“Guys and Dolls” Retrospective

closeThis post was published 9 years 3 months 11 days ago. A number of changes have been made to the site since then, so please contact me if anything is broken or seems wrong.

This was meant to be published last Wednesday, but WordPress missed the scheduled post. I’m looking into how to solve that problem in the future.

I told myself I’d blog about anything significant before I started it. That didn’t happen, so I’m doing my normal post-project wrap-up. Combining the first time I’ve ever assistant-directed a show with the first time I’ve ever played in a pit orchestra (despite plenty of “regular” orchestra experience) was a job. Here are the highlights—or at least the important bits—and my usual summary of tech week.

Becoming Involved

I got involved in my two different roles by two very different methods. I was asked to be assistant director, but I got myself into the pit musician job by, well, you’ll see.

Assistant Director

This particular production of Guys and Dolls took place at Temple of Aaron as a youth group play. I’d been involved in their productions before, playing the March Hare and Tweedledee in their 2006 production of Alice In Wonderland, but this time—because only high-schoolers can be actors in the USY play—I was on the other side of the fence. I was basically in the “staff” category.

Pit Musician

Becoming a pit musician resulted from me being a blabber mouth. The director was fretting over who would play in the orchestra at one rehearsal in early January, and I just had to come out and say that I was a violinist. That was dumb. Never volunteer for anything, because you will be stuck with it. 😛

I should never have agreed to do it without first seeing the scores. Thank goodness for the free software movement. It was only with MuseScore‘s help that I managed to even have semi-readable music for the show. I invested quite a lot of hours in transcribing the worst of the practically unreadable handwritten manuscript I got into pretty, readable, engraved sheet music. Despite bugs already fixed in the unreleased next version (which hasn’t yet gone stable), I managed to bang out some decent music in time for opening night—with many hours spent staring at the notes debating whether I was seeing a D or a C and whether that marking was a “div”, a “pizz”, a dynamic, or just a scribble. I would have eventually transcribed the entire Violin B-D part, but ran out of time; transcribing sheet music is a slow, tedious process. What I did get done, though, really helped. Focusing on the awkward page turns and the truly unreadable pieces kept the value per transcription hour high.

Rehearsals

I began my duties as assistant director in late December, just before the holiday break. When I was assistant-directing, I did a lot of getting paper, writing notes, and generally assisting. I did, of course, get to block a few scenes, though one of them ended up being blocked by the director during one of the early pit orchestra rehearsals.

Focus issues ran rampant through the entire process, up to and including tech week. That comes with the territory of working with middle- and high-school students, but it was still mildly frustrating until I learned to accept it. I’m used to working with kids (for lack of a better term) that really want to create theatre. For Guys and Dolls, most of the actors and dancers were there because they wanted to do something “fun” with their friends. Theatre can be fun, but it’s also hard work, and a lot of them didn’t want to deal with the work part.

Fortunately, most of the lead actors and a few chorus members were serious enough to help keep their peers in line. Working with them made up for the difficulties of managing their peers; it was a true pleasure to work with the kids who really wanted to put on a great show.

My rehearsal duties waned a bit as I took on the role of second violin in the pit orchestra, but with pit rehearsals being only about half of the weekly rehearsal time I still was involved in assistant directing.

Tech Week

Tech week started the day after Temple of Aaron celebrated its 100th year as a congregation. That weekend was also the Winter Shabbaton for a lot of the cast members. (The Shabbaton events are basically weekend retreats for members of the youth group.) The first rehearsal was rescheduled to be an hour earlier to allow returning Shabbaton attendees to jump right in without waiting around for an hour and a half or going home and coming back to the temple.

It was a long week, but it was productive and ultimately fulfilling.

Day One: Sunday

Sunday was the first day of tech week, and the longest day of them all. Rehearsal was scheduled from 13:00 to 19:00, and we in the orchestra spent five of those six hours actually playing. (The actors and tech crew spent five of those six hours running the show cue-to-cue—one of the most grueling processes involved in creating theatre and probably even worse than what we in the pit band had to endure.)

It was the first day we had an orchestra larger than four, and it was a rather significant size increase; the final size, including people who couldn’t be there for at least one performance, was 20 musicians, most of them pros. I felt much excitement when I saw the size of the growing orchestra. Before, we had mostly holes in the music; Sunday, we really filled in the holes and began sounding like an Orchestra (with a capital O).

