Marissa Skudlarek declines the cliche.
On Saturday, I went to see the Custom Made Theatre’s production of Sam and Dede, or My Dinner With André the Giant. During the final scene transition in the show, as we waited in the dark while the stagehands finished their work, the melancholy strains of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1 flowed from the theater speakers.
I first heard this music when I was fourteen years old and acting in a student one-act play festival – it was used as a piece of transition music there, too. Hearing it on Saturday night, I was transported back in time: I was waiting in the wings of my high school auditorium, in the velvety darkness, listening to that poignant piano music, acutely aware of being a sensitive teenage artist with an unspoken crush on somebody else in the show. Then I shook myself out of my reverie and remembered that Satie’s solo piano works are a cliché of theatrical scene-transition music.
This was only reinforced for me when, three nights later, I saw The Nether at San Francisco Playhouse. This complex play takes place half in a future dystopia, half in a virtual realm that resembles the late 1800s. As such, the sound design during the scene transitions mixes cold modern noise with elegant classical music. And within it, my ear definitely caught the strains of Satie’s mega-famous Gymnopédie No. 1.
I’m not immune to the lure of clichéd transition music. I still cringe when I think about how, the very first time I directed a play, I requested that the transition music be “Take Five.” (In my defense: I was fifteen, the characters were in a waiting room, my drama teacher had requested that our transition music not have any lyrics, and I didn’t know what else to pick.) Since then, I feel like I’ve heard “Take Five” in far too many small black-box theaters, all convinced they’d found music that set just the right tone (hip, sophisticated, laid-back-but-upbeat) to keep the audience’s attention during a transition.
Yesterday I polled my Facebook friends to learn which shopworn pieces of transition music bother them the most. Many people cited lite-classical pieces that premiered in the late 1800s and early 1900s – “cultured” but catchy music that influenced the great film composers of the 20th century. Orff’s “O Fortuna” (this might be more of a film cliché than a theater cliché, because the apocalyptic battle scenes it most often accompanies are found more frequently in film than theater). Holst’s The Planets. Ravel’s “Bolero.” Don’t get me wrong: over-familiar as they are, I like these pieces of music! Ravel’s “Bolero” is the absolute best thing to listen to when you are doing data entry or other busy work, and want to vanquish it in triumph. But it took me right out of the play when I went to see Cyrano de Bergerac at the venerable Comédie Française and heard “Bolero” underscoring the battle scene in Act IV.
Other pieces of music are clichés only within a certain context, to evoke a certain mood. The song I think of as “cliché French accordion music” (and don’t even know the real title of) for scenes set in Paris. “White Rabbit” for anything that has to do with the ‘60s counterculture – this gets bonus points because Alice in Wonderland allusions are already kind of a cliché on their own. “How Soon is Now” or “The Safety Dance” for anything to do with being a teenager in the ‘80s.
Believe it or not, just like Gnossienne No. 1 and “Take Five,” “The Safety Dance” also made an appearance at my high-school one-act festival. (A dude in the class above me wrote a play that referenced it and its bizarre music video.) And I guess that’s what it comes down to: it’s forgivable when high-schoolers make clichéd choices, but I kind of expect local professional theaters, or the Comédie Française, to be more inventive. Thinking about clichés in scene-transition music is a useful reminder to all of us not to reach for the easy choice; to keep expanding our knowledge of the art and music of the past and present; to forge new associations rather than relying on preexisting ideas.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Despite her quibbles about their scene-transition music, she very much recommends you see both Sam and Dede and The Nether before they close this weekend.