Friday, June 10, 2005

The Stage

The orchestra pit at Dirty Jack’s theater the years I worked there was center stage rear on stage level. That’s right… The band was right in the middle of everything. The orchestra pit is normally off in one of the wings or in the footlights, but this was very different.

The set was multi-level, with elevated platforms for the chorus and dancers raised about two feet above the stage floor on either side of the band pit area. Another platform about six feet high extended over the orchestra pit with stairs rising on each side, covering the band so that we were in the shadows unless lit by the follow spot. A couple of scenes actually took place up there above the band.

One brief scene in “Paint Your Wagon” had three or four of the actors kneeling on the platform over our heads and singing some hymn in a cappella harmony. It was my job to play a major G chord on the harmonica on cue to give them their pitch. Just blow on the 2-3-4 holes of a G harp for a couple of seconds. Simple.

Well, after a few weeks of this I decided the tone could stand some embellishment. So, out of nowhere one night when the cue for the tone came I played a pretty little gospel riff that resolved beautifully into the G major chord. Very Nice! Like that guy in the movie “Drum Line,” I added a little sum’ sum’ to the score.

The actors were not happy. They expected a short chord and instead got something they’d never heard before. Actors, I found out that night, hate surprises. I heard it from all sides after the show. “Don’t EVER do that again!”

Spending 110 consecutive nights right in the middle of a live theater performance teaches a person a few things about entertainment. I learned about pace and timing and touch. And I learned that acting – good acting – is not just hard work, it is really fucking hard work. Some jobs are emotionally draining; acting is emotionally devastating. The good actors I knew at Dirty Jack’s were enormously talented and devoted. I expect that many of them went on to great success in the theater.

I will write more about the actors in my next post.