Hidden pit orchestra performs music behind the play’s stage

By Abbie Neufeld

The last time Matthew Lucas ’14 acted in a play was in sixth grade, when he played the role of Demetrius in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

In the opening act of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Lucas takes stage left fiddling on a roof in Anatevka, a fictional Jewish town in Imperial Russia.

Lucas played in the orchestra for last year’s middle school production of “Annie,” and he wanted to continue this activity at the Upper School. But when Lucas signed up to play in the orchestra, he didn’t expect to appear on stage.

“I’m not even quite sure how I was chosen, to be honest,” Lucas said. “[Director Rees] Pugh asked me how comfortable I was with heights, and before I knew it, I was in a rehearsal.”

However, Lucas’ experience in the musical was very atypical for a member of the orchestra. Despite the fact that most of its members refer to themselves as being part of the “pit orchestra,” Rugby Theater actually has no orchestral pit. Instead, the orchestra is located behind the stage on a hill-like platform, and the musicians are shrouded by the façade of Anatevka’s ever-changing sunset.

Since the orchestra is located behind the stage and not in front, the actors cannot actually see the musicians or, more importantly, musical director Daniel Faltus, who is also the conductor. This problem is remedied by the aid of what Faltus refers to as “the nerve center.” A camera transmits images of the actors to a television screen that can be seen by Faltus, while another camera that is on Faltus transmits images of him to a television screen in the front row of Rugby, which can be seen by the actors, helping the music stay with the onstage cues.

“It’s a real challenge, but the orchestra has really stepped up,” Faltus said. “It’s very cramped, but everyone has enough room to play. We’re dreaming of the day that we can have a theater with a pit.”

Actors are not the only ones who cannot see the orchestra: neither can the audience.

“Some people who have seen the show didn’t even know we existed until the end because of our location behind the set,” Lucas said.

“When the orchestra sounds good, it’s easy to forget they’re there because it all sounds so right,” Faltus said. “If it doesn’t sound right you’re very aware that they’re there because then there’s a lot of squawking going on. We don’t have much of that.”

Though Lucas enjoyed his time on stage, he thinks there is a big difference between when he is on the stage and when he plays in the orchestra, out of view.

“Being able to interact with the audience is one of the best parts of performing,” he said. “It feels so much more connected, more intimate and personal. It’s hard to feel that kind of emotional connection when you and your instrument are hidden from all of that by a curtain.”

Despite the limitations of Rugby Theater, the ultimate collaboration between artist and musician can be achieved with almost no flaw.

“It may be easy to forget them, but if they stopped playing, you would know something is wrong,” Faltus said. “The most beautiful voice in the world singing by itself with no piano, no orchestra can’t last very long. We wouldn’t have a musical without an orchestra.”   

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