Constellation is back again with some of its finest signature work, with sweeping, epic tales told with large casts and innovative theatrical magic, and beautiful production value. I’ve seen many of Constellation’s epic pieces, from Ramayana to The Journey West, and the constant use of color, space, levels, and sound to tell these stories is always impressive.
Caucasian Chalk Circle bring us to a slightly less mystical place than the aforementioned works, but it still gets the full Constellation treatment: Simple and elegant that unfolds into something massively complex.
Ever curious as to how they go about designing these intricate worlds, I’m lucky that we managed to grab the composers, Brian Lotter and Matthew Schleigh, Puppet Designer Matthew McGee, Actor Tamieka Chavis, and Director Allison Stockman to chat about the show, especially given how busy the teams are leading up into their opening week.
Brian, Matthew, how did you gone about creating the sonic world of the show?
Brian Lotter: We’ve attempted to mix the scales, chord progressions, and melodic style of Georgian folk music with the Western style of the typical band orchestration. It’s been interesting to make decisions with these two extremes in mind. Since we knew we’d be limited in terms of having traditional Georgian folk instrumentalists, we’ve used more percussion based timbral aspects, added some keyboard instrument patches such as harmonium or accordion, and then kept an electric and acoustic guitar, as well as piano in the mix.
What are your inspirations?
Brian: Although I spent some time listening to traditional Georgian music before composing for the show, it would take a lifetime to fully understand and appreciate the depth of nuance in that style of music. It’s quite fantastic, and very different from our own sense of Western equal-temperament tuning and harmony. We attempted to pull as much inspiration from the folk music of the region as we could, while still being grounded in our typical instrumentation. I also have an appreciation for Kurt Weill’s work with Brecht, and the way that the music can change quickly from one style to the next, based on what is being sung. We attempted to keep the audience guessing in that regard, and I would like to think that Brecht would appreciate our decision to shift styles when the text seemed to call for it.
I’ve always loved the music work at Constellation; are you drawing any musical inspirations from the Caucasus? (I’ve heard whispers of Gogol Bordello and I’m very excited.)
Brian: Yes, definitely. And we might have listened to some Gogol Bordello for some inspiration. 🙂
Matthew Schleigh: I’ve been thinking of the music as meeting in the middle of two extremes. On one end we began with certain progressions and modes found within traditional Georgian folk music, as best as we can understand it within our more Western tonal familiarity, while the other end draws inspiration from modern bands that played the traditions of their countries through electric guitars. Yes, it’s true Gogol Bordello was very much on my mind when thinking of how to meld these worlds! I love the spirit and edge they bring to their music, and I thought we could let ourselves be inspired by that same kind of energy for the world the creative team has envisioned for our production.
What’s your approach to composing/arranging music?
Matthew: With this project, half of our work is covered already because Brecht provided the lyrics, which is a great help! Our challenge has been taking “songs” that have no clear metrical or rhyming structure and create one for it (or purposefully, not). Many of our compositions began by speaking these lines to see where the natural stresses occur, and then we let the intentions of the scene dictate the “feel” of the song—should it be fast or slow, how involved should the melody be, does it relate to another section of music elsewhere in the piece. We played around with some progressions we were learning of the Georgian tradition and allowed ourselves to branch out from there, and a form started to develop naturally.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Produced by Constellation Theatre Company
closes May 13, 2018
Details and tickets
Since Brian and I have a decade’s worth of friendship and collaboration, we’ve been able to leave ego at the door, which has allowed us to trust each other’s instincts and expand them together to hopefully create an harmonious soundscape (pardon the pun). I’m already looking forward to our next collaboration, whatever that might be!
Brian: Matt and I are pretty different in this regard, but I think that’s what makes our collaborations work so well in the end. I can’t speak for him, but my personal style is one of getting the audience to notice connections within the play by using leitmotifs. So the first thing I did after listening to lots of Georgian folk music and studying its music theory, was to go through the play and find places that had symmetry, or related to other scenes within the play. After understanding what the text is attempting to say, noticing the form, I then sit down and write a few simple motifs that I can weave in and out of the overall work. I find that many times, the audience might not notice them immediately, but as the show goes on, they can subconsciously connect the scenes within the play. A good example of this would be what I’ve dubbed the “circle” theme. It’s an oscillating three note motif, ascending and descending in 2nds when talking about peace and justice, but then those notes are broken by the interval of a 3rd when dealing with war, anger, danger, and hate. I feel like this dichotomy is the core of the play, so I wanted to make sure to evoke that musically.
Matt McGee, tell me about this child puppet! Usually we just see a bundle of cloth to represent a child. What conceit did you have for this puppet?
Matthew McGee: Since this child has to age into a toddler, we knew we needed a more fully realized puppet for the later scenes. With that in mind it made sense to make the infant version a more physical presence than just a bundle of fabric. Plus, if the child has a more captivating look right from the get go, the audience is more keen to care about the journey it will embark on.
