It was a year ago when the Kansas City Actors Theatre decided to produce Sam Shepard's play “A Lie of the Mind” this season. When Shepard died in July, company members were shocked at first, but then their feelings evolved.
"We felt even more obligated to honor his memory with this show, since it was so personal to him," says the production's director, Cinnamon Schultz. "I think it’s just going to make the performances that much more rich."
When Schultz talks about the play being personal to Shepard, she's talking about the abuse he experienced.
"He never shied away from talking about that," she says "His father was in the military, and a raging alcoholic. I think he’s putting it down to let other people know that this is happening. It could have been PTSD, but abuse affects everybody. He's not saying, 'Hey, get help,' but making people aware that, yes, this is an issue, this is a problem, and this is how it can affect people."
In the play, two families are brought together through the marriage of Jake and Beth.
"The show opens with Jake saying he thinks he’s killed her," Schultz says. "You find out the very next scene that she’s not dead but severely beaten, brain damaged and in the hospital. So you follow what comes next. You have Jake's brother going to find out if Beth is dead, and Jake trying to come to terms with what he did.”
The play gets its name from the lies all the characters tell themselves, Schultz says, "trying to forget, cover-up, make their lives better when they’re not."
To carry the audience over this emotional terrain, Shepard put an unusual amount of pressure on the play’s sound designer, who in this case is Jon Robertson.
“In the script, on the second or third page, there's a unique thing," Robertson says. "Music notes written by Sam Shepard himself: 'There must be music.'”
Specifically, American roots music, and music that should be unique to each production.
“It must support the emotions that are discovered by the actors through the rehearsal process," Robertson continues, remembering Shepard's notes. "That’s a pretty strong directive from the playwright to the designer.”
Given the play's themes, Robertson knew what kind of sound he wanted.
"It was important to me that there be a strong female voice come through in the music,” he says.
The voice he wanted was that of Kansas City songwriter Kasey Rausch.
“Sam Shepard obviously is an incredible writer, so it didn’t take long, once I started reading the script, to grasp where he was and what he was trying to express,” Rausch says.
Rausch is one half of The Country Duo, along with guitar player Marco Pascolini. Many of the sounds Robertson wanted, to underscore scenes or make transitions, he found in parts of songs already in The Country Duo's catalog. But after spending a few hours with Schultz and Robertson, they went into the studio to re-record everything to match his directions.
“Marco is a great, great player. The sounds that he draws out of that pedal steel guitar, the tones he pulls out are so beautiful," Robertson says, "but at times I needed it to not be beautiful.”
"There were some scenes that he needed, wanted, some real build-up and energy and chaos, so we gave him that,” Pascolini remembers with a laugh. "Steel guitar is a really expressive instrument, so you can convey a lot."
This process resulted in something unanticipated, which Rausch describes as "kind of cosmic": a new song.
“Domestic violence is something so many people have experience with, including myself, so it hit home from the moment that I first started reading," Rausch says. “There was one song I had written several months ago. It hadn’t been recorded professionally yet. Once I dug into the script, I realized this song, ‘But I Do,’ kind of fit the play perfectly.”
“Kasey emailed me three days before the recording session and said, 'Take a listen. It's just an iPhone recording of me and my guitar. See if you think it’ll work for the play,'" Robertson says. "I listened to it, it was as if she must have read the script before she wrote it — but she didn’t."
“It was kind of on the back burner," Rausch says, "waiting for this play to come to fruition and come to life.”
"I felt honored to be the first one to track it,” says Robertson.
Except for a half-hour live set before the show on opening night, all of the music audiences will hear during is pre-recorded — Rausch and Pascolini have other gigs in the next few weeks, after all. But the sounds will be as close to live as is possible for recorded music, because they nailed it all on the first take, Robertson says.
“I want it to sound raw," he says, "like The Country Duo is there in the theater also.”
In a way, they will be: through their work, just like Shepard. And with a production of the play that brought a new song into the world, the Kansas City Actors Theatre didn’t just meet Shepard’s "There must be music" direction to sound designers. They honored his memory pretty well, too.
The Kansas City Actors Theatre's "A Lie of the Mind," through October 1 at the City Stage at Union Station, 30 West Pershing Road, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108. Tickets through the Central Ticket Office: 816-235-6222.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.