Monday, December 26, 2011

Pageant adventures

The Christmas pageant is over and done with; so I can stop singing the same five songs all the way to work and back every morning and go back to Pimsleur's "Mandarin III." And overall it went very well -- most importantly, eighteen people were moved enough to decide to make some fundamental changes in their lives, which is after all what matters.

The ensemble

But not all went perfectly smoothly; so here, for your amusement, are a few entirely true tales from the pageant. And at the end there are some pictures of a not-very-angelic-looking angel and a not-very-Jewish-looking Joseph. This was a pageant that required more "willing suspension of disbelief" than most...

(And listen, I'm blogging the funny stuff, which mostly means things that went wrong, but this was actually a very impressive production in which an enormous number of complex and difficult things were made to look easy despite the fact that the entire cast was composed of amateurs, and only a very few things went wrong. The Saturday night performance in particular was all but flawless. If you think I'm giving a biased opinion, ask my friends Yuin or Sophia to give you their honest, Kenny-isn't-listening opinion of the performance they saw, which was actually the less successful Friday night version. Iris Li and her production team are downright remarkable, and it was a privilege to get to watch from the inside as they pulled all of those moving parts together. If you missed it...well, just don't miss it next year, is all I'm sayin'.)

1. I don't think my mother is perfectly au courant with theatrical traditions. I base this on the fact that, just before we went on stage, she called to wish me, "Break a neck."

2. At the grand finale, the stage crew had a cool smoke-and-light effect planned in which smoke was to billow out onto the stage and then multicolored laser lights would flash through the smoke and ultimately resolve into the words, "Merry Christmas." But every time we tried this in dress rehearsal, the sopranos and altos (who were on the front row of the choir) complained about the smoke getting in their eyes and throats. So the crew adjusted the smoke equipment to send the smoke more out onto the middle of the stage, further from the choir.

Unfortunately, even though you try and you try to make the dress rehearsal be exactly like the performance, it's just hard to think of everything. It didn't occur to anybody that in all our dress rehearsals, there was never an audience. The night of the first performance, you had seven or eight hundred people sitting in the pews -- all giving off 98.6 degrees of body heat. This meant that -- unlike in any of the dress rehearsals -- the air conditioning was running at full power.

So the smoke machines fired, the smoke rose up above the stage...hit the air-conditioning jet stream, and sailed straight out into the middle of the congregation. People on the first few rows were ducking and coughing and blinking and rubbing their eyes; one woman snatched up her baby and fled for the exit...and meanwhile we in the choir were treated to a lovely multi-colored display of "Merry Christmas" perfectly visible -- to us, and us alone -- on the carpet of the utterly smokeless stage, as a mystified (in more senses than one) congregation sat there thinking, "What was the point of blowing smoke into our faces????"

[chuckling] Every single dress rehearsal we had, the ladies on the front row of the choir were literally waving their hands in front of their faces, telling the smoke, "Go away, go away!" And then during the actual performance, we in the choir all stood there helplessly looking at the smoke rushing away from the stage, all of us saying desperately, "Come back! Come back!"

(On Saturday night the stage crew made sure the A/C was turned off when it was time for the smoke, and the effect worked splendidly.)

3. My wife complained that there was something wrong with my microphone when I first started to sing the angel solo. I had to confess that there was nothing wrong with the mike, actually. See, there was about a five-minute gap where I had to be in the wings and absolutely quiet, neither saying nor singing anything. And then the next time I opened my mouth, I had to hit the opening notes of the solo. So my cue came, and I made my slow and impressively stately and angelic entrance, and hit the first note -- and discovered that I had some dust or something caught in my throat. Now, if you are holding a microphone, it is easy to point the mike away from you, clear your throat during the first rest, and then swing the mike back to your mouth and go. But since I was in character and was acting as well as singing, they had a little radio mike taped to my cheek, where it was impossible to swing it temporarily away from my face for a spot of discreet phlegm-hacking. So I sang the first three phrases through half a throat, as it were, then realized, "This is never going to work," resignedly but vigorously cleared my throat into the mike, and then sang the rest of the song.

I told the kids later that the best acting I've ever done was the acting where I kept smiling beatifically and waving my arms around in angelically slow-motion gestures of blessing as though I hadn't noticed that there was anything wrong with my voice -- so that the audience blamed the poor innocent sound guy instead of yours truly. "Tomorrow, they need to make sure they have your mike set properly before you start to sing!" [evil cackle of triumph] I suppose I sort of owe the sound guy an apology.

