So, I Orchestrated a Musical… (Part III)

When last we left off, the creative team of Back and Forth had fully taken shape, two-thirds of the songs in the show had been arranged, our cast was all but finalized, and we were soon to begin rehearsals when the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic forced an abrupt shutdown to everything.

We, along with everyone else, remained hopeful that we would be able to get back to work after a brief pause, but as the weeks dragged on, only one thing became clear to us: live theatre as we knew it was on hiatus.

Indefinitely.

I tried to look on the bright side: with my weekly commitments and other gigs having been cancelled, I suddenly had all the time in the world to plow through the remaining arrangements for the show. I had already worked them out in my head; all I had to do was sit down and…

I just… couldn’t.

We all deal with pain in our own way, dear readers, and unfortunately for me, the onset of the pandemic cast me back a year to when I was freshly injured. After having just spent 13 months “adjusting to the new normal” and being largely isolated due to my brain injury, the global trauma that we experienced in March of 2020 felt all too familiar: the sudden impact, the uncertain severity of symptoms on any given day, the unknowable prognosis, the allostatic overload — the similarities were nothing short of overwhelming. On top of that, this represented the third time in as many years in which my ability to play music with others, live and in-person, was suddenly taken away, which was an injury on the soul level. Then came the grief — the bereavement for everything that I had been looking forward to doing — now renewed for a second straight year.

I know that this is relatable to many of you, and I want to believe that if I had any resilience to spare after that first post-concussion year, I might have been able to respond more deftly to the rapidly-evolving situation. Instead, feeling thoroughly retraumatized, I fell into a depressive episode, the acute phase of which lasted for two whole months.

Hilarious.

In that time, I kept creating — little things, mind you, hardly any magnum opus — but honestly, even though much of what I wrote, arranged, or produced was intended for the benefit of others, it did nothing to alleviate the overwhelming feeling of pointlessness. Even if it was vaguely amusing to learn that my normal composerly lifestyle looked indistinguishable from quarantine at the best of times, it required that my collaborators, be they on film sets or in studios, be allowed to go about their work unimpeded; work-from-home equivalents ranged from unwieldy to impossible. During this time, for many of us in the arts sector, not only were we unable to continue doing what we had spent our lives training for, but we were actively prevented from doing so.

After having clawed my way back to almost being ready to attempt living and working somewhat normally again, I was once again knocked into crisis mode and focused heavily on survival; creating anything at all, never mind anything of substance or significance, was of much lower priority for me. Truth be told, the only thing that the pandemic inspired in me was an identity crisis: if creating wasn’t my top priority, was I even really an artist anymore?

To keep our spirits elevated, the creative team of Back and Forth stayed in touch by video chat on almost a weekly basis, but reassuring words, amusing video filters, and funny memes did little to cover for the fact that we were, at best, adrift. Contrary to the platitudes at the time, we were not all in the same boat, but the same storm, and I was drowning.

Just Keep Swimming

A few weeks into the shutdown, with Fringe yet to make a decision about whether they would commit to holding a festival of any kind, we were resolved to remain as focused as we could, and continue to work as if our 2020 festivals were going ahead until we were told otherwise. We invited the cast and crew for a virtual table read, which would also serve as a de facto meet and greet; doing so through the confines of our screens was less than ideal, but we felt that we had no better, safer option.

Three days before our scheduled table read, Toronto Fringe officially announced its cancellation.

By that time, it had seemed inevitable, but we went ahead and ran our cast and crew meeting anyway. The company gathered online, with the cast reading the script and listening to the eight arrangements that I had completed to that point (and to Dayjan’s rough sketches for the remainder). We made notes and discussed revisions based on our impressions from the table read. We were committed to continuing the work… even if it would be a while before the world would get to see what we were working on.

Fortunately, a few weeks later, Toronto Fringe contacted us with an invitation to prepare a short prerecorded presentation for inclusion in a digital festival, slated for streaming that summer! The Fringe would go on! We would have a platform to show something after all! The content of this virtual offering, they explained, did not have to be connected to our intended Fringe show, but we figured that since we had a cast, a script, and songs (with screen-ready backing tracks, even!), the potential to showcase some of the above as an early work-in-progress demo was too good to pass up.

The call to participate in the online Toronto Fringe Collective was enough to transition me out of my funk and back to work on the next song in my docket: a Latin-influenced mental breakdown conga called “I’m a Mess” — something to which I believe we could all relate at that time. I thought back to my year at Berklee in Valencia and getting to meet, work with, and learn from a host of musicians from the Latin music world. As always, drawing on what I knew (and reminding myself with research just to be sure), I took great care to render the tumbao rhythm just right, and I delighted in teaching Dayjan a thing or two about things like clave and groove. (By all accounts, I almost seemed cool. 😎 )

Back and Forth: In (Virtual) Concert

We put out a call amongst our cast to gauge interest in this new opportunity, and most of our cast members were as eager as we were! In response to the five who stepped forward, Dayjan and I began our preparations for what we initially styled as Back and Forth: The Musical: In Concert. First, we would need to adjust the script; since we no longer had our hour-long time slot of the live festival, nor did we have our full complement of cast, telling the full story of Back and Forth would have to wait. Instead, we decided to make our prerecorded performance more applicable to what we, as artists, were going through during the pandemic, filmed and edited in the style of video calls. Some scenes and ideas from the full show were retained, but we otherwise considered In Concert to be a separate entity in the BackandForthiverse.

