Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Interview: Daven Tillinghast on the music of Go, Dog. Go!

By Alec Clayton

Seldom have I seen music used in a play in the way Daven Tillinghast’s music was used in Olympia Family Theater’s production of Go, Dog. Go! The musical score was written by Michael Koerner and arranged by Musical Director Daven Tillinghast. Although I have reviewed many shows for which Tillinghast arranged the music and or played in the band, I had never met him in person before opening night of Go, Dog. Go! I was so impressed with the music that I asked him if I could interview him for this blog and for my review in The News Tribune.
Pictured from left: Christine Goode as Red Dog, Korja Giles as Blue Dog, Rynelle Bircher as Yellow Dog,  Xander Layden as MC Dog,  Megan Rosenberg as Green Dog. Photo credit: Alexis Sarah

Tillinghast teaches guitar and piano at Centralia College. He has previously musical directed three other shows at OFT. He wrote the score for OFT’s punk-rock opera Fishnapped, written by Amy Shephard and Andrew Gordon. From 2009 to 2017 was in the house band at Harlequin Productions.

Alec: The program lists music by Michael Koerner, so I gather you did the arrangements of Koerner's compositions and recorded the soundtrack.

Tillinghast: That’s correct. It’s a proper ‘book show’ and comes with a 110-page score, which is pretty substantial for a 50-page script consisting largely of stage directions. It’s originally written for solo accordion accompaniment. But, as I like to joke, we couldn’t afford an accordion; we could barely afford no accordion! (Apologies to accordionists, it’s a fine instrument). Live bands have their merit and are usually my go-to option for shows I direct for Open Road Productions, but considering the limitations of budget and space we were working with, backing tracks seemed like the best option. The publisher, Plays for Young Audiences, does offer tracks, but they are very simple arrangements, piano and drums, and didn’t capture the excitement that Director Deane Shellman and I wanted to generate. Besides, reading the book and script was really firing up my imagination, and I knew that a live band would have a hard time creating the surreal, larger-than-life textures I was dreaming up.

Alec: What can you tell me about that process? What were your ideas?

I love what the playwrights call the “zany anarchy” of the book, and the physical elements of the staging really feel almost more like clowning than “proper” theater. The play really thrives on the interplay of absurdism and just plain fun, so I wanted to express that with the music. I wanted to move between a sense of mundane realism, a “dusty upright piano in a community theater” feeling, and a heart-pounding hyper-color intensity. So I knew that electronic music was going to be the best way to achieve that range of expression.

Alec: Did you play all the instruments or record other musicians? Where did the ideas come from to use certain sounds, etc?

Tillinghast: Well, I’ve worked with some of the best producers and audio engineers in the region, Bruce Whitcomb at Arcade Recording, John Manini at Open Road Productions, Karl Welty at Harlequin Productions, Mike Tortorello at Soundchaser, but for this particular project I knew the best choice would be Forrest Gore at Atmastudios. He and I collaborated on another Olympia Family Theater production, Starry Messenger, directed by Brian Tyrrell in 2016. Mr. Gore has a real talent for blending naturalistic tones with surreal digital sounds, and he and I were able to do everything “in the box,” that is to say, entirely through the use of electronic music production techniques, so there were no microphones or live musicians involved. You do lose a certain amount of detail and of course you miss out on the opportunity to collaborate with instrumentalists, who often have interesting ways of interpreting the material, but we gained a degree of control and of course convenience with that process. We had a few sessions up front where we determined the tones and colors we’d be using, largely framing our thinking around the concept of a “black and white” world and a “technicolor” world, on the one hand, piano and brass and strings and a jazz rhythm section, which we treated with effects to create a “dusty vinyl” sound, and on the other hand a more electronic, drum-machine-and-synthesizer ensemble. Throughout the show you hear the music veer manically (or maybe even maniacally) between these two extremes. And here we are, perhaps the world’s first electronic dance music soundtrack for a kids’ show about live-action cartoon dogs! Kind of a niche market, I suppose.

Alec: In general, just anything you'd like to say that I might be able to use to make my review sound good.

Tillinghast: You’ll have to tell me when to shut up, I could talk about this show for hours, it has taken over my inner life for months now, and I’m just pleased as punch with the final result. The cast, led by the very talented Xander Layden and featuring Heather Christopher (both Open Road alums), is absolutely a pleasure to watch, and great fun to work with. I’ve done several projects now with Ms. Shellman, and she knocks it out of the park every time. She has a real knack for finding the humor and coaxing great performances out of the actors. This is my fourth or fifth show with OFT, and I’ve loved every one of them, they are a great bunch with a lot of heart and a rather shocking amount of expertise for a small community theater in a sleepy little town like ours. One of the great joys of my life is hearing peals of laughter from an audience, especially the children, when a show is really working, so watching these last couple performances, preview night and opening, has been an absolute delight. I guess the best thing I could say is: come see the show! And bring the kids you love most!

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, through June 2
WHERE: Olympia Family Theater, 612 4th Ave. E, Olympia
INFORMATION: (360) 570-1638

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