Composing Kingsland Ward

Composer Sean Hagerty

There’s a pregnant pause before shows start: an anticipatory silence before the roaring soundtrack begins and the performance unfolds. Sean Hagerty, seasoned sound designer, composer and musician, relishes that moment. In Third Rail ProjectsSteampunk Haunted House, where Sean first started working with the group, that moment of silence was always an “omnipotent experience.”

“I would sit in the audio booth of the empty main theatre. And, with a single push of a button, the spaces all around me would come alive with sound.”

With these early shows, Sean experimented with frameworks that laid the groundwork for the following Then She Fell performances. Synchronizing multi-track soundtracks from one centralized system was one decision that proved to be crucial. Another was creating “spatial arrangements” by breaking the music into different versions depending on the environment. Wiring rooms to each have their own sound system proved to be tough, particularly in the Maujer St. location where no sound system had previously been in place. Composing and recording different spatial arrangements for each of these rooms, says Sean, proved to be an even more interesting challenge.

Then She Fell Music Sample

“What I really love about doing sound design for theatre is how contextual it is. You don’t write for a concert hall, you write for a setting, for people. Third Rail Projects is especially collaborative and contextual; as much as they adapt choreography to space, I adapt sound.”

The music for Then She Fell started from an improvisation session between the dancers and musicians. Isaiah Singer (bass, harmonica) and Brian Olin (electric guitar) joined Sean on violin, looping and recording their musical dialogue. Sean drew from this material, writing new sections, piecing together a collage of movements. He incorporated driving gypsy music from a collaboration with Ben Magnuson and recorded languid bass-clarinet parts with multi-instrumentalist Tom Regouski. With Third Rail Projects Co-Artistic Director Zach Morris‘ guidance, the structure came together, one that would marry the music with multiple experiences, simultaneously.

One of Sean’s favorite aspects of theatrical sound design is its collaborative nature, especially with Third Rail’s leadership. In one memorable instance, Zach sent an email of himself humming a melody based on a selection of Lewis Carroll‘s writing. Sean transcribed the melody and began to build an arrangement from it with banjo, air organ, and accordion parts. That bitter-sweet and reminiscent  tune later became a major motif within the show, at times sung live by Elizabeth Carena, and subsequent Hatters.

While Sean pulled stylistic inspiration from a diverse range of artists (Tom Waits, Jonny Greenwood, J.S. Bach), his vision is present from the soundtrack’s initial conception to its final arrangement. Amidst a spiderweb of speaker-wire,the pluck of an instrument finds its final place between the hallowed walls of the Kingsland Ward.

For Third Rail Projects’ next work, Roadside Attraction (Twitter #Roadside), debuting June 23 at Brookfield Place Plaza, Sean returns to work with Third Rail Projects Co-Artistic Director Jennine Willett to create an original composition supported by New Music USA‘s 2013 Live Music for Dance Program, playing live alongside previous collaborator Isaiah Singer, and with Elizabeth Carena on vocals.

Playing Games in Space: Watching Our Site-Specific Workshop

For Third Rail Projects’ sold-out workshop “Creating Off-Site/Adapting On-Site,” Marissa Nielsen-Pincus and Jennine Willett transformed our Tea Room into a dynamic space for experimentation. Participants described themselves as dancers, movement specialists, artists and more. They came to explore new methodologies for their own work, particularly from a team with such a long history of site-specific performances. Jennine and Marissa explained why performing in sites requires different tactics than performing in a traditional setting:

“Sometimes we can’t get to our site until two weeks before a show. We use games during rehearsal to generate phrases and pieces; this allows us to come into the space with a lot of material and work quickly to create something extraordinary.”

Marissa and Jennine led the group through a series of exercises, from rolling around across the floor to creating a short “phrase” inspired by cooking. They elongated and condensed their first phrase and learned how to turn one small series of motions into a much wider repertoire. The participants then translated their phrases around chairs. Once they became comfortable with adjusting their movement around objects, the large group was sent off to explore the introduction of space.

Small groups overtook different rooms in Kingsland Ward, from the Red Queen’s Boudoir to the stairwells of the Ward. Armed with material from the previous games, each participant learned how to negotiate their movements with the compelling logic of the space. After a short practice period, each participant performed his or her piece to a small audience. Many seemed surprised by how much they could create in so little time.