In parallel with the script redevelopment, we chose four of our favourite songs from the show, our selections informed by those who comprised our ad hoc cast. We decided to feature “Back and Forth,” “Time for Me,” “You’re Enough,” and my most recent addition, “I’m a Mess.” Making slight adjustments to the piano/vocal scores, we equipped our cast with demo recordings and organized a fresh table read. With barely nine days to our delivery deadline, we asked our cast to record both their audio and their video as quickly as possible, so as to give us as much time as possible to edit everything together.

Our cast dutifully sent video and audio tests for us to review. We were limited in our time and ability to give notes (let alone actually rehearse in real-time with our singers), but our performers handled the task of bringing their self-isolated characters to life with the utmost aplomb.

We’re a Mess… But We Try!

As with everything in the early stages of the pandemic, our objective was to do the best we could with the resources available. Having heard from session musicians who had suddenly been displaced from their scoring stages, I was bracing for all of the difficulties that these professionals had reported with rapidly having had to figure out how best to self-record something that (by dint of enough post-production magic) could be screenworthy. Yes, we all enjoyed many self-recorded performances, with offerings ranging from amateur virtual choirs to Broadway stars, and I can assure you, faithful readers, that they were, all and each, the result of an arduous journey.

In our case, as it would have been unsafe to make house calls to record our singers using professional-grade equipment, and impractical at best to rent a microphone (with or without an interface) to share amongst our cast, we just had to make do with what we had… and summon up as much engineering magic as we could. It was going to be awkward and unwieldy, but we were determined to make it work.

As Dayjan and I emerged from days of round-the-clock editing (with him taking responsibility for the video edit, and I the music edit and mix), we looked forward to two things: working with our amazing cast of talented performers in person the following year, and never having to do a virtual recording project again.

A little more than 3 weeks later, our pandemic-size demo premiered in the Toronto Fringe Collective to great acclaim, featuring the performances of Kimberly Ramón, Rosie Callaghan, Camille Holland, Elizabeth Rose Morriss, and Taryn Wichenko. We would later rebrand it as Back and Forth: In Quarantine, and release it for public viewing on YouTube, which you can see below:

The title screen of Back and Forth: In Quarantine. Click to view (opens in a new tab).

Now What?

We were granted the opportunity for an encore performance, which streamed about six weeks later, and then… that was pretty much it.

We had been guaranteed our performance slot at the next live edition of the Toronto Fringe… whenever that might be. We were optimistic that we would only have to wait a year — which for us would mean enjoying several months of downtime continuing our work on the show before reconvening for rehearsals — but the uncertainty born of new COVID variants surging quelled any enthusiasm that we might have had.

For me, a new slate of projects and responsibilities took over in the fall, which saw me through to the end of the year. In December, I finally had the bandwidth to arrange the tenth song in the show, “The Mission” (the ideas for which I had been holding in since March!). Dayjan, meanwhile, was considering some script revisions to the end of the show, which meant that writing my arrangements of the last two songs would have to wait.

With things looking progressively more bleak as we headed into the winter, and Toronto Fringe being initially noncommittal about their future plans, we fell back into how I essentially approached things from the start: nothing more was going to be material until it materialized. Our hope was not enough to end the pandemic, and having all the time in the world only inspired us to procrastinate (the Fairy would be so proud of us!).

Early in the new year, Toronto Fringe decided that its 2021 festival would be exclusively online. With our hearts set on realizing this show live on stage, we were not in a rush to use up our Fringe slot on another virtual performance. They offered us the option to defer until 2022, and we accepted.

Time Skip!

Things effectively lay fallow until November of 2021, when a dear friend and colleague of mine contacted me with a proposal. She was offering us a venue for a staged reading of the music from Back and Forth, intended to give us some exposure on our road to Fringe. How could we possibly say no to doing a real edition of Back and Forth: In Concert, something that Dayjan had been dreaming of for two years already?

A few days thereafter, with my mind once again in Back and Forth mode, I conceived of a new overture for the show (borrowing from and punching up Dayjan’s sketch from early 2020), imagining Alanna’s choreography and all! Before I could even render it in my audio workstation, I excitedly sang it for Dayjan over the phone. He seemed to like my ideas (inelegantly sung as they were), and granted me leave to properly arrange it at an appropriate time.

About a week later, Toronto Fringe announced its dates for a live theatre festival in the summer of 2022! There were plenty of concerns to go around, not least of which being the projected state of COVID and public health mandates, let alone the logistics of rehearsing and performing safely, but as there were no further deferrals or extensions on offer, it didn’t take much convincing for us to accept.

However, as it was now almost a year and a half since our virtual performance in the 2020 Toronto Fringe Collective, would we still have a cast waiting for us?

End of Act Three

Visit the lobby for some refreshments, and come back next week for Act Four!

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