On September 6th, Strawberry Theater Workshop‘s production of This Land had its debut performance at the Erickson Theater on Capitol Hill, and it opened to standing ovations and uproarious applause. It was a momentous occasion, not only for the warm reception, but because it marked the fruition of a month’s hard work–and work we did.
The process of putting together a production like this is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s one thing to watch from the audience and take in a performance, but it’s quite another to be there as the show’s being created. At first, I had no idea what the final product was going to look as I was learning songs and working with the actors on vocal parts. Once Director Greg Carter started mixing live action with those songs, that’s when things got really interesting.
I’ve struggled with describing this play to others, so I’ll do my best here: The play involves music, acting and puppetry–but Sesame Street it is not. These puppets are of the Bunraku tradition, seemingly carved out of single logs and possessing a charming yet grisled look that brings the puppets to life without the usual tropes we often associate with puppet shows. With these clever machines, the actors are able to create a theatrical experience that’s both tender and lively, and you’d swear the puppets are feeling every word spoken. Usually with this style of puppetry, the actors would be clad in black and hidden, but the decision to allow the audience to see the actors makes the experience more rich, more touching; it’s almost as if it’s easier to stomach the hard truths of life so long as the actors have a method of deflection, saying them through this human analogue. True to form, these puppets look like they’ve endured hardship after hardship, working long hours in coal mines or bumming around the country in train cars. They’re beautiful, and each one is an individual work of art.
Being so involved in music, it would have been easy to miss a lot of what was going on around me. There are scenes where the puppets are dancing, washing down the bad taste of life with whiskey, attending funerals and going to sleep. The actors that control them–or more appropriately, the puppets inform the actors–are amazingly skilled at their craft, wringing more raw emotion out of these puppets than I ever dreamed. I’ve never been so moved!
If you come to the show, the first thing you’ll see is the sprawling, impressive stage setting. It’s the home of the whole show, and we’re using all of it. That’s something I really like about this show: the action is everywhere. There’s something to see no matter where you’re looking; we musicians are to your right, singing and laughing along while there are actors to your left, center stage and even on the wings of the seating area. I wish I could experience the show from that perspective, but alas, I have a pretty good seat already.
The rehearsal process was a great workout for me, both musically and vocally; it’s been some time since I’ve been so dedicated to purely acoustic music, and while I somewhat enjoy singing, it’s certainly not my main gig as far as making music goes. I’m usually much happier just being a guitarist and supporting a singer. However, when I was cast in This Land I knew I’d be doing some singing, and there was mention of a solo song or two being thrown my way. Thankfully, music director Edd Key helped me get up to par with plenty of warm-ups and tips during rehearsals. I’m really, really impressed with the results, and my voice has never been stronger or more controlled. I never knew I could sing like that!
I don’t pretend to have the voice training one might expect from an actor cast in a musical, but then again, this isn’t your average musical. This Land is more akin to an old-school revue than your typical flashy, big-time musical theater production. We musicians are relegated to one part of the stage, but the action scenes happen all around us. Of course, there’s acting and story interwoven with the music, with scenes going on while we’re performing the songs. The difference is that where other musicals would have material written specifically to advance the plot or describe what’s happening onstage, our source material is already there in the form of Woody’s brilliant works. Instead of revealing plot, the music that’s been chosen reveals mood and feeling, serving as a backdrop for what’s happening on stage. It’s kind of like scoring a film in that way.
Another challenge for me on the singing side of things was remembering lyrics. Like I said before, I’m not often the frontman, so I don’t spend a lot of time remembering words. In the play, I have 3 solo songs and numerous choral parts to memorize. This was all very intimidating, and Woody Guthrie having been so prolific wasn’t helping. For instance, while I love the song “Remember the Mountain Bed”, memorizing that one wasn’t an easy task. The song contains 9 verses, nearly all of which contain the words bed, mountain, leaves, trees, and people. Keeping that straight required a huge amount of devotion, and I’m pleased to say I’ve come out on the other side much better for it. Still, at the beginning of rehearsals, it might as well have been 90 verses. Beautiful song, though, and I’m so glad to be the one singing it.
