Monday, January 31, 2011

What a rush!

houstRauli Garcia, HGO’s Chief Financial Officer, on his stage debut as a supernumerary actor in Dead Man Walking.

On opening night, I found myself onstage in front of more than 2000 people. By this time I was confident that I knew what I would have to do, and when to do it. I was pretty calm, except for the fact that I was also very excited!

I could not really see the audience most of the time. From the stage, all I can really see is the edge of the orchestra pit, and then a reddish darkness that begins right on the other side of the orchestra. In the midst of the darkness, the windows of the sound booth at the back of the theater reflect the stage, and every now and then I see faint silhouettes of people in the audience.

Rauli Garcia (far Right) intercepting John Packard as
 Frederica von Stade (far left) sings her testimony.
It was quite a rush when I got to run across the stage to tackle John Packard, who plays the victim's father, before he reaches Frederica von Stade during her testimony as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher. When I got to John, I practically crashed into him! That must have been the adrenaline through my veins ... When we escorted him to his side of the stage, my heart was thumping pretty hard. As we guarded him throughout the last part of the scene, I tried hard not to breathe audibly.
The next time I was on stage was with Ms. Von Stade (affectionately known as “Flicka”) and Joyce DiDonato. What an honor!!

Early on in the rehearsal process, Anthony Freud and I discussed my participation in that scene. He exclaimed, “Rauli, do you know that you alone are on stage with Frederica Van Stade, one of greatest and most famous mezzo-sopranos in the world, and Joyce DiDonato, one of the top mezzo-sopranos in world and at the pinnacle of the industry?”

During the scene Flicka and Joyce have just said goodbye to the title character Joseph De Rocher for the last time. In my role, I am a guard that prevents them from chasing after him—I literally block them by standing in front of Flicka. Here is where it got really interesting. Opening night was completely different from rehearsal. When Flicka came up to me chasing after Joe, she was blasting emotional energy, with Joyce right behind her. It is really strange for me to say something like this: I was not sure I was going to hold up in front of that emotion. It was tremendous! At that moment, Flicka really was a woman preparing to lose her son by execution. It was extraordinarily powerful.

The last scene is the actual execution. I am the guard who leads Joseph to the table, along with the other guards who strap him down. This is the marching scene about which I have already written so much (see especially my previous post titled “Never let them see you sweat”). This is another scene packed with emotion, stress, and symbolism. If it happens to look easy, then I suppose I’ve done my job—it took a great deal of work to get it together!

When the lights finally come up in the auditorium at the end of the show, I could see the audience. It was still very difficult to spot anyone in particular. It was exhilarating to hear the audience welcome and thank the singers. The audience was very generous.

When Flicka came back on stage for a special bow (this opera is her official “farewell” to the operatic stage), the entire audience jumped out of their seats at the same time, and went wild! A surge of energy and emotion swept the stage as the audience thanked the singers, and all of us in the cast. It was very cool to see how much appreciation the audience has for the talent, emotion and pure hard work that went into making this production happen.

Time to Dress Up!

Houston Grand Opera Chief Financial Officer on his experience as a cast member in HGO's Dead Man Walking. 

The HGO logo is "tattooed" on
HGO Chorus member Brad Blunt's neck.
A “full dress rehearsal” means that every one of us artists wears all of the costumes, wigs and makeup that we will wear in the show. Some of my colleagues put on faux tattoos, as well. Making sure the tattoos stick looks like it will be an interesting experience involving some kind of goo and powder. Glad it's not me. The tattoos are for the prisoners in the show. Most of the prisoners are choristers—during the show, see if you can spot the HGO logo that is “tattooed” on one “prisoner’s” neck!

Principal singers have special dressing rooms, used by one or sometimes two singers. Each has its own lighted vanity mirror, comfortable chair, private bathroom, and a piano that they use when warming up their voices. If I close my eyes and walk through the principal singers’ hallway before a rehearsal, I almost feel as though I am in a rainforest, surrounded by exotic operatic birds.

