Behind the Scenes with Encounters Ensemble

Here at PEM, I’m an Executive Assistant in marketing, a job that entails wearing many hats: scheduling, PR, and contributing to social media (I manage @peabodyessex on Instagram). Recently, I’ve had the opportunity wear a very different hat for the museum, and although I had to dig it out from the back of my closet because I don’t wear it often these days, it will always be my favorite. It’s my Stage Manager hat and it’s all black and generally full of Post-it notes. You’ve maybe read about my background in stage management on Connected before — I have a BFA from Boston University and have worked with a number of theatre and opera companies in Boston, Washington DC, and London.

The Encounters Ensemble and design team transformed four museum galleries for Song Cycle.

The Encounters Ensemble and design team transformed four museum galleries for Song Cycle.

This month, Composer-in-Residence Matthew Aucoin has returned to PEM with Encounters Ensemble to present Song Cycle, which opens tonight at 8pm for the first of two sold out performances. Song Cycle is an ambitious and immersive music experience featuring works by four composers (Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Alban Berg, and a premiere piece by Aucoin) performed in four separate galleries of the museum. It’s been an honor to contribute to this project as Production Stage Manager, working alongside a hard-working team of collaborators behind the scenes — the Encounters Ensemble, the design team, stage managers, and supportive PEM staff. It takes a village!

I sat down with two members of Encounters Ensemble — stage director Victoria Crutchfield and lighting designer Mary Ellen Stebbins — to learn more about the background of the ensemble, their inspiration for Song Cycle, and what it takes to create site-specific music experiences at a museum.

Encounters Ensemble is a collective of artists with various backgrounds – theater, music, design, visual art. Tell me more about how the Ensemble was formed.

Victoria Crutchfield: Around the time that his second opera premiered–that is to say, his senior year of college–Matt said to me, “Hey, remember how we wanted to start an opera company one day? That day might be now.” Obviously, Encounters Ensemble is not an opera company, at least not yet, but like opera, our performances are reaching towards a synthesis of the arts. When it became clear that PEM really did want Matt to produce musical performances here, probably the first or second thing I said to Matt was that we needed really sexy lighting, so we brought in Mary Ellen.

A shot from a previous Aucoin/Encounter Ensemble collaboration - Orpheus and Opera. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

A shot from a previous Aucoin/Encounter Ensemble collaboration, Orpheus and Opera. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

What makes Encounters Ensemble special? What does each member bring to the Ensemble?

Mary Ellen Stebbins: What happens when you put a composer, a performer, a director, a visual artist, and a lighting designer in a room together? Each member has the chance to craft a creative response to a musical idea that comes directly from his or her artistic wheelhouse.  It’s a bit like show and tell– and you never know when someone’s musical phrase will be inspiration for your own lighting idea or vice versa. At the heart of our collaboration is a wildly exciting conversation between artists who are experts in their fields and infinitely curious about their peers’.

The musical-visual collage that the audience experiences at PEM is a distillation of that vibrant dialogue.

What is the process of creating a program for the museum? How is Matt involved?

VC: It’s been different every time. Usually the germ of the idea is something about music that really captivates Matt and that he wants to share–in our first performance, Tracing a Line, it was about following this one melody through time. Violinist Keir GoGwilt was also very involved in that performance as the lead performer, but also as a creator. He did a lot of work on Samuel Beckett for his undergraduate degree, and he was passionate about including Beckett’s very short play “Nacht und Träume” in some way, because it connected deeply to his interpretation of Berg’s Violin Concerto.

Violinist and Encounters Ensemble member Keir GoGwilt performs Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs during a tech rehearsal with Director Victoria Crutchfield and pianist David Kaplan.

Violinist and Encounters Ensemble member Keir GoGwilt performs Alban Berg’s “Seven Early Songs” during a Song Cycle tech rehearsal with Director Victoria Crutchfield and pianist David Kaplan. Photo by Kali Platt.

How was Song Cycle developed, specifically? Where did the idea to do art songs (essentially poems set to music, usually for voice with piano accompaniment) come from?

VC: In this case the initiating idea was mine. I grew up listening to art songs (my mother, Debra Vanderlinde, is one of the performers in this piece), and I’ve always felt there was so much more life in them than necessarily comes across in a concert hall. Not that I want to knock concert halls–but I was interested in what we could do to give the poetry of art song a richer life in performance. When I hear an art song, a lot of my pleasure comes from knowing the poetry. But until humans can download information as fast as computers, that knowledge is not something you can give your audience with a click of your heels. Sometimes I think printed translations or projected supertitles are counterproductive, since trying to follow along can wind up distracting you from the performance.

I wanted to immerse the audience in the emotional world of the art songs, which is why each set of songs is in a different room. I wanted for the audience to walk into the room and hear something, see something, even smell something that takes them right to the heart of the song.

Left: Victoria oversees a staging rehearsal with baritone Matthew Worth, 11-year-old actor Annabelle Howard, and pianist Stephen Scarlato. Right: The same scene during tech rehearsal, transformed by lighting designer Mary Ellen, assistant lighting designer Colin Scott, scenic designer Courtney Nelson, and costume designer Nina Bova.