My playing abilities and endurance have been put to the test as well, which is a good thing! I’m not saying our arrangements are overly difficult, but it’s the combination of what we’re playing and how we’re playing it that’s such a workout for me. For instance, though I’ll list both acoustic and electric guitar as my main instrument, it’s been almost 8 years since I’ve had a purely acoustic gig–that is, acoustic only, without any amplification or miking of any sort. Being mainly an electric player, it was at first a great challenge to relearn how to play both loud and dynamically on my own, without losing the loud/quiet contrast I so dearly love. It’s easy when you’re plugged into an amp or sound system, but unplugged in a 200 seat theater, projection lies squarely on your shoulders.
It took a short time until I had once again become comfortable with this idea. Into the second week of rehearsals, I was still hoping there would be some kind of sound reinforcement. I was so acutely aware of the need for volume that it finally gave me the reason I needed to perform a neck reset on my J-45. In any case, I pressed on, spending a great deal of time practicing. I started by just strumming as loud as I could, then refining my technique and gently pulling back when the piece called for it. Just like riding a bike, all of those years of playing in bars and busking came back to me, and in no time I was flat- and finger- picking like nobody’s business. Luckily, this bit of schooling was also helped along by having the right instruments in hand. My stable is as follows:
- 1969 Gibson Hummingbird
- 2003 Gibson J-45
- c. 1950s Regal Resonator
- 2008 Martin LX1 (Nashville Tuning!)
- 2004 Fender Jazzmaster
I’m able to cover most of the bases with those five instruments, but I’m also fortunate enough to be playing upright bass and mandolin, both of which are provided by the endlessly talented Edd Key.
After all of the rehearsal, I was back in shape and ready for action. The show, which is around 2 hours and 45 minutes long, has a huge amount of music in it, and each and every show is a thrill for me. We’re doing a huge breadth of Woody’s material, and each night there’s something new that excites me. There’s also enough movement from one instrument to the next that I never feel stuck in one position: for one song, I’m using the Hummingbird in an E standard tuning with the 6th string dropped to C, and for the next I’m on mandolin. I have to say, though, that my favorite part of the show might just be when I switch to double bass for our performance of “California Stars”, a song Woody never got to record but was tackled by Wilco and Billy Bragg on their Mermaid Avenue sessions. So fun.
I’m no stranger to stage fright. Usually I’ll get a bit jittery before I take the stage, but once I’m up there it’s the most relaxed place I can be. I’m actually more comfortable playing music on stage than hanging out with large groups of people; it’s just the way I am.
This Land, however, was a different story. I’ve been somewhat nervous throughout the preparation phase, presumably because this was my first endeavor in the the Theatrical world and I had no idea what I was in for, save that I’d be playing music. I wanted so badly to impress those around me (all of whom are not only incredibly gifted but also well-known in the world of Theater) that I was all business for the first few weeks of rehearsal. I made sure to learn the material, and I payed strict attention to everything going on around me. It’s a different world than the one I’m used to!
To say that opening night was frightening would be an understatement. This isn’t some rock show where I can show up and play loud music for 45 minutes, goofing off between songs. Instead of a set list, I have two acts of music and stage acting to remember. I had lyrics to remember, instruments to tune and change out, and minor acting to undertake. I was worried. As we waited in our pre-show positions, anticipating our cue to start the show, everything I’d learned up to this point zipped through and out of my mind, resulting in the dreaded “blank slate” we all fear. “Oh, no.”, I thought.
The moment we walked out on stage, my nerves largely vanished, and I found that muscle memory took over. Though my mind was racing, my hands remembered what to do. It was so much fun, and when I eventually shook off the fear, I found that I was back to my old self, laughing and joking and building friendships.
Now, in our third week of performances, I’m more comfortable than ever with the songs, the acting and my role in all of it. Even better is the fact that, some time last week, the entire cast really started loosening up and started having fun with the show. Now, we’re interacting more freely and taking part in the production like a good community should, cheering each other on and agreeing with one another like a big ol’ hootenanny. The fun even continues backstage, the whole cast being more tightly knit than ever. These aren’t just coworkers; these are friends that I’ve grown to trust and love like family. I want to do this forever!
I’ll be writing more about the individual instruments in the show later on. What’s important now is that you come to the show! It’s running through Oct. 6th at the Erickson Theater, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of this show! Tickets are going fast, and can be had here.
-Michael James Adams