Monkey – Journey to the West

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July 25, 2008
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The furthest south I’ve ever been in the USA is Charleston, SC. What brought me there was a fantastic show at the Spoleto Festival, which had a part for the musical saw in the score (The score of the show is by Damon Albarn. Most people might be familiar with Damon from his work with ‘Blur’ in the 90’s or ‘Gorillaz’ more recently).

Sottile Theater

When I arrived in the Charleston airport a driver was waiting for me to bring me to my living quarters, and from there to the theater. A bottle of champagne and a bouquet of flowers were waiting for me at the apartment given to me for the duration of the show.
As I don’t like champagne, I gave the bottle to my driver.
On the table there was also an invitation to dinner from people I didn’t know…

House where I stayed

During the first two days, as I was walking about Charleston, I marveled at the gorgeous architecture – huge houses with long piazzas (that’s what they call porches over there) and tall white columns – I kept expecting Scarlett O’Hara to come out of any building at any moment :)

It was only on my third day in Charleston that I had a chance to walk around to the front of the building in which my apartment was. Coming from NYC I naturally assumed that it was an apartment building… Turned out it was actually a mansion built in 1855!
The son of a wealthy rice plantation owner and his wife (who was also his cousin…) built this enormous 4 story brick town house, which has 14 foot ceilings, Greek Revival plaster marble mantels and two piazzas with large white columns.
Turned out I was Scarlett O’Hara…:)

A nice couple lives in this house with their two daughters, two dogs and two cats. They turned half of the ground floor into an apartment which they are renting out. through them I got to experience Southern hospitality first hand.

House I stayed at

My job was to play in the orchestra pit, along with 26 other musicians, crammed in the tiny space under the stage. During one number in the show artificial fog was pumped up onto the stage. The pit would get filled with bellows of fog, and we all were given masks to wear during that number, to protect us from the fumes. These fumes always left me with a weird taste in my mouth.
We also got ear-plugs – the brass section was really loud at times.

While we were playing in the pit, acrobats, opera singers, martial artists combined with amazing multi media animation was going on on stage.

Scene from the show

We played almost every day, often two shows a day.
One show the player of a ruan (a traditional Chinese instrument, didn’t show up…We were all worried as in some numbers she had a vital part. The keyboard player started to look at the score to figure out how he could maybe play her part on the piano… At the very last moment the ruan player showed up. She simply forgot there was a show that day…

Musicians in the pit

One time the show got delayed on account of a bus full of spectators which arrived late, and on another occasion the show got delayed on account of ‘will call’ (which is what they call ‘box office’ over there) tickets being picked up late. The weird thing was that no matter how late we started the show, we still always ended on time…

One matinee show the conductor, Jonathan Stockhammer, didn’t show up… The announcement about turning off cell phones was already made to the audience, and still, no sign of the conductor… We were starting to wonder whether we could do the show without him (which would have been impossible since he had to coordinate between us in the pit and the goings on on stage, which we couldn’t see). At about 2:10 the conductor showed up with… monkey make up on his face! He proceeded to conduct the whole show making monkey moves. It was very cool.

Besides the musical saw I also had to play three percussion instruments:

Finger Cymbals
Finger Cymbals

Amdek Percussion Synth
Amdek Percussion Synth

Big Drum
Big Drum

Here is a video taken in the pit of me playing one of the numbers. It was very dark in the pit, so it’s hard to see, but the sound is pretty good: (turn off the blog’s player in the right hand column before you activate the video)

The invitation to dinner that was waiting for me at my apartment on the day I arrived in Charleston turned out to be from the head of the Spoleto Festival. A wonderful reception at his house (built in the 1700’s) was a huge treat. My husband (who visited me for a few days) and I were the only performers there. Everybody else were people such as the heads of NYC’s City Center, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center… It was particularly fun when later on some of the people I met at the party came to say ‘hi’ to me at the theater throughout the run of the show.

Playing in the show was fantastic fun. But what I remember the most is the warm, welcoming hospitality bestowed on me by everybody I met. And ‘hush puppies’ – tastiest food ever (kind of looks like southern falafel).

At the Charleston airport, going back to NYC, the guards gave me more trouble on account of a bottle of water I had in my bag than for bringing a saw onto the airplane…


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