Left: Victoria oversees a Song Cycle staging rehearsal with baritone Matthew Worth, 11-year-old actor Annabelle Howard, and pianist Stephen Scarlato. Right: A scene from the same song (from Ravel’s “Natural Histories”) during tech rehearsal, transformed by lighting designer Mary Ellen, assistant lighting designer Colin Scott, scenic designer Courtney Nelson, and costume designer Nina Bova.

MES: One of the hardest things about Song Cycle to solve was how to present the text. We wanted the audience to understand what was going on in the songs themselves but also wanted to avoid the typical program notes experiences of opera houses and concert halls. I suggested a book of illustrated plates to accompany each cycle as a way of providing the text in a visual way as opposed to a traditional translation. We are fortunate to have visual artist Nick Pope as a part of our ensemble and he beautifully translated the complicated texts into simple images that zero in on the emotional gesture of each individual song.

As the audience moves through the spaces they can use the book as a kind of map–stylistic elements from the book appear throughout the galleries themselves allowing you to get your bearings from visual cues that in turn directly connect to key moments in the text.

In addition, the book serves as a tangible reminder of the dream-like experience that we hope to create and helps one to process the performance after the fact.

Boxes of Nick Pope's artwork arrive to be assembled into non-traditional Song Cycle programs.

Boxes of Nick Pope‘s artwork arrive to be assembled into non-traditional Song Cycle programs.

What are the challenges of working in a museum?

MES: Sharing the space!  Similar to any major installation at a museum, programs like Song Cycle require a huge amount of rehearsal and technical time. PEM is fantastic about finding creative ways to provide us with time in the galleries but it can definitely be challenging– especially in a museum where there is so much happening everyday.

Another challenge is working around the art itself and the restrictions necessary to protect and preserve that art.  Fortunately, PEM has an incredible staff who are unbelievably willing to work with us on a different approach to performance in a space which, to the unimaginative, would seem prohibitive for our style of production.

Scenic Designer Courtney Nelson and stage manager Adelaide Majeski at work during load-in of scenic and seating elements, while rented theatrical lighting equipment stands by in black road cases.

Scenic Designer Courtney Nelson and stage manager Adelaide Majeski at work during load-in of scenic and seating elements, while rented theatrical lighting equipment stands by in black road cases.

What is in store in the future for Encounters Ensemble? What’s your dream project?

VC: Well, I think that might be different depending on which Encounters Ensemble member you ask, but I’m pretty excited about the idea of a peripatetic opera that moves through the museum, using the different sonic effects that distance and doorways make possible to enhance the storytelling.

——

Song Cycle, presented by Matthew Aucoin and Encounters Ensemble
June 26 and June 26, 2015 | 8PM
www.pem.org/encounters

Featuring performances by: Matthew Aucoin, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Matthew Worth, Annabelle Howard, Stephen Scarlato, Keir GoGwilt, David Kaplan, Debra Vanderlinde, and Julius Abrahams.
Lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbins, assisted by Colin Scott. Scenic design by Courtney Nelson. Costume design by Nina Bova. Stage Managers: Brian Robillard, Jaclyn Fulton, Adelaide Majeski, assisted by Sarah Wallace. Special thanks to Gavin Andrews, Jennifer Evans, Jen Chen, and Trevor Smith.

VictoriaCrutchfieldVictoria Crutchfield is a stage director of opera, theater and everything in between. Recent projects have included:  Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf at Boston’s Symphony Hall; eight scenes from Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse and Lucrèce Borgia in her own translations. She earned an AB magna cum laude in Literature at Harvard University and received the James S. Marcus Directing Fellowship to work with acclaimed director Stephen Wadsworth at the Juilliard School. She has also studied movement with Clare Mallardi at Harvard, acting and Viewpoints with Tommy Derrah at the American Repertory Theater, and the Practical Aesthetics technique with Scott Zigler, Mike Piazza, and Jordan Lage of the Atlantic Acting School. www.victoriacrutchfield.com

MaryEllenStebbinsMary Ellen Stebbins is a NYC-based lighting designer.  Recent credits include Chicago (PPAS), Spring Awakening (Princeton University), and associate design with Jane Cox for The Ambassador (BAM, UCLA).  Other selected credits include Gotham Chamber Opera, Monica Bill Barnes, Columbia Stages, eighth blackbird, New Repertory Theatre, Bristol Valley Theater, UCSD Music.  She is the resident designer for the Encounters Ensemble, Sightline Theater, HOWL ensemble, and HelikonRep.  Mary Ellen was a 2014 Live Design Young Designer to Watch, received the 2011 USITT Barbizon Lighting Design Award, and was a 2009 Hangar Theatre Lab Company Design Fellow. MFA, Boston University; AB, Harvard College. www.maryellenstebbinsdesign.com

The  members of Encounters Ensemble are Matthew Aucoin, Victoria Crutchfield, Mary Ellen Stebbins, Keir GoGwilt (kgogwilt.com), Nick Pope (birdfishrabbit.com), and Jen Chen.

2 Comments

  1. sylvia belkin says:

    A fantastic evening. Loved the music and the staging. PEM is the perfect place for events like this. Congrats Matt Aucoin for another example of your creative genius and all who worked so hard to make this the success that it was.

  2. Marci says:

    Songcycle was fantastic! I was swept into the music and loved the luscious interpretations, set design, lighting design, and the music! The music!! INCREDIBLE! Such a delight to see it, and love reading about the inspiration and work that goes into it.

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