My dressing room is down in the basement among the other chorus and supernumerary dressing rooms. I find their resemblance to athletic team locker rooms to be comforting, though I have never been in a sports locker room that boasts lighted vanity mirrors. There are rows of full-length lockers lined up next to each other, with each person's name at the top. Our costumes hang in them when not in use. Several people have more than one costume and have to change clothes during the show once or twice.

This is my row of lockers, with five of the other supers: Gerald Guidry, Leraldo Anazaldua, Philip Brent, Tedman Brown and Derrick J. Brent II—they appear as guards, prisoners, protestors, deputies and SWAT team members during the show.

My fellow actors in our locker room.

Luckily, HGO employs a whole wardrobe team to help make sure that everyone in the show, and the stage crew, are outfitted and ready to go. They take care of making sure the clothes you need to change into make it upstairs if it is a quick change. Yes, in this show, even the stage crew wears costumes: during the show, some of the “guards” in the towers onstage are actually members of the stage crew, ensuring the safety of everyone below.

The stage crew is an intricate part of the show from the moment its scenery arrives at the Houston Grand Opera loading dock. They "load in" the scenery, taking it off the beds of eighteen-wheeler trucks and bringing it into the auditorium, assemble the sets, and operate all of the moving parts of the set from every part of the stage. The stage crew for Dead Man Walking includes twelve carpenters, nine electricians, two sound engineers, four house crew, and four "stage property" crew members, who manage all of the items that the singing actors use on stage-chairs, tables, court gavels, firearms, etc . Stage Manger Jessica Mullins coordinates the elaborate dance behind the curtain as crew members bob and weave their way around and through everything around  and above the stage, bringing the set to life.

Friday, January 21, 2011

I've heard of "high tech," but what is "piano tech"?

Chief Financial Officer Rauli Garcia goes behind the scenes of this winter’s Dead Man Walking as a supernumerary actor.

Rauli Garcia at right, with Philip Cutlip (center) and HGO Archivist Brian Mitchell at left
We just finished two nights of piano tech, and I'm a little tired. At least I know what piano tech is now. I used to think, what the heck is that?! That is what they call the first nights that we rehearsed on stage in the Brown Theater. It's called a “piano tech,” because there is only a piano instead of an orchestra, accompanying a “technical rehearsal.”

No, this is not "piano tech." But HGO does have its own mobile app.

These rehearsals were really complicated. There are more than a hundred people working on this opera. In addition to the principal singers there are thirty-four people from the mens’ and women’s chorus, twenty-four from the children’s chorus, eighteen supernumerary actors, and three other actors. All were present for these rehearsals. Oh, and I forgot to mention the umpteen people out in the auditorium! Get the picture?! Four stage managers coordinate this entire process—I’m glad I didn’t volunteer to do their job.

On stage, almost thirty IATSE crew members made sure everything on, around, and above the stage did what it was supposed to do (this is why they call it a “technical rehearsal”). There are a lot of moving parts. These were two more nights of stopping, adjusting, and restarting. Watching all the people involved go through this process so smoothly reminded me that I was surrounded by professionals at the top of their field.

So back to not-so-cream of the crop, remember my marching scene that I was nervous about? I'm all set now! Kim let me take home the video of the show from San Francisco. I watched that scene until I got it... about fifteen times. I finally got a feel for the music. Also, HGO Studio Alum Beau Gibson, who plays Father Grenville, now helps tremendously by giving me a quick wink when it's my time to step. Whew! Please don't think that I lack rhythm. I can Salsa, Merengue, or Two-Step with anyone!! This, however, was a bit different. I once read about a man who considered high intelligence as having the ability to differentiate in granular detail. When I started this complex march segment, I was asked to listen to the rhythm, step with my left foot, on the third beat, and on the “give” part of the word “forgive.” Huh? Can somebody “give” me a break?

Those instructions, while easy for anyone with musical talent, were beyond my musical intelligence. At this stage in my musical career, asking me that was like asking a kindergartener how many “o’s” are in hor d'oeuvres. They can hear something like an “o” in there somewhere, but figuring it out is guesswork. Fifteen rehearsals worth of exposure to the music later, and I finally have the ability to hear my mark.

