This season, the Kitchen Theatre Company is premiering FIRST DAY: Suite for Four Actors and Percussionist by Ted LoRusso in collaboration with and directed by Sturgis Warner. We’re calling the piece a “theatrical event” rather than a play, as it has a form unlike any play we know. Four actors play the inner thoughts of one young man who is going to his first day of work at his first ever job in New York City. An onstage percussionist makes it an exciting musical event. The amazing Steve Reichlen is the percussionist, and he talked to Lesley Greene about the piece in October 2009.
LESLEY: Hi, Steve. Tell a little about your musical background and what brought you to Ithaca.
STEVE: I started playing drums at the age of 12. I participated in school band and also played with a variety of different groups through high school including a couple of rock bands, a jazz group, a polka group (no joke), and a country band. I also was the principle percussionist in All State Orchestra for two years. I got a degree in Jazz Studies from Ithaca College where I continued to play in all of the school ensembles and Musical Theatre productions as well as just about every band that I could possibly handle. I think at one point I was playing 12 different groups. I didn’t get a lot of sleep in college! After college, I started working on Cruise Ships and I also spent some time in Los Angeles participating in the Henry Mancini Institute which was a program geared towards finding young talent and exposing us to the film music industry and studio world. I had the opportunity to work with many of the legends of film music and jazz while I was there including: Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Quincy Jones, Terence Blanchard, and many others. It was really exciting and life changing. After working on a Cruise Ship for six months and playing “Memories” and “In the Mood” 7 zillion times, I moved to New Orleans where I worked with many different jazz, blues, funk, and Latin groups. I also subbed with the Louisiana Philharmonic. I spent several years on the road touring with Mem Shannon and Chubby Carrier. I moved back to Ithaca 3 years ago with my fiance who is a PHD candidate at Cornell and I have been playing with several different groups and teaching private lessons.
LESLEY: Have you done things that are similar to playing in FIRST DAY?
STEVE: I have been involved in several musical productions over the years including: “Man of La Mancha”, “West Side Story”, “Into the Woods”, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, and several others. In “Hedwig” and another one I did called “Coconuts”, the band was part of the set and we had a few lines which is similar to “First Day”, but that is pretty much where the similarities stop. First of all, “First Day” is a play and not a musical. At least not in the traditional sense. I think it has a very musical flavor to it. A lot of the accompaniment that I provide seems to come from a sensibility that I have from being a jazz drummer. None of the parts that I play are specifically written out but I was able to put together most of the sections together by referencing what was done in the Workshop and through improvisation and trial and error. Having a background in jazz has helped a lot with the process. Sturgis has been wonderful in helping me to find some of the parts as well.
LESLEY: When I read the script of FIRST DAY and knew that there was a percussionist in the piece, I imagined the percussionist was keeping time and maybe setting up some grooves. But having been there in rehearsal for the piece, I know that you have really created a musical score. You are also playing a lot of different instruments. Would you describe the music for FIRST DAY and tell what instruments you play?
STEVE: The drum set is the heart of the set up. When the Play was workshoped, it was performed exclusively on a kit. Sturgis suggested that we add some keyboard sections. So I have added the keyboard as well. My parts are part accompaniment, part mood, part sound effect, and part life force. My role is to play the musician that is in everyone’s head. I definitely walk down the street and hear a drummer in my head (almost constantly). Also, sometimes there is a piano player up there too. I think the percussion also adds to Johnny’s primitive senses, almost adding to the primal nature of the play. I hope people will leave the theatre and hear their own drummers as they walk to their cars or their next destination. The drums help the actors to stay in sync with each other as well which is necessary for this play considering they are all essentially part of the same person.
