‘Free Shakespeare on the Common’ Returns with King Lear

We spoke to music director and sound designer Colin Thurmond for a sneak peak of the company's first-ever performance of the tragic play.

shakespeare on the common 2015

Photo courtesy of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company is back with its annual summer production of “Free Shakespeare on the Common,” and to celebrate its 20th season, the company has something special in store—it will present a production of William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear for the very first time.

King Lear tells the story of an elderly king dividing up his realm between his three daughters. What follows is a tale of status, love, betrayal, madness, and justice. Notable Boston actor Will Lyman takes on the titular role of King Lear and is joined by Mimi Bilinski as Regan, Deb Martin as Goneril, and Libby McKnight as Cordelia.

Founding artistic director Steven Maler will once again take the helm directing the free performances, and Colin Thurmond will return as the production’s music director and sound designer. He previously worked on Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s 2013 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which was praised for his use of a five-piece New England Conservatory band and a soundtrack laced with the sounds of Sinatra to evoke a feeling of 1960s Las Vegas. Thurmond will put another twist on Shakespeare this year, and we spoke to him for a sneak peak of what’s to come:

How did you get involved with Commonwealth Shakespeare Company? 

First off, I’m a musician. I started when I was nine and went so far as to get my doctorate in music from the New England Conservatory. I found myself working in theater more than anything else, and one day I met [CSC founding artistic director] Steven Maler on a whim. I walked up to Steven saying, “Hey listen, I’m a classic musician, and I’ve got some ideas into putting music into a play,” and he took a chance on me, which led to him calling me up and having me do The Two Gentleman of Verona with a jazz band.

Can you walk me through what your job as a music director means when working on King Lear

My job as a music director is to work with a composer who has written a huge catalogue of music. What I have to do is take the composer’s catalogue that has been pre-written and try to determine what the best music is to fit to the narrative moments.

What was your process of conceiving sound design ideas for King Lear?

One of the biggest moments of the play is this huge storm sequence, and as a sound designer I have to create storm sounds, so I had to think about all the different elements that go into a storm in order to create this one sound.

Is there anything in particular about what you’ve created that you’re excited for audiences to hear?

I’m so excited about the storm. I’ve got a couple of great ideas. It’s such a pinnacle moment of the play that I want to make it the best it can be. I want to shock people, I want to make people uncomfortable with my sounds because I want the audience to feel how the characters on stage are feeling. I’ve been working with a percussionist, Gabriel Prokofiev, to try and use drums for the storm sequence. It is difficult to try and blend a thunderstorm and music together, and there is a fine line between that going well and have it go poorly, but I’ve got it to work, and I can’t wait for people to hear it.

What’s the most challenging part of sound design?

Trying to blend natural with unnatural. In a way, putting on a play is an unnatural thing, and you want to make it as realistic as possible, so you’re combining all these natural and unnatural things together to find a good balance, and that can be challenging.

Is there a difference between directing the music for a Shakespeare performance versus something else? 

Absolutely because Shakespeare has such a rich history. You can do a couple things with Shakespeare because it’s been done so many times before—you can do an interpretation of what someone’s already done, or you can completely turn it on its head and create something new that people haven’t heard before. With The Two Gentlemen of Verona we put a jazz band on stage, and that was so different than anything I’d seen before. I approach Shakespeare as my own interpretation, and I’m always trying to push myself, and Steve also pushed me to be the best that I could be.

How is King Lear different than anything you’ve done in the past? 

King Lear is a completely different because we are dealing with pre-recorded music and sounds as opposed to live music.

Do you think you’ll come back and do another Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production?

It would absolutely be an honor to come back, but that call is at the discretion of our director.


Shakespeare on the Common kicks off July 22 and runs through August 9, located on the Boston Common near the Parkman Bandstand. Performances begin at 8 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday evenings. Sunday performances begin at 7 p.m. One matinee performance will take place on Saturday, August 8, at 3 p.m.

90 minutes before King Lear, audiences will be treated to Commonwealth Concerts, which feature jazz performances by New England Conservatory students and alumni. Following that, an hour before the main event, actors from Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s apprentice program will put on a prelude performance, meant to prepare the audience for the focal point of the evening.