Our next rehearsal is a full run through in costume on the main stage! And I have a costume change …

Image credit:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Never let them see you sweat

Houston Grand Opera Chief Financial Officer Rauli Garcia gets a taste of stage life as an actor in Dead Man Walking
I arrived a little early to a new kind of chaos. Some new cast members had arrived …  I asked a super who they were: “the superstars, man,” he said. The principal singers were joining us. It was really cool to see that they looked like anyone else while off the stage. I’m not sure if I expected anything different, they were just hanging out. I also learned that the other supers who I thought were actors were just normal people like me. They work full-time jobs, and then come to Houston Grand Opera in the evening. They do it because they love opera or the stage life, and this is a good way to be involved. 

Artists arrive for the biggest rehearsal yet.

I went to the far side of the room to watch as people began to file in. The men’s chorus, children’s chorus, supers, musicians, singers, stage mangers, and the production team arrived in droves. I had never seen so many people in that space before.
We began to go through the first act. It was amazing to hear it so closely. It was loud, in a good way. The voices of the principal singers were magnificent.  I have heard Joyce DiDonato on stage, but hearing her up-close was much more intense. This is an emotional opera to begin with, and the singers look like they are really feeling the emotions as they rehearse. 

Later, we went through the scene that we had practiced with the entire group. The one with the synchronized steps (“Left, right, left, right …”). It became even more complicated when we added the chorus and singers. The music was so loud that I couldn’t hear the cue to begin my march. I was late, which made the other supers late, which made me nervous. We continued through much of the act. 

At the next rehearsal, the supers were called with just the principal singers and the men’s chorus.  We went through several scenes, and in my mind, I focused on the scene I have been concerned about: the marching scene. We went through it several times. Each time, someone was off. I felt like usually it was me, and I was missing the cue. I was starting to sweat! This time there were more singers, and more people marching, and yes, more complexity. I offered to step out of that scene, so far, I’m still there.
Isn’t there a way for me to put this into a spreadsheet?!?  That would solve everything.

A note about the patience I see in the rehearsal room.  Maestro Patrick Summers, HGO Music Director and the conductor of Dead Man Walking and Leonard Foglia, the show’s director, show boundless patience while putting the opera together. The process is very detailed. There are many pauses in the rehearsal process. Stage Management yells, “Hold Please!” and everyone stops. Then Patrick or Lenny ask for small changes to be made, we back up a few moments, and start over again. It happens over and over as they tweak and adjust the production into alignment with their vision. 
I, for my part, will keep my head down and continue do what I’m told.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Marching to the beat of the prison

On the night of our third rehearsal, a snowstorm raged in the Northeast. A principal singer was stuck in an airport thousands of miles away from Houston, and rehearsal was canceled. This was yet another first for me. What could have been just another normal evening at home turned into a private tutoring session with Dead Man Walking Assistant Director Kim Prescott. When it comes to movement, I need all the help I can get, and in this case I had missed two early rehearsals. How was I to catch up with my colleagues?

Kim walked me through my toughest scene, in which the guards escort the opera’s title character, prisoner Joseph De Rocher, to the execution table. All of us must march in lockstep with the beat of the music, in a very specific series of steps. Thank goodness for Kim—walking through it with her, I did just fine. What would happen, though, when I was on my own again?

That night I went back down to the basement for yet another fitting in the HGO Costume Shop. Again, Norma Morales and Myrna Vallejo  made me feel at home, and the session flew by. They snapped photos of my two “new looks”:
Prison Guard Look, complete with official badge and real keys.

Deputy Look, with an even more official badge. Rauli smiles sincerely at his bona-fide new identity, and gets character cred with his "deputy stance."
The night before my first rehearsal with the other “super” guards, I practiced my moves. Three new guards joined us as we rehearsed, and actors walked the principal singers’ roles, so we could get a sense for the whole scene. We marched through the steps slowly at first, and then moved in time with the piano. 

We all rehearse in a huge, three-story room in the Wortham Theater, without the actual set, since it is being put together onstage while we learn our parts. Instead, we work in a labyrinth of colored tape—what seems like miles of it—laid out across the floor. Each configuration of tape represents a different part of the set, or a scene or an act, and is labeled with some kind of secret code. It does take me several minutes to figure out that the rectangle with the lines going through it represent steps we will be walking up on stage.  Good to Know!!  How am I going to visualize the through these layers, upon layers of tape??

