ON SOUND DESIGN, SERENDIPITY, AND KING LEAR
One of the great demonstrations of the power of sound design comes from replacing the terrifying John Williams soundtrack in the shark attack sequence of Stephen Spielberg’s film Jaws with the comedic circus music of the theme song from The Benny Hill Show (Yakity Sax, by James Q. "Spider" Rich and Boots Randolph). The vicious monster fish is rendered instantly into a cartoon, and the scene of this large phony shark munching on Captain Quint ceases to be shocking gore and instead becomes something more akin to camp. The bloody attack becomes funny. In modern theatre, the integration of sound design is becoming a more prominent feature because of its power to inform great dialogue with even further emotion, atmosphere, and style. This paper seeks to briefly discuss the history of theatrical sound design, my own application and process in the University of Florida’s production of King Lear, and the realities and possibilities for the craft going forward.
WHAT IS SOUND DESIGN?
According to the Association of Sound Designers, sound design is defined as follows: “Essentially, the theatre sound designer is responsible for everything the audience hears. Exactly what that entails can vary considerably, depending on the type of show, the performers in the show and the performance venue. In practice, there is no single job description that encompasses everything that the sound designer does, as they will adapt what they do to the demands of a specific production. The Sound Designer has to be a master of many different disciplines and technologies, and to have exceptional teamwork and people skills (1).” A well-rounded sound designer is not only capable of selecting and/or creating the appropriate sounds, atmospheres, and music, he or she must also consider several other factors as well. For example, a contemporary sound designer has a variety of skill sets including live sound applications, a knowledge of various gear associated with productions, recording, mixing, and mastering skills, Foley arts, dramaturg skills to ensure accuracy of design to form, and most importantly of all, imagination. The designer may be called upon to render a gunshot, a rioting crowd, a raging storm, or mixing and EQing the microphones for actors and musicians in a musical. The designer must also have technical knowledge of amplifiers, speaker systems, acoustics, digital and analogue effect devices, and a vast array of computer skills. Theatrical sound design is much more immersive and ‘forward in the mix’ today than it ever has been in the past. But that is not to say that sound design was not in place in one way or another, even as far back as the early Greek plays.
WHAT DOES A SOUND DESIGNER DO?
A sound designer today may have a myriad of responsibilities and skills. They must know how to curate sound, to record and manipulate sound in analogue and digital forms. They must have a comprehensive understanding of sound systems and room acoustics. A sound designer may be called to develop sound effects and music for a show, but also be versed in microphone placement and mixing live sound for actor’s voices, orchestras, and musicals. A sound designer makes use of various software programs such as Qlab, Audacity, and various other sound-design suites. A sound-designer should know the ins and outs of stereo mastering. Foley arts (physically reproducing sounds such as horses galloping, gun shots, animals, and so on) should be something a sound designer has in their experience. They need to be able to collaboratively work with the Director, other designers and actors. And it is best if they have a knowledge of rhythm, music, qualities of sound and voice, and a good sense of taste, history and creativity under their belt, for all these components are likely to be called for at one time or another in a theatrical production.
