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The Sound of the "Gruesome Playground"

Date: Feb 01, 2011


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There are really two worlds in Gruesome Playground Injuries, the new play by Rajiv Joseph that's running at Second Stage Theatre through the end of the month.

First, there's the "literal world," where a young man and woman meet every few years, rekindle their friendship, and help each other endure physical and psychic wounds. At age eight, they face a bloody forehead and a queasy stomach. At age thirty, it's much, much worse.

Then there's the "second world." As they transition from one age to another, the actors help each other apply and remove make-up. They pull costume pieces out of hidden panels in the walls and splash their faces with pools of water submerged in the floor. They make eye contact across the stage, and the light suggests a waking dream.

So how do you write music for a space like that? Composers Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay have tackled that question for months. Since no one speaks in the second word, their score must reflect what the characters are feeling, what they're doing, and what kind of space they're in. They blends genres, sound effects, and moods to tell us as much as possible.

"I always imagined the transitions to be like a time-traveling thing," says Jay. Sanford adds, "But also a timeless place. It's almost like a purgatory. We wanted to create a landscape that was reflective of what they were coming out of and what they were going into, and to touch on the basics of what their relationship was without all that other stuff between them."

So if a "real world" scene ends with the characters, Kayleen and Doug, fighting, then the transition music begins at an angry pitch. Then it settles into something more reflective for the second world, and then as the characters start their next scene, the music changes again to suggest their new feelings.

One segment, for instance, begins with an eighteen year-old Kayleen recovering from pink eye, and an eighteen year-old Doug trying to make her feel better. The moment opens with tango music. "I feel like a tango is a dance that lets people be together and work through their challenges, and that's what's happening in that scene," says Sanford. "When they're thirteen, and they're ready to have their first kiss, it's a little more playful, a little more rock and roll."

But the blend of genres isn't just about transitions. Gruesome Playground Injuries is written out of chronological order, which inspired the composers. "We put together a fractured collage of all kinds of musical styles because they play seems so fractured," Sanford says. "We like to mix it up and make it a little nonsensical because life seems like that."

Granted, Sanford and Jay, who are a couple, have written for unusual worlds before: They also compose for the Showtime series Weeds. But the play added a new wrinkle because the composers are based in Los Angeles. They were often writing for scenes they weren't seeing live, and when a transition got longer or shorter in rehearsal, they relied on sound designer Ryan Rumery to edit their music accordingly.

"It's almost like shooting an arrow blindfolded," says Sanford. "You take off your blindfold and say, 'At least I made it on the board.'"

Jay adds, "Luckily, when we went back and saw the tech rehearsals, everything worked."

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor