Composer and Sound Designer Andre Pleuss Talks Cloud 9
By Fiona Kyle, Cloud 9 Dramaturg, Artistic Assistant
Hartford Stage: You have worked on Broadway and regionally across the country at theatres such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; A.R.T.; Lookingglass Theatre, where you are also an Artistic Associate; Steppenwolf Theatre; and Victory Gardens. You have received multiple Joseph Jefferson Awards, the Drama Critics Circle Award, and Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel nominations for Composition and Sound Design. Would you tell us what drew you to become a Sound Designer and Composer?
Andre Pleuss, Cloud 9 Composer: I grew up in a suburb of New York City where I spent a lot of time seeing theater with my family as a kid. In high school, I played winds in symphonic band, quads on the drum line, and loved playing guitar and writing my own tunes in a “rock” band. My interest in music and theater came together in college at the University of Chicago. I ended up working in various production capacities for the student theater, which led to contributing original music to various productions. At the time, I was not aware that there was a field called “Sound Design.” But I’d found that in theater, I loved the opportunities to shape a production’s aural aesthetic, which includes everything from supervising all realistic and/or stylized sound to working as a music supervisor/curator to composing my own work. I always loved the idea that, under the banner of a play, all of these collaborative forces had to come together—writers, actors, designers, technicians, musicians, and through music and sound, I’d found my way to join the party as part of the team.
HS: Director Elizabeth Williamson was thrilled that you could join us as the Sound Designer and Composer for Cloud 9 as you worked together before she came to Hartford Stage. Can you give us some highlights of past productions you’ve done together? What has the process been like working together again?
Andre: Elizabeth and I met over 10 years ago, first in Chicago at the Court Theater, where she was the Assistant Director to Joanne Akalaitis on a production of Thyestes (interestingly enough, translated by Caryl Churchill). We then worked together with Moises Kaufman on a production of Lady Windermere’s Fan at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Assistant Directors are often a great resource for designers to talk through ideas and to use as a sounding board as they are typically very plugged into the rehearsal process in a way that we often aren’t in the early stages. They can facilitate so much in regard to communication between the director and the team. Elizabeth was always a lot of fun to collaborate with (and to hang out with). Working with her again all these years later, with her now at the directorial helm, has been simply a blast.
HS: Williamson was inspired by British Music Hall from the Victorian period for the first act of Cloud 9, set in British Colonial Africa. How did that shape your design for the act?
Caryl Churchill is very clear about when, in Act 1 and really throughout the whole play, moments of presentational flair crash into the narrative as interludes steeped in iconic parody. The sound of the Victorian British Music Hall is most apparent in the opening song from the show, “Come Gather Sons of England”. We knew we wanted to use the actors in a choral context reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, filled with patriotic verve and bravura. And we knew we wanted the piano to be played live by one of our actors, Chandler Williams. The rest of the flavor of Act 1 came from this central aesthetic derived from colonial pomp and circumstance.
HS: The second act of Cloud 9 is set in 1970s London, and the music of that era is more familiar to most of us than is Music Hall. Are there challenges of designing for a time period still so near to our own?
Andre: Act 1 of Cloud 9 takes place in the late 1800s while Act 2 takes place over 100 years later. I think the primary goal of the entire production’s aesthetic is to highlight that contrast and passage of time. Given that context, I wouldn’t say that I’ve been fixating on giving the music a specifically 1970s flavor in Act 2 but rather an electronic “contemporary” vibe vs. the acoustic “period” feel in Act 1. That is to say, by comparison to Act 1, Act 2 feels almost immediately more familiar in a very useful way. In later 20th century pop music, to me anyway, there is always so much retro crossbreeding of style and sound and intentional tribute or homage to earlier periods. A piece of music written in the 1990s can so easily feel like it was written in the 1970s and vice versa. Negotiating the sounds and feel of the modern is still an ongoing process, which I am, at the time of writing, still in the midst of as it pertains to the instrumental arrangements in Act 2.
HS: There are songs in Cloud 9 that required you to write original music: how did you approach the composition of those songs?
Andre: What both of these pieces (“Come Gather Sons of England” in Act 1, and “Cloud 9” in Act 2) have in common is the use of our entire cast as a sort of choral ensemble. We wanted “Come Gather” to feel as if it was a classic British anthem, and as a result, the harmonies are very traditional in a classical sense. There is a very clear verse/chorus structure very common to the time. I started with a tune in a 12/8-meter imagining a lilting, marching snare rhythm underneath driving us forward, and grew the harmonic and chord structures in the vocals and in the piano accompaniment around the central melody.
“Cloud 9” in Act 2 was a much different challenge as I struggled for a while with tone and feel, and am still, as I said above, “in process.” What is fascinating to me is that Caryl Churchill, while crystal clear that she wants a “song sung by the full cast” to transpire in her play at a very specific point in the narrative, leaves no indication in her stage directions about musical style, tempo, or really anything at all. Her lyrics, at least to me, can be interpreted in a wide variety of contemporary styles from 1970s ballad to punk rock. Given the knowledge that the entire cast will sing, I’ve taken the leap to embrace a pop choral aesthetic with 1970s influenced vocal harmonies throughout.