A GENERAL HISTORY OF SOUND DESIGN
We cannot be entirely certain, but it may be that the first sound designers for plays were the Greek builders who constructed the physical theatres. The architecture of these constructions, whether by intentional design or accident, created the most sonically remarkable acoustics. On a clear day, an actor can be easily heard speaking in normal voice from up to 60 meters away. Take Polykleitos the Younger as an example. His masterwork, Epidaurus in Greece and its 55 semi-circular rows have been studied by science to determine why it is that an actor can be easily heard in the worst back-most seat of the amphitheater. What scientists discovered, according to an article in Live Science, Mystery of Greek Amphitheater’s Amazing Sound Finally Solved (2), “…Audiences of up to an estimated 17,000 have long been able to hear actors and musicians--unamplified--from even the back row…it’s in the seats!” The seats are made of limestone and in their configuration, they absorb low frequencies (background noise) and reflect high frequencies, thus acting as a sort of carrier of the voice. Also, Greek painted vases which give scholars some evidence that masks were used in plays of the day, as were musical instruments. We can imagine the possibilities here of some early sound design. By the time that we get to Commedia dell’arte and Shakespeare, instruments and practical effects were well in play. For Commedia dell’arte, the famous slap-stick was a prominent Foley effect, along with other numerous bells, horns, and whistles to punctuate comedy. In Shakespeare, the storms of the Tempest and King Lear are said to have been represented by “sound machines”, basically wooden seesaw constructions which allow a cannonball to roll back and forth over the slats, thus creating something like thunder. In addition, the use of fireworks and blowing gunpower into candles were used to create lightening sparks and smoke. As early as 1890, a phonograph record of a crying baby was a sound effect in a London theatre. By 1909, Luigi Russolo, a well-known Italian painter, constructed a series of noise boxes, called intonarumori (3). He developed several techniques to provide soundscapes for futurist environments, and even wrote a book on the subject, The Art of Noises published in 1913. A little later in the ‘30s, pre-show and intermission music became common during plays thanks to advances in the fidelity of audio recordings. And from there to the present day, we see parallels between the developing sound & audio technology, and its expanded use in theatrical performances. Sound design is one of the most recently recognized craft applications following just behind projections, despite its rich history dating all the way back to prehistoric times when percussion instruments were used during religious or healing rites. Currently, sounds can be sampled and/or emulated through sophisticated computer technology. Computers are used to store and execute sound designs and it might be that a design considered relatively simple has over one-hundred cues. Audio effects can be practical, digital, and can be heard at various specific points throughout the theatre in a kind of three-dimensional sonic environment. And some plays even incorporate a sound designer, as well as a live Foley artist performing sound effects on stage as a character within the show. Donald Marguilies’ Shipwrecked and Roland Schimmelpfennig's The Golden Dragon are two examples of such plays.
SERENDIPITY IN A MODERN KING LEAR – BROAD STROKES
As an example of how a modern Sound Designer works, this is an account of my work on a contemporary realization of King Lear, a University of Florida production directed by Dr. Judith Williams. Sound design is a creative endeavor. At its best, it is an expression of art over function, emotion over technique. There is no one right way, nor best way, to achieve something truly original. But there is a general path on which to firmly plant one’s feet. A designer knows he or she must find a way to lend an original voice and yet honor the vision of the director and the requirements of the author. In this King Lear, Shakespeare’s seminal work was to be informed and nuanced by the surrealist movement which gained traction in the 1930s, and in particular--Salvador Dali. Something about the landscapes of Dali’s imagination resonated with the Director as she contemplated Lear. From the Director’s Notes of the program: “Shakespeare’s words paint vivid pictures that capture our imaginations.” This kind of language is delicious language for a sound designer because in tying Lear to Dali, the restrictions of the 1600s need no longer apply. My first thought was, I will design the interior of Lear’s mind. The interior of Lear will be the exterior atmosphere of the play. As a designer with surrealism fueling the imagination, rules are made to be broken. Before even reading the play in context, I began my thought process in purely organic fashion: What does the essence of King Lear sound like to me? His world is big and powerful. His world is also intimate. His world is timeless. Time is running out. Clocks—melting clocks; enter Dali. Landscapes. Desert. Cave interiors. What is the sound of the aging man? A key role for a sound designer is to come with both strong ideas and, a completely open mind as to the director’s wishes. I first think of sound design in broad strokes, which become more detailed and nuanced--right down to the last possible moment before opening--through collaboration, application, trial-and-error, and ultimately by judging with the following criteria: has this contribution made the play better? If not, excise. My first thought was ‘dark’—big and Gothic. How do I represent this? I thought, atmosphere. I thought, timelessness. I want the musical choices to speak in unique ways. I want the music choices to sometimes put our audience in new and unfamiliar territory. In speaking with Dr. Williams, it was clear she wanted to find the humor and, even in the tragedy of the end, to leave the audience with hope rather than despair. I told her that from my point of view, humor works best against a dark serious tapestry. In other words, I would treat the sonic component of the play with grave consequence. If there was a funny moment, it would stand out like a pink elephant and be all the funnier. If a joke looks forced or in any way like desperation, people may indeed laugh, but in pity. That is the worst theatre laugh of all. It was also made clear that the first half of the play would feel lighter and the second half would follow the fall of Lear and become more disjointed, more unhinged. The more I thought about Dali, the more I thought about the breaking of convention. The central idea of the design suddenly hit me.
