A performer in the current North American tour of Blast! describes his surreal experience, from the audition process to the curtain calls.
“Fill your mouth with water. Then try spitting it out while inhaling through your nose.”
Frank Sullivan, trumpet soloist with Blast!, wiped his dripping forehead with the back of his hand.
“Okay,” I said.
“Practice that ‘til you’re comfortable and then try to get a buzz while inhaling through your nose,” Sullivan continued. Eventually you can put the whole thing together.”
Sullivan left to find a sink where he could wash up after shaking hands with the dozens of theatergoers eager to congratulate him on a stellar performance. From what I hear, Sullivan had made a nightly habit of stellar performances.
I was 16 at the time.
Preparing Since Birth
Six years later I found myself in my parents’ kitchen, minimally employed as a teacher and performer, trying to inhale through my nose while spitting water out of my mouth. The ink still wet on my diploma, I had set to work trying to find a long-term gig.
Three years earlier I’d a sent a tape to the producers of Blast!, and for the past several months, I’d been following up with a number of clips and photos in an effort to secure a spot on their 2008 North American tour. Circular breathing was one more parlor trick I could throw into a grab bag of talents that I hoped might land me the gig.
Having never participated in drum corps, I lacked any substantial marching experience, but in several other ways I felt like I’d been preparing for this opportunity since birth. I started playing trumpet when I was 11, a decision that has profoundly shaped the course of my life. I pursued it passionately through college at University of Southern California where I majored in jazz studies and played in the Trojan Marching Band. In high school, I played quads and snare in our winter drum line, and in the third grade, I played the male lead in our class play, “Irish Stew.” (Truly understanding the tormented psyche of the King of Ireland was difficult as an 8-year-old but hugely important to my development as a thespian.) My mom still has a picture of me as a toddler trying to play my great-grandfather’s baritone. My paternal ancestor, Thomas Walter Deaton, played in a circus brass band—sort of a crude predecessor to what I do now.
Nevertheless, despite my apparent years of preparation, when the good news finally came, I greeted it with more trepidation than excitement. I would have needed another lifetime of experience to ease my nerves.
We spent four weeks learning the show in Bloomington, Ind., and another two weeks working on lighting and sound at a theater in Charleston, S.C., before opening on New Year’s Eve 2007.
That first month we rehearsed 12 hours a day, six days a week, which seemed like barely enough time to learn the two-hour show. I would usually wake up at 7:30 and leave around 8 to go to Star Hall, our rehearsal facilities. Once an elementary school, it was abandoned years ago and converted into the home of the Star of Indiana Drum and Bugle Corps. Tubas and xylophones line the walls of the classrooms, resting alongside chalkboards and old, dirty heaters. Outside, the rolling hills of southern Indiana have been flattened to create two adjacent football fields, each one lorded over by a tall wooden tower. The lines on these fields have long since faded away, carried off on the heels of a drum corps that folded 15 years ago. Until only recently, the sign out front still read “Star of Indiana: 1991 DCI World Champions.”
After Star left drum corps in 1993, it developed Brass Theater, an amateur theatrical group that would serve as the laboratory for Blast! In 1999, Blast! opened in London and became a spectacle of music and movement that defied categorization.
Rehearsal started at 9, but we always arrived early to warm up. We usually worked music until noon, and then a few other brass guys and I would join the drummers for about an hour to work on the battery feature. That first month we spent nearly two hours a day playing drums, learning from our extraordinarily patient percussion soloists. I took lunch and dinner at a gas station Subway about a half mile down the highway nearly every day, ate quickly and used the rest of my break to practice alone.
We’d start the afternoon with 45 minutes of stretching before getting back to work, often rehearsing music and movement at the same time. Later, after more drumming and a quick dinner break, we would work as a brass section before meeting as a large ensemble to run and clean what we’d learned thus far. When we finally returned to the hotel around 10:30 p.m., I would have just enough energy for a drink and a shower before being lulled to sleep by the talking heads on SportsCenter. Saturday was our only day off, and many people, including me, used that time to get caught up.
I think my nerves really started to settle when I got to know the rest of this talented 35-person cast. Full of Blast! veterans, there were many people available to help me learn the show. I soon felt like I was part of the family, and in a weird, “Wizard of Oz” kind of way, I felt like I already knew most of these folks as though they reminded me of people I’d met in a past life.
Live on Stage
Prior to Blast!, I spent two years playing in the marching band at my alma mater, the University of Southern California, an experience that transformed me into the insufferable Trojan football fanatic I am today. Band camp was pretty grueling my first year. Long days in the heat left me physically drained. By the fifth day, I developed painful cellulitis in both my legs, leaving my ankles swollen and blotchy red. A doctor at the USC health center gave me three separate shots in my rump as treatment. I can’t say I really enjoyed that.
