Part 4(a) discussed Rules and Judging. Part 4(b) explored Attire. Now let’s examine:
Up until the late 1960s, the equipment permitted on the field was quite limited. Other than “legal” musical instruments, color guards carried flags, rifles, and sabers and rarely anything else in terms of equipment or props. If you fast forward to today, the contrast is stunning. In addition to a much wider range of guard equipment, almost every corps brings additional non-musical items onto the field.These items fall into two main categories: props and sets. Props are items that can be held while sets are larger. Sets include platforms, backgrounds, and a wide variety of other equipment or staging. Several units now require a separate equipment truck, often an 18 wheeler, because of the volume of additional items they bring onto the field. The visual layers provided by these extra items are cited as providing more support and depth for a corps’ “show concept.”
We can trace the beginnings of the equipment and prop trends back to the 1970s. It began modestly, with corps adding new guard equipment and the appearance of small props. Some additions were minor, like streamers on rifles, Blue Rock’s “baby elephant” on a contra, and small flags hanging off bugles. Others provided big visual effects, such as the 27th Lancers innovative double flags in the mid ’70s that helped them gain notoriety as the top guard. The Finleyville Royal Crusaders carried a large wooden cross in their 1975 religious themed show, Santa Clara used a maypole in multiple years, and North Star sported huge red lips and a “pie in the face’ in 1978 during “Sir Duke.” As more corps sought a boost in GE, the trend advanced and the influence of WGI, established in 1978, reinforced it. 27th used “pom poms” during “Can Can,” Santa Clara replaced their rifles with hoops at one point, and the Guardsmen added a replica of a British military guard house to introduce their rifle squad. While most corps were seeking higher GE through the “serious” use of these additions, the Velvet Knights in the late ’80s and early ’90s littered the field with ridiculous characters and outrageous props for those characters during their “Magical Mystery Tours.” Their 1992 show might have been the pinnacle with Godzilla, the Energizer bunny, a T-Rex, the shark from “Jaws.” a Viking opera singer, the “Wicked Witch” riding a bicycle, an array of large cheeky signs, and a dummy dressed as a DCI judge being thrown as the last item in a sequential flag toss over the corps. If you have never seen that performance and want a chuckle, you can find it – in whole or in part – on YouTube. The ending is a VK classic. The full show, with commentary from Steve Rondinaro and Curt Gowdy, can be viewed here:
With positive reinforcement from higher visual GE scores, the trend accelerated. Santa Clara created visual illusions with their famous “color changing pants” during “Festive Overture” in 1985, a wizard “levitating” the snow maiden during “Great Gate of Kiev” in 1986, and then the “disappearance” of the snow maiden in 1987. They followed that up in 1988 and 1989 in their “Phantom of the Opera” programs by not only having the Phantom disappear, but also creating the illusion that the entire corps had vanished through the clever use of tarps and front staging. It was becoming apparent that with the “total show concept” in full bloom and no rules in the way, any technique or extra items that could advance the narrative or generate novel effects could be exploited.
Suncoast Sound had capitalized on this back in 1984 through their controversial “Vietnam” show. At one point they unveiled a massive piece of fabric, creating a replica of the Vietnam memorial wall, as the corps played “Requiem.” The guard then placed gravestones in front of the wall while the rest of the corps hid behind it. A little girl wandered onto the field carrying a white balloon, representing innocence. As the piece ended, she let go of the balloon while hands slowly reached out from behind the wall as the balloon drifted away. At Finals, many in the audience had their own white balloons and they released theirs at the same time as the little girl. This promotion of show concept with added drama and audience engagement encouraged more corps to inject sets, illusions, and/or props – anything that could help enhance the “story.”
To be clear, not every attempt at “addition” worked well. For every endeavor that was successful there were just as many that were only marginally effective. In an activity where designers are always looking for an edge or a way to advance their concept, the ones that paid off got the most attention. If you fast forward to this century, this becomes obvious. In the Cadet’s 2005 program “The Zone.” the magical “door” was integral to the theme, and the Blue Devils’ 2009 “1930” show made extensive use of more than 50 white chairs to create a variety of striking visual effects. With both corps winning championships those years, partly as a result of visual accessories, it would not take long for what had once been a simmering trend to be embraced more broadly.
So, it was no surprise to see an explosion of “extra” props, sets, and equipment in recent years. Just look at the proliferation in the top six over the past decade (and this is a small subset): The Cavaliers “XtraordinarY” with the use of massive stilts in 2011, Cadets “12.25” show in 2012 with a wide variety of multi-use large Christmas “ornaments,” Crown’s use of trampolines in “Out of this World” in 2014, the Blue Devils’ large white “stairs” and platforms in “Felliniesque,” and the Bluecoats massive flippers in “Tilt” in 2014. Two championship shows furthered the trend with the Blue Devils’ enormous staging and “story book” in their 2015 “Ink” show, and the massive orange ramps used by the Bluecoats in “Down Side Up” in 2016. With top contenders enhancing their GE scores and winning with this approach, it is no surprise that over the past two competitive seasons every DCI finalist has made extensive use of props and sets. At this point, a case can be made that NOT following suit is a competitive disadvantage.
As much as many drum corps fans might prefer less props and staging, it is clear that the activity has fully accepted its use. If you go way back, the original effects of using equipment amounted to spinning rifles and very basic flag work by the guard. Those days almost seem quaint and are a distant memory. The evolution in this space has been nothing short of astonishing. Traditional equipment is still employed to create major visual effects, with dramatic and often simultaneous high tosses and dazzling guard work. Now, of course, every top corps routinely employs multiple silks, changes equipment (and sometimes even “costumes”) frequently, and utilizes a wide variety of elaborate props and sets. In most cases, they enhance the visual appeal and help promote show concepts. And, when effective, they tend to result in higher scores and placements. This trend is not going to be vanquished like the “witch” at the conclusion of Boston’s 2017 “Wicked Games” or disappear like their corps proper did in the end zone at the conclusion of “S. O. S.” in 2018. It is more likely we see even more staging and more props in the future.
The next two articles in this series will cover the evolution of Design and Movement.
* Featured Image: Top row – 1971 Madison Scouts, 1970 Beverly Cardinals, 1981 27th Lancers
Bottom Row: 2005 Cadets, 2014 Bluecoats, 2016 Bluecoats
Madison Scouts “Alice in Wonderland” photo used with permission from Madison Scouts Alumni.
Beverly Cardinals Peace Flag photo by Ron Da Silva
27th Lancers’ double flags – photo courtesy of Jim Hager.
The Cadets photo from “The Zone: Dreamscapes in Four Parts with a Door”
“The Cadets at 2005 DCI World Championships” flickr photo by Scutter https://flickr.com/photos/scutter/36974875 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license – photo cropped
Bluecoats photo from “Tilt:” “Bluecoats at the 2014 DCI World Championships” flickr photo by Scutter https://flickr.com/photos/scutter/14745010518 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license
Bluecoats photo from “Downside Up:” “Ramping Up” flickr photo by acaben https://flickr.com/photos/acaben/28089553293 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license
George, you are doing a masterful job, expertly researched and written!
Awesome job George!