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Exploring the percussion in Coriolanus

Percussion plays a key role in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Coriolanus, now at Sidney Harman Hall through June 2, 2013. Many artists were involved in bringing the sounds to the stage, but Composer/Sound Designer Mark Bennett was the driving force behind each step of the process.

Creating the sounds

The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of 'Coriolanus.' Photo by Scott Suchman.

He and director David Muse began meeting several months ago to talk about each other’s ideas. As this was Mark and David’s first collaboration, this gave Mark a chance to “find the director’s ear,” or familiarize himself with David’s music style. “At the end of the day, all scores are storytelling and all scores have to find a way to unlock plays,” Mark says. “Never more so than with Shakespeare.” They also discussed the look and feel of the play, including the set and costumes, which were intended not to evoke one place or period. It became clear to Mark that this timeless production should have timeless music: a percussion ensemble.

As Mark began choosing the range of instruments and sounds to feature in the production, he worked to differentiate between the Roman and Volscian worlds. For Roman scenes, he incorporated a lot of drums and “stick on skin” sounds. For the Volscian parts, he leaned toward adding metallic sounds, utilizing metal welded onto drumsticks, prerecorded metal textures and the clash of swords.

To make the most of designer Blythe R.D. Quinlan’s versatile set, Mark, Blythe and David decided early on that all instruments needed to be mobile so that they could be moved on and off the stage throughout the show. Smaller instruments could be carried by cast members, but the larger ones would need to be rolled. STC’s props department worked to attach wheels and build stands. STC’s Lead Props Artisan Chris Young explains that many of the drums came with wheels that would be suitable to transport drums from a rehearsal room into a high school auditorium for a concert, but they needed to be replaced with sturdier casters that would make it easier for the cast to roll them on and off stage quickly, precisely and quietly. Several drums also came with wooden stands, which Chris replaced with steel frames that he built specifically to fit the drums and better match Blythe’s set design.

The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of 'Coriolanus.' Photo by Scott Suchman.

“The props department took on a massive challenge,” Mark says. “I feel fortunate that they made the early conversations a reality.” Mark also issued another challenge. After discovering that STC already had in storage two oil drums with drum heads attached, he asked the team to make him two more, using larger 55-gallon drums. Read about how the drums were made.

While STC’s props department worked on those, the cast of Coriolanus began acquainting themselves with the many instruments Mark chose for the production. The entire ensemble practiced with drums starting on the first day of rehearsal. Some had experience playing percussion instruments, Mark says; most did not. But they embraced the idea and spent countless hours making music. He has high praise for the dedicated members of the ensemble and their hard work: “The percussion is the heart of Coriolanus and they’re up there every day, letting it beat.”

Several other artists played key roles in bringing the score to life. Assistant Director Jenny Lord and cast member Philip Dickerson, who also served as lead drummer and percussion coach, kept the music routined throughout the rehearsal process, worked with David daily in rehearsal to keep Mark informed of changes and additions and kept the music needs of the production organized. D.C. composer Eric Tipler, the production’s music assistant and copyist, kept the scores organized and updated as Mark continued to develop the music throughout the rehearsal process.

About the instruments

Audience members will see several other instruments onstage in addition to the industrial drums. Cast members play surdos, large bass drums often used in Brazilian and European music, and at times they bang together metal pipes. In the act 1 battle sequence, Mark calls upon a powerful drum: a Japanese taiko, which presides over the action from its place upstage.

The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of 'Coriolanus.' Photo by Scott Suchman.

Mark chose the taiko for its impressive size and the range of sounds, from deep booms to clacking wooden noises, that it can produce depending upon where it’s struck. In a battle scene, all of the soldiers exit while Philip stays onstage and plays a driving taiko solo. The effect on the audience is visual as well as aural. As Mark explains, “The idea of someone raging against a large object suggests the theatricality of war and battle.”

Philip plays two other unique instruments during Coriolanus as well. In act 1, Volumnia enters and engages in a swordfight with her grandson, Young Martius. For this domestic scene, Mark sought out an instrument with a “gentle sound”: a Milltone Tongue Drum, which is a particularly beautiful instrument designed and built by Larry Miller. The Milltone is a very finely tuned drum related to metal or tank drums. When it’s held while being played, it uses the human body to maximize tone and quality and create richer sounds.

At the top of act 2, Philip returns to the stage with another instrument: a set of crotales. Though usually struck with mallets, Mark instead instructed him to run a rosined bass bow along its side to create a high, melodic, “otherworldly” sound.

The Milltone and the crotales set provide the score with most of its rare moments of actual melody. One of the most striking aspects of Mark’s score is that it flirts with tonality but it avoids becoming melodic. This precise balance is the result of many careful decisions by Mark and the culmination of hard work by both the cast and STC’s staff. For the audience, it makes for an unforgettable Shakespearean experience.

“There’s nothing that compares to the thrill and excitement of watching music made live onstage,” Mark says. “Especially with Shakespeare.”

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