SERENDIPITY IN AND OF ITSELF
We attend the theatre with an awareness that what we will see has never been seen before and will never be seen again in exactly the way. A theatrical performance is once in a lifetime for each audience member. They will never see that performance repeated. Theatre is not a movie. Each night, one million tiny things will be different from the night before. Often, the process of modern professional theatre seeks to please an audience by making sure there is a consistency from one performance to the next. And while I appreciate this idea, I also feel it is somehow a step away from the kind of excitement I get from community, fringe, and avant-garde theatre. I frankly don’t want everyone else to see what I saw. It occurred to me that the most memorable theatre in my experience was rarely the professional stages. The theatre that stuck in my mind was where considerable risk was taken; where I, as audience, was surprised, challenged, startled, or astonished. I saw a production of American Buffalo – a site-specific performance with flexible seating in an unconventional space. The room was set up like a junk shop with real junk, and the actors (before the play) were in there and really selling wares to the audience as they entered. The audience was really buying. Seats were in the house, on the stage, and even backstage. There were no house lights, no announcement, and the sound design was no sound design. As in John Cage’s 4’33’’ during which a piano is not played, the sound design becomes whatever is happening naturally in the space. The play began where it began—no fanfare, no blackout, and suddenly, the audience went from junk customers to flies on the wall in an instant. The action happened throughout the building, on the stage, in the house, in the next room. When someone left the junk shop to get a sandwich, they walked out of the space, got in a real car, and left. There was always the risk that someone would come into the building and not even know they were in the play. This idea came to me about working not for a consistent production, but for an original serendipitous experience for actor and audience alike. This seemed very ‘Lear’ to me. Lear was not expecting anything but adoration from his daughters. He did not get what he expected, and drama ensued. This is theatre. I decided to invent a kind of serendipity sound design; one which would supply the requirements (“Sound the horn!” – a horn sounds). But one which would also provide sonic uncertainty. I created two ambient sound tapestries which last for one hour each; a light one (wind, desert, birds, openness) and a dark one (dripping, haunted coldness, claustrophobia, melting, unraveling). Each of these soundscapes ran throughout each act consecutively, and because a living show breathes and varies, so would the soundscape against the action. In other words, that little wisp of wind through the trees during one performance will fall here, and on another performance, will fall there. There will be something in the sonic landscape at all times. Thus, the ambient tapestry becomes its own character in the play, and the actors and audience have no choice but to interact with and respond to it.
