Gig Report: Global Stilt Congress, Arcosanti May 31-Jun 1

Discussion in 'Bass Humor & Gig Stories [BG]' started by Steven Ayres, Jun 14, 2019.

  1. I've been saying for some time that I'm pretty sick of the restaurant and bar gigs. Here's one that's quite different from that. It meets the "always get paid" criterion, but don't count it hourly.

    I signed onto this gig about three months ahead. The plan was to play some familiar old tunes on banjo with a violin soloist, easy-peasy. Pretty quick the violinist couldn't do it and the music budget shrank, leaving me solo for the show and a little apprehensive about whether I could make the music big enough.

    This was the fifth annual event, in which an international performing acrobatic stilt company, The Carpetbag Brigade, brings together other stilters and students from all over for two weeks to work out and learn, and at the end they've put together a roughly one-hour show. There's a sit-down dinner for those who pay more, and the show is presented as set pieces scattered around the Arcosanti campus. (If you haven't heard about Arcosanti, you can check it out here.)

    The show title and theme, decided long before any actual moves were imagined, was "Citizen Ship: The Legislation." The company improvises the building of the show collaboratively, so even a few days before butts-in-seats we really had little idea how it would look. I started the music design with the Stephen Foster songbook, and early on the director knew he wanted to use "Why We Build the Wall," from the (this week) Tony-award-winning musical Hadestown. I put a fair amount of time into studying other tunes that might work as well, but ultimately most didn't get in.

    Arcosanti is near the freeway about 40 minutes from home here in Prescott, including about a mile of rocky washboard. On the Tuesday I had a first meeting with the cast, got a tour of the layout and tested out a few things, like cast members singing with me.

    By then the director had added three volunteer musicians who happened to be on the campus anyway, one a prospective student playing bamboo flute, another an employee playing cajon, and one doing some incidental classical piano. The two playing with me were both pretty green musically, but enthusiastic and cooperative, and we weren't doing anything difficult.

    We had a tech rehearsal on Thursday, walking through the show a couple of times and making adjustments for the many moving parts, including the ongoing daily work of the facility. (Imagine doing handstands on concrete that's typically scattered with tiny shards of metal.) The show was still rough, and there was much to figure out, which turned that into a nine-hour day for me. The rest of the cast was working 14-hour days on stilts, including one woman who was 72, so I can't complain.

    Cast photo in classroom.JPG

    For the Friday show my first job was to warm up the crowd with a medley of Foster melodies on cello, actually my Kay 200A jazz cello, which is really a bass, on its first gig after a restoration over the past several months. First I did about 20 minutes in tuxedo for the diners, then went upstairs to the front landing to do the same for the walk-ins. I've yet to discover any pics of this part, I'm hoping something will turn up. The photographer worked the Saturday show, and we cut the jazz-cello bit for that one as it proved to be more logistical trouble than it was worth. So much for bass content, sorry folks!

    After a little prep talk by the director, the show began with me, now in Stetson and overcoat over the tux, introducing "Why We Build the Wall" as the narrative theme, with three stilters singing in call/response. We then skulked to our next place as the audience went downstairs to an underground-like space for some stilting action mixed with spoken word from one of our two poets and some improvised bamboo-flute as background.

    In the foundry we waited for the audience to catch up. Here we had a number by the three pro stilters, me accompanying with a couple of pointed blues tunes, the flutist blowing some harp and the cajon player supplying backbeat on the other side of the stage, which by day was the pit for cleaning the bronze bells as they come out of their molds.

    Steven in foundry.jpg

    I should mention that my part involved some characterization as well, acting as a sort of ringmaster, court jester and satanic stand-in. I got to ham it up a bit.

    From there the audience went down more stairs to a less developed area of the campus for a spoken-word piece from the second poet, who up to this point is disguised as another member of the audience, and an acrobatic stilt number using a big metal frame structure surrounding the audience. I was posed on the cliff above in a Xmas Past death mask, as an Easter egg for those who were really paying attention. The view from there is a vista of the Verde River canyon, pretty cool.

    As Death.JPG

    The audience then came up a long sloping path, past the music studio with the classical pianist doing some Debussy and more poetry, to the Vaults for the aerial section. This is a pair of concrete arches 30 feet high, each about that deep. The music started with the Wall, devolving into a furious jam with banjo, harp, cajon, rebar-clanging and lots of floor-stomping, while the poets provided urgent narrative and the stilters worked frenetically on rings, trapeze and winding ropes in twos and threes. This was meant to be more than most in the audience could absorb at once, really chaotic.

    The finale was in the Amphitheatre, where the audience could finally sit down for some ensemble spectacle done to recorded pounding music cues, more poetry to finish off the narrative, and me almost completing the Wall song before the stilters essentially kick me to the curb for the hopeful, inspiring finish. This featured a stilter spinning on a suspended ring with a road flare, behind a wall of singing stilters casting wild shadows around the venue.

    We brought in about 200 spectators all told, roughly the target capacity, and they were very enthusiastic about the performances. My wife about kicked me in the shins for not telling her beforehand that my part was substantially larger than incidental music. But I like to allow some surprises.

    Work time: Two rehearsal days, two performances, probably 32 hours onsite all told, plus research and practice
    Dress: Tux plus costume changes
    Gear: '50 Kay jazz cello, early '50s Old Kraftsman six-string banjo (guitar tuning)
    Pay: $350, including fuel reimbursement

    Oh, and: Running around on that campus, sweating up and down stairs for four days, two of them in a tux and wool overcoat, I lost about four pounds! Oh well, it's not like I really needed them.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2019
  2. bkirk


    Oct 2, 2003
    Austin, TX
    Very cool! Sounds like a fun yet different kind of gig. Plus, a really nicely crafted account, well done! The pics don't show for me but my wife and I took a tour of the Arcosanti about a dozen years ago so I kind of pictured what you're talking about (without the stilt performers). We bought a bell there which I like a lot.
    Thanks for the report!
    BassCliff likes this.
  3. Pics reattached. Guess I waited too long to push the 'post' button. Thanks for the tip!
    BassCliff likes this.
  4. McG

    McG Goat Hill Gamblers

    Oct 6, 2010
    Costa Mesa, CA
    A most excellent write up Steven! That was truly the opposite of a restaurant/bar gig. Choreographed music, poetry, performance art...WAY cool! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about it.
    Stumbo likes this.
  5. growlypants


    Nov 10, 2012
    OK,....NOW I can see the pics! Very Cool! (I must have read this before you ironed out the posting routine!)
  6. Paulabass


    Sep 18, 2017
    Great report!
    I thought I got all the weird gigs.
    Stumbo and BassCliff like this.
  7. bluesblaster


    Jan 2, 2008
    yes, that is a bit different then what we usually see here, looks like a fun gig. Thanks for sharing
  8. bluesblaster


    Jan 2, 2008
    I once got cajoled into playing for a cable access show with a coworker who was the guitar player, he had done it a bunch of times so I said sure why not. It turned out to be a lot weirder than he had presented it to me at the time. As the camera made passes of the band playing in the background you can see the "what the hell did I get myself into" look on my face.
  9. Looks like a different type of show, thanks for the review.
  10. bherman

    bherman Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 30, 2009
    Grand Junction, CO
    Well, you could not have made this one up, that's for sure. Life really is all about the experience, isn't it....
  11. Hi @Steven Ayres,

    THAT is quite a production and a fabulous event. I wish I was there. Thank you very much for walking us through it. You need to ask your boss for a raise. ;)

    I think those six string banjos are pretty cool. I've played one, tuned like a guitar, and it is a lot of fun.

    Thank you for your indulgence,

    Stumbo likes this.