Author: Martin, George

Report from Backstage
One of my favorite bluegrass artists is Rhonda Vincent. She sings wonderfully, plays great mandolin, runs a terrific band and is quite beautiful to boot. I’ve never seen her do a bad show; she’s always upbeat, positive, seemingly delighted to be doing what she is doing.

Every few months she has an ad in Bluegrass Unlimited showing her performance schedule. It is an astonishing document: she traverses the country, plays day after day with only short periods off, and always seems absolutely delighted to be on stage.

One morning about five years ago an elevator door opened in the Galt House hotel in Louisville during IBMA week and Rhonda popped in with an armload of fliers. She was out papering the hotel to advertise a showcase her band was playing.

I complimented her on her amazing work ethic and professionalism and asked her if she ever has difficulty getting “up” on stage. She flashed that big smile and said, “Oh, no, I love what I do.”

For the past four weeks I’ve been getting a bit of an idea how the life of a professional musician feels. I must say, It’s pretty intense, though nothing compared to what Rhonda has done for decades.

You may recall last month I wrote about signing up to appear in a play, “Foxfire,” by Hume Cronyn and Susan Cooper, that is winding up its run on Sunday at Contra Costa Civic Theatre in El Cerrito. It’s set in rural Georgia, and, long story short, one of the characters is a country singer and they needed a band for a short mini-concert in the middle of the play and an interlude of old fiddle tunes just before the play begins.

The actor who plays Dillard, Malcolm Rodgers, plays guitar, and Polly Frizzell and Tony Phillips split the fiddle spot (we changed fiddlers halfway through the run). Chuck Irvin is on bass and I have the banjo.

The play was scheduled for five weekends, with Sunday matinees on four of them. My first problem was that I read the schedule wrong and booked my band, Prairie Rose, for a Sunday afternoon gig on April 20. That is just my worst nightmare: a double booking that cannot be fixed. I was so embarrassed, but I had to cancel the other gig, which made the client very unhappy, and put me into a pretty bad funk as well. I hate being unprofessional.

The week of April 6 was a preview of what my life was about to become. It was what the theater folk call “tech week,” when the play is supposed to come together and open. Prior to this, rehearsals had been scheduled for various scenes and cast members in little chunks, not the whole play at one time. Meanwhile the musicians had a few rehearsals with Malcolm to get the original songs down, and the four of us had organized some “private” rehearsals to get the fiddle tune interlude together. For that, Chuck would drop the bass and play guitar, since Malcolm only shows up on stage at the last minute, just before the “jam” breaks up and Malcolm/Dillard sings the song that opens the play.

So the band rehearsed on Sunday, there was a sound and light cue rehearsal of the whole play on Monday, dress rehearsal on Tuesday, a preview show for CCCT supporters on Wednesday, a night off on Thursday and the real run began on Friday and Saturday nights.

I found that being in the play got me all wired up, and then it was hard to sleep until 3 or 4 a.m. Alas, the sun rose on schedule and as the week went on I got more and more tired. Plus “normal” life did not go away; I was watching my toddler grandson while my daughter-in-law rehabbed an apartment for rental and, when that wasn’t happening, I had to take my mother to the senior center for lunch with her friends.

Upside, I lost two pounds that week without dieting.

The play’s second week was much easier. Third week, though, my longtime singing partner, Pauline Scholten, and I had a gig singing Civil War songs at a middle school’s history day in Marin County on Thursday. Then the play on Friday and Saturday nights, and Prairie Rose Band played a farmers market Sunday morning from which I drove straight to the theater and took off my band clothes and put on the play costume for the matinee.

Last week was similar, except the farmers market was on Saturday morning.

We have three more performances. My emotions are mixed: I have really enjoyed hanging out with all the actors. They are doing something they love and it shows both on stage and off. But I think I am ready for it to end; three shows a week plus various other gigs has been quite a grind.

I have seen the entire play only once, at dress rehearsal. During the shows the cast hangs out in the common dressing room, reading, doing puzzles, or perusing a laptop. But the play is never out of your brain because they have a speaker system piping it in so folks don’t miss their cues.

There’s a flashback scene where Hector Nations, who is a ghost visible only to his wife, Annie, during most of the play, is alive, very old, sick, and on the way out. Hector is played by T. Louis Wertz (“Tim” backstage) who is a tall handsome fellow maybe in his fifties who arrives at the theater for each performance on a big Yamaha motorcycle.

I remembered this porch scene as being particularly well done at the dress rehearsal, so Saturday night I crept up into the wings and peered out at it through the “cabin door.”

When the lights come up Tim seems to age before your eyes. He slumps in the old rocker, his stomach pooches out, his hands lose their power and become frail. His mouth and eyes change. It’s remarkable from the audience and quite amazing from six feet away in the wings.

When I mentioned to Tim how much I had been impressed with his transformation, he thanked me and said something that hadn’t really occurred to me: “Dead Hector is Annie’s best remembrance of him, that’s why he’s erect and strong. In that scene I play him as he really was near the end of his life.”


Update: This was written about a week ago just as the CBA Web team went off to Parkfield, apparently. We did the final weekend shows May 9, 10, and 11. There was a cast party at a local bistro Saturday night after the show. Lots of mutual congratulations and happiness that the project was a success.

One of the most enjoyable things about our mini-concert was looking out into the audience as we played. There were always a few people (sometimes more, sometimes fewer) gazing up at our band with smiles of perfect bliss on their faces. Being a part of the giving of such joy is a powerful happiness. At the final show, Sunday’s matinee, one of those blissful faces was that of my mother. And, of course, it was Mothers Day.

Posted:  5/15/2008

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