Sunday was also the only day the cast and crew had dinner provided. The actors got to eat and get their notes from the partial run-through—they only made it through Act I (of two) in five hours—while the orchestra got to have some time to unwind and chat. Who got the better deal? I’ve been on the acting side for most of the shows I’ve done. It’s not a simple or easy job. The musicians really have it easy, at least at Temple of Aaron.

There was also a bug in my ear on Sunday. That is, after rehearsal one of the other musicians came over to me and offered me a short-term job as a second violin with the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company. Turns out their orchestra is short on second violins in March.

Day Two: Monday

Monday, the second day of tech week, might as well have been an entire week all its own. The four-hour evening rehearsal stretched nearly 45 minutes over time and still not a single complete run-through in sight. Several music cues were changed—it was the first time we in the orchestra had ever actually played along with the actors, so a lot of timing issues had to be worked out. Rehearsing with the actors was a very good thing, too, considering the amount of scene change music that had to be added, deleted, and shuffled around. Of course, most of us couldn’t see what we were doing because we didn’t have stand lights ready that night and half the orchestra was absent. (The temple is closed on Mondays, so there was no staff around to locate lights for us.) But we still muddled through all right.

However, several actors (including a lead or two) seemed to get some instant memory loss Monday night. Songs and scenes that had gone fine even four days before—the last “regular” rehearsal before the start of tech week—went completely out the window, especially in the second act. The long hours made some screw-ups in the later part of the evening understandable, but they seemed a bit over the top and excessive. The kids also got rather goofy, so when they did make a mistake they kept going on and on, running with it instead of just fixing it and moving on. Ah, well.

As kind of a serendipitous follow-up to Sunday’s offer of a musical gig in March, I also got an email from a local theatre company at which I’d inquired last fall about volunteering or interning. It didn’t work out then, but apparently they kept me on their list. I got a list of dates and times when they could use my help. Of course the woman from GSVLOC was absent from rehearsal tonight so I couldn’t get a tentative schedule for that. :-/ But I did respond the next day to the other theatre to let them know I would be interested and schedule a tour to get familiar with their space.

Day Three: Tuesday

Tuesday was the third day of tech week and parent photo night. We also managed the first complete run-through with all music, costumes, props, sets, sound, and lighting. It even finished 30 minutes early! (Rehearsals almost never finish early during tech week—just see Monday…) As usual, there were some glitches—including some orchestral screw-ups and a few actors rushing through their songs—but overall the run was much better than the previous day, and actually finishing the show was but one reason.

Following rehearsal, as the actors got out of costume and waited for rides home (finishing early doesn’t always work out perfectly), much of the orchestra left. Those of us who stuck around worked on the arrangement of the chairs, stands, and barriers with the music director. The saxophone section, and even more so the trumpets, drowned out most of the rest of the orchestra. In fact, the three of us violins could barely be heard over all the wind players and the piano was nearly inaudible. Hence the barriers: tall soft-covered movable wall sections that we set up between the trumpets and the audience. The first violinist also had the idea of using solid reflectors under the strings’ chairs, to hopefully boost their (our) sound. I found dance floor sections left out from the temple’s centennial celebration three days earlier that we could use for that purpose. After messing with the setup for about an hour, we finally called it a night.

The biggest issue, aside from singers rushing their songs, was microphone reception. There were a lot of clicks and pops in the sound and lots of plain old drop-outs. Much of the problems were fixed after an extended break (~20 minutes) between acts; however, the results still weren’t perfect. The sound technician did more work on the mics with the director and choreographer while we musicians were in the pit messing with the barriers and reflectors; we all hoped the sound would be better for the final dress rehearsal the next day, on Wednesday.

Day Four: Wednesday

During the dress-rehearsal on Wednesday the show went extremely well. One or two additional tweaks were made to music and blocking; but, with the exception of adding the rabbi in on opening night, Wednesday’s run was exactly what the audience saw on Thursday. A few lines that had been troublesome for the actors in the past few days also went off without any hitches, which made all of us very happy.