Short yet evocative, these sophisticated pieces contained only traces of the light-hearted cooking game. Yet that original phrase created a store of ready material upon which the group could use for inspiration. At the close of the three-hour session, participants packed up their things and crowded around Jennine and Marissa to say goodbye. They spilled out into the afternoon sun, eager to engage their own practices with some new-found knowledge.

Lighting Up Then She Fell

Lights flicker before illuminating an intimate dance. Chandeliers dim to reveal another room through the mirror. The performers and sets and music may draw you in, but no one can light up a room like Kryssy Wright, Lighting Designer for Then She Fell. Kryssy knows her way around immersive theatre; she has lit several site-specific works, including Third Rail Project’s Steampunk Haunted House (2009-2011) at Abrons Arts Center as well as the previous incarnation of Then She Fell at Arts@Renaissance (the former Greenpoint Hospital).

Carlton Cyrus Ward under Kryssy Wright’s Interrogation Light
The Kingsland Ward @ St Johns

For Kryssy, working with movement-based artists is a freeing experience from the codified constraints of traditional theater. “Theatre lighting is a lit kitchen; dance can be dusk on Mars,”  she describes. With Third Rail Project’s penchant for site-specific productions, Kryssy negotiates the interpretive nature of dance with the physical architecture of an existing space. The Maujer Street location presented a number of new challenges. The old schoolhouse had a number of upgrades, but not throughout the whole building. As a result, some rooms don’t have power outlets. Other rooms had to be divided into smaller rooms, each with their own lighting requirements.

 Tom Pearson & Rebekah Morin under Kryssy Wright’s Boudoir Chandelier
The Kingsland Ward @ Greenpoint Hospital (Arts@Renaissance)

Kryssy starts every project with fantasy – with unlimited time, money and ideal circumstances, how would she envision each space? With that image in mind, she finds ingenious solutions to come close to those fantasies, however difficult the design constraints may be. For example, many scenes require some some sort of lighting adjustment that changes the mood; a perfect scene would have the lights magically dim and brighten with the rhythm of the performers. Yet characters can’t turn lights on and off without “breaking the magic” of the scene, and there are too many simultaneous scenes to monitor. The solution? Computer-controlled dimmers that run with the soundtrack, adjusting the lights along to performers’ musical cues.

As a lighting designer, Third Rail Projects’ work is an extraordinary opportunity. For Kryssy, “[working with] a group like this is really satisfying. It combines the realm of dance with visual art, architecture… you’re not viewing these scenes from a distance – you’re in it.” Being responsible for these immersive scenes is a pleasure for someone as creative as Kryssy. She started working with theatre in high school, enticed by its artistic and techical duality. In college, she went on to take engineering but still held a soft spot for the fine arts, like painting. Kryssy returned to technical theatre, which she has been doing for the last decade in New York.

“Lighting is still this wonderful blend of science and art. I can get excited about the technology behind it and the pretty pictures it creates… I think I’ll continue to do this forever.”

Access to the Archives

One of the things that attracted us to St. John’s was its incredibly rich history. The congregation, over a century and a half old, has served as beacon of community strength throughout the neighborhood’s history. Some of this heritage has been captured in the congregation’s archive records, dating back to the church’s German immigrant roots in the 19th century. The records, papers and documents in the archive give a rare glimpse into the congregation’s past.

Reverend Jonathan Priest, the congregation’s pastor, was kind enough to grant us access to the archive during our research. As a production steeped in historical reference, we were eager to fold the storied past of St. John’s into our work.  We’ve placed some of the archive documents in the space, but here are a few of our favorite, below.

Moving Out, Moving In

Moving Day!

While we’ve been quiet on the blog front, this past month at Third Rail Projects has been incredibly busy. Since January, we’ve:

  • Closed our wildly successful first run of Then She Fell;
  • Secured a new space for the second run of Then She Fell at a former parochial school, only blocks away from our first venue;
  • Performed a full strike of the installation environments at Arts@Renaissance and restored the space;
  • Painstakingly packed our sets, bottles, and ephemera into boxes and moved them a couple streets down;
  • Started to rebuild in a new, totally different space (three levels as opposed to one);
  • Expanded our cast and crew and began rehearsing, adapting and developing material to fit the new space;
  • And are readying ourselves for Then She Fell to reopen this Saturday, March 9 at 7:30pm!!!

Co-Artistic Director Jennine Willett unpacking costumes

Through this blog, you’ll get a glimpse of the inner workings of our world. My name is Lauren Wong, and I’m Third Rail Projects’ current Marketing & Production Intern. To me, learning how things are made is more thrilling than seeing the things fully finished. Not everyone has access to dress rehearsals, just as not everyone can wander around working four-star kitchens. And while many of you will have the opportunity to see our show, it’s rare to see us in action before the proverbial curtain rises. Here, then, is your opportunity to see inside our show. Welcome.

A prefatory note from Co-Artistic Director, Tom Pearson:

Moving in to a new space is always a bit scary but also tremendously exciting. With this particular show it was all the more so.  The first run was supported and subsidized by a presenting partner and individual contributors. The show’s subsequent success and the exceptional demand for tickets have allowed it a continued life and to now expand into its own rented space. But it also comes with growing pains.

When you are working in a site-specific manner, the architecture and structure of the space you are working in meets and defines the material you bring into it. With a work that is intensely structural to begin with, and also immensely dependent upon the existing architectural structures, what happens when it has to move?

Much of what framed the first version of Then She Fell was the hospital patina that the Arts@Renaissance/former Greenpoint Hospital offered. Losing the institutional green tile shower room and the choreography that was made for the tile wall was particularly heartbreaking. But whenever you lose something you love, you inevitably gain something new in return, and that is surely the case with the St. Johns space. From former hospital to former parochial school, Then She Fell, has kept its core intact while extending its limbs into the multi-level corridors, landings and stairwells of its new home.

Co-Artistic Director Zach Morris giving first run-through notes.

The three-level institutional building’s passageways have become our new playground, and several scenes have been reinvented or replaced with new material. It feels as if the ante has been upped in every way. If you saw the show before, it will feel like a familiar friend, but one who has travelled widely and brought a sense of worldliness back. Then She Fell retains the places it has been; the Kingsland Ward itself was born from the hospital space and has moved into the school, and the school itself has added an additional layer, making the work deeper and wider and steeped in several histories all at once.

We asked Debra Beardsley, our Production Manager and Carlton Cyrus Ward, our Technical Director (he also plays Lewis Carroll or the White Rabbit in the show) to describe the move from a sprawling basement into a three-story schoolhouse. The move, while only a few blocks away, was a daunting idea; all the furniture we acquired, in addition to fragile glassware, needed to be safely transported and carried up or down stairs. Luckily, a talented crew from Moishe’s Moving came to our aid. “It definitely gave us some piece of mind during a very daunting project,” Debra mentioned.

Carlton Cyrus Ward, Technical Director, Lewis Carroll, White Rabbit… looking good in coveralls.

Our first concern in the new space was seeing how our pieces fit within a wholly different environment. Says Carlton: “Places have a character and this works is very based on that character… I wondered if the scenic elements built for that space would translate.” But the production values did translate to 195 Maujer once we had acquainted ourselves with the new space’s constraints, such as turning its open classrooms into 20 separate spaces. In order to do so, we built a lot of walls and had to carry them up/down stairs; if there was a slight error in measuring, we had to bring them back to the shop and do it again. Each of these rooms required their own lighting and sound; this proved challenging since each original classroom only had a few outlets.

While creating spaces took up the majority of our time, existing spaces also required our attention. We had to see whether all of our ephemera could fit or fill these new rooms, and whether new furniture impacted the choreography. At the same time, areas for dancing became tightened, moved or even flipped. An existing duet (green tile shower room) was re-choreographed around an existing staircase, and even that staircase needed modifications to make it structurally sound for the performers.

Debra Beardsley at first run-through

It’s extraordinary to think of how a few short weeks can transform someone else’s (St. John’s Evangelical School) into our own. Despite the long days and constant trips up the stairs, we couldn’t be happier with our new home. To Debra, “being in a building that is entirely ours made us feel really proud. It’s not just that this is our space, it’s that this is our building!

We can’t wait for you to see it for yourselves.

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