In this 3-part series, PerformInk takes you inside Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of KING LEAR through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past “Inside” articles click here.
By Zack Pierson
As a sound designer and composer, I always get excited to have the opportunity to work on a Shakespeare piece that I haven’t tackled before. Between the music and the war scenes, the trumpets and the alarms, the world of a Shakespeare play can be something totally new and playful for a designer to plunge into. So, when “King Lear” came to me last year I immediately immersed myself in the script and began thinking of ideas to play with. Working with the original director, Ed Stern, we discussed and shaped a musical style that would not only fit in the vision that he had but also be able to support the story, the characters as they develop and the language itself.
Last spring, I had the great pleasure of designing and composing for a production of “Antony and Cleopatra” on the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, Spencer Stage with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. In that production, I wrote many musical transitions and themes using pianos, cellos, the human voice, and the saz, a Turkish string instrument. The music became its own character to me, playing between scenes and even with the actors; it was a large project. Alternately with “King Lear”, the more I read the play and talked with Ed, I decided that the sound would be a subtler touch. In Ed’s words, “The music shouldn’t sound or feel like music, but more of a driving force.” Ambient tones, swells, evoking atmospheres that sit like a mist over a scene for the actors to play with. As a composer who usually relies on themes and multi-instrumental progressions, I was excited for the challenge to take a more minimal approach to music. I started to draw from horror films in the way they use silence vs. sonic textures to lure in the audience.
When Ryan Artzberger stepped in as our new director I was excited to discuss this design concept with him. As a designer, I always like to have what I call a pallet track ready by first rehearsal to present, a short piece of music that won’t necessarily appear in the production, but rather a demonstration of the colors, tones, and themes I plan on using for the show. Ryan was very much onboard with the idea we had shaped, and I felt validated when he not only enjoyed the piece, but had his own ideas of where we could go and how we could use this sound: music that isn’t quite music. In the weeks following I’ve been sitting in the studio, developing these colors and textures to accompany scenes and build upon the work the actors are bringing to the language.
Having listened to the show several times, both in rehearsal and scenes that I’ve taped, I’m very excited to bring this style to the stage and be able to experience all of the elements together. “King Lear” has truly been a new experience for me and I can’t wait to see how the audience reacts.
Zack Pierson is a 2nd-year Sound Design M.F.A. student at UMKC. His design work in Kansas City includes “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Julius Caesar,” and “O Beautiful.” In his hometown of Seattle, WA, Zack has composed for short films, over 20 theatrical productions and an indie video game available on iOS, titled “Queen Defense.”