Thursday, August 12, 2010

A CHILLY RECEPTION

“We’ll think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday Night.” The classic Stompin’ Tom Connors song echoed in my ears as I flew into Sudbury, Ontario a few months ago, prepared to take on a conducting job at the local theatre.

The show was The Full Monty. Some may recall the 1997 British film of the same name, which told the story of a group of striking steel miners in northern England who decide to become male strippers. A subsequent Broadway musical transplanted this story to Buffalo, New York, and went on to win numerous awards.

I was on my way to Sudbury to conduct the music for this production. Our timing coincided with an extended miner’s strike against the very same Inco (now Vale Inco) that Stompin’ Tom sang about. The timing could not have been more fortuitous.

Now I’ve worked on many shows where the set design required the musicians be on stage rather than in a pit. This rarely proves to be a good idea, for surrounding musicians, instruments, chairs, music stands and a conductor, with dancers, actors, singers, technicians and set pieces flying in and out, is usually a recipe for total havoc.

In this production sets did fly overhead, and crew members ran around under cover of darkness making magical things occur for the audience. As the band was situated on stage under a staircase, behind a half-wall and next to a sliding platform with a bed on it, they had to run around us as well. Conducting an orchestra while your lead trombonist helps straighten the sheets on the prop bed can be a little distracting. However in this case the process worked and the production was amazing.

One of the things I enjoy most about traveling is getting to know the people in each town. I knew I had made an impact in Sudbury around week number three when I walked into the local “Stuff for a Dollar” store and the sales clerk looked up at me and hollered, “What the heck are you still doing in town?”

Privacy is cherished when you’re on the road with a show, and I had the good fortune to be staying in my own little apartment. The area I was living in could best be described as colourful; in the morning I would walk past people sitting on their front porches clad in nothing but their underwear, enjoying what I came to refer to as their “breakfast beer.”

For the most part my Sudbury neighbours were fine. The exception was the family next door who seemed to look upon me with suspicion, like I was some sort of “revenooer” sent to confiscate their moonshine. They enjoyed late night bonfires and drunkenly screaming off-color jokes while sitting around the abandoned freezer on their front lawn. One evening I was treated to a 1:30 a.m. performance that involved some irate individual shouting death threats at the owner of the house. In great detail. Including names, locations and exactly how he was going to commit this act. I felt certain the old freezer would play a role.

I’m no criminal mastermind but I assume that if you’re enraged enough to do another person bodily harm, screaming out that information for the neighbours to hear is probably a bad plan. I did take comfort in the almost certain knowledge that these particular folks would probably never be part of my theatre-going audience.

Our production was a success, and the show was extended two times. Six weeks later I was finally ready to return to my Toronto home. As the taxi arrived at my house to take me to the airport I waved a final goodbye to my neighbour, who responded with his usual suspicious scowl. I threw my bags in the back, hopped in and off we went.

As we drove away the taxi driver looked in his rear view mirror and asked with surprise, “What’s that guy doing?”

Suppressing visions of our vehicle being pelted with empty beer cans, I turned around. There stood my neighbour on his front lawn, reaching down inside the old battered freezer to remove something. The “something” turned out to be his infant son; apparently he was using the freezer as some sort of makeshift playpen.

I saw many amazing sights while in Sudbury, from the rugged terrain to the mines to the iconic Big Nickel. I feel fairly certain that even though I didn’t have the time to take a photo of that final moment, it will nonetheless join all the other highlights forever etched in my memory.

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