Beyond Vassar

Bennett Harmonizes His Passions

By Edward Angel Sotelo ’93

When a theatrical performance comes to life, the long hours put in by the cast are dissolved by the suspension of disbelief. It’s no small paradox that the great team efforts involved in any show are ultimately infinitesimal, slight shifts whose aim is to make the artistic experience no less vivid than day-to-day existence.

These two qualities — the subtle and the collaborative — are what drew Mark Bennett ’85 to his profession of composer/sound designer/music director. After Vassar, the N.Y.C.-based Bennett studied composition and orchestration at the New England Conservatory. From there he began a long and fruitful relationship with the New York Theater Workshop, the Ridiculous Theatre Company, and the Hotchkiss Summer Theatre as either sound designer/arranger or music director. In the early ’90s, Bennett worked on a wide variety of productions, ranging from A Comedy of Errors for the New York Shakespeare Festival and Arms and the Man for the Center Stage Theater in Baltimore.

From that point, Bennett began casting his artistic net worldwide for over 10 years. He has served as both composer and performer for the innovative Yoshiko Chuma and the School of Hard Knocks, which toured Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Japan; he also composed for “Lindbergh,” one of WGBH TV’s American Experience series. More recently, his various talents have seen duty in The Seagull, a play performed in Central Park (starring Meryl Streep ’71) and for Robert Wilson’s exhibition at the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv.

He credits Vassar’s academic rigor and open-mindedness as crucial to his development. “Within two weeks of being there, the Philaletheis Society needed a musical director for their production of Hair,” he recalled. “This experience alone solidified for me that this was a place where I could really stretch myself. I could explore lots of different aspects of my musical work while working on my nuts-and-bolts counterpoint and composition classes. By sophomore year, I already knew that music would be my chosen field.”

Bennett also learned the value of Vassar’s willingness to allow for interdisciplinary dialogue. “At that time, I took composition with Annea Lockwood. She allowed us the respect normally afforded to colleagues while letting us wrestle with our own compositional ideas. About the same time, drama professor William Rothwell needed some arrangements of early American songs for a production. Thanks to the efforts of those two professors, it felt like my music and theater backgrounds had fallen into place together.

“At the beginning of my senior year Professor Evert Sprinchorn asked me to compose and music-direct a new translation of Hippolytus he was directing. He understood that my senior music thesis would be an ideal synthesis of my split interests. I used my technical background from electronic music classes to record and create the show tapes, and develop the paperwork that allowed the music and sound to be properly executed. That project became my first full score and sound design for theater. What I do today is actually not that much different from that first project 17 years ago.”

As a composer, Bennett writes original music for theatrical performance. His function as sound designer, however, is slightly different. “For me, sound design is the creation of compositions that support and enhance the theatrical event. I manipulate textures, sound effects, and other music to create collages that move through space and around an audience. For instance, in the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, I created an environment of an Italian neighborhood while utilizing both Italian folk music recordings and my own piano and percussion score. In every case I must understand the director’s vision and honor the playwright’s intentions.”

For Bennett, Vassar’s diversity of approach isn’t only necessary; it is what’s given him the most artistic satisfaction. “One of the reasons I write for theater instead of string quartets is that I love the ensemble quality of theatrical creation,” he said. “You’re responding to many people — that’s the challenge and the fun. You pick and choose from the feedback you receive to create what the audience finally hears. I am endlessly fascinated with the product that is the result of all that creation. I enjoy being part of the artistic sum.”

Sotelo, a 1993 religion major, works for the Cleveland Public Library and plays electric bass in the rock band Cobra Verde.