Music for Actors


Photo by  shankarmenon  via Flickr, used under a  Creative Commons license  (CC BY 2.0).

Photo by shankarmenon via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

I've been on a music kick recently. I think it's all the spring cleaning I've been doing. As I work, I listen to music to keep me going, and I have a lot of playlists to choose from: Emergency Dance Party playlists, Long Roadtrip playlists, Can't-Stop-Me-Now playlists, and 15 playlists (and counting) for different plays and films I've worked on.

I started making acting playlists several years ago while I was preparing for a particularly challenging role. When you get a new script, it can feel like an impenetrable block that you are somehow expected to transform into an exquisite statue. Where do you even start? How do you find your way in?

A lot of theatrical techniques have been created to answer these questions. Suzuki, Viewpoints, running around in trainings pretending to be animals. All these can help an actor release inhibitions, focus energy, and find a way into a role. So can Meisner or the Method. Some people cut their hair. Some change how they dress, or grow a beard. Fake accents can help, or figuring out your character's favorite type of tea. Collages, Pinterest boards, or playlists. Everyone has a way that works for them, and it can be any combination of things, so long as it gets the job done.

The first playlist I remember making was in 2011 for a Jacobean play I worked on—lots of blood and sex and metaphysical grappling. In other words, I had a lot of options. In the end, my playlist opened with XTC's "Dear God" which felt pretty much perfect.

On my way to rehearsals I would listen to it, and when I studied my lines, and at odd times of the day—because it kind of got under my skin. That playlist ended up anchoring me enough in the world of the play that getting back into it for a rehearsal was quick and easy, even when I was tired and it was the end of a long day.

Photo by  diloz  via Flickr, used under a  Creative Commons license  (CC BY 2.0).

Photo by diloz via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).


In 2013, when I was cast as Desdemona in Real Live Theatre's first show, The Tragedy of Othello, I got cracking on an epic collection of playlists: one for each character and one for the play as a whole.

One of the challenges when acting in any play with "Tragedy" built into the title is not endgaming your performance. Many plays with gory endings don't start out that way (thinkRomeo and Juliet). Things may be tough at the beginning, but they're not nearly as bad as they're going to be by the end.

In The Tragedy of Othello, the characters aren't feeling tragic when the play opens. Iago may be envious, Roderigo may be sad, and Desdemona's dad may not be happy about her marriage. But the main thing is we start off with lovers and a wedding and the promise of a jolly old war—which is usually written as quite good fun for Shakespearean characters, unless they're in a history play.

The arc of Othello works because the characters don't know what's going to happen. The suspense comes from the fact that, while the characters are totally ignorant of their fate, the audience knows that Othello, Desdemona, and everyone around them are in danger. Iago's soliloquies give the audience a glimpse of the lengths he is willing to go to, and they are forced to watch the tragedy unfold.

During rehearsals, we talked a lot about how to avoid emotional endgaming because, seriously, it's hard to jump from a romantic dance number, to being murdered by your husband, to the director clapping and saying, "Okay, everyone, let's start at the top of the show!" Suddenly you have to be happy and laughing and wildly in love all over again, not thinking how it's all going to end in tears.

For me, listening to my Desdemona playlist was invaluable in navigating my emotional journey. I listened to it so many times that in the end I knew it like a piece of choreography. I could bounce from being killed, to being kissed, to being kick-ass again. Each step of my journey became part of a dance that could be put back together in a completely different order, depending on how our rehearsal time was broken down. From waiting for Othello to come and kill me (Lenka's "Live Like You're Dying"), to hopping up from the pile of corpses to nestle in my husband's arms at the end of a long day (Nick Drake's "Northern Sky"), I might rewind yet again, all the way back to our wedding reception/victory party (Smashmouth's "Can't Get Enough Of You Baby").


If you want to integrate playlist-making into your own rehearsal process, here are 3 tips to get you started:

1. Be open. If you're having trouble shedding your initial perceptions of character or story, playlisting can shake things up and get you out of your head. Sure, you might be doing The Taming of the Shrew in full Elizabethan costume and period makeup, desperately trying to remember everything your dramaturg told you about how to pronounce your lines. But that doesn't mean you don't put some Rihanna on your playlist. That would just be crazy.

The most surprising connections between characters can occur to you when you figure out what songs they have in common. Take The Margaret Project: who'd have guessed that Queen Margaret and the Duke of York would share Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer"? And King Henry and the Duke of Suffolk both getting Marilyn Monroe's "I Wanna Be Loved By You"? So crazy it works!

2. Be alert. Inspiration strikes at the strangest times. You may be in the car, in a store, or at a rodeo. The perfect song might be released during rehearsals. Or maybe you'll hear some oldie and it will hit you in a new and perfect way. Make a note and add that sucker into the mix stat. (Too bad you can't travel forward in time for your playlist though, otherwise Labrinth's "Jealous" would have been in my Othello playlist. Obviously.)

3. Be yourself. If your playlist is to be of any use, choose songs you genuinely connect to. It's tempting to try to play it cool and shun those songs on your mp3 player that would cause you to shrivel up and die of embarrassment if anyone ever found them. But, guess what? Nobody has to hear your rehearsal playlist. Not ever. Go ahead and take your newfound vulnerability into the rehearsal room to share with your castmates. That's cool. That's the point. But no-one ever has to know that you got there by listening to Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" on repeat.

Image by  xkcd , used under a  Creative Commons license  (CC BY NC 2.5).

Image by xkcd, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY NC 2.5).