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rhythm and Effect

Chief Financial Officer Rauli Garcia recounts his second night as a supernumerary actor in Dead Man Walking.

During my first rehearsal as a stage artist, I happily played the role of a basketball player in Angola, the opera’s prison setting. Due to a last-minute decision from my doctor, I had to withdraw from this coveted role, not knowing whether I would be allowed to stay in the show at all.

Thankfully, director Leonard Foglia was concerned for my health and gave me a new role as a prison guard. Removed from the basketball game, I was able to watch my former colleagues “play,” this time with chorus members added to the mix.

I also noticed, for the first time, the number of non-performers in the room. There were several staff members from HGO’s stage management and music departments, each one with their own responsibilities for people, or movements, timings, or other mysteries into which I have not yet been initiated. I understood that rehearsals involve a level of expertise and complexity that I never before knew existed.
Every time something changed in the rehearsal process, it was as though a wave had washed through the room. A movement from the director or the conductor would flow through the music staff or stage management and into the performers until everyone was agitated like white water. Then, all at once, all would resume their places so the rehearsal could continue. This rhythm seems to be quite effective, even for such a large cast.

Cape Town Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve ocean wave

This rehearsal was the first chance I’ve had to hear the chorus sing this music—it was obvious that they had been rehearsing for multiple days by the time I heard them. They already sounded very good. I was shocked when Chorus Master Richard Bado stopped the whole chorus in the middle of their piece, pointed to one singer, and said he was three notes away from where he should be, demonstrating it on a piano. Out of twenty five voices, he knew just which one to fix. Wow.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pick Me First!

Houston Grand Opera’s Chief Financial Officer Rauli Garcia is a supernumerary artist in Dead Man Walking this winter. Read on about his first night on the “other side of the curtain.”

It was the night of our first rehearsal and I was nervous going in. Walking into the rehearsal room area, I was surrounded lots of people wearing colored papers with their names in large print. Many of the faces I have seen numerous times on the stage in the chorus. It looked a little disorganized, until groups started to gravitate to their appropriate rehearsal rooms. I followed Brian Mitchell, HGO Archivist and often a Supernumerary, and about fifteen other guys into a room for the supers where we all lined up in a semi-circle. Director Leonard Foglia walked in and, with his team, began to sort us into groups with whom we would act throughout the production. Was I to be a prison guard? A basketball player? A court deputy? An inmate? A protester? I felt a little like a kid in gym class, waiting to be picked for a team. Where would I go? I did not want to be picked last!

The story ends happily—I was picked along with five others as a player in the prison basketball scene. Certainly an unexpected assignment. I did not expect to play basketball for my HGO debut!

Brian Byrnes, the Fight Director and movement coordinator, quickly organized us into two teams and began to choreograph the game. I wondered how this was going to work. How can a basketball game be planned in advance?


We stood in two lines across from each other, passing the ball back and forth. Then Byrnes threw in a second ball, so we were passing two balls back and forth at once. My colleagues were actors first, not athletes. In the beginning, balls were flying in several directions. Once Brian was comfortable that we could pass the balls without dropping them, we split into two teams. Separately, he asked each team to create two plays in which the ball started on one side of the stage, and ended up being scored on the other end of the stage. After several minutes of running back and forth, jostling and crashing into other supers, Brian was satisfied that each team had two plays they could run reasonably well. We were relieved. Getting to that point was a lot of work for a bunch of actors and this CFO.

After a short break, Byrnes put both teams on the floor and asked that they take turns running their plays against each other. While one team ran its play, Brian advised the other team on how to “play defense” without actually getting in the way. All of a sudden, in a remarkably short amount of time, we had a very real-looking fake basketball game. Next we had to check the scene against the timing of the opera score. It was close, a few more tweaks and the scene was set. Break time.

My doctor called during the break to tell me that I should not be running around and playing basketball as he was concerned that I might strain my back. Rats! Now I had to tell Brian and Lenny that I could not participate in the scene they had just spent two hours working out. What would they say? I had no idea. I only hoped that they would not banish me!!