Last week I had the pleasure of playing improvised music with the final public session of Armand Volkas’ Playback & Waking Dream Theatre class. This is a form of drama therapy in which a small ensemble of actors improvisationally “play back” personal stories from audience members. In the “waking dream” format, the scenes evolve in a more surreal manner, with each actor alternating as the leading storyteller. Music makes a big impact on the flow, mood, and dynamics of the performances.

In order to have many sonic colors available on the musical palette, I brought a variety of instruments: strings (guitar & harp), idiophones (glockenspiel, tuning forks, cymbals, bowls), drums (snare, doumbek, congas), and wind instruments (ocarina & harmonica). Usually I would watch and listen to the actors at the beginning of each scene to get a sense of the mood, then quickly “orchestrate” by choosing one or two instruments. By starting with a single note or open chord, I could listen to the actor to choose where to go next: something major, minor, diminished, bluesy, childlike, etc. Playing in particularly low or high registers ensured that the instruments’ frequencies didn’t compete with the midrange sounds of the actors’ voices. The cadence of the actors’ voices inspired melodic motifs, and their footsteps helped determined rhythmic patterns.

Sometimes actors can get stuck in a certain plot point; at those moments, the music can shift (melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, texturally, etc.) to help inspire a transition in the action. The music may also offer a contrasting mood to the scene, or function as a nonverbal Greek chorus. Ideally, the actors and musician enter into mutual feedback, each inspiring the other’s performance.

I only rehearsed twice with the group before the final performance. I find that over-rehearsing improvisational music can be detrimental. It’s best to leave plenty of room for surprise and serendipity rather than settling into safe patterns, or else the music can feel stale. Accept the fear of screwing up, trust your intuition, and listen fiercely!

Terras Temple drama improv