Strings Music Festival: Quirks around the Strings Music Pavilion
August 17, 2017
Every performance venue has a few quirks. Sometimes, they're architectural, like a venue I once worked in where the exterior loading dock door didn't line up with the interior loading dock, so neither could be used for loading operations.
Sometimes, they're tied to homegrown traditions — like the Westport Country Playhouse's celebrity-signed stage floorboard — or unusual events, like the 2001 floods that devastated Houston's cultural district and left those venues forever unwilling to store anything below waist height.
The Strings Music Pavilion is no exception, so let me share with you a few of the quirks about working in and around 900 Strings Road.
There is a house light panel located backstage. The buttons are programmed to bring up the house lights out in the audience. It's located next to the stage right door, right where musicians like to lean on the wall to wait for their cue to enter. Did I mention that there's no cover over the buttons? It's only a matter of time before the house lights pop on in the middle of a show…
The Pavilion is a Bermuda Triangle for black sharpies. This season, 15 have gone AWOL. Oddly, five silver ones have appeared in the cabinet in their place, origins unknown.
There is a backstage video feed at the stage right stage manager position. This is great, because it lets me see what's happening onstage when the heavy, sound-proof doors are shut. This is also crummy, because the video feed lags behind the onstage music.
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Video feed vs. acoustic sound is a known disconnect in the industry, but it can really mess with your head if you're not expecting it — it looks like the conductor is a full beat behind the orchestra, desperately trying to catch up.
If I'm feeling generous, I warn offstage musicians about the lag so they don't turn themselves inside out trying to figure out why watching the feed makes them feel so weird. If the musicians have been especially ornery with me, I pretend not to notice and leave them to figure it out for themselves.
The ladders we use to get to the lighting and sound recording equipment are stored outside in a gravel area. Whenever we bring them in, inevitably a few rocks get trapped in the ladder feet and are shed somewhere unexpected. I regularly find decent-sized rocks in the weirdest places onstage.
We have 25 orchestra chairs, and the set ranges across five different seat heights. The middle heights are pretty interchangeable, but there are two noticeably tall chairs and two noticeably short ones. I mix the tall ones into the rest, willy-nilly, because I'm sassy like that.
But the short ones are almost kiddie-sized, so I save them for being stick-and-mallet-holders for the percussionists. Or for switching into the spot of a musician who has been unreasonably demanding and would benefit from sitting ever so slightly lower than his or her peers.
The staff and crew spend a lot of time at the Pavilion during the summer season, and the animals who make their homes on the grounds start to feel like family. In the 2012 season, the Pavilion was home to a pair of nesting owls. Staffers loved watching them around the grounds, and worked hard to keep from disturbing the nest.
In 2013, a young black bear visited the outside seating area during a Different Tempo sound check and peeked in the windows, alarming the artist but delighting the staff. A vole infestation marked 2015 and resulted in chaotic tunnels throughout the lawn, but the problem was partially solved by a guest artist from nearby condos: Mustache the Cat. Mustache became a favorite in the office during his Steamboat summer vacation and came by regularly to drop a vole on the doormat and receive praise in the form of chin scratches.
In 2016, there was a fox to the park, probably to take care of the rest of the voles. It felt like a personal bravo to see him trotting across the gardens in the moonlight as I made my way home after a show.
This year, we've had multiple visitations from a gigantic marmot, whom the staff has named Henry. Henry is steadily munching his way through the hollyhocks near the loading dock door, but we love seeing him just the same.
Some of these quirks might seem a little annoying, but I see them as an intrinsic part of the personality of the venue. Dealing with them is just part of being on the Pavilion team.
Much like that whacky uncle who shows up to Thanksgiving every year with a new magic trick or a pet squirrel in his pocket or who-knows-what up his sleeve, the Pavilion wears her quirks proudly. And the staff and crew love her all the more for them.
Ali Mignone is the stage manager for Strings Music Festival, among other things. When she's not telling roadies and musicians what to do, you can find her hiking, biking or skiing around the Yampa Valley and blogging at thequirkyquill.com.