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The Song’s The Thing

Creating A Rock + Theater Collaboration

My sister and I are sitting in the Metreon movie complex in downtown San Francisco and the lights have just lowered to start the latest Bond movie, Skyfall. I’m there for, let’s be honest, Daniel Craig. And Judi Dench. Mainly Daniel Craig. But what smashes into us first is the incredible theme song by Adele.

The movie was great (Bardem! Evil!), but what I left with was that song. I carry that song in my pocket, I play it in the shower, I try to sing it in said shower. That song is the movie, and the movie is that song.

I thought, “Theater should have that.”

Something of a show that you could take home with you. A way to describe a show that isn’t with words. A way of sharing a show without traditional marketing. A way to experience a piece of a show anywhere in the world.



I had a premiere coming in about a year at the visionary and agile theater company Shotgun Players in Berkeley, California. It’s a tricky, emotional, mind-bending little play, called By And By, about love and loss and tipping over the edge of human biotechnology. Someone could make a rock anthem out of that, right?

So I asked my brilliant director, Mina Morita, if I could commission a theme song from the coolest band I knew in the Bay Area, Kate Kilbane and Dan Moses of The Kilbanes. I’d take care of the logistics, if I could get the go-ahead from Shotgun. It was worth the experiment.

Mina was immediately game for this idea. So was Patrick Dooley, the Artistic Director of Shotgun. Shotgun produced the Tom Waits musical Woycek last year, and has a history with muscular and innovative storytelling. The whole team was game, and introductions were made.

Kate Kilbane is not only a riveting musician and singer, but she’s also a theater nerd like the rest of us (a degree in performance studies from NYU will do that). She got the play’s story and the concept of a “theater theme song” right away. Kate and Dan Moses, her co-writer and husband, got to work dreaming up a song for the show. They came to an early read through of By And By as well as design meetings, they talked with the sound designer Colin Trevor and Mina about the soundscape of the show. They were a part of the process from the beginning.

“Working with composers is usually a very cut and dry process,” Colin Trevor says, “Generally the composer is responsible for setting the overall mood and tone of the music for a production, while the sound designer is responsible for implementing that music technically. But on By And By, however, we experienced a much more organic and collaborative process. We were able to get an early handle on the genre, style, and tone of music which we felt most powerfully reflected the content of the script, which we then shared with our composers to use as inspiration for what eventually became the song they wrote.”

Soon The Kilbanes shot us two rough song ideas. We all landed on “Awake,” a driving, building anthem that soars and smashes us into silence. Which is also the feeling with which we wanted to leave our audiences too—hard hope and a journey ahead that starts right now.

I have no idea how they did it, but it’s perfect.

Kate says, “There are countless ways that you can tell a story. But what this idea offered us was the chance to tell one story, in two different ways at the same time. One, fully explored in the play; and the other encapsulated and condensed into a three and a half minute rock tune in the song.”

What this idea offered us was the chance to tell one story, in two different ways at the same time. One, fully explored in the play; and the other encapsulated and condensed into a three and a half minute rock tune in the song.

The whole process was invented as we went. The contractual agreements protecting The Kilbanes’ work, but forever linking it to the play (not just the production, but the play itself as it continues its life). We were also inventing a kind of song-by-song investment in rock and roll, and exploring how our separate art forms inform each other.

Dan of The Kilbanes says, “We would focus on moments in the story, and try to wrap the music around that moment.”

As Kate and Dan went about recording the song with The Bengsons, preproduction was in full swing. Kate and Dan brought the finished song to the cast and designers at an early read through, and played it for the major donors at the first rehearsal event.

Director Mina says, “Their music found a way directly into the heart of the story, and inspired our soundscape.”

The team chose to use “Awake” at a very important point in staging the last scene of the play, right after the climactic visual and emotional revelation of the show.

“‘Awake’ acts as a bridge to take us out of the world of the play and back into our thoughts and feelings about what we have just seen,” sound designer Colin Trevor says.

This new music-theater collaboration let us try to:

  • Create an original theme song for a play
  • Build new audiences and interest in this premiere production of By And By at Shotgun
  • Explore a new kind of artistic collaboration and conversation in our community across disciplines
  • Get rock fans to the theater, and theater fans to support new music
  • Have audiences say, “what was that awesome song?” and be able to download that awesome song in the lobby right after the show
  • Leave a longer, tangible artistic mark than theater often gets to do
  • Give audiences a souvenir of sorts of the play
  • Do something new in Bay Area theater
  • Try a new model to extend the life of the production
  • See if we could get away with it

“I was fascinated by this opportunity as a writer,” Kate says, “to create the song that is the play, or the play told through a song. And I was incredibly inspired by the desire for the audience to take this story with them out of the theater and into the world.”

The Kilbanes’ rock opera Weightless is in development at Z Space in San Francisco.

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I have been thinking about this very thing for the past couple of weeks, so I'm excited to hear that someone else had the same idea and has already implement it. I guess my biggest question that I kept running into is how does attaching a song to a play like this tie the hands of future directors? Especially since, I'm assuming, it's a pre-recorded track that is distributed with the play, like the soundtrack of a movie. (Though perhaps that is a false assumption)

With musicals, the key is that the music is recreated for each production, so the director and music director have some leeway in the presentation and feel of the music. With a pre-recorded track written for a specific moment, I would imagine that the autonomy of future directors is severely reduced when it comes to how the moments leading up to that are established.

And I'm not sure that this is a bad thing, mind you, I just wonder if it's something you've thought about at all. If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!

Congratulations to you and your team, Lauren! Thank you for sharing a guide for an exciting collaboration. I'm left feeling disappointed I didn't see the production.

Yes! Plays with soundtracks and theme songs. I've been noodling on how best to do this for the piece I'm working on...thanks for the ideas!

In Boston we just did a production of my play called FROM DENMARK WITH LOVE, which is Hamlet retold as if it's a James Bond spy thriller (Claudius the evil mastermind; Ophelia re-dubbed as Bond-Girl "Ophelia Balzac", etc). We had the same thought and asked 10 Boston Bands to write and record their very own James Bond theme song, all based on Bond/Shakespeare Mash-up titles (i.e. Lear and Let Die). It really added to the overall experience of the show but also tied the theater and music communities together in a way that we hadn't seen before. Fans seemed to be really into it, and sales of the CD all went straight to the musicians.

We did a similar thing by commissioning visual artists to do work inspired by a line in the play, and displayed the work in the lobby, again with a lot of enthusiasm from the audiences.

One thing I love about theater is that it involves all other art forms: there's movement, text, visual art, sound. I've always found it really exciting (as a maker and audience member) to find ways to bridge out from shows to other artists and other communities, and in some small experiments in Boston that's really paid off, both in terms of the art and in terms of the audience.

Check out our website: www.VaqueroPlayground.com
The CD: http://www.VaqueroPlaygroun...

Also another fantastic company in Boston, Liars & Believers, who last year created an original musical in collaboration with local band Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys. Fantastic show.

Transmedia storytelling. Multiple dimensions. The paradox of extending the experience AND keeping it ephemeral. The theatre is a mosaic of contradictions. Why shouldn't we allow this one?