Category Archives: Life Updates

Time to Move On

I know I haven’t updated this blog in a long time.  It was originally meant to be a record of my experiences as a music director in a professional theatre.  But it turns out that working in theatre doesn’t allow much time to blog! 😉

And so today, I want to take the time to share some thoughts on where I am in my career right now.  Several months ago, I made the decision that I would not return to Barter Theatre next season.  While the decision was not made public for a while, I informed the Artistic Director (my boss) of my decision early on in the summer.  Rather than leave them high and dry during a season, I expressed my desire and intent to finish out the fall rep, music directing both “Zombie Prom” and “Tarzan: The Musical” through to the completion of their runs.

But now the time has come.  Here are my thoughts and feelings, rambling as they might be.

Just two days and two performances left at Barter Theatre for me as Resident Music Director. Really hard to believe it’s happening. Each performance gets more and more emotional for me.

I don’t remember the last time I left a job on such good terms, to be honest. I’ve been fired from jobs, I’ve quit jobs because I was angry, I’ve been laid off from jobs….but this time around it is quite peaceful, a planned exit thought out months in advance, and I even was able to help “groom” the fine gentleman who will replace me. (Lee Harris, you have my utmost respect and love as a friend and a fellow musician.)

Maybe that’s why it’s so emotional for me — I’m not just storming out the door frustrated or hurt. Has this job been tough at times? Absolutely. Has it been an incredible experience? Absolutely! Would I trade anything about the last five years (an unintended musical theatre pun there…)? I don’t believe I would. I am a much better musician, a stronger man, and much more of a dreamer now that I have spent this time at Barter.

Theatre has opened my eyes to so much. I have cried, I have laughed, I have held my breath to avoid doing either. I have participated in the most heart-warming stories, and the funniest of comedies. I have participated in inside jokes with actors, and I have wept with them through illnesses that made them feel like they couldn’t get through the show.

I have performed shows where I was the only musician. And I have performed shows with a 26-piece orchestra (last year’s two-show performance of “Cabaret” with the Symphony of the Mountains will probably always remain one of the highest points of my career).  I have sat at a small upright piano on a small thrust stage, accompanying and underscoring, and even sometimes providing special effect sounds (I’ll never forget having to voice the invisible “Queenie”, the dog in “Holiday Memories”).  I have sat at a grand piano on a much larger stage, pulling from all of my classical training to make that piano sing like an orchestra in “Forever Plaid”.

I have experienced the shocking feeling of a G-string landing on my head during the infamous blackout at the end of “The Full Monty”.  I have performed while at the very top of my game physically, and struggled to perform with a temperature of 102.9 (a number much more suited to an FM radio station than to a person’s temperature!).  I have made silly faces at actors on the “Steve-cam” that they use to watch me for cutoffs when they miss a cue I give them, and I have given them thumbs up or fist pumps when they blow me away with their performance.  I have raced through endings of songs to get an actor to a cutoff quicker when they aren’t feeling well, and held strong final notes long enough that the actors felt like they might pass out.

I’ve given critiques and I’ve given compliments. I’ve scolded, and I’ve encouraged.  I’ve watched young actors grow into fine, mature actors.  I’ve seen the look of surprise and joy in an actor’s eyes when they accomplish something they never knew they could do.  I’ve had the joy of telling actors who never considered themselves to be singers that they truly have become musical theatre actors.  I honestly believe I have seen lives change, both on stage and off.  And I like to think that maybe, just maybe I’ve been a part of that process of change for some of them.

Do I have a favorite memory?  There are too many to choose from.  And some of them already start to blur together with the passage of time.

What would I like my actors to remember me for when I’m gone? Here are the things I have strived to accomplish.  Whether or not I succeeded will only be known if you ask them.

1. Music matters.  Music is not just filler in a play or something that interrupts the story.  Music, if it is written well, and if it is performed well, takes the story forward and enhances it. It adds unspeakable dimensions of depth and emotion to a story.

2. People matter. I have tried to get to know my actors personally, and to coach and encourage each one individually based on my relationship with them.  It’s about relationship.

3. Even the small things matter.  The way you emphasize a particular consonant…the way a phrase gets “spoke-sung” for dramatic emphasis…whether or not you crescendo or decrescendo when you are holding a note…the way you shape that vowel…the way you approach that particular interval so that it’s in tune…it all matters, no matter how small we think it is.  There have been times when I have felt incredible magic during a particular phrase of music just because of the way an actor sang one particular note in that phrase.  It’s those little things.

I could probably write for hours more with all the feelings and emotions I have right now.  But I will leave it at that for now.  And to paraphrase some lyrics of this final show that I’m performing for now: I am trusting my heart, letting fate decide to guide this life that I’m living.  I wish the very same for all the ones I am leaving.

steve 🙂

“Annie” Opens at Barter

I would love to update this blog more frequently as a means of keeping in touch with people following my musical career.  It seems hard sometimes to keep up with blogging when life keeps moving so fast.

This week has been a long and tiring week teching and opening Barter Theatre’s production of “Annie”.  This classic musical is a lot of fun, and I’m very pleased with our production of it.

This is my second opportunity to music direct a show on Barter’s mainstage (last fall, I md’d “Forever Plaid”) and my first musical as Resident Musical Director.  I’ve also music directed several shows in the past at Barter’s Stage II (a smaller thrust stage theatre).