SERENDIPITY IN A MODERN KING LEAR – SPECIFICITY
The next step is to begin to define and employ detail. In meeting with the director over several weeks, it became an issue of finding an audible palate of color. Dr. Williams felt that certain John Cage pieces reflected Lear (and Cage comes to us as a surrealist musician). I brought in music from Ligeti (The Devil’s Staircase), Avro Part, Chronos Quartet; very strong powerful sweeping selections. One main problem to solve was the trumpets. In the play, the trumpet is sounded quite frequently. It announces entrances, the beginnings of battles, and is used as a through-line to indicate the passing of time. It needed to be something emotional and organic, not just some functional tacky dry fanfare. I must have gone through one-hundred possibilities, but I had in my head a raw intensity, something that resonates like a primal scream. There were several trumpets that individually did not amount to much, but in editing them together, I created a new kind of fanfare. This trumpet is in use for entrances. For battles, and also to open the play, I found the Shofar (horn for awakening the soul – call to action – ram horn of war). This sound cuts the sky in half. It is a religious organic animal horn blown powerfully on a hill or mountain, and the resonance bellows back from the reflective surfaces of the Earth. Next, a sound designer goes through the script and very specifically notes what sounds are called for. Sometimes this can be found in the stage directions, sometimes it is the result of what a character says which indicates a sound. The next consideration are transitions. This play uses large set pieces which take three or four actors to maneuver, and thus an expenditure of time. So, as we travel from one location to the next, sound or music to play between acts or transitions is required. And the selections should give the audience a sense of place, or time passing, sometimes both. The music of the pre-show when audience members are entering the theatre and finding their seats – this is an especially important moment for a sound designer because it is his/her opportunity to set down an establishing mood, tone, or feeling. The same can be said for the intermission. I chose a lovely piano piece called Danse Macabre, by Zbigniew Preisner. Tonally, it suggests some pleasantness tinged with tension. It also brands a sense of place: we are in the theatre and we are about to embark on an adventure. We then considered the fight sequences. I wanted to lift the stakes of each encounter and amplify the intensity of a mano-a-mano combat that could potentially result in death. I found some abstract percussion and timpani which served this purpose well. I designed this music so that when the final blow is dealt to the opponent, the sound operator can fire his que and suddenly, “BAM!” Death and the gravity of the affair, followed by a sound that resembles what happens to a record when one shuts off the power—it slows down, grinds to an end, drained of life. This ‘kill’ sound is used for all the battle conclusions, and most importantly for the death of the Fool. All these choices are brought to frequent meetings between the sound designer and the director for approval. Sometimes, the director offers a suggestion that does not resonate with the designer and vice-versa. The key is to be both an advocate for one’s ideas and yet receptive to compromise. Quite often, the results surprise both parties in pleasing ways. At the end of the day the director is always right, or otherwise, the designer should consider becoming a director.
SERENDIPITY IN A MODERN KING LEAR – TECHNICAL ELEMENTS
A sound designer’s job now becomes a matter of technical precision. Several thoughts must go into the design because when the project is completed, someone else will operate the designed cues during the show. If the design is overcomplicated, it might cause a problem for the show if, for example, a cue is missed or an actor stumbles. In my design—a complex one—the first cue also triggers the one hour soundscape. Now let’s say a call is missed and the sound designer plays the wrong cue. He must stop the cue and in doing so, potentially stops the one-hour soundscape tapestry. On the other hand, if the choices are not at the right levels or properly timed, the sounds can stand out awkwardly and read phony. Imagine for example a telephone ring. Most theatres have speakers hanging in the house right and house left. Phones usually ring at the phone, not up in the air through a pair of stereo speakers. Although people will suspend their judgement in most cases, a telephone should ring where it is located with either a special speaker in the phone, or by physically stimulating the bell inside the phone itself (we call that a practical). That said, some of the technical aspects of Lear involve the sound system. In the Constans Theatre of the University of Florida, most designers mix for a stereo field coming from the stage. But as we also have rear stereo speakers, we can make use of surround sound. The advantages of this is that a designer can create a truly immersive sonic environment for the audience. The storm in King Lear has been a problem for designers since the play was first written. The difficulty being, how to represent a powerful storm without overwhelming the actors on stage. If you play it quietly, it’s not a powerful storm. If you play it too loudly, you can’t hear your