How did you go about building them?
Matthew: For the baby version of the child I literally cannibalized a baby doll from the thrift store, sculpting over the head to make it look more like what we were going for and altering the arms and legs to allow for more manipulability. For the toddler, I constructed the skeleton out of wood dowels, boards, leather, wire, and bungee cords, with sculpted hands, feet, and face. The rest of the fleshing out is done with foam rubber. The hair is made from soft feathers.
Is there anything in your design that reflects the world of the play as staged, vs the framing device of the play?
Matthew: The world of the play has a grit to it; a texture that is a little rough around the edges. In order to create a character like the child the director and I discussed how to find the balance between a puppet that matches the world completely, and one that stands out a little bit as something softer and more innocent than the world he finds himself in while not becoming too alien in its own surroundings. It’s a tricky balance, but hopefully we figured it out!
Tamieka, who do you play?
Tamieka Chavis:! I play Shauva, Masha, Farmer’s Wife, a Horseman (Horseperson, I suppose?) and a Survivor.
How do you juggle all of those characters?
Tamieka: How do I juggle all of those characters you ask?! Very carefully, of course! Seriously, for me it’s a matter of developing a body, voice, walk, and center for each character. It’s also important for me to have clear objectives for each one. Costuming is a big factor as well!
How does acting in the 360 seating work for you?
Tamieka: The 360° seating is a lot of fun! I love it! It feels like the audience is more immersed into the world of the play. Plus, I get that much more practice at perfecting my back acting.
How do you manage sightlines?
Tamieka: I think sightlines are challenging with most productions, but with Allison’s direction and Tony’s choreography, every seat is a good seat.
Which of your characters is your favorite?
Tamieka: Although I appreciate Shauva’ s dedication to Azdak’s good heart, I’d have to say that the Farmer’s Wife is my favorite character. She reminds me of my grandmother – she didn’t take any crap, but she knows her limits. I mean, one must be responsible for their own actions.
Allison, talk to me about this “immersive seating”! This sounds really exciting, and like a really cool conceit!
Allison Stockman: Initially Set and Light Designer, A.J. Guban, and I talked about doing the show in the round, but the more we explored Grusha’s adventure story we realized that we needed to embrace the idea of travel and multiple places to go. The set has 10 exit/entrances and 10 distinct acting areas which allows us to follow Grusha on her journey, or to leave her and immediately visit other characters in another place across the stage.
Can you talk a little about how you think “Immersive seating” will work towards a Brechtian-style alienation of those audience members?
Allison: Brecht’s goal was to keep the audience on their toes so that they would have opinions and judge the action taking place in front of them. It’s okay for the audience to feel (and I hope that ours does), they just shouldn’t be so lulled into emotion that they won’t think. It’s important for the audience to be conscious of watching and engaging with a play. Our production does that in many ways – from direct address that breaks down the fourth wall, to live music, dance, narration and puppetry. For people sitting in the immersive banks, they have a 360 degree experience and feel that they are inside the play which is taking place around them. All of the audience sees other patrons in their field of vision when they watch the play which makes us conscious of ourselves as part of a community engaging in the art.
What about the process has been fun for you?
Allison: I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with the wonderful cast and amazing designers and choreographer Tony Thomas. Brecht provided the lyrics for the songs (41 in total) in the show, but the music is all original and that process has been a delight. Matthew Schleigh and Brian Lotter have composed original music which is performed by Schleigh on guitar, Manny Arcinega on percussion and Ben Lurye on keyboard, as well as additional singers in the cast. Gordon Nimmo-Smith stepped in as our Sound Designer with Michael Vest and Eric Johns as the Audio team. The aural world of the play is very strong and it has been a terrific collaboration of all these talented artists.
You’ve got a cast of 14 running 60+ characters, right? Has that been a challenge to organize and maintain?
Allison: Certainly, a story of this size is a challenge and tracking people, entrances/exits, quick changes and props is very complex. I’m grateful that the cast is inspired, dedicated and ready for anything. Kudos also to the stage management team!
Have there been any particular challenges in this process?
There are always challenges but right now I’m seeing through the rose-colored glasses that I wear after opening and I am just feeling lucky to be surrounded by wonderful people telling a great story.
So why Caucasian Chalk Circle? What inspired you to program and direct this show?
Allison: The story lives close to my heart.I love the epic sweep of Brecht’s huge stories. I love when actors play multiple roles, and I feel like it re-enforces the idea of an individual’s freedom to decide who they are, by what they say and do. This play takes place in at a time of social revolution, when greed, violence and power fuel corruption. Yet a brave young woman makes an ethical choice to save an innocent life, proving that hope and compassion can conquer all.