New sounds to a classic story

Sean Hoots, vocalist and guitarist for Hoots and Hellmouth.

Local musician Sean Hoots, of the Americana roots, Philadelphia-based band Hoots and Hellmouth, doesn’t have any upcoming music gigs, but you can catch him onstage performing in this year’s Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of The Tempest.

The vocalist last released a two-song digital album by his band in November 2012. Since then he has taken on a new project—theater. Hoots had never worked in theatre, but he was game when director Adrienne Mackey contacted him asking if he’d want to get involved.

Describing himself as “already a fan of the bard,” Hoots wasn’t as familiar with The Tempest as he was with other Shakespearean plays, but that quickly changed. “Inspiration came from immersing myself in the text and context of the play, which led me down all kinds of interesting musical paths from runic magic sounds to island noises,” he said.

Hoots will be placed center stage performing a combination of guitar, voice and prerecorded ambient sounds while the actors perform their lines. Director Mackey described the music as sometimes “very melodic, like the songs the spirit Ariel sings.” In those songs Sean provides vocals. Mackey added, he creates “a kind of underscore moment to help theatricalize a scene–and in others it's a subtle background sound that represents the humming magic of the island...There's actually very little of the play that's totally silent.”

“The music for this production is conceived in layers,” Hoots said, “at the base, there are basically underscore drones crafted from light ethereal keyboard and percussion sounds mixed with field recordings I've made around the region (i.e. water, insects, birds, rain, etc.)…On top of that I have written a few guitar pieces that accompany certain scenes and characters.” That final layer includes several songs that were written into the play. However, Hoots doesn’t take all of the credit, “Most of these songs are based on Shakespeare's words where I just had to add a melody, but there is one that I wrote entirely from scratch,” he said.

Hoots’ involvement with The Tempest didn’t just confine him to the musical aspect of the performance. “He’s in pretty much every rehearsal right alongside the actors, proposing ideas, creating musical improvisations and playing around with how we can create the effects of a given moment,” Mackey said. “He's great, super collaborative and really good at what he does. At this point, he's as much a part of the ensemble cast as any of the characters.”

Though Hoots and the play’s director both have ties to Drexel—Hoots & Hellmouth recorded their first two records with MAD Dragon Records and Mackey works as an adjunct professor in the theater department—the two had never crossed paths. The partnership was born when Mackey asked a musician friend for help finding someone who could come to rehearsals and create music for the play. Mackey wanted to stay true to the major role music played in Shakespeare’s works.

Though music appeared in most Tudor plays, Shakespeare eschewed the unspoken rule that music shouldn’t appear in tragedies when he included both background music and songs in tragedies like Othello or King Lear. Thereby, Shakespeare completely re-invented the way that music could be used in drama. The music Shakespeare chose often reflected a character’s development or a plot’s dramatic progression for both comedic and tragic effect.

Shakespeare wrote in several songs for some of the characters in The Tempest, but Mackey didn’t want those acts to be the only opportunity for music to appear in the play. She wanted a musician who was willing to put in the time to create a whole soundtrack, but also someone who was able to have fun with it. “Chatting over email and then in person it was clear [that] Sean knew his stuff–but [he] was also excited to try something really out of the traditional musician wheelhouse,” she said.

The idea of stepping out of the usual also appealed to Hoots. “Having been in bands my whole life, I saw Shakespeare in Clark Park as a way to really stretch myself get outside of the whole rock band presentation and dig into something totally new,” he said.

You can expect Shakespeare in Clark Park’s The Tempest to also bring new and unexpected layers to Shakespeare’s classic play when it premieres on July 24.