Day Five: Thursday

Enough playing to an empty room. Thursday, we got our first audience! The show went off so well, I was amazed. Adding in the rabbi’s two cameos as the Master of Ceremonies at the Hot Box nightclub really enhanced the show. His improvisational skills are really quite good, and he gave two of the main characters some good-natured ribbing before moving on with the scenes.

There were the usual opening-night glitches, like nervousness, flubbed lines, skipped comic bits, and near–train wrecks. Some frequent mistakes that we thought had been fixed on Wednesday returned as well, but there were also some great additions. Nathan and Adelaide in particular delivered what I thought was the best version of their first big scene ever. (The scene in question is the one in which Adelaide reveals that her mother thinks the two of them are already married.) It wasn’t that the delivery was script-perfect (it wasn’t) so much as the fact that their few small flubs were amusing both in what was missed and how it was covered. I’m not sure that the audience got any of it, but the crew—having watched the show several times already—got a kick out of it all.

The opening night audience was a good crowd. They laughed, groaned, and generally made the right noises in the right places, with a decent amount of enthusiasm. Nobody complained about any volume imbalances in the orchestra, so the additions I helped make on Tuesday must have helped. Following the performance, we kibitzed a bit (as though we hadn’t been the rest of the week?) and headed home to enjoy our day off on Friday.

Day Five-and-a-Half: Friday

Friday was a day off for everyone, but I used it to tour the local theatre that emailed me on Monday. During the hour-or-so-long tour, I discovered that what I thought was going to be a volunteer position was actually paid. Amazing that a theatre would be willing to pay me, someone with no formal experience whatsoever, to tech shows open to the public. But am I complaining? Nope! 😀

I liked tech week, both because of seeing the wonderful production of Guys and Dolls shape up and come together and because of the two separate job offers I got. Only one was a direct result of being involved in this particular show, but the timing of the other offer couldn’t have been better. Now if only I could have gotten a rehearsal schedule for the Gilbert & Sullivan company so I could alert the other theatre to potential conflicts instead of keeping them waiting… I took care of that on Saturday, though… sort of.

Day Six: Saturday

After taking a day off, everyone was raring to go on Saturday night. Saturdays are always USY night, which is an excuse for the cast to goof off. Saturdays always involve a lot of ad-libs and near–train wrecks—that is, more than usual. There were a few very close calls on this particular Saturday, and one or two veritable disasters, but there were also a lot of very funny ad-libs that more than made up for the mistakes.

For example, Sarah did “Pants on the Ground” to Sky in one of the Mission scenes—an unexpected turn from which he recovered only after being subtly prompted. Sky shot Big Jew (I know, not Big Jule, ha ha :P) before leaving the Mission in the midnight prayer meeting scene, saying, “Sorry we couldn’t clean them up. Except Big Jew. I don’t like you.” He then proceeded to behave like a burglar, “holding up” the meeting as if it was a convenience store. (Big Jew made a miraculous recovery in time to testify that he’d gone straight ever since his youth. “Thirty-three arrests and no convictions.” Benny also fell asleep and had to be awakened by Nathan in order to give his testimony.

Benny and Nicely, playing catch in the sewer scene, dropped Big Jew’s gun. Thankfully, Harry-the-Horse pretended to get hit by the bullet that would likely have been released. (Guns do tend to go off if they’re dropped, don’t they?) And of course, nobody who’s seen this particular production will forget Harry and another unnamed gambler running off at the end of the show after Lieutenant Brannigan asks, “Anyone else planning to get married?” (Yes, the ending was rewritten. I don’t know why, but I suspect it was mostly to get more out of the fact that Nicely was played by a girl.)

The usual minor line glitches persisted, mostly the same as had plagued the show all week like Big Jew saying he “came here to shoot craps” instead of “crap”, Harry saying that Sky was “the fella I was tellin’ you about” (his written line omits the word “about”), and so on. I realized on Saturday that the director was not really concerned with word-perfect delivery. Nor should he be; I’m just obsessive about things like that.

The orchestra was cello-less, but on Sunday would be minus a violin and tenor saxophone. All three musicians are important, but it’s a bigger deal to lose two parts than one, especially when one of those two parts is a violin. We violins are already outnumbered 3:1 by the brass and winds, and losing one of our number means the ratio jumps to 7:1. Oy… If anyone in the audience would be able to hear us on Sunday, it would be amazing.

