Play production journal: The Balalaika

There are quite a few months before the Fringe Festival in Minneapolis -- the event takes place August 3-13. So you would think there is no hurry to get anything done, and maybe there isn't. The festival can be pretty loosey goosey, with shows slapped together shortly before being mounted, and they end up being a lot of fun anyway, their messiness a large part of their charm.

"Shaina" can't be that. There is too much work to do for it. Last week I wrote a grant to help underwrite its production cost, which I currently have figured at $2,000, although things are always more expensive than you expect.

A chunk of that cost is the balalaika, pictured above and already purchased.

The balalaika is not in the script right now. Also, it's not actually a balalaika.

Let me explain:

In the original conception of the play, the title character performs Yiddish theater songs, and so, when she does so, she is joined onstage by a very nervous Hasidic accompanist on piano. The Hasid drags the piano onstage and off with him, and, well, frankly, this is impossible.

Firstly, Fringe venues are small and temporary, so there will be no pianos. Secondly, musicians are expensive, and my budget is small. So I will be the Hasid, and I do not play piano.

I do, however, play another instrument. I am a relatively skilled ukulele player, and, in fact, used to perform around Minneapolis as the Ukulele King, which then somehow morphed into a cowboy show in Omaha in which I was the Ukulele King of the Great Northwest.

Sometimes even I know how preposterous my stories of my life are, by the way.

So the piano has become a balalaika in the script, because that's a lovely old world instrument. I have another balalaika, and it's a fun thing, but they are odd instruments. There are three strings, and two are tuned to exactly the same note. They're quite good as part of a balalaika orchestra, or to play melodies along with a larger band, but it takes an extraordinary degree of sophistication to use it as a solo instrument.

I don't have that sophistication. Not on balalaika. On ukulele, however ...

So the instrument above is actually a ukulele built into the body of a balalaika.

I wrote a bunch of songs for the play, but never wrote any melodies for them, so I will be doing so with the balalaika/ukulele shortly.

Next on my list, though, is revising the script. Fringe shows are best when they are only about an hour and extremely minimal, and so I need to take my already stripped-down script and carve it down to its barest bones.

I don't mind this. I think plays work quite well when pared down. I'm ready to go at it with a chainsaw and a blowtorch. That's the task for this week. Next week, I write the songs.