More Tales from the Pit

Midnight. Just got home from four hours rehearsing Peter Pan. We got through more of the show tonight than last night, but I left before the finale. When the director and the stage manager started yelling at one another, I turned off my stand light, put my music in my briefcase, and tiptoed out.

Okay, they had had a longer and more arduous day than I had. I was just sitting there in the pit, waiting for the conductor to start waving her baton. But enough is enough. The scene with the smoke machine was run three times, and of course the smoke just rolls off the stage into the pit. That was charming.

I have a bias as an artist. I like things that are really excellent. I try to be tolerant, but I soon become impatient with works of art that are ill-conceived or sloppily executed.

Peter Pan is very arguably in the former category to begin with; it’s a dumb story. It was first published in 1902, so if we’re feeling charitable we might say it has the hallmarks of a more innocent age — but there were a lot of sophisticated artists operating in 1902, and James Barrie wasn’t one of them.

On top of which, it’s hard to imagine that the current production will be anything but sloppily executed. Happily, I don’t have to watch it, because I’ll be in the pit. And I’m pretty sure audiences in Livermore are more tolerant than I am of — well, we can’t call it mediocrity, can we? That would be too charitable. Let’s just say it’s amateurish. Not surprising, as the cast and crew are amateurs. The musicians are getting paid, but we’re not getting Union scale. At least, I’m not! (Nor am I good enough that I should be paid Union scale. I’m semi-pro, at best.)

I found myself wondering, as the herds of buffalo stampeded across the stage over my head, as I listened to the actors mangling the lines and stepping on the cues, why the show hadn’t been rehearsed for at least three more weeks prior to opening. Think of how polished it would have been! Think of the precision choreography! Think of the smooth set changes! Think of the nuances that could have been brought to the dialog! Think of how well coordinated the music cues could have been with the onstage action!

Ah, that would have been a fine production. But it will never see the stage. Audiences will never have the opportunity to enjoy it.

And I really do wonder why. Am I the only one who cares about quality? No, that can’t be. Then why are so many people content — nay, eager — to participate in such hopelessly provincial productions? Is it because they’ve given up hope of ever achieving anything better?

I don’t know.

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5 Responses to More Tales from the Pit

  1. John Hogan says:

    Peter Pan, a story about children who never want to grow up, possibly directed by children who never want to grow up?

    How’s this for a couple of simple rules of theater:

    1. Director never yells at the stage manager, as a good stage manager will save a bad director far more often than a bad stage manager will ruin a good director.

    2. It’s tough on the folks in the pit, for music, unlike horseshoes, does not equate “getting darn close to the notes”, with success.

    • prophet-5 says:

      Actually, there are considerable stretches of music in this show where close is good enough — for the cello, at least. I’m sometimes drowned out by an electronic drum kit, or by the trumpets and trombones.

  2. Conrad says:

    I think they showed scientifically, Jim, that even instruments that trained musicians can’t resolve individually in the final product have a significant impact on the overall work, and they did it in an interesting way:

    They compared listeners’ responses to a track where the “inaudible” instrument plays its score, to those where the instrument is really silent, and again to the listeners’ responses when the “inaudbile” musician played a score at variance with the overall tune.

    (I can’t tell you how it was at variance — if it was just played badly or if it was another score that was fighting with the main tune, or what — I’m not musically literate, myself. I just enjoy listening to the stuff.)

    So, they found that “inaudible” musicians, when they play well, add substantially to the audience’s aesthetic response versus when they don’t play; and, they can really sabotage the audience’s response by playing badly. Even though the listeners couldn’t resolve the individual instrument.

    I’ve tried Googling for this experiment’s name (maybe you know it), but haven’t been able to find it. It’s hard to latch on to something mentally when it’s not your forte, but the overall message made quite an impression on me.


    • prophet-5 says:

      There are several ways of looking at this question. Even sounds that are buried behind other sounds, so that they can’t be perceived as separate instruments, have an effect on the waveform that reaches the listener’s ears. Our ears are really, really good at perceiving this stuff. But whether buried sounds “add substantially”, or even slightly, “to the audience’s aesthetic response” probably depends on other factors. Put a violin behind a marching band, and it will sound more like an annoying little gnat than like anything that would enhance the sound.

      So if the audience is watching the singers and dancers on the stage, and the winds are blaring and the drums are pounding, will adding a violin or a cello really make much difference? Arguably not.

      On the other hand, if a violin is playing in the first half of a phrase and then suddenly drops out — yeah, you’ll probably notice that it’s missing, and think, “Hey, wait a minute. What just happened?”

  3. Dave says:

    Very late reply that I expect will never be seen. I suspect that people are eager to be involved in such productions because the act of doing something in a social group is fun. Striving for the perfection that you are thinking of would turn pleasurable diversion into work for these people and thus ruin it.

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