(On Saturday night, having learned from experience, I had a bottle of water stashed in the wings, and four measures before my entrance cue I took a nice long precautionary swig. So that went okay.)

4. Thank heavens for full-length angel costumes, nice wide tight belts, and poor lighting -- as I was changing into my angel costume in the wings on Saturday evening, the button popped off of my pants. So I wore my belt very tightly cinched up the rest of the performance and don't suppose anybody noticed.

5. On Friday night I went to IHOP with my kids, who had driven in from Katy to see the pageant, and probably stayed up too late. Then Christmas Eve morning dawned cold and rainy, and by noon I realized I was in a bit of trouble, as I had a sore throat and rapidly-descending-to-raspy-bass voice -- on a day where I was supposed to hit a big-finish high-B-flat in front of several hundred people. So I started with the countermeasures:

  • I spent the afternoon trying to remember not to talk to anybody.

  • I told our long-suffering choir director that I only had a limited number of notes in my voice for the evening and therefore was afraid to waste any of them warming up with the rest of the choir (and I am very grateful that he trusted me enough to agree).

  • Most of all, I spent the last hour before the pageant guzzling hot tea with honey.
And while my voice was almost completely gone by the end of the evening (so that during my post-pageant conversations I rasped rather than talked), it didn't collapse until after the last "Amen" had been sung in the pageant. So that was a success...except for one thing. That was a LOT of tea that I drank. So by the time the pageant ended...well, lets just say that during Pastor Fred's closing remarks, I was up there on the stage muttering to myself, "Talk faster, Fred, for the love of all that's holy talk faster!!"

6. I was responsible for collecting the men's ties from the eight guys in the choir once the Christmas morning service was over. So I tried to keep a mental list of who had given me ties, and I got to the point where I had seven ties...but I couldn't figure out who it was that I hadn't gotten a tie from yet. I went over and over it several times in my head, running through the list of names, and finally realized that the eighth tie...was still hanging around my own neck.

7. Finally, a little vignette starring our genuinely remarkable director/writer/producer Iris Li. The amount of work that is required to pull off something this complex, with so many interlocking moving parts, is truly mind-boggling, and it requires a director with a superhuman capacity for detail. As it happens, I provided the voice-over for the bits of narration that were in English; and we recorded them in two sessions. One entire thirty-minute session was devoted to a chunk of narration maybe twenty seconds long. I would do a take, and Iris was say, "That's try it with your voice pitched higher." So I'd do another take in a sort of narrative tenor, after which she would say, "Hmmm...try it with your voice pitched really low." Then I'd do another take, in the closest thing to narrative bass that my voice would allow. "Okay, that was good...can you do it with more intensity, but less volume?" Another take. "Yes, yes, I like that. But this is going to be played along with the first few measures of 'Do Not Be Afraid' you remember that piece well enough to match the speed of your narration to the tempo of the music?" This went on, no kidding, for thirty minutes -- which I didn't mind at all; it was fascinating watching her mind work, because I knew that in her head she was hearing music I couldn't hear, and seeing lighting effects I couldn't see, and trying to get out of me exactly the right combination of speed and volume and timbre to fall into place for the total effect she was after. Really a very interesting thing to watch.

Finally, we did four takes in a row while she just kept the tape moving and kept waving her hand in a circle to say, "Again..." And then she stopped the recorder, sat stone-still in thoughtful silence for a couple of seconds, and finally, with a certain reluctance, said, "Well, I guess that's perfect enough."

And that phrase, right there, seems to me to capture the essence of Iris Li (as director, I mean, not necessarily as private citizen): "That's perfect enough." (laughing) You could just hear in the tone of her voice that she was thinking, "I'd really like to get this a little more perfect but..."

Anyway, there you have the fun parts of the Houston Chinese Church Christmas pageant, 2011. I'm sure that Iris will eventually put a suitably edited video version up on her website; when she does, I'll give you a link. (Here's hoping she uses the Saturday night version...)

(The following pictures courtesty of Gab Hou.)

At this point, my pants still have a button. Also, this is during "Silent Night," and I regretfully perceive that I failed to follow Iris's instruction to "smile gently."

There's a problem, you say? Hm, must be the mike. Yo, sound guy, what up?

Reassuring Joseph that the Big Guy is on his side

Well, he seems to be reassured enough

"Don't be afraid"

"Faster, Fred, faster!!"

The remarkable Iris Li


At 12:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny post Ken. Really enjoyed it. Kevin Lew

At 2:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good Kenny! Yuin just told me that she was very impressed on your beautiful voice at the pageant!


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