James Joyce’s The Dead, rehearsal blog 9 | Quotidian Theatre Company

Valerie A. Higgs

Quotidian Theatre Company opens its 15th Anniversary Season with its first musical, James Joyce’s The Dead. Richard Nelson and Shawn Davey adapt Joyce’s story about a family Christmas party and marry the story to music that draws from Irish tradition. The show opens Friday. Musical director Valerie A. Higgs writes here about the role of musicians in show:


As I looked down at the pretty black corset I was holding in my hands, I thought to myself, “Well, this is going to be interesting!”

During the information gathering phase of putting a musical together, the last thing I normally hear from a director is that the musicians are going to be on stage and in costume. 

When director Jack Sbarbori told me that the other four musicians and I were to be on stage and in costume for James Joyce’s The Dead, I thought to myself, “Oh, what a cute idea!” It would be a nice change from the usual head-to-toe black outfits the band/orchestra and I normally wear in the pit.  I was planning to put on a pair of character shoes and a dress and call it a day.  Little did I know of Stephanie Mumford’s costuming agenda – every detail down to stockings and jewelry has been accounted for.

After rehearsal one day, Stephanie came to me with my costume in her hand and asked me to try it on over my street clothes.  I had been tickled to watch the cast wiggling into their costumes earlier in the rehearsal, but I guess I forgot that I would be going through the same ritual at some point.  As she tightened the corset, I quickly came to realize that this production wasn’t going to just be all surface.

It’s not that I haven’t been in costume before.  Years ago, during a production of Godspell, the musicians and I were on stage and dressed as hippies.  And during a production of The Fantastiks once, the musicians and I were instructed to look a little bit like clowns.  A “little bit” meant some wacky hair, very casual clothes and a little more makeup than usual.  I teased my hair and wore a bindi.

This is different.  Interestingly, during a rehearsal last week where we dressed in costume for publicity photos, I even felt different.  It was as though I was actually in Ireland in 1904.  Everyone was dressed to the teeth, and since my back is to the audience during most of the show, I actually felt as though I was in the aging sisters’ home during a holiday party, not on a stage in Bethesda.

I’ve rarely been out of the pit and on stage, but the feel of this show and the atmosphere really put me in the mind of an Irish woman at the turn of the 20th century.  Even my mannerisms started to change.  And I was certainly sitting up straight.

This is not something that the average musician experiences when playing for a show.  We are always ourselves.  We come to rehearsals as ourselves and watch the actors change – act differently and eventually look different.  The musicians continue to talk the same way, sit and behave the same way as we always have.

I feel very lucky to have been given little taste of what actors experience, and I hope the other musicians do, too!

~Valerie A. Higgs


Quotidian Theatre Company’s production of James Joyce’s The Dead runs Nov 16 – Dec 16. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, with one added 2pm performance on Saturday, Dec 15. All performances are held at The Writer’s Center: 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815. There is ample parking across the street (free on weekends), and the theatre is just five blocks from the Bethesda Metro Station on the red line. Tickets are $30, or $25 for students or seniors, paid for at the door by cash or check, please. Call 301.816.1023 or email quotidiantheatre@comcast.net to reserve.

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