actors. With the use of surround sound, I complied a storm that gives the illusion of power and volume without being all that loud. This required layering of many elements. There is a texture of rain which plays toward the front of the house. There are various thunder claps which are directed to the rear right and left speakers. In this way, the audience hears the thunder behind them, which is a nifty effect, but also the volume is removed from the stage such that you can hear the actors speak. The wind can be heard blowing from one side, then another, then behind us, and all around us. Surround sound gives the impression that the audience is really inside the tempest, and allows for nuance and illusion such that the actors are not drowned out. Many of the source sounds were digitally edited or manipulated. The thunder storm which plays a central theme and primary atmosphere in the middle of the play had to be contoured such that the power of the storm is not in question. The storm needs emotional content. It does not suffice to simply find some storm sound effect on the Internet or in analogue libraries and play it at the appropriate moment. The storm should have an attitude. We wanted the ability to punctuate certain lines with effect. For example, King Lear says: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” A sound designer wants to provide the cause for him to say these words. A wisely placed lightning strike or thunder roll should be available to call as the need arises. In our storm, it was composed of a storm played in reverse (surreal), the thunder and lightning reads for the audience, but something about it in reverse becomes psychological and uncomfortable. The lightning pulls out instead of striking. The thunder seems to suck all the air from the room. Layered over that, something I called the ‘texture’ of rain. It is wet, drops strike throughout the theatre as if on the walls and seats. The sound of rain in many recordings is not always ‘wet’. Most rain in standard recordings is more akin to white noise and not richly detailed. It becomes more like something someone plays in the background for the purposes of falling asleep—the very last thing we hope the audience will do. The use of a rich recording in which one can hear the wetness and texture of the rain is required, and the track must be equalized so that these ‘wet’ qualities resonate in whatever individual space in which the sound is to be presented. Details such as this define a pro sound designer from an amateur. A less experienced and detailed designer might score a track of storm, and when they fire the cue, the audience understands this is a sound effect to indicate rain. The hear the storm ‘switch on’ rather than seemingly manifest naturally. They feel the flatness of an inferior source recording. A pro designer has treated the source material in such a way as to seamlessly blend into the world. A properly designed audio storm is not noticed as an effect, but rather realized within the world as a true storm. It does not make a spectacle of itself, it makes a spectacle of the actors in a situation. It raises the tension, the actors respond, the audience does not question that it is raining, lightening is dangerous, and thunder is frightening; they begin to worry about the circumstances of the characters. That is the highest ideal in quality sound design. The point at which all the design elements come together during the rehearsal process is a long and arduous procedure called Tech. It is here that the actors must patiently walk through transitions, entrances and exits, fight scenes, various ‘looks’ for the show with lighting and projections, and so on. The tech for Lear took 2.5 days to complete. Regarding sound design, we are still making discoveries although the time to explore is quickly coming to a close. This is where the designer sets levels, limits, beginnings and endings of music, adjusts fades, contours the design to match the needs of others, works with actors, and collaborates with all parties involved. Some of the specific lightning strikes and thunder rolls have coordinated strobe lights to simulate the electrical nature and danger of the moment. The designer needs to account for the possibility that a scene change may not go as planned, therefore fail-safes need to be built into the design. Perhaps a five-minute piece of transition music that is supposed to fade after one minute, but can fade after three or four if required. This allows a mistake to seem like an intention. The audience is none-the-wiser. The designer must have options here. Though he or she has taken care and made choices, there often may be a moment where the director says something like, “That piece of music is not working for me.” The designer should have at the ready options that both he and the director are familiar with. The designer should be able to switch out a baby at a moment’s notice. For the fight scenes, I made sure to have twice as much music as I needed. When the loser is stabbed, the board operator hits the cue, and at that moment a drum sounds, simultaneous to the ‘kill’ sound. This seamlessly allows the fight to be concluded if it lasts two minutes or five. What if an actor drops a sword or makes a late entrance? All these eventualities should be considered in the sound design. Nothing in theatre is ever perfect, which makes it ironically perfect. Storytelling should never be entirely predictable.
