The Undermain Theatre in Dallas is exploring modern warfare by returning to ancient Greece with its current show, An Illiad. In Homer’s day, performances were told with musical accompaniment. And to develop the sound to fit the story, the Undermain looked outside the theater world.
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For 10 years, Paul Semrad played in the band Course of Empire. Rockin’ out was the order of the day.
But these days, Semrad has traded the thump of his bass guitar for the lighter strings of a lyre.
“Sometimes I’ll come up with more of an atmospheric sound, and sometimes I’ll try and develop a theme,” he said while tinkering on the tiny harp.
Semrad plays a character called The Musician in Undermain Theatre’s An Iliad. The play uses the Trojan War as a way of examining other conflicts that have come and gone in the last 3,000 years. All the dialogue is performed by Bruce DuBose, who plays a Homer-like wandering poet telling tales of battles lost and won. Semrad is his multi-instrumentalist sidekick.
“I’m playing a mandolin, I’m playing electric guitar and bass … I’m playing a lyre, I’m playing a gong, I’m playing a couple of drums. We have this one Turkish instrument called a saz…”
And the three-stringed saz isn’t even the most unusual. At one point, Semrad accompanies DuBose with a water pipe.
The tricky part of developing the show was that much of the music of ancient Greece is lost to history. The best Semrad and DuBose could do was imagine what things might have sounded like.
“We wanted to create an aural environment for the show,” DuBose says. “So that it kind of lived within this world of sound and sounds that are evoked by the story.”
That approach allows Semrad plenty of room to experiment. Sometimes he creates soundscapes that evoke a mood. Other times, he’s mimics the literal sound of an event, like when he plays an ocean drum to evoke the sound of the Greek armada sailing in.
That intuitive ear is why DuBose chose Semrad as his collaborator.
“He’s just very open to entering into the spirit of discovery and exploration,” DuBose says. “He’s got a real keen sense of what will fit the moment or what can underscore and support what’s happening.”
Which brings us back to the Course of Empire days. Semrad says the band was very theatrical. In live performances, the musicians connected to the audience not only through sound but through elaborate lighting and visual effects.
So in a sense, playing a rock club in Deep Ellum isn’t all that different from playing a basement space underneath Deep Ellum.
“You get to interact with the actor, you get to interact with the audience,” Semrad says. “And there’s that chance, the possibility that something’s either not going to go right, or that you can build on something and something incredible is going to happen that you can’t predict. That’s music performance all the way.”
An Illiad runs at the Undermain through Oct. 27. Check out Jerome’s review of the show.