Meanwhile, friends who’d been in the band for years kept reassuring me that the payoff would come at our first football game. They were right. Taking the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time before a screaming crowd of 90,000 was a powerful and rewarding experience. I also didn’t mind seeing a merciless 70-to-17 beating of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Performing Blast! for the first time before a live audience felt much the same way, yet even more intense. For six weeks I had imagined the laughter and applause. In my mind, at the end of the opening number, “Bolero,” applause would begin politely, crescendo to a dull roar, and then fade away before the next piece began.
When that moment actually came, I remember lowering my piccolo trumpet in an instant of total silence before being completely overwhelmed by an eruption of screaming and applause. That moment immediately vaulted to among the best performance experiences of my life. Several other new people later mentioned feeling the same way. Wes Bullock, our artistic supervisor, said that watching our faces light up in front of a live audience for the first time nearly brought him to tears.
It’s remarkable how effectively this production can create within an audience a wide range of emotional experiences (humor, serenity, passion, aggression) without dialogue or a substantial narrative. Lights, movement and music are rather blunt instruments for communication when compared with language, yet I imagine this show would excite the same degree of feeling any other Broadway show might hope to inspire.
In the years since opening in London, Blast! has run on Broadway and toured the United States several times. On the way it collected a Tony for “Best Theatrical Event” and an Emmy for “Best Choreography” following the show’s airing on PBS. More recently, Blast! has become something of a phenomenon in Japan. I’ve heard stories about Japanese theater patrons trying to steal performers’ hair and clothes after the show. Apparently, you can even find Blast! action figures over there.
We haven’t had any problem with fanatic theatergoers on the current tour although people have certainly taken pleasure in telling me how much they enjoyed Blast! These comments get me excited to play night after night as do the moments we share with our fellow performers on and off stage during the show. We make a habit of making eye contact, high-fiving or otherwise encouraging each other, and we’re careful to repeat these rituals every night. If you watch carefully, you just might catch us in the act.
Behind the Scenes
At the same time, it’s the spontaneity of live theater that I love—those delicious moments of chaos that make everything more exciting, or agonizing, as the case may be.
On opening night, I suffered through several snafus, which included entering with a practice mute in my horn in one number, dropping a stick in the drum feature and later entering again without a belt. I haven’t done any of that since then, but I’ve been a witness and party to several such stories.
One night in Florida, Kristen, a French horn player, exited stage for a quick change—only to find her costume missing— and re-entered wearing the spare costume of our euphonium player, Seth, at least twice her size. On a different night, Seth left his trombone outside the theater and had to run out to get it between numbers, barely making it back in time.
Then, of course, there are all manner of accidents, in which someone gets hit, bumped or otherwise maimed during the show. Somewhere in Florida, Paula, a trumpet player, got smacked in the mouth when someone backed into her during our finale, “Malagueña.” (She was out for a couple of weeks.)
A few nights later in Wichita, Andrew, another trumpet player, couldn’t do the show after becoming violently ill. Wes had to jump in with his trumpet to fill one of the spots.
So what is Blast!? When people ask what I do, I have a difficult time explaining without comparing it to “Stomp” or relating it to drum corps, neither of which does the show much justice. James Mason, the show’s creator, describes it as “a celebration of instrumental music and outdoor pageantry, put in a theatrical setting … For years musicians have been trapped in the pit and now they have crawled onto the stage. Throwing away the stands and chairs, they now act, leap and lunge, creating a new musical and theatrical experience.”
My old man likes to say it’s simply the most entertaining thing he’s ever seen on stage.
I always enjoy hearing what people in the audience say to us after the show, especially if they’ve never seen it before. Some tell us they could have gone for another hour. Some ask for autographs, which can be pretty surreal for a bunch of professional band geeks. Some ask questions:
- “Did you march drum corps?” No, but more than half the cast has at some point.
- “How many instruments do you play?” I play 10 different instruments over the course of the show.
- “Where are you from?” We’re from all over the country.
- “How old are you guys?” At 22, I’m the youngest. Our oldest is 33. I’d guess the average is about 26.
- “How do you have so much energy?” We carbo-load every night after the show.
Occasionally, we’ll do workshops with young musicians, a group that’s always bound to ask some great questions. In February, while playing at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, Calif., a short way away from my home, we held a master class that was attended by two high school bands— Costa Mesa High School and, my alma mater, Huntington Beach High School. I taught at both schools in the fall.
The first time I saw Blast! live was at this very venue. It felt strange to be on the other side, as a performer, in front of my students.
“Any questions?” I said as we wrapped up the first portion of the master class. One of my students at Huntington raised his hand.
“Yeah,” I said, pointing to him. He smiled knowingly and asked a question that had been very familiar to me: “How do you circular breathe?”
Photo by Mike Welch. All rights reserved.