SOUND DESIGN AND PSYCHOLOGY
In King Lear, there is a moment when Gloucester, recently violently blinded, stands on a cliff at Dover and intends to kill himself in a suicidal jump. In truth, Edgar has walked Gloucester across a level surface. He describes the cliff, and the sea, but in truth there is no cliff nor sea. A sound designer has many choices available to him always. I chose to have a sea gently playing in the background. A colleague says to the director, “There’s no sea there. Why is he playing the sea?” Questioned about this, I replied, we are in a surrealist Lear. The sounds need not be restricted in linear fashion to indicate the reality of a circumstance. As part of my theme is to represent the interior dialogue in characters’ heads, I say that Gloucester hears the sea in his head and so shall we in the audience. One can argue this generates confusion. Good. When every question is answered and every T crossed and every ‘i’ dotted, have we really done theatre? Or have we shown the audience something more like a simple a math problem with its answer? Encountering this situation and making a bold choice helps make Lear newly relevant. Another fascinating choice involved the audio treatment of the fool. In Dr. Williams’ production of Lear, the fool continues after his untimely murder in corporal form as a ghost companion of Lear (perhaps he is only imagining the Fool with him as fever dream?) A designer can marry a theme or sound to a character, thus helping to distinguish his or her presence. With the fool, I chose a simple music box playing quietly in the background. The tune hints poignant and haunting, and recollects a child’s circus memory. Using digital editing gear, I added in two clocks—one ticking rapidly and one ticking low and slow, like a Grandfather. I put these sounds in specific places surrounding the audience such that they are inside of the Fool’s world. After the fool is murdered, the nature of the music box changes. We have the same tune, but the speed is much slower, darker, sadder, and the mix if the music is far back in a reverberated hall, like an echo of something that once was. We still connect the Fool to the music box but the nature of the sound has changed to reflect the circumstances. So, at the end of the play, with Lear holding his daughter in his arms, he says, “My Fool is dead.” The music box haunts the space, and the gravity of the situation is amplified in the most surprisingly moving way. This is the power of sound design.
SOUND DESIGN – WORKING WITH ACTORS
Part of what makes a sound design effective is the actor. Often, the play has been rehearsed for weeks and the actors have not had the privilege of the complete world. No lights, no set, no costumes, no props, no sound. As the process comes together and the elements are introduced, there is but a brief period for the actor to marry to the world. Often, the actor’s interaction with music or a sound effect is required to ‘sell’ the sound to the audience. Sound can influence an actor’s movement, speech choices, motivations, and so on. Sometimes, a designer may make a request outside of his boundaries for a sound to work its magic. There was a somber piece of music which I had connected with Cordelia. I saw that when King Lear is brought in by wheel chair towards the end, this piece of music would both signify Cordelia’s emotions as well as give weight to Lear’s fallen condition. The actors, who had not suited themselves to the music, sort of ignored the music and simply went about their work as they had rehearsed it. I spoke to the director and suggested that they pause their dialogue and let Lear be wheeled in with only the music playing so that the audience could take in his tragedy. I knew that the sound here could be a significant moment, but I am not the actor nor the director. This collaborative process is important. In trying the suggestion, the actors were suddenly aware that if they allow their fine work to marry to a sound design choice, there may be opportunities to raise the stakes, heighten the emotion, serve the character, etc. And indeed, after trying this idea in rehearsal, we had taken something that was not working at all and turned it into an unforgettable affecting moment.
