Imagining Bells as Theater

Posted By Derek Nance on Nov 12, 2012 | 4 comments


For my bell-ringing audience, how many of you have had a director remind you to smile while ringing?  Why do our directors have to do this?  In all the different groups I have performed with, from choir to band to orchestra, handbell groups are the only ones where I am reminded to smile. Maybe it is because we are usually lined up in front of the audience instead of hiding in a group…Or maybe it is because our instrument is inherently physical (when ringing bells I am always moving to get the bells to sound, where as when playing French Horn I am usually just sitting there)…Or maybe it is just because bells are shinny…but what ever the reason there is level of theatrical-ness that is expected of bell ringers to engage the audience.  The challenge is to get a group of trained musician to emote like actors.

I will be the first to admit that I am horrible at acting (if you want proof, just ask anyone at the Area XII conference this summer), and I’m willing to guess most bell ringers are as well.  Therefore, when groups attempt to spice things up by acting, it usually comes off as cheesy.  This argument always comes up every concert season in the group I ring with.  Adding candles during a slow processional, probably not cheesy.  Sword fighting during Pirates of the Caribbean, probably really cheesy.  Cheesy is in the eye of the beholder, and even the best groups can try too hard to act and come off as cheesy.  Watch this video of the Raleigh Ringers (the fun starts about 50 seconds in):

Do you think this is cheesy, entertaining, or both?

In my opinion, this is horribly cheesy.  They do a great job building up the rock band effect with the staging and costumes.  But then they get to their spots at the tables, pick up their bells on cue with the director, and ring like they normally do, defeating the entire purpose of the build-up.  After the first couple of minutes, they just look like bell ringers wearing tie-dye instead of hard core rockers.  What if they removed the constraints of standing behind a table?  Would people find it less cheesy?

We luckily don’t have to use our imaginations to picture this.  The group Campanile, which ran from the 90’s through 2006, performed bell theater.  The ringers were free to move about the stage, and the tables were on wheels so they could be rearranged at will.  Part dance, part theater, and part recital, the results were interesting.

I love the idea of Campanile (even if I don’t really understand the opera thing that starts about 4 minutes into that video).  I was talking with Rima Greer, the lady dancing in the first part of this video, about how they put together the group, and she commented that they recruited mainly thespians and dancers.  It was easier to train theater people to ring bells than it was to train bell ringers to act.

Rima loves talking about this, so hopefully we will get the chance to formally interview her on the topic.  But all of my conversations with her boil down to being genuine about the purpose of your group.  If you are trying to be entertaining, then you are probably pushing it too far.  Just be yourself and learn your music well enough to be confident.  The audience will pick up on your confidence and feel a connection to the music.  Once you are confident, you can feel sections in the music that could use some theatrics.  For example, having the entire group freeze and finger damp their bells can be a dramatic gesture at the end of a big chord. Or have the bells playing the melody jump at a sudden dynamic change during a fast piece to build excitement.  Simple gestures to accompany your music is all it takes to engage and entertain the audience.

And trust me when I say that tie-dye is never the answer to make your performances more entertaining…

(Photo credit: Raleigh Ringers Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/The-Raleigh-Ringers)