Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Return of Sgt. Becks

In high school I was well-known as a hard-core band nerd and a pain-in-the-ass bitch who was too tough on people.  For this reason, during my senior year my rivals started calling me Sergeant Becks - or at least, I always assumed that was the reason, although Baby Chicken Wing (as the youngest was called) will surely let me know over the summer if I've got it wrong.  Although I have changed over the years, one thing remains the same:  I am still a pain-in-the-ass bitch who is too tough on people.

My band days have long been over, but after Engrish took responsibility for directing the school musical this spring, I found myself agreeing to be a part of it.  Being in charge of artsy shit like costumes and sets sort of goes along with being the art teacher, although I ducked out of it last year thanks to the fashion show.  Without that, and with a couple of extra preps in my timetable, I really had no reason to say no this year.  My first responsibility was getting the scripts and scores back to Mongolia, a job I volunteered for because I knew I wasn't planning on bringing much else back with me.  Thanks to the traumatic flight path getting back to UB, they didn't actually make it into the school until several cold January nights later, but because I didn't have to re-check them anywhere, I managed to avoid any baggage fees, so it ended up costing a lot less to get them to Mongolia than it should have (returning them, on the other hand, took us from just breaking even to very deeply back in the red.  Oh well).
Having delivered the goods and chosen student costume and set designers, I thought my responsibilities were fulfilled for a while.  And then The Voice came in one afternoon and said, "So I don't want you to feel pressured, because I know you're busy, but do you want to play in the pit band?"  I think my answer was something like, "Well, I don't want to get in the way of the kids or anything, but I can probably work it into my schedule," because I'm all cool and everything.  Inside, though, I was like, "HELL YASSS!"  So he gave me the score and I started practicing with one of the school's flutes. 

Back in my flute playing days I read an article in Flutist Quarterly (yes, I was a member of the National Flute Association.  I told you I was hardcore) by this guy who had left music to serve in the military for a while.  And he said things like, "It's like riding a bicycle," and "It made me a better musician," but I couldn't believe it.  And during the first week or so carving my way through the score I still didn't believe it.  I've mentioned our sad sax player who honks and toots his way through old age, driving me nuts, and as I started learning the music, I thought I must sound like that to everyone else.  Yes, I could read the music, I could play the notes...but not very well.  I guess I forgot how hard it is learning a new piece (or 20) of music.  But eventually I learned the quirks of the school's beat up student flutes (and fixed a couple of problems on them), got used to using various muscle groups again, and managed to pull off a halfway decent performance (although it would have been even better if my Yamaha had managed to get here from Canada - my mom sent it to me via the principal's Canadian residence, but it got held back in customs.  Grr.)  I also forgot how much fun it was to play in a group, and especially loved working with my fellow flutist.
If you're not familiar with the musical Kiss Me Kate, it's the story of a theater troupe performing a musical production of The Taming of the Shrew.  The leads, Fred and Lilli, are divorced but still have feelings for each other, and during the performance, those feelings start to come into play.  The music is challenging and the material required a lot of maturity and hard work from our kids, a challenge that they rose magnificently to.

One of the blogs I wrote toward the beginning of my time in Mongolia was about watching Hamlet at the State Drama Theater, and I think it's fitting that I'm writing about another production based on Shakespeare at the end of all things.  Even though Americans have a tendency to want to dumb down Shakespeare, I've always loved him, and when I figured out that the 400th anniversary of his death was a scant few days before Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham were opening the Shrew in Ulaanbaatar I felt like it was a felicitous sort of kismet that led Engrish to suggesting it.

Shakespearean-era costuming is hard to come by in Mongolia, though.  Engrish and I thought we'd sorted out our boys by borrowing a lot of good stuff from our sister school, but most of it was too small for them.  We tried a couple of costume shops, and ended up having a few things tailor made for the leads, but the biggest help was our dance teacher's connection with the State Ballet, from whom we were able to borrow some old jackets and dresses (although this time the girls had the problem - the dresses were made for ballerinas - but in the end nobody went naked).
The sets were a little easier to handle, mostly because I didn't have to do the cutting and screwing.  We have a really awesome maintenance crew at the school and they made the actual pieces...all we had to do was tell them what we wanted and then paint them.  Two of the pieces were from last year's production of Grease, and we were able to repurpose a door frame from two years back, adding an actual door.  The other pieces were made new.  There are basically two sides to Kiss Me Kate.  The play within a play is set in Padua, which I felt uniquely qualified to create, having been there just two years ago.  I tried to use warm, bright colors like you'd see in Italian architecture.  The other scenes take place backstage, and so we painted bricks on the backside of the 3 set pieces.
Most of all, though, I was proud of our kids, who worked damn hard to learn songs, dances, and lines.  Our lead actor was my very own Ukulele Man, who may have changed his hair several times since Istanbul but is still a huge pain in my ass.  Just a few weeks before opening night ("Three weeks, and it couldn't be worse!"), Engrish confided in me that Ukulele Man was stressing her out more than anything else - he still didn't know a big chunk of his lines and had a tendency to ad lib, which is apparently a big no-no with Shakespeare.  I'd watched the first act of the BBC Proms production of Kiss Me Kate to prepare myself for the set and costumes, but hadn't heard the lyrics to most of the songs before the band started to rehearse with the cast.  So it came as a huge shock the first time I heard him sing, "Where is the Life that Late I Led?" and he got to the line, "Where is Rebecca?  My Becky, Weckio?"  I may have panicked a little, thinking he was ad libbing again - it's possible that maybe I let the kids get away with calling me by my first name when we were in Turkey - before I realized it was actually part of the song.  But I assured he would come through, and he did.

It's been two weeks since we closed the show.  They've been busy weeks - we submitted our AP Art portfolios a week ago, and yearbook has taken up a lot of time, too - so my apartment is still a mess but they've gone by quickly, for me at least.  But Engrish confided that it was a little bit of a let-down: all that hard work, staying at school til 8 or later most nights, only for it to be over so suddenly.  I had to agree - I missed playing music and seeing the kids bring their characters to life, especially our lead actress, who did an amazing job as Kate the Cursed.  But in six weeks I'll be on a plane to uncharted waters.  She at least has next year's production to look forward to.

(BTW - Photography credits to B. Munkhbold - I couldn't very well take pictures and play in the pit band.)

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