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Welcome to Episode 197 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best. 

One of the most powerful aspects of modern day theater performance is the spooky sounds, creaking doors, or the wailing noises of the witches across the moor. These same sound effects were important on stage for Shakespeare’s original performances of his plays, as well, but as you might imagine, with a decidedly less computer-based generation. 

While the bard’s selection of performance sound may not have been based on anything created by Steve Jobs, the technology was no less impressive with implements designed specifically to generate the sound of waves in the ocean, rain falling down, and even thunder. Here today to share with us some of the history of mechanical sound production and the use of music on stage to set the scenery in the early modern theater are our guests, and experts in original practice of Shakespeare’s plays, Chris Johnston and Alexander Sovronsky

Editorial Note: In the episode, I refer to the thunder run at the Old Vic as bring in London, but it is, in fact, in Bristol. Visit their website here. Thank you to listener Alison for sending in this correction.

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Chris Johnston is an actor and music director. Last seen onstage with the American Shakespeare Center for 24 seasons and over 160 roles including Macbeth in Macbeth, Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, Feste in Twelfth Night, Flamenio in The White Devil. His music directing credits include the World Premiere of The Willard Suitcases, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and many moreChris is currently pursuing his MFA in Shakespeare and Performance from Mary Baldwin University.  

Alexander Sovronsky – is an actor, musician, composer living in NYC. His career includes creating music/sound as well as performing in various Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional, and international productions. Alexander holds an MFA in Classical Theatre from the Academy for Classical Acting at the Shakespeare Theatre of DC, where he has taught workshops on how Shakespeare utilized music & sound in his plays to connect with his audience. He has also taught that workshop in many other theatres and colleges & universities around the North East. You can find him online at 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Chris Johnston and Alexander Sovronsky about :

  • What about popular music, like ballads or folk songs from the 16-17th century? Do we know of any instances in Shakespeare’s plays where he used popular songs to advance the action on stage during a production? 
  • Over 30 times across his works Shakespeare writes simply “Music plays” or calls for just “music” in the stage directions without any specific indication as to what kind of music. Alexander, would this be music Shakespeare wrote for the play? 
  • We’ve identified ways to make the sound of thunder for Shakespeare’s plays, but in The Tempest Act I Scene 1, the stage directions specifically call for lightning, as a sound. What would have been used to create the sound of lightning?

… and more!

Books & Resources Chris Johnston and Alex Sovronsky Recommends

Shakespeare and Music by David Lindley

Shakespeare’s Songbook by Duffin

The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare by Russ McDonald

John H Long, Shakespeare’s Use of Music–trilogy. 

Bloomsbury published: Shakespeare’s theater and the effect of performance (collection of essays, edted by Tiffany Stern). 

There’s another book probably useful if you’re investigating sound/special effects called Sound Effects in Shakespeare: A Study of English Renaissance Stage Production by Thomas Edward Ruddick · 1982, but I was unable ot find a copy of this book online. It shows up on World Cat here and was published by the University of South Carolina Press, so if you really want to track it down that should be enough information to give your local librarian and find a copy (remember interlibrary loan can order books for you, too!) 

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Image of a 16th century Costa Rican pottery whistle
  • A modern day interpretation of Willows Song from Shakespeare’s Othello
  • Depiction of the opening scene of “The Temptest,” Nicholas Rowe, 1709
  • Image of 16th century virginal, a rarely preserved musical instrument that would’ve been used in Shakespeares Globe
  • Bellifortis manuscript by Konrad Kyeser, 1405, illustration of a hand canon being fired
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