Living High Down in the Pit. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

The Premiere!

“Good evening everyone! I’m Mark Hofflund, managing director of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. On behalf of….”

Here, under the stage, I and seven other musicians—the pit crew—listen over headphones to the premiere night’s curtain speech. Near the end of Mark’s comments, the red light bulb near Music Director Matt Webb illuminates. The moment the show's stage manager, in a booth above and at the back of the theater, extinguishes the light, Matt presses a button triggering the click track’s “One, two, three!”

And with that, we begin playing the overture. Over the next two hours and twenty minutes, the pit crew delivers a relentless cavalcade of ABBA songs weaving the musical Mamma Mia together.

There’s a process getting to that first performance, that first “One, two, three!” 

So come along! In the spirit of summer, I invite you to grab a cool beverage and head into the pit for a behind-the-scenes look at performing live music theater in the great outdoors… and being part of the pit crew!

The Past!

Musicals haven’t always been a signature of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival (ISF). Over its 42-year history, ISF has evolved into a nationally recognized professional theater, and though its name implies all things “Bard,” the company typically stages two of its five plays each season from Shakespeare’s collection, or “canon.” There’s a good reason for this: Not all of the canon’s 37 plays attract large audiences—even when staged with a modern twist of costume or stage design. To keep things moving forward, ISF adds other dramas, comedies and—since 2000—musicals to each season’s lineup.

This season marks my 11th and 12th productions, playing percussion for ISF this year with the blockbuster Mamma Mia and the jukebox musical, Beehive. All told, I’ll rack up more than 60 nights between late June and the end of September at the outdoor venue.

I’m on tour, but on this tour, I end each night at home. It’s like touring magic!

The Prep!

Getting set for the tour is a big part of the process. First, there’s practice time to get up close and personal with the drum score. Then comes the three “pit crew only” rehearsals. It’s a good idea to know my part well going into these sessions or embarrassment and panic will follow. Finally, there’s tech week, when the cast and the pit crew assemble at the theater to button up the show. Tuesday through Thursday prior to opening, these stop-n-go six-hour sessions allow the director and her team to fine tune staging, choreography, and lighting, as well as costumes and set changes. Down in the pit, this is our chance to make last minute notes and adjustments. This whirlwind of activity culminates in Thursday’s one and only full technical run-through of the show! It all happens very quickly in preparation for opening weekend.

First band rehearsal at the downtown Idaho Shakespeare Festival offices. This is when I find out if I practiced enough; if it's going to be fun or a train wreck. It turned out to be fun.

Matt's view from the pit opening. From this vantage point, Matt not only plays one of four keyboards, he also conducts and provides cues to both the band and the actors. I think he'd play another instrument or two if he had more arms.

Tech week rehearsal with David and Esteban ready to shred all over ABBA's greatest hits. Tech rehearsals are six-hour marathons lasting until midnight at the outdoor venue.

The Pit!

Pit living is a world all of its own. The pit crew is indeed “in the pit”— under the stage sharing space with mice, mosquitoes and other small buzzing, biting, and stinging creatures, along with the occasional frog and feral cat. At the peak of summer, the air in the pit can be stiflingly hot, stale, and muggy at the top of the show; after a thunderstorm, swampy. We have to be prepared to wage battle with creatures and heat, all the while performing music in a way that the audience forgets we’re there at all; we’re the wallpaper holding the house up.

Watch your head! Home Sweet Home down in the pit with instruments, a variety of electronic amps and controllers, and many, many cords serpentined across the cement floor for that "lived in" look.

For Mamma Mia, the pit is an even stranger world. To recreate the sound of ABBA, the pit crew is made up of eight musicians. Matt directs and plays keyboards, and three additional keyboard parts are tackled by Stephanie, Svetlana, and Jeremy. Rounding out the sound are David and Esteban on guitars, Shayla on bass, and me on drums. But what makes this pit experience different is that everything is electronic—keyboards, guitars, bass, and drums. There are no monitor speakers in the pit; we all have headphones and control our own sound mixes. When we're playing, it's oddly quiet in the pit... Just me thwaping away on the plastic drums and cymbals while everyone else's playing is essentially silent.

In keeping with the ABBA style, click tracks (metronomes) play in our headphones to keep each tune at a precise tempo. Making the sound even bigger than life, the click tracks occasionally contain prerecorded—or “flown in”—percussion and background vocals. Rounding out the sound are two backstage vocal booths in which up to eight actors sing on songs, adding a true live chorus.

The Mamma Mia Pit Crew! From left to right, Stephanie Zickau - Keyboards, Svetlana Maddox - Keyboards, Esteban Anastasio - Guitar, Moi - Drums, Matt Webb, Music Director and Keyboards, Jeremy Stewart - Keyboards, Shayla Lewis - Bass Guitar, and David Hibbard - Guitar.

The pit crew adorns traditional rock-n-roll black so as to not distract audience members who have an eye shot into the pit.

For me, drumming from the downbeat to the final note, it’s a physical and mental workout. My body's contorted with my head twisted to the left to read the drum score while my limbs face forward and work to get the best sound from the electronic drum kit. All the while, the incessant click, click, click of the click tracks and the quick segues from song to song keep coming like a freight train, a satanic jazzercise session in a muggy dark basement. At times, it’s an out-of-body experience as my right foot, my bass drum foot, plays “four on the floor,” the classic and constant “Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!” beat driving ABBA’s songs. The concentration is high and intense.

Matt's got his finger on the click track button, ready to fire off another round of clicks in our headphones. The kit of electronic vDrums was... well... let's say interesting because they require more work to play than an acoustic kit.

Hey! Here's a factoid: The drumming for ABBA was not done by a machine. Nope! Swedish session drummer Ola Brunkert played on all of ABBA's albums!

Beyond the pit, there’s more activity going on backstage. Stage hands are assisting with quick costume changes and set changes and the actors are shifting from one side of the stage to the other. It's alive with activity… all taking place quietly and out of sight from the audience.

We’re on the downside of the 28 Mamma Mia performances. No sooner will it close than the process begins again for September’s show, Beehive. This time I’ll be playing real drums with no click tracks. Just fast-paced rock-n-roll celebrating the women who made our music!

Touring at home couldn’t be better…

Stay tuned! There’s more TourAlongWithTodd coming your way this summer!

Until next time...

Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Ciao!