I really enjoyed going through the process of deciding my instrumentation for this show. I decided to use a 16 inch kick drum and one tom. I am using a piccolo snare and two splash cymbals as hi hats. Everything that I am using is smaller than an average kit. Much of my parts are underscoring the actors lines and part of the challenge of the piece is not to cover up any of the words or to distract from the meaning of the play. Aside from the drum set, I am also using a djembe drum, a shaker, a triangle, wind chimes, a cabasa, a typewriter, a cowbell, claves, a guiro, and maybe a few other surprises as well. I am also not using drum sticks at all in the performance. Much of the show is performed with brushes, mallets, and my hands. I also use a violin bow for some stuff and some chop sticks as well.
LESLEY: How was the musical score for the piece created?
STEVE: I certainly had a great head start by seeing a video of Mark Farnsworth who had performed the piece during the Workshop. He had some really great ideas and I have included many of them into this production. Sturgis has been really great as well with his direction. He hasn’t specifically told me what to play but he has been very encouraging about stuff that I have tried that has worked. Also he has been very quick in helping me figure out what hasn’t worked so well. The cast has also really helped me with some that stuff as well. Their reactions to some of my parts have also influenced Sturgis a little in letting me keep a few things in. Ted has written some specific direction into the piece. A lot of the abrupt stops and changes in tempo or mood are written into the play. Plus the play itself has a lot of rhythm to it naturally. So, many of the parts have grown out of that organically. I also love that this play has so many built in rules that the whole cast must follow. For one thing, my parts are never meant to foreshadow anything coming up. They are merely a reaction to a moment, thought, or emotion. They also provide a rhythm to the activity that our main character Johnny is currently involved in.
LESLEY: We had a Meet & Greet with the whole creative team before rehearsals for FIRST DAY began, and you said that you were looking forward to being in something where you were the only musician–not a usual thing for a drummer. What’s that been like? Is it exhausting? Lonely? Fun?
STEVE: It is certainly an unorthodox arrangement. I teach drum set lessons for a living and one of the things that I tell my students is that the role of the drummer in an ensemble is to support the other musicians on stage. Drums give music stability. They make the other musicians comfortable to do their thing. They bring the audience into the experience as well by defining the rhythm, which makes people dance. Most people can relate to a drummer or a singer more than other instruments. Most people even with no musical background can tell when a drummer is good or not so good. Drums make people react. That being said, I think that it is the perfect accompaniment for this play. It is a play about a lonely, awkward, individual who is going to his first job. People like that don’t get a whole band. I think the musical understatement really plays to the character of the Johnny. As far as how it has affected me, it has been very intense. A little exhausting. There have been moments of where I have had to really think to come up with my parts. There have been other times when I have known exactly what to do without having to think about it. Overall the experience has been amazing.
LESLEY: What’s it like to work with actors? A director?
STEVE: Everyone has been really great. I think Erin had remarked early on how lucky that we all are to have such a great team working on this play. The experience is a little different than other shows that I have done. First of all, I have almost always had not only a director to take guidance from but also a musical director and or a conductor. Obviously with this show that is not the case. Also unlike other shows that I have done, I am really close with the actors. Sometimes the music and the stage performers are so much a seperate entity that we don’t even see each other. I have done many shows in a pit or in a dressing room or loft. Also for a lot of shows the actors have there own rehearsals and the music is added later or has seperate rehearsals. So it has been great to be part of the whole process with this play. I think that it as really helped the dynamic that we all have together.
LESLEY: The full title of the play is FIRST DAY: Suite for Four Actors & Percussionist, and the different sections of the play are called ‘movements’–like in a piece of classical music. Do you look at the play that way, as if it were a musical suite?
STEVE: I think this play is very much like a symphonic work. The four acts of the play are designed like the movements of a symphony. The first movement states most of the themes that are developed throughout the piece. It also has a pace to it that is similar to a symphony as well. The tempo and the arc the play follows the theme as well. The second and third movements introduce some new ideas while really developing the original.
LESLEY: Thanks so much for this interview! People who are interested in learning more about the play can go to http://www.kitchentheatre.org/first_day.html