“Annie” is a large production, involving a large cast, lots of kids (we actually wrote two more orphans into the play than are called for in the script since we had so many girls audition for the show), lots of music, large set, etc., etc., etc.  To prepare for this production, we actually added an extra eight hours of tech which made this week seem even longer and more exhausting!  Eight hours of tech on Tuesday, two “10 out of 12” tech days on Wednesday and Thursday, and another 5 1/2 hours of tech on Friday before our first live audience showed up Friday night.

So far, we’ve done three performances (one last night and two today) and have two again tomorrow followed by an eight-show week.  Once we complete next week’s full schedule of shows, we’ll move into a rep schedule with the next mainstage show that is scheduled to tech and open, “Blue Sky Boys”.

I’m also currently in rehearsals for “Violet” which techs in a couple of weeks.  It’s non-stop in this theatre, but I’m loving just about every minute of it!  If you are in the southwest Virginia area anytime between now and mid-August, come by and see “Annie”.  You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure!

steve 🙂

New Position at Barter Theatre

More than two-and-a-half years ago (July, 2007), I found out that Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA was looking for a new Resident Musical Director.  I had heard lots of wonderful things about Barter and was excited about applying for the position. I eagerly submitted my résumé and waited for an interview. The process seemed to drag on and on.  More than four months after expressing my interest in the position, I finally got an interview. I had to wait more than another month before getting an answer.  And the answer was not the one I wanted.

“We really like you, but we’ve decided to go with somebody else,” I heard on the other end of the phone line.  I was crushed. I thought my interview had gone so well. And they did seem to like me, but I felt like I was being fed a line.  Furthermore, they told me, “Please stay in touch. We’d love to work with you someday.”  That sounded like the biggest line of all. What could they possibly need from me now? They had hired somebody else for the only music director position they had available.

Fast-forward about six months to June, 2008…I was on vacation with my family in Pennsylvania when I got an email from the music director they had hired. They were preparing to stage a two-keyboard version of “Sweeney Todd” and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in playing second keys for it.

It didn’t take long for me to decide to do it. I figured it would be fun, and after six months the pain of not getting the job had finally subsided. I was to start in early August on a five-week contract. I would never play in the “Sweeney Todd” production, however. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Less than two weeks before I was to start, I got a phone call from Tim (the musical director) asking if I might be able to start a few days early and assist with some rehearsals on “Beauty and the Beast”. It turns out that he had an Assistant Musical Director, but they weren’t confident in his keyboard abilities to help out with the rehearsals. So they wanted me to help in addition to the “Sweeney Todd” gig. This was turning out even better for me!

A few days before I was to start, I got an urgent email from Tim. Apparently, the assistant had disappeared and nobody knew where he was! “Stay tuned,” said Tim. “We might have more work for you.”

They figured out that the assistant had walked off the job and was not coming back. Within 48 hours, my five-week contract had changed to a five month contract, and I was sitting in a rehearsal playing! I was now the Assistant Musical Director, given my own show to music direct (“Bat Boy”) which was already in rehearsals, and slated to also music direct one of the holiday shows later that year.  The schedule no longer permitted me to participate in the “Sweeney Todd” production (other than as assistant musical director accompanying rehearsals), so another pianist was hired to play that show.

Because of the length of the contract, and the fact that we were still living in Boone, NC, we decided to rent a furnished house in Abingdon so we could easily stay as a family in either town where we needed to be. And what followed was a hectic five months traveling back and forth several times each week. I was still working at Appalachian State University (even though I scaled back quite a bit because of my new work at Barter), and found myself driving that windy, mountainous route (about 90 minutes between our two homes) many, many times.

By the end of that five-month contract, Barter had already talked to me about some possible employment for the following year (2009), and so made the plunge to stop renting our home in Boone and officially move to Abingdon, where we found a wonderful home for us to rent (since we no longer needed a furnished rental) on a (currently unused) horse farm.  The 2009 season provided a fair amount of work for me at the theatre on a total of four different contracts. I was not contracted as an Assistant Musical Director anymore, but an independent contractor.  In “Joseph and the…Dreamcoat”, I played second keys in a two-keyboards and drums configuration (we had a BLAST!).  Then, I created the accompaniment tracks for their production of “Wizard of Oz”. Later on in the year, I music directed “Forever Plaid”, another show that I thoroughly enjoyed.  That production is scheduled for a five- or six-month national tour beginning in September (2010), but I will not be taking that tour.  Another pianist will be hired to play it.

Finishing out the 2009 season, I played piano for a sweet production of “Holiday Memories”, a tender story based on two Truman Capote short stories. It was a calm and refreshing end to the year.

At the end of 2009, I met with Richard Rose (the Producing Artistic Director of Barter) to discuss 2010’s season. It was decided that I would music direct three different shows during the season, providing work from mid-April through mid-November.  But all that was to change…

Less than a week ago, I received word that Tim, the Resident Musical Director, had tendered his resignation, with his final date of work being March 28. Two days later, the position was offered to me, and I have accepted it.

So, beginning March 29, I will finally step into the position I first applied for more than two-and-a-half years ago! I will become the Resident Musical Director at Barter Theatre. I’m very excited about this move in my career. And I look forward to being a more integral part of the production staff there.