Interview with 'Shakespeare in Love' Music Director Jennifer Reason

In addition to serving as music director for MTC’s production of Shakespeare in Love, Jennifer Reason is Music Director of the Rogue Music Project, a music collective formed to challenge current perceptions of opera through unpredictable, adventurous, and socially conscious performances. She is also founding member of Citywater, Inc., an ensemble that focuses on the production of avant-garde works and brand-new commissions. Ms. Reason sat down with MTC Literary Apprentice David Irving to discuss her career path, as well as her work process for Shakespeare in Love.

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DI: What was your path to becoming a music director?
JR: My path has been…winding, shall we say? My first love was actually piano. I have a degree in classical piano performance, and through that, studied orchestral and choral conducting. [I took] vocal lessons, and while I was in college, studying piano, I was in the opera; I did the pit orchestra. And they said, “Hey, do you want to sing these little bit parts in The Magic Flute?” And I said, “Yes!” So, it all started morphing together.

Then right before I was going to graduate with my piano degree, I broke my fingers playing football, so then I had to be, like, “oh, gosh, if I can’t do this first love, what am I gonna do?” So I started getting more into the conducting and the directing side of things as a back-up, and then it turned out that, oh my God, I actually really liked this! So now I split my time between my own performance—I gig a lot, and I do a lot of work in the classical side of the world, opera, and contemporary theatre (very avant-garde, experimental, theoretical stuff)—and the other half of me, which is being the music director: getting to sit back and not be on stage, trusting your product to someone else, and directing other people. It’s like the other side of the coin; it’s very satisfying.

How did you come on board with Shakespeare in Love?
I got a call from Chris Houston, who music directs with Marin Theatre Company often, He had [hired] me [for] a very strange, out-there adaption of a play in San Francisco called Max Understood–it was all surround-sound electronics, and I had to conduct to an unbroken, two-hour-long track, and [do] vocal coaching. It was insane! Absolutely insane! [Chris] remembered that, and said, “Oh, hey! You can handle insanity! I think you should do this adaption of period instruments for on-stage modern players.” Jasson agreed, and that’s how that happened.

How much adapting of the original score did you do for this production?
Almost 100 percent. The themes are the same, and that’s pretty much it. The score is very Elizabethan, and it’s all instruments we don’t have access to—we don’t have a hurdy-gurdy; Loriman pipes are in a museum somewhere. And even if we did, [the actors] wouldn’t know how to play them. So the goal of having on-stage players necessitated all of these changes. I’ve kept the tunes intact, we’ve kept their vocal lines intact, but the tempo, the rhythm, the feel—everything has been adapted for this stage, for players that are young, and play pub-style instruments, and have to do it while playing three other characters.

What has been the biggest challenge for you working on Shakespeare in Love?
I think one of the challenges was “getting” the music and the casting—hearing the original music (which is dirge-like, it’s so Renaissance [in] style—and not really having a clear picture of the world we’re shooting to create. I had to do quite a bit of this without being at the theatre, so I shot in the dark for about three months! I had to basically create this whole world, like, “I think this is what he’s saying, I think this is what we’re going for.”

Has anything changed since rehearsals started?
No, not really. Obviously we left a ton of room to make adaptions, and that’s actually the other greatest challenge. We have actors, and they’re doing a marvelous job, and I’m so thankful; but they’re not first and foremost players. They don’t necessarily read music formally, and this is a very challenging score. And [many are] playing three different characters, so not only [was I] shooting in the dark as far as “what is this world that we’re creating?” it was also, “who is available to play what instrument, when? I have this person that plays guitar, but they’re actually on stage as the Nurse right now, so they can’t play, so who else can? Nobody. Okay, that has to go to a new instrument now…” I might rank that [challenge] as number one.

Especially since Ben is the only one who plays piano.
Right, I constructed it around the piano. The piano is grounding everything in kind of a modern musical theatre style, or pub band style: it’s [built] around the honky-tonk piano person, and guitars, more of like a jam session. So if you don’t have the piano…

As a female music director, what mentorship has been available to you?
Honestly, not that much. I have an artistic director position, as well, and have an amazing female mentor in that respect. It’s not music directing in a theatre, but it’s very applicable in the sense of having to be the boss, and be a woman—and not just be the boss of men, but also of people in general, who are often much older than me. I have a couple of mentors, I’d say—one that’s really, like, “This is how you be a female boss in the arena of performance,” which can be the old boys’ club in all genres and arenas. She was my professor in college, then I took over from her the artistic directorship that I currently have. So she held my hand all the way, and I’ve been able to take those lessons to the theatre.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a career in music direction?
Being open to collaboration and not being too possessive of your ideas, or too challenged by outside ideas, is everything. If it’s a collaborative process, [be] able to take in commentary and criticism and other ideas, and let it be a thing that we’re all creating together, instead of, “this is mine, you will do what I say.” I think the beauty of it, and the best part of having this job, is that you get to steer the group creation of something, so to keep it that would be my number-one advice.