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Breaking Out Of The Bar Rut: Creating Theater Around Your Music

Laura-marlingLive theater offers a lot of great opportunities for musicians to have new experiences. Yes, the typical role puts musicians in the pit where they can't be seen, a different rut than constantly playing bars. For the last two months, Secret Cinema has performed a theatrical work built around an album release, and that's a very different proposition for a musician to consider.

Musicians who typically play bars and clubs often experience audiences who may or may not be paying attention. Worse, the audience may be competing for and even getting more attention than the band as they interact and shout over the music.

One response to this difficult state of affairs has been taken up by the house show and alternative venue movement which organizes shows with a focus on experiencing the music. Another route available to musicians is participation in theater events. Though often the band is hidden, sometimes they're featured on stage and even take on character roles.

Secret Cinema, a London-based group, started out creating events around movies in which a physical environment is built and characters are created that are based on the film being featured. The events are complex and immersive and the screening of the film itself is only one element though clearly the anchor of the particular event.

Trailer: Secret Cinema 020. April - June 2013

From April to June, Secret Cinema ventured into new but related territory with their first Secret Music event built around a new album from Laura Marling titled "Once I Was An Eagle."

Though Marling's album is described as having "no characters and no obvious story," Secret Cinema creative director Fabien Riggall stated:

"Even though Laura writes music in sort of riddles, there is a narrative through her album and each album has a story. It has a beginning a middle and end, and most importantly it has a feeling. That interpretation of her album, her work, is the same as how we would interpret a film, and I see a film as music in some respects -- it has the same sensation."

The resulting event took advantage of two linked building that allowed for an initial period of immersive theater in one followed by a concert in the other:

"The team transformed the building and hosted a spectral ball. The audience were told to wear vintage black tie, and abandoning their phones at the door they were left to roam the hotel, encountering staff and mingling with actors who were almost indistinguishable from other guests. Pale and dressed all in white, Marling would materialise from time to time, drifting in and out of rooms like an apparition..."

"At the end of the evening, instead of settling down to watch a film, the audience gathered in the school's gym for a solemn, affecting hour-long set."

I don't know how Marling did in terms of marketing or money but I imagine she had an unforgettable experience that opened her eyes to the possibilities for her music in new settings. And that's probably the best reason musicians working in club and bar settings should consider such work.

Don't Be Scared

I was surprised to find that Marling was a bit hesitant about doing the project despite Secret Cinema's years of successful events:

"Initially she was quite nervous about it, as anyone would be, because as an artist she took a massive step and a massive leap of trust."

I get that "drifting in and out of rooms like an apparition" is not the typical musician's role but it was a theater event followed by a music concert. I imagine she's experienced both by this point in her life.

Maybe she had reason to be concerned. But, based on my extensive experience creating and presenting events that brought together artists in different fields, my best guess is that she was simply intimidated by leaving the world she knew to participate in an event that included flexible parameters unlike those she typically experienced in her by now predictable world of music venues.

While it's true that any performance setting brings some weirdness that one has to weather, such weirdness typically comes in predictable forms to which one becomes accustomed. Shift contexts and suddenly a new range of weirdness appears.

Yet I've always been amazed at the artists who can't break out of business as usual even though their work might be quite radical. I recall a San Francisco poet, whose poems included topics like having sex in the back seat of a limousine while on her period, who was too intimidated to play a warehouse show featuring sexually-related themes that included local bands and dance companies all of which were reasonably well-known.

When we discussed her decision, it was clear that she was totally uncomfortable outside of the small range of venues and audiences in which her poetry scene operated. In addition, she seemed unaware of locally popular acts that didn't perform in her limited world.

Worst of all, she would have been a crowd-pleaser and would have gotten a bunch of new fans. And that was a loss for everyone involved.

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

My experience of life, such as it is young sprout, is that the things that scare you are often the best things to do. They are the things that will transform you and take your understanding of the world to another level.

So don't be scurred! There's a whole world of opportunity out there beyond the chatty audience that ignores you, the streaming music services that annoy you and the predictable ruts in front of you.

And if that inspirational speech doesn't work, keep in mind that most theater and arts settings are just as conservative as the one's you currently inhabit. To some degree projects like Secret Cinema remain an aberration even in the 21st Century. Most new and unknown settings simply have their own rules.

Find a guide, dive in and discover new worlds for you and your music. The payoff may be much bigger than you imagine.

Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch/@crowdfundingm) also blogs at Flux Research and Crowdfunding For Musicians. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.