Please turn off your celphones and pagers

During a recent production meeting for Measure For Measure, we talked about preshow music. The general feeling about preshow music is that it’s there to “set up” the audience in some way for the show they’re about to see. Some shows feature preshow music that is thematically tied in to the play. When The Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials performed Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment, which was partially about the development of the atomic bomb, the preshow music included Tom Lehrer’s “So Long, Mom,” a satirical song from the 1960s about the atomic bomb. For Boy Gets Girl the audience was treated to 30 minutes of songs about stalkers: “Every Breath You Take,” Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession,” Peter Gabriel’s “Intruder.”

Sometimes the preshow is thematically-related sound effects. For a recent production of Macbeth, the preshow consisted of the desolate, windy ambient sound of the blasted heath where the titular character meets the Weird Sisters.

The preshow for just about every House show I’ve ever been to features a mix-tape of cool indie music, which has less to do with the particular show and more to do with the casual “come hang out with us” vibe that House creates. This vibe is arguably an important part of their success.

On the other hand, I’ve never heard preshow music or effects of any kind at the Goodman*. The audience comes in, sits down, talks to each other, and the first thing they hear from the speakers is the “Welcome to the Goodman…” announcement.

And if you’re in the mood for candy, please unwrap it…now.

Should we create a preshow cue? The Goodman and (to my knowledge) Steppenwolf generally don’t. Many storefront companies do. What’s the difference? Is preshow sound a vital element of the show that eases the audience into the world we’re trying to create? Or is it something the designer works hard on that the audience only peripherally acknowledges as they stow their purses, talk about their kids or their jobs or their friends’ love lives and forget to switch off their celphones? Are we insecure about bringing the audience into our space and then leaving them in silence that we know darn well they’re going to fill by themselves?

Let me know what you think.

* Update: just a few short hours after writing this post, I walked in to a preview performance of “Rock and Roll” at the Goodman and heard…preshow music. So there you go.
Freakin’ Tom Stoppard.

About toxicbag

Toxic Bag Productions, Inc. provides sound effects and music for independent films, animated shorts, theatrical productions, dance performances, podcasts and video games. They work out of their studio on the north side of Chicago.

Posted on May 7, 2009, in Theatah and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. It makes me wonder where the tradition of pre-show music started.

    I remember that, in college, the “freestage” productions, produced and directed by students, always had pre-show music, while the faculty-run “mainstage” shows seldom did.

    It is therefore worth noting (as Joe observes) that theater companies run by Gen X-(and later) age folks tend to use the pre-show music, whereas the Elder-Statesmen-theaters forego it.

    It’s possible that the current generation of theatermakers are so influenced by cinema, that the pre-show music is similar to an opening credits sequence of a movie, wherein the audience is given an idea of what they’re in for (see the opening credits sequence of “SE7EN” for an excellent example).

    While I certainly enjoy using pre-show music (and I’m of the camp that seeks to deliberately construct it to set the tone for the show, cherry-picking to support the theme, environment or ambiance of the piece), I don’t know if it’s essential.

    In addition, I seldom find myself taking note of pre-show music when I go to a show, even though I know that the Director and/or Sound Designer may have agonized over it, just as I have when I use it (a grievous sin of hypocrisy, I expect).

    At the same time, I have seen shows where the pre-show music makes me say to myself (or my date), “Hey, it’s really cool that they chose to use ‘Watching the Detectives’ in the pre-show.”

    Maybe the audience may not notice the pre-show music because they’re not sure what the show’s about yet, and how the music they’re hearing will relate. Perhaps, in that case, the post-show music packs more of a punch.

    Random Thoughts.

  2. I like the pre-show music in a small house. I think it creates a more intimate environment and does draw people into the world of the play.

    In a huge house, it probably wouldn’t be noticed as much or have the same effect. So I think different decisions may be made to fit the venue.

  3. Timing. Hmmph.

    While, I was wise enough to approach a friend well in advance of our opening to compose a special peice specific to the show – which he pushed through and delivered amazingly on – I figured I could get around to “the rest” of the pre-show during tech week.

    I am a fan of having music that hits on many levels. For instance, the show I’m directing is a late-night (10:30pm) comedic peice, which was inspired by sci-fi horror of the late 70’s and early 80’s.

    I wanted fun (“man, I LOVE that song) and rocking songs that get the crowd pumping and if they think a bit, might catch some of the themes (both subtle and amazingly not so subtle) if they are paying attention.

