As MD on the Edward II
project it was my job to arrange a band and provide improvised musical accompaniment and themes to the play. This sounds fairly easy but putting a band together who are willing to give up their time is difficult, and finding musicians who are at a suitable level of ability in terms of improvisation and understanding of music and theatre is no easy task.
The original band for Edward was to be a jazz quartet with the different instruments (drums, bass, piano and saxophone) to play around with emotions and moods or to play themes for characters or to individually tell the stories of characters on the stage whilst still achieving some sort of musicality in the performance. Unfortunately due to technical constraints and the fact that musicians are fickle people we used just saxophone and percussion. This turned out to be a great combination in terms of setting moods and themes and also getting enough emotional colour into the background of the play. The music and percussion really underpins the words or movements of a character on stage.
To achieve this, the instructions to the band were to watch the characters, play in a given key and just jam along following their movements and tones of voice. We had multiple workshops during rehearsals to get everyone up to speed on this style of performance with the music leading the actors and the actors leading the music and everyone eventually taking the lead from everyone else on or off stage and giving a performance which changes each night depending on how each actor or musician perceives what is happening on stage at any one time. As with anything improvised not one performance was ever the same nor was any rehearsal. This means that everyone has to be on their toes giving it all they've got every night with no time for relaxing and settling into the complacent knowledge that you know what is coming up. This makes for a very edgy performance full of enthusiasm and excitement for all.
As much as I enjoyed this performance I would definitely change the format. I think a bigger band would be more fun to work with and would make for a wider range of emotional and physical settings on stage. I think penning themes and handing them out to the band in advance would be worth trying. Possibly not using a score but a selection of numbers picked at random by the MD but that coherently tell the story being played on stage. I think a useful technique would be to have musicians surrounding the audience so they have their senses worked on from all angles especially as characters can enter from multiple doors or hiding places in a venue.