytime for that reason alone (even though she is also a kick-ass director and brings to bear a razor-sharp intellect in making story). She would be the first to say that community building and our health (spiritual/mental/emotional/physical) is the most important thing in working together, because from that care and community excellence is made. It just follows – you can’t help but for it to happen.

Anyhow, the building: it’s quite a maze! I got lost about 3x just trying to get to the bathroom and back.

Today we do our first read around the table. I will exercising my note-taking skills this morning! And in the afternoon I will be visiting one of the on-stage percussionists’ studio to see what we can ask him to bring to the show. More on that later.

Here we go….

Thanks for reading!