    And lastly, I wanted songs that I love to listen to, that rev me and the cast/crew up to stomp out a lively performance. That get your blood pumping and your pulse racing.

    I’m annoyed at myself that I pushed it off until right before I needed to have it done, but really, it was the only thing I could truly procrastinate on…so I did.

    Sorry…long winded response for…I like pre-show music. Especially when I discover it’s been specifically chosen…and is not just a CD they threw in to have music playing in the background for those unwilling to socialize prior to curtain up.

    Post show music? Since folks usually are jettisoned, you only get one shot with (the early part) of one song…because if your house management is doing their jobs, they are going to roll that audience like drunks in an alley to close up.


  4. I feel like I’ve had this discussion before and I wish I could find it… hmmm…

    To me, whether it’s music, tonal, or silence, the Preshow sound is less about setting up the audience emotionally for the event and more about beginning the experience of the world of the play. As a designer, I think equally about the directionality and location and reverberance of each sound as I do about what that sound is. I’m a firm believer that storytelling begins the minute the audience walks into the building. In execution, that can happen in a bunch of different ways.

    I’m lucky? enough to be the dude who cues up and programs that Preshow Announcement each night (Fun Fact: We call it Chris Preshow. No reason.) And after pondering it, mantra-like, for hundreds of performances, I have come to understand the trend of Goodman / Steppenwolf silence before and after the performance to be a framing device. A palette-cleanser. And I think, for that audience and what their evening looks like other than the theatrical event, it’s an appropriate choice. The choices in Rock and Roll preshow also have an interesting conversation with that choice.

    I’ve seen several House preshows, and variations on the mix-tape approach. I personally find it flawed more often than not, but I’ll acknowledge that under certain circumstances – especially in the case of the House where that audience wants and expects that mix-tape energy – it can be appropriate. The strength and weakness of using pop music choices in a preshow world is that we all carry a host of different emotional baggage with recognizable pop & indie songs. I once used a song that was new to me – something by the Postal Service – as my perfect underscore for a glistening, effusive moment of catharsis. Only to have a student come up to me and say “Why the hell did you use that for that moment. I broke up with my last BF to that song.” Putting an audience member in that kind of weird emotional context is so much more likely than you might think. If you wouldn’t hand each member of the audience a mix CD made specifically for them on the way in the door, it probably won’t work as preshow music either.

    I agree also with Jean LG – in a small house – with a small audience – Silence can equal uncomfortable death. I have been playing as my own aesthetic has developed with the idea of emotional and spatial tonality in the preshow soundscape. I think if music and tones can be represented in a specific space – say, a cathedral, or a radio, or a rock concert, or in a cave, or the infinite void of outer space, that means that sound approaches the same narrative function as the set and lights in the preshow environment.

    To conclude: the right choice is about choosing an aesthetic that opens up the specific audience that you’re working with. It welcomes them, or challenges them, or confuses them, or centers them. The preshow sound gets to say: Our story (or your story) begins here. In this time, in this place, in this context. And it has already begun.

  5. Good thoughts, Nick. I completely agree about the Postal Service example–you cannot know what sort of emotional resonance a particular song has for an audience member, which may be as compelling an argument for not using the mixtape approach as the (ahem) legal issues that may arise.

    Also an interesting point about preshow sound having equal importance with set and lights in the environment…maybe this is a bigger discussion, as set and lights need to work in concert with sound to reinforce that environment (duh). I think I could definitely point to shows where the preshow sound was not supported by what lights/set were doing. And vice versa. The preshow choice we made on “Measure for Measure” was partly informed by the set design.

    “…storytelling begins the minute the audience walks into the building.”

    I agree with that to an extent. Perhaps I’d say “storytelling CAN begin the minute the audience walks into the building.” I’ve seen it start before that point, and after, and IMHO it’s all in how the creators choose to frame it. Forgive me if that’s a wishy-washy position.

    Rebecca: I left off with post-show music a while ago, I think. As you say, people are on their way out the door at that point. As far as procrastinating on putting together a totally kickass preshow–I think that’s the main weakness with the preshow concept, especially in low-budget/storefront land. It often gets left to the last minute because putting the “actual show” together takes precedence. And maybe that’s why preshows can be so flawed. I remember a very long night and afternoon frantically assembling a set of remixes for the “re: Alice” preshow, computer crashing every ten minutes, just barely making it in time. I thought it was a reasonably great preshow if I do say so, but ultimately I am not sure if anyone in the audience thought so…or even registered it.

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