One of the first observations that Vermont Stage Company audiences surely make when the lights come up on The Quarry is that there's a guy onstage seated at a quilt-wrapped piano. That's Randal Pierce, and his job is to play interludes and accompaniments to the scenes unfolding onstage.
Pierce, 31, is the brother of playwright Greg Pierce. The music has been part of The Quarry as long as the characters have — in fact, since before the story was developed.
"When [The Quarry] originally started, it was going to be a night of short scenes that were just loosely tied together," Randal Pierce says. "We started with some basic characters and some basic musical themes that represent them."
The play that evolved and is currently being staged by VSC, directed by Cristina Alicea, is an unconventional production, told mostly in monologue. Set in a fictional small Vermont town, it follows a range of characters as they delve into a secret at the town's quarry. (See page 38 for Alex Brown's review.) Pierce's live music weaves itself into each sequence.
A musical theme, Pierce says, is "an emotion that [the music] evokes that feels tied to a character, or it might be a genre or a style of music that would come from the culture of a certain character."
Pierce's first love was piano, though he also plays the accordion and cycled through percussion instruments in high school. He cites his uncle, David Hyde Pierce (an actor best known for his role as Niles Crane on the popular '90s sitcom "Frasier"), as an early influence on his piano playing. The brothers were raised — yes, near a quarry — in Shelburne; Randal now resides in Burlington, while Greg lives and works in New York.
After graduating from Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Randal Pierce spent a year at Oberlin College in Ohio, but soon transferred to McGill University's Schulich School of Music in Montréal. He says trying to evolve as a musician in Oberlin's rural setting was "challenging"; Montréal offered a richer scene.
Pierce considers himself more of a performer than a composer, but The Quarry is not the first piece he's composed for the stage. He's been the musical director for Spielpalast Cabaret since returning to Burlington in 2009 and has composed for Trish Denton's 2012 show Orkestriska's Box as well as for locally made films. (Pierce currently runs a studio in Burlington's South End, where he teaches private lessons in piano, accordion and music theory.)
None of the music in The Quarry is improvised, though many segments were composed on the fly during the rehearsal process, or adjusted to suit an actor's take on a scene. "There were a lot of times when an idea I'd had was just totally scrapped," Pierce says. "We'd know, just hearing what the actors were doing, that it wasn't going to cut it — and that had to do with the pace their dialogue needed to go, and the music being busy or in the way rather than augmenting [the performance]."
He adds: "There are times when the music can be more loose and when it needs to be more structured for the actors."
Though Pierce doesn't speak any lines, he responds to the scenes in real time, picking up on stage cues and adjusting the tempo and rhythm of the music according to how the scenes unfold. "Being located somewhat centrally on stage ... does make it feel like music's a character," he says.