Friday Night Lights
I got a call about subbing Friday night in the pit of a musical at a playhouse south of Atlanta. Sure! I thought when I began playing professionally that this would be the bulk of my work, since my degree was in multiple woodwind performance (flute, clarinet, saxophone). This job was for flute and clarinet (and a tiny bit of piccolo in the opener), so...right up my alley! I got the book late Wednesday night, hacked through it once before bed (approximately 100 pages), played through it one and a half times Thursday, hit the really tough stuff Friday, and then jumped into traffic and headed to the playhouse.
Fortunately, in checking out photos of the playhouse, I noticed that it was outdoors! Yikes. Friday night was in the low 50s, making acoustic instruments that much more challenging. We were basically a little carnival set up in a pasture in the middle of nowhere south of Atlanta. Kind of weird.
So, here's what I walked into: the "pit" was in the tent in the photo below. I showed up a few hours before the "curtain" and the music director took me through a crash course of the show. The musicians were three strings (violin, cello, bass), three woodwinds (flute/clarinet/picc, oboe/english horn, bassoon), and two keyboardists (one also being the conductor/music director). Not too bad for blitzing through the book, and I thought, "No sweat! The tent will keep us warm." I'd dressed in several layers, and I was fine. Here's hoping I hadn't destroyed my face by practicing this stuff almost non-stop from Wednesday night until showtime.
Around ten minutes before showtime, the MD opened the flap between us and the stage. Noooooooo! Cold air came pouring in. The strings kept tuning with their phones, and at first I wondered why, but in thinking about it, they were going to try and hold the pitch up to the electronic keyboards. Hmm. I would be going long-ish stretches of playing either flute or clarinet, and then picking up the other (which would be cold and flat). I was doomed! I pushed my flute and picc headjoints all the way in, put on my shortest clarinet barrel, and hoped for the best.
The first set began at what felt like a frantic pace--it always takes some time for me to get used to the pacing of playing a show, and trying to read the music, follow the conductor, watch for instrument switches, and follow the penciled in notes and cuts was difficult. Plus, the violin, oboe, and I were about a mile apart in terms of pitch. I was hanging on for dear life, and then around three or four songs into the first act, my stand light faded out over about three seconds. Just like that, the whole pit had lost power! No stand lights, and more importantly, no keyboards filling out the music! HOLY SHIT!
The actors on stage were unaware (the power outage seemed to only affect us) so they kept glaring at us like WHAT THE HELL ARE Y'ALL DOING! The MD kept frantically texting the tech people across the stage, and eventually settled into conducting. I just about had my nose pressed to the music--only the violinist had a battery powered stand light. In between songs, the cellist ran to her car and returned with a battery powered stand light as well. That gave the tent a little bit of light. I could kind of see the left pages of the music in my binder, but the right page was in the left side's shadow. I tried to figure out a way to angle my phone at the page, but in my lap it would only point up.
The show continued unabated. At one point I was completely lost, hoping to see enough notes to figure out where we were. Got it! I know where we are! Unfortunately, I had the wrong instrument in hand. Thank god the rest of the people in the tent had already played a dozen shows and knew what was supposed to be happening. I was in and out, trying to read the music, hacking up parts, looking over at the conductor, losing my place, back in the music, trying to line up the tuning in the cold, nailing something, guessing. I was all over the place.
We sat there in the dark, trying to give any musical support six freezing acoustic instruments could provide to the cast. During dialogue, we could hear a motor trying over and over to start. Over and over, but it wouldn't catch. Another skeleton of a song, and then silence, and then the motor would chug-chug-chug, but it wouldn't kick in. I found out later that the center of this entire nightmare was a generator that had run out of gas. Once they'd refilled the tank, the engine was cold and didn't want to go back to work.
After probably forty-five minutes, we were limping through the Act 1 finale when all of the sudden...wirrrr...my stand light came back to life! HOORAY! Silent cheers from the pit. The keyboards came back and we finished with renewed enthusiasm.
Everybody seemed a little shellshocked on the break. Because it's me (and it wasn't my fault), deep down inside I thought this was all really funny, of course. I mean, I know I needed to be focused on doing my job--subbing on a gig like this is really difficult!--but this was a fantastic disaster. If we'd all laughed about it, we'd probably have felt better.
On the outside, I ate my apple in silence and hoped that I wouldn't freeze to death.
In the middle of the intermission, the power went out again, so they decided to plug us into a different generator powering the other side of the stage. Back in business!
Act 2 was much better. The pitch settled down, the MD settled down, and I felt much more in sync with the ensemble. Also, I could see my part. Also, the parts were easier in Act 2. Whatever--I was better! However, my feet went numb from the cold, my fingers got slower and slower, and my legs were shaking. In between songs, I sat on my hands to try and keep them warm enough to move.
Random thought: oboists are the squirrels of a pit orchestra. Every time I looked back there, she was working on a reed with her knife, pulling a swab through her instrument, adjusting a screw on her instrument, blowing spit out of a tone hole, texting somebody. The whole night, she used every spare second to do something other than pay attention to the action on stage. I kind of expected to look back and see her cooking something, or dissecting the bassonist's frozen body.
At the end of Act 2, the lights started to droop again for a second, in they went out again in the last eight measures of exit music. We made it, though. The music ended, and the eight of us packed up quietly and left, like walking away from the casket at a funeral internment.
I hopped in my truck (which started!) and turned the thermostat over to heat to warm my feet. The knob broke off, plastic pieces falling into the darkness on the floorboard. Time to go home.