Orchestral Theatre

An Orchestra Enters and Exits the Stage

Posted by Adrian Curtin

4 December 2023

Like a lot of writers, I sometimes exile deleted text to a separate document, on the off chance that I might re-incorporate it later or use it elsewhere. Here’s a short piece of cut text from my work-in-progress book, The Theatrical Orchestra: British Music Ensembles Experiment with Performance. Rather than banish this deleted text to the graveyard of my computer forever, I thought I would share it here.

About twenty minutes into An Anatomie in Four Quarters, a theatre piece by Clod Ensemble first presented at Sadler’s Wells in London in 2011, something unexpected occurred. A chamber orchestra of string players walked onto the darkened stage, instruments in hand, and formed a line. The musicians were formally dressed – black suits, white shirts, black ties – like the hitmen played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994).[1] They looked out into the auditorium, stony-faced. In front of them sat a group of dancers, scantily dressed and moving vigorously. Prior to the musicians’ entrance, the dancers had been running amok, revelling in physicality; the scene had been carnivalesque, unbridled, raw. Over the dancers’ guttural cries the audience heard jangling, percussive music and the driving utterances of a speaker at a cattle market, played through the sound system. The musicians, visually distinguished from the mêlée, advanced, dispassionately cutting through the bodies of the dancers, who scattered around them. The musicians reached the front of the stage, where they stood motionless in a pool of light. Then the ground on which they stood gave way. They were on a mechanical lift, which gradually descended, delivering them into the orchestra pit, where, still illuminated, they tuned and played a newly composed fugue, evoking a Baroque sound world, accompanied by the audible ticking of a metronome. The orchestra had brought order and discipline to the proceedings, as shown by the dancers’ movements, which were now stately, geometrical, controlled.

The orchestra’s arrival onto the stage in this production was artfully executed and replete with meaning. The orchestra signified ‘classical coldness and analysis’ here, according to the director and choreographer, Suzy Willson; it shifted the scene from the onstage evocation of ‘the medieval body’, which is ‘fluid, contradictory and immeasurable’ to ‘the Enlightenment view of the body’, regarded as being ‘self-sufficient and separated from the world’ (2016: 157, 155, 160). An Anatomie in Four Quarters activated ideas popularly associated with orchestras, such as orderliness and discipline as well as high-class society. The audience, which relocated to different areas of the theatre throughout the production, was brought to the dress circle for this part of the performance. They viewed the stage and the pit from the most expensive seats in the house, a position of economic and ocular privilege, linking to the cultural prestige associated with orchestras and ‘classical music’. It is unusual for musicians in an orchestra pit to be visible and part of the theatrical spectacle; after all, the pit functionally removes musicians from the audience’s sight, unless one is close enough to be able to peer into it. Watching a line of musicians descend into an orchestra pit via a mechanical lift during a performance is equally out of the ordinary. However, this piece by Clod Ensemble purposefully ‘anatomized’ the theatre, exposing its guts, its musculature, its cavities and crevices. Staging the orchestra by theatricalising its entrance and illuminating the musicians, even when they were in the pit, was part of this operation. The fourth quarter of An Anatomie found the audience onstage with the dancers and the orchestra playing in the wings, thereby providing the audience with another unconventional perspective on the theatre and the performers who animated it through their artistry and presence.[2] 

Incorporating an orchestra into theatrical staging by making it a visible, integrated part of the dramaturgy (as distinct from an arrangement in which musicians are visible, but only out of necessity, because a theatre has no pit, for example) encourages an audience to ask questions about what an orchestra represents in the context of a given production. Scott McMillan, discussing orchestras in musical theatre, notes the interpretive issues that are raised when an orchestra is onstage throughout, as in Cabaret (1966). In this musical ‘the orchestra has an eerie authority from its contradictory standing, as diegetic accompaniment in the Kit Kat Club and as nondiegetic accompaniment for the other scenes. … What do they know, … this orchestra?’ (2006: 147–8). Staged orchestras can raise more questions than answers, because the orchestra has a variety of meanings and associations, which are culturally and historically inflected (Spitzer, 1996: 234). In Anatomie in Four Quarters Clod Ensemble invokes the idea of the orchestra as a highly structured and disciplined collective body, but this is only one of the metaphorical associations orchestras have had over the centuries (ibid.). The orchestra as a concept and organisational structure is malleable, and it is still being (re-)shaped, along with its repertoire, membership, and modes of presentation.[3] Theatre provides an excellent venue and vehicle for re-presenting the orchestra and playing with its possible denotative meanings and audio-visual significations. 


[1] The inspiration for the musicians’ look actually came from visual art, specifically Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Suzy Willson stated in an interview: ‘There’s a body [in the painting], [a] cadaver, and the anatomists are all in what looks a bit like orchestral macabre’ (2022).

[2] My account of An Anatomie in Four Quarters is based on watching a recording of the performance, consulting archival materials located at Clod Ensemble’s studios in Greenwich, and on interviews with Suzy Willson and Paul Clark from Clod Ensemble. 

[3] For example, Charles Hazlewood, artistic director of Paraorchestra, presented a six-part television series for Sky Arts in 2022 called Reinventing the Orchestra with Charles Hazlewood


McMillen, Scott (2006) The Musical as Drama: A Study of the Principles and Conventions Behind Musical Shows from Kern to Sondheim. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Spitzer, John (1996) ‘Metaphors of the Orchestra–The Orchestra as a Metaphor’, The Musical Quarterly 80, no. 2: 234–64. 

Willson, Suzy (2016) ‘Clod Ensemble, An Anatomie in Four Quarters Rehearsal Notes’, in Performance and the Medical Body, edited by Alex Mermikides and Gianna Bouchard, 151–72. London: Bloomsbury.

—. (2022) Interview by author. Online. 12 September.

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