Day Seven: Sunday

If Saturday was joke night, Sunday was sloppy day. Much of the show ran better on Thursday, when the kids were nervous and relatively unpracticed, than on Sunday, after they’d gotten two shows down and were confident. I suspect that overconfidence on the part of a lot of the actors was a major factor in most of the sloppiness. Cues were missed, song timing got quite far off, and the sewer scene got completely butchered when Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson jumped ahead about 20 lines and then tried to fix it by going back and picking up missed bits.

The energy was also lower, collectively, than either of the two previous shows. Nervous energy is still energy, even if it results in mistakes. Dead scenes are no fun for anyone, on stage or off. Fortunately some of the leads stayed strong and carried their own parts well, decreasing the effect that the lack of energy had on the overall performance. I think the cast were tired after the poorly timed cast party the night before, which by rights should have been after Sunday’s show, in the temple’s youth lounge with the Super Bowl on the television.

Musically, the pit orchestra was better than I expected. Losing one violin didn’t affect us as much as I thought it would; the audience could still hear the string part. It helped that our cellist, absent for Saturday’s show, returned. We all got some exercise in following the singers when they rushed through songs and took entrances several beats early.

Even given all the little troubles, most of the audience was unaware that anything had gone wrong, and the show ended on a very positive note.

Closing

Closing a show is always bittersweet for me. Feelings of accomplishment and of loss commingle. But, “All good things must come to an end.” And really, if shows never ended, all of us in the theatre would get mighty tired of playing the same songs, running the same scenes, hitting the same cues, and so on. Closing gives everyone a chance to move on and do something new; it’s an opportunity to insert some variety—that wonderful spice of life—into our work.

Too bad that the closing of Guys and Dolls was really just everyone scattering after the final performance. It was an abrupt and very anticlimactic ending to a very intense week.

Conclusion

I learned some good lessons during Guys and Dolls. I learned a lot of little things, but these are the big ones.

First of all, in order to keep your authority, you have to assert it. Letting your charges do whatever they want won’t do anyone any good, and it makes getting things done take forever.

Second, working with professional musicians is a wonderful thing. Amateurs just let the director do whatever he will, whether or not he really knows what he’s doing. Professionals—and I like to think I share this quality—tell the director if he needs to be doing something differently, when he has forgotten something necessary, or is doing too much. A week before tech week, our accompanist started coming to rehearsals and became kind of an assistant music director. Since she’d played the show before, she had a lot of good ideas. When the full ensemble joined us on the first day of tech week, there were even more great ideas to be had, and the ensemble was able to do things—like stay together more often—that wouldn’t have happened without concerted feedback from everyone.

Third, and finally, having experience in multiple areas of theatre is extremely useful. I was able to block scenes, help with sound, contribute to the arrangement of the pit, and assist the creation of the set, in addition to being an assistant director and pit musician. Had there been fewer people around, I probably would have been called upon even more—not that I would have had the time to take care of all the requests. 😉

The experience gained and the lessons learned during this show would have been enough for me, but I also made some contacts with other musicians that I think will be useful in the future. At the very least, it will be good to know others in the community, and some of them have connections with other performance opportunities. Since theatre is more about whom you know than what you know (though it still helps to be versatile and good at one or more things), having contacts will be very useful in the future.

Finally, I’d like to thank the director for crediting me and all the other volunteer artistic staff in his piece of the program. I got a musician credit in the listing section, but the listings did not include either of the two assistant directors or any of the other guest and assistant choreographers. I assume that was a decision made by a Temple higher-up and I’m sure I’m not alone in appreciating the acknowledgment. On behalf of Erika, Sammy, Kara, myself, and everyone else who volunteered but didn’t get listed: Thank you, Aaron!

Now all that’s left is to see about getting a T-shirt. In true Temple of Aaron fashion (sorry), nobody thought to see what size I needed, so I couldn’t take one home. Maybe this bit of bad luck had something to do with the front of the shirts. Someone decided to have the dice in the shirt logo show “snake eyes”—a losing craps roll—unlike the program cover dice, which display a seven. 😛

dgw

I am an avid technology and software user, in addition to being reasonably well-versed in CSS, JavaScript, HTML, PHP, Python, and (though it still scares me) Perl. Aside from my technological tendencies, I am also a theatre technician, sound designer, violinist, singer, and actor.

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