Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Creating a soundtrack for the Bennets

Heather Kemski on the music for the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

According to American Theatre, Lauren Gunderson’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley was one of the top ten most-produced plays in 2017. No doubt its popularity is driven by its association to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

A sequel centered on Mary, the bookish middle child of the Bennet family from the Austen classic, Miss Bennet is set the Christmas after Mary’s older sister Lizzy has married Mr. Darcy and comes to live on his estate.

Joining Mary and Lizzy at the Darcy estate for the holidays are pregnant elder sister Jane alongside her husband Charles Bingley, and younger sister Lydia. While Mary starts to dream of a new life beyond her boisterous family, an unexpected visitor to the Darcy household could spell romance for the often forgotten middle child.

Helping director Roy Surette to create the world in which the Bennet’s inhabit on stage comes from the show’s soundtrack. In this Q&A we speak with composer and sound designer Heather Kemski to find out more.

This interview has been edited.

What happens first when you get hired to compose/sound design a show?

It depends on the circumstances, but typically I will read the script before I meet with the director. Occasionally, a director will ask to meet with me first to pitch their project.

Do you come with ideas in first meeting with the director, or do you wait to hear their vision?

After reading a script, I tend to have a really solid idea for the music and sound design and how it shapes and supports the narrative. I’ve been fortunate to work with directors who’ve been quite receptive to my ideas, and Roy is no exception.

He and I were very much on the same page when it came to the music for Miss Bennet. It needed to be evocative of the late-Classical, early-Romantic era, while feeling fresh, festive, and a bit comic to support the script, which is quite self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, so I had a lot of fun playing with that. I hope the music is a bit of a character unto itself.

"I hope the music I’ve written for Miss Bennet evokes a sense of wonder, hope, possibility, and holiday cheer." - Heather Kemski
“I hope the music I’ve written for Miss Bennet evokes a sense of wonder, hope, possibility, and holiday cheer.” – Heather Kemski

Do you attend rehearsals to get a sense of how the show is developing?

I like to go into the start of production with my preliminary design complete, and then I try to attend rehearsals as often as possible. This allows me to test out cues and timings and also gives the ensemble musical underscoring to play with. Early on, I think it’s beneficial to give the rest of the creative team a sense of how the music and sound design is shaping the show.

For Miss Bennet, having my preliminary design finished allowed Roy to block the many transitions to the music, so it’s always exciting to see the musical score lay the groundwork for the action. Beyond that, it’s such a treat to be in rehearsals with a talented artistic team and work collaboratively with a group of true professionals.

What sort of influences did you seek out and use for Miss Bennet?

I am a classically trained pianist, which came in handy given that the main character, Mary, is considered a skilled pianoforte player, and the script calls for her to play Beethoven and “a virtuosic piece” of pianoforte music a couple of times. The play is set in 1815 – a time of musical transition – 18th century Classicism was giving way to 19th century Romanticism, and music was becoming a bit more complex and ornate. For Miss Bennet, I listened to much piano music of the era: Beethoven, Schubert, and John Field.

What is one piece of music in this production that makes your heart race every time you hear it? What scene is it in?

The opening music cue is the main theme, Mary’s Theme, which underscores her monologue at the top of the show. It’s a piano sonata, the B-section of which is Arthur’s Theme, who is the other lead. This piece of music took me a while to write. To have the two main characters’ themes be both stand alone and interlocking, and finally feeling like I’d gotten it was ultimately so gratifying. When I hear it at the top of the show, and feel like it sets the just the right tone, it’s pretty rewarding.

What do you want your music to evoke in the audience?

I hope the music I’ve written for Miss Bennet evokes a sense of wonder, hope, possibility, and holiday cheer.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley continues at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage until December 30. Visit artsclub.com for tickets and information.

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