"The Magic of Ensembles" (Essay)

A solo artist marvels at the intimate machinations of a large performing arts production, and some special kids who bring it to life.

The stage life of a performing singer/songwriter is usually fairly solitary. There is of course always the audience, and the interaction and energy between performer and audience makes each show unique. The sound engineer and the stage lighting crew play vital roles in shaping the experience. But ultimately, the performer plans the presentation in some fashion, and a like a one-person show, rolls it on stage and delivers.

The lucky ones in the music world who do this in some small ensemble fashion, be it a duo or even a quintet, have a different arrangement. In a well-functioning small ensemble, each person takes responsibility for different areas, hopefully somewhat in tune with their own personal strengths and skills. It is only at the higher rungs of the success ladder that one actually has a team working behind the scenes on the logistics - the booking, managing travel details, and the stage choreography and presentation.

From my background, theater is a totally different animal. A cast and crew of many - plans, direction, makeup, sets, costumes, lights, tickets and marketing - the whole thing is just worlds away from my experience. Yet we do live in the same space with performer and audience, on stage.

I've been a bit involved with theater these past three months mostly as a spectator. We are beyond fortunate that our local middle school not five minutes up the road had the great sense years ago to turn its Drama Department over to my friend Dolly Stevens, who is frankly a wizard and sorceress when it comes to getting high quality acting out of young people. What started as a great opportunity a few years ago to do high-level youth theater with middle schoolers has sort of exploded into something radical. Between her gifts for working with kids in theater, and the infectious energy that brings dozens of parent volunteers to help behind the scenes for 3 months or more to put on a show, the Blue Ridge Middle School theater program is nationally recognized for the quality of their shows.

In 2013 they did Cats, something that only one other middle school in the country did that year - and it was phenomenal. We brought our then-kindergartener to the show, to see live theater up close and personal. The costumes, the singing, the sets - we couldn't believe we were seeing middle schoolers. Last year they did The Lion King; it turned out that one of the cast parents had worked for Disney in the sculpture department. So in addition to all the usual quality of work and presentation, they were able to get the materials to make the high quality masks and costumes, and the show was a sensation. Eleven National Youth Theater Awards later…

This year they're producing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Dolly decided to cast an elementary school age chorus as part of the show. My wife has always loved the theater - she minored in theatre in college - and she convinced Madeleine to audition. And now our 4th grader is one of 12 "Little Joes" working hard on singing and dancing after school for many days these last couple months along with the big kids. We can hardly believe our good fortune that she has had this opportunity. There is really no spoken dialog in the entire show - all singing. 49 middle schoolers plus a dozen little people, and a crew twice that size of parents, middle school students and high school kids who are alumni of past shows all working for a common goal, a production, a presentation, an experience.

This Opening Weekend we saw the first two Joseph shows. I'm still so astonished, thrilled and awed that these middle school kids have the chops to do the diversity of dance and singing styles. The costumes are fabulous. The 11-piece pit orchestra, wow. The choreography that these kids are pulling off and having fun doing it. So many wonderful songs. So many wonderful performances. Dolly and her colleagues working magic coaxing these 11-14 year olds to put in months of work, and to get an incredible show out of them. They didn't miss a line. They not only rehearsed a lot, they did it effectively - no obvious clumsy moments, sets and scenes moving seamlessly. Each member in cast and crew knowing their role and responsibility in making an incredible presentation.

And yeah, the "Little Joes". So cute, but so poised and present. Yes, one of them is ours. I never imagined this kind of moment when that little babe was born nearly 10 years ago. There she is, shining away with her cohorts, singing their hearts out, and dancing all the "big kid moves" at the end. Growing up so fast, and making us a bit misty in the process.

I can't begin to understand the details in managing a show like this, or an orchestra, Cirque de Soleil or any other large ensemble performance. I have enough trouble getting to my show well-rested and properly fed and hydrated, with enough time for careful tuning, warmup and consideration of the evening's setlist. I'm not complaining about the artistic freedom that comes with that! But I'm simply in awe of all of the moving parts working together towards a common goal. And that tweens and young teens are capable of doing so much in that framework. It gives me hope. It is likely that most of them have no idea how they are inspiring the next wave of middle school thespians doing the craft at such a high level. And I'm sure they have no idea how much they inspire their parents and grandparents generation either.

If you live in western Loudoun, the final four shows are this weekend - Friday night, Saturday 2:30 matinee and evening, and the finale Sunday matinee. Last Sunday's show sold out (800 tickets!). Get them if you can at https://brms.ticketleap.com/joe/.

A lot of talented kids do get a lot of support and encouragement from their parents - and sometimes talent is in the genes. Check out the 2-minute promo trailer for the show put together by one of the parents.

And thanks to that same uber-talented movie editing parent, here is little longer postlude - backstage, interviews with the kids and Dolly, and yes, lots of tears at the end. If you've ever been part of a show, enough said :)

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