I have a drummer curse. Seriously. When it comes to hiring drummers for shows, I am completely, absolutely, irredeemably cursed.
It all started with the very first show I ever music-directed — a University Players production of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. I had booked — weeks in advance, mind you — a local band for our pit and figured everything was all set. Until a week or so before opening night, that is, when the lead singer called to tell me they were double-booked and I would need to find a new pit band. Great.
Even more fun was my next MD-ing gig — ‘Assassins’, also for University Players. I had a drummer lined up who was fantastic, but had told me upfront that he had a conflict with opening night. No problem, I found a sub and, once again, figured everything was all set. Until — I kid you not — the DAY OF OPENING NIGHT the sub drummer called to tell me he had to go to Indianapolis because a member of his percussion ensemble was having visa issues and had to go to the consulate office there. The implication being, of course, that he wouldn’t be back down in time for the show. By this point, it was 5 pm and I literally had two hours before I had to be at the theatre.
My first thought, then, was “can this show happen without drums?” That was a stupid question. The show opens with a drum-roll. It’s kind of a necessary thing.
So I sat at my computer and started scrolling down my “Friends” list on this newfangled networking site called Facebook (this was only February of ’05…) and desperately searched for anyone who, at the very least, could manage a drumroll and could be at the theatre by seven o’clock. Luckily, Owen Stevenson — blessed, wonderful Owen Stevenson — was able on both counts and the remainder of the evening passed by with no more hiccups. But the whole affair should have been a big red flag. Hardly a show has gone by that I haven’t gone through hell and back finding pit musicians in general, and drummers in particular.
Confession: I have a well-established pattern of waiting until the proverbial last minute to find pit musicians. Now, when it’s just a one-weekend deal, it’s not as much a problem. But when I’m hiring around for a twelve-performance run — the standard fare at Cardinal and the BPP — it’s a little (by which I mean, a lot) more difficult to get commitments with just a week or so advance notice. So after dealing with this more times than I care to admit, and putting myself and several directors through much unnecessary stress because of it, I made a concerted effort last year to be more on top of the whole musician-hiring end of things.
It wasn’t until I did that I realized there was another problem-causing variable in this whole equation: the very real lack of a budget with which to adequately pay musicians.
Thus, when it was getting down to the wire on finding a drummer for Cardinal’s ‘A Year With Frog and Toad’ — after going through all the drummers I knew personally, I had posted on Craigslist, the IU website, and was calling or emailing any and every person that was recommended to me, even to the point of knocking on the door of a guy down the street whom I’d never met but whom I’d heard many times practicing on his drum-set — I received this delightful email from the mother of a local high school musician:
Hi Eric …in the interests of transparency, I will tell you that the TWO musicians in my family already discussed this opportunity at home (I saw the ad you posted in the IU classifieds) and they felt that the fee was not commensurate with the work. It boils down to about $5 per hour, less than minimum wage and much less than a trained musician should expect. If you are in a position to change this policy, I hope you will consider doing so…
Not wanting to get into a tit-for-tat over the number of gigs I’d taken without “commensurate” compensation, I simply replied that musicians’ pay was the most consistent obstacle I face as a music-director, and encouraged her to attend the show, since the more support Cardinal (and other organizations) received from the community the more able they would be to pay higher rates in the future .
After ‘Frog and Toad’ was over and done with, I pretty much put the matter out of mind. But it came roaring back to life this summer at the BPP, when I was trying to find — yup — a drummer for ‘Zombie Prom’.
Once again, I worked my way through all my personal contacts (including everyone I had “met” during my ‘Frog and Toad’ search), all to no avail. Back to Craigslist and the IU classifieds. Still to no avail. In an act of total desperation, I emailed a percussion professor at the IU Jacobs School of Music to ask if he would forward the show details (two rehearsals, four performances, $75) to his students. I received this reply:
I’d try and help you, but I won’t do anything for a show that doesn’t pay their musicians.
You are asking a drummer to do 2 rehearsals and 4 performances for $75? That is just crazy and very unrealistic.
I won’t ever ask any of my guys to do that. You get what you pay for.
I didn’t take it very well. There were a few more emails exchanged, all of his being generally of the same tone as the one above. I see no reason to share the remaining ones, since, honestly, the issue was sufficiently resolved… once I forwarded the entire exchange to the dean of the music school and made it clear that while I, at least, was sadly accustomed to such rudeness from Jacobs School personnel, I hated to think how it would have been received by someone unfamiliar with the School’s general attitude problem.
As I’ve spent the last few months thinking about why I’d gotten so fed up with theatre, why I was so ready to call it quits, this latest episode kept coming to the surface. And I came to this conclusion: it’s all fucking bullshit.
I had put myself through so much stress, and wasted so much emotional energy, over things that have absolutely nothing to do with making good theatre. And it wasn’t just the drummers. It was everything. It was the politics. It was the stupid little games you have to play to keep the right people happy. It was the pressure (mostly from myself) to keep doing show after show, project after project, in order to prove to as many people as possible that I could do what they expected of me — but instead, because I was exhausted, over-extended, and overwhelmed, proving just the opposite. It was the feeling that the one thing in my life that I could call art had become, at best, mechanical. It was realizing that the demands of my life outside of my work had simply become too great, that my work was suffering as a result, and something had to give.
So I called it quits.