April 2, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 13

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    Sounding out Electra

    Alumni contribute award-winning skills to UT production

    By Jennifer Vanasco
    News Office

    When watching University Theater's production of Electra, playing tonight through Saturday at Mandel Hall, pay special attention to the choral music -- you could be listening to the work of two future Tony Award nominees.

    The three choral pieces of Electra, as well as some of the instrumental music, were written by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, two College alumni who have gone on to become professional sound designers for theaters in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

    They are so successful that last year -- just two years after leaving Hyde Park -- Pluess (B.A.'96) and Sussman (B.S.'94) won a Joseph Jefferson Citation for their music in Orestes, produced by Roadworks Productions.

    Pluess and Sussman's collaboration began during their College years, when they were both involved in University Theater.

    "We met during UT's production of Pippin, during my second year," Pluess said. "And then during the 1994-95 school year, we decided to write a musical together, Inferno."

    Produced by UT, Inferno sold out every night of its seven-night run, garnering "seven standing ovations," Pluess said. "I was going to move to New York after graduation, but my collaboration with Ben was hard to leave, and then Curt [Columbus, Director of University Theater] showed us how many theater opportunities were available in Chicago."

    Although initially Pluess and Sussman were focused on writing musicals, upon graduation they began to assemble the knowledge required to produce sound for non-musical plays -- ambient soundscapes -- along with background music. "We wanted to make ourselves well-rounded," Pluess said.

    As he tells it, the duo were lucky to get the chance to write the music for Orestes. "Curt knew someone at Victory Gardens who knew someone at Roadworks, and they were ready to let us play in the band for Orestes. Then the composers for Orestes were flaking out, and we were given a chance to write the music."

    Pluess and Sussman are now working steadily. They designed the sound for Ecstasy, a play currently running in Los Angeles, and for two New York plays, one at the Drama League and one at Theater Off Park. They have worked on music for four out of the five mainstage productions put on by Victory Gardens this season and on a play that will be produced by Atlanta Repertory in Georgia. In Chicago, they continue to write music and design sound for several midsize theaters.

    Even so, said Pluess, "the chance to write choral music for Electra was exciting. We primarily enjoy writing vocal pieces, so we were happy to write music for the chorus to sing. We auditioned the singers, and the College students who are in the play are all very talented."

    Electra, a classic tragedy written by Euripides, is about "a woman struggling to carve out a niche for herself in a world ruled by men and the brutal, unseen gods. And it is about family -- as it existed 2,000 years ago and as it exists today," said Susanna Gellert, who adapted the play and is directing it for UT.

    "We met several times with Susanna and talked about the script," said Pluess, who has been a fan of Electra since reading it as an undergraduate. "The music we're writing is primarily percussive, shaped with some tonal instruments. There are a lot of drum samples, a lot of light bell sounds and textured flute instruments.

    "For a long time, we were trying to make digital technology replicate the sound of traditional instruments. Lately, we've been focusing on exploring the inherent valuable aesthetic of synthesized sound, and we're glad to showcase that here.

    "We're excited, the students are all enthused," he added. "It's a lot of fun to be back at the College."

    Electra opens today, April 2, and continues through Saturday, April 4, at Mandel Hall. Tickets are $10, $7 for students, in advance; $12, $9 for students, at the door. For more information, call 702-7300.