Prescription Bluegrass Reviewer On "SALEM"

Mark Raborn [Prescription Bluegrass CD Reviewer Mark Raborn has talents beyond his writing and banjo playing.  He casually mentioned this little thing he was involved in a few weeks ago and we begged him to write up the story that goes with it.]

SALEM, the New Television Show, and its’ 1692 Connection to Bluegrass Music

Last Fall I was in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, The Crawfish Capital of the World, playing banjo for their annual Catfish Festival, and promoting my new Cajun banjo CD. While there a musician friend suggested that when en route back to my home in Missouri I should consider a stop in the Shreveport area and participate as a background extra in a movie being filmed there called “The Last Word.” After my friend made a phone call, I was assured that if I went to the set location the following morning and asked for a specific person, I would be guided through the process of becoming a movie background actor for a day.

Salem is an American historical fiction drama television series created by Adam Simon and Brannon Braga  which began airing on WGN America on  April 20, 2014. It is the first original-scripted series by WGN America. The series, which stars Janet Montgomery and Shane West, is based on the real Salem witch trials in the 17th century.

Though I had performed for some minor theatre productions and even traveled throughout the U.S. with a touring Off-Broadway theatre presentation some years ago, my interest in stage arts was largely confined to my banjo and guitar performances.

I arrived on set at 5:30AM and spent the day more than a little intrigued with the procession of events that lead me through registration, wardrobe and make-up, to standing around a municipal courthouse all day being filmed in various stages of activity until about 6:00PM that evening. During the course of my day, I made a few casual acquaintances and as I queried them about their previous experiences with this line of work, several mentioned that there was a really cool, “big production” coming to town called, “Salem,” and that I should try to become a background actor for that show.

I expressed an interest in working on Salem and friends suggested I ‘put my name in the hat,’ and see if I could earn a spot as a background actor. In about a week, after submitting my brief resume and photos, I received notification that I should travel back to Shreveport, from my home in Sullivan Mo., for a wardrobe fitting. A few days later, my first day of filming was booked. We were bused-in from a location 5-6 miles from the set location, passing through a large gate with a guarded checkpoint.

I was at once struck by the enormity of the production, including a far more elaborate set than I would have imagined. It consists of an entire town constructed to the design motif of 1690’s Salem, Massachusetts, as well as dozens—perhaps more than a hundred—support staff, scores of trucks, staging equipment, catering vehicles, latrines, living accommodations, power supply units and a holding tent constructed of a composite fiber-like material suitable for holding hundreds of people plus the wardrobe department, make-up, hair, dusting (folks were dusty and dirty in the 1690’s, so being ‘dusted’ is part of the everyday makeup process) and clothes changing areas.

Mark Raborn in SALEM wardrobeI arrived for what was actually the second day of shooting for the ‘pilot’ episode along with perhaps 100 other folks determined to satisfy the background actor demands of a major Hollywood Television Show.

My original role was entitled, ‘Wealthy Merchant,’ and like everyone else, I was given a costume authentic to the time period down to the tiniest buttons and types of threads on the pants. Many of the ladies dresses, I was told, cost upward of $5000 each; and certainly many of the men’s coats and other adornments were equally expensive.

The experience of becoming a background actor with Salem has not been without occasion to learn about the actor’s craft and I have even had the opportunity to be coached by some of the lead actors. Indeed, much of the work accomplished by background actors requires moderate finesse, physical and mental stamina, and careful attention to details and instructions, to appear natural and realistically supportive. I see Dead People  Mark Raborn, Jennifer and her Salem-father, Don. dressed as corpses and later part of mass-grave scenes in SALEM

After having been involved in the first 10 episodes and going back for more, I have served in various roles from wealthy merchant to ordinary townsperson, to pipe-smoker and ale drinker, to corpse and smallpox victim. I have witnessed hangings, beatings, burnings, the dunking chair, brandings and seen a witch writhing and screaming a most ungodly concoction of sounds while strapped above an altar—sounds like some Bluegrass festivals, huh? I have been paired with people I will never forget, in circumstances I am unable to forget, and even given a ‘Salem-wife,’ Jennifer, from whom I have learned much, and who has inspired me to persevere and continue as part of the Salem cast.

Salem worked magic for WGN America on Sunday. The network's first scripted series premiered to a robust 1.5 million viewers during its 10 p.m. telecast -- scoring 2.3 million viewers over the course of the night.

The series, which faced stiff competition on the cable landscape, performed ahead of expectations for a channel running on a single feed in only 62.3 percent and 72 million homes in the U.S. In the targeted adults 18-49 demographic, Salem nabbed 647,000 viewers during the inaugural telecast. That marks a massive 635 percent improvement over its typical showing in the hour.

Prescription Bluegrass CD Reviewer Mark Raborn is a noted banjo player in multiple genres and a very diversified writer.  From his experiences on stage with Bill Monroe to his writing for “Banjo After Dark,” Mark has  a philosophy of respect for artistic differences.  With so many things like timing, tuning, originality, fidelity, harmony, appeal and flow happening in one recording, Mark says, “It often takes more than one spin to evaluate so many things in a production.” As a songwriter he has more than 160 original pieces to his credit  His first book was published in 2006. (Journal of the Angelic – available from Amazon ).


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