SERENDIPITY AND LIVE SOUND DESIGN
In contemporary regional theatres around the country, the idea of the proverbial soundman has been divided into two parts – the sound designer and the sound operator. The operator’s function is to execute the sound design, cue by cue. The current state of the art method of doing this is through such software as Qlab. This interface allows the designer to import and manipulate his contributions to a show in such a way that just about anyone can operate the sound by triggering the cues at the behest of the Stage Manager’s calls. “Stand by sound 24…sound 24…GO!” And the operator presses the button and whatever the designer has attached to cue 24 will play at the right volume with the right sound. In the past, sound design was a more analogue process. In my younger days, we would not only procure the sounds, but we would play them on reel-to-reel tape. We knew how to physically cut the tape and insert colored ‘leader’ tape between cues to indicate where to begin and end a piece of music. The sound effects were practicals. If a phone rings, we had a button (like a telegraph) and pressing this would send an electrical charge to the bells of a telephone which would then ring on stage. Same for a door bell. And the soundman not only designed the music and sound effects, he or she would operate them each night of the play. At its best, this old-school approach allowed for the designer/engineer to participate in the performance much as an actor does. The engineer could modulate the volume of a piece of music ‘on-the-fly’. He could exactly time the phone to stop ringing when it was picked up, or time a gunshot to the actor’s performance. The downside of course is that the consistency of the performance varied from night to night. Often, the soundman would be running the lights as well. There was not a computer program that had several hundred subtle cues with tracking lights and gobos and all the rest. The operator would aim the light with his hands, hoping not to get burned in the process, and follow the lead actor around manually, often triggering a music cue with the other hand. When the blackout occurred, it was because the person in the booth was pulling the lever from full power to half, to off. Today, theatre functions as a collection of autonomous groups who come together in a flurry at the end of the rehearsal process, and the degree of specialization in each group lends itself to egoism and separatist mentalities which often give rise to conflict and dilution; more a compromise than a vision; more competing interests than Siphonophore. We see designers taking some measure of pride in telling a director what cannot be done rather than accepting the challenge of how one is going to do it. Computers and technology and consistency can be laudable goals, but like the best CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), it only looks real when we decide it’s not phony. Before delving into what the future of sound design in theatre might be, it is of utmost importance that we understand: No matter what the technology available to us, there must, at the core, be a good story. And we must use our skillsets as designers to serve the telling. Modern technology must be embraced for what it can do to further the connection between story and audience, but technology does not necessarily improve a thing. It must be the designer’s code to serve the story, sometimes despite the technology. If you have ever had a scrambled egg from a microwave, you may see the point.
THE FUTURE OF THE SOUND DESIGNER – SOME TECHNOLOGIES
Spatial sound design. Binaural microphone technique. The sound designer having the power to put any sound or part of a sound anywhere within 360 degrees of the sonic field. The audience with ear pieces or headsets. Interactive theatre in which the audience member can create his or her own mix of music or atmosphere. Theatres equipped with hundreds of speakers throughout the walls and ceilings such that the sound designer can take any aspect of a given sound and put it in a specific place in the aural field. This is called Dolby Atmos. An airplane can fly directly over your head and nosedive into the cheap seats!
Or, is it possible that theatre takes a turn away from modernization and reverts to its origins as fireside storytelling? In the same way that many movements in theatre (realism, Dadaism, absurdist, cruelty, expressionism, agitprop) have come and gone, might there be a reclamation of theatrical origins?
I wrote a manifesto in April of 2014:
* "I don't like the self-important committee style of assembly theatre in general. I don't like turning over designs to so-called button-pushers to push the button when someone says 'go', and run the play while they're texting or playing crossword puzzles. I want a small group of people cutting their veins open to make something on the stage that, if it doesn't happen just right, all of humanity dies. I want that. I want that small group operating as one sentient holy God putting on a play. And I want people who text during a show to kill themselves with rusty metal baseball bats."
Reclamation Manifesto By Tom Miller
1. The foundation of the deepest theatre is story-telling.
2. Story-telling is the foundation of culture.
3. Culture allows humanity to live and thrive on Earth in ways and places that he would otherwise not be able to do so.
4. Without Culture, as a species, we cannot survive.
5. Therefore, theatre is no less than the survival of the species.
6. As theatre relies ever-more on technology and spectacle to attract funding and audiences, it simultaneously sells itself out by alienating our humanness. It extracts itself from its core value; the mission of illuminating our deepest selves and our world, of sharing stories from many cultures, or bonding together in our commonalities in a shared experience which provokes thoughts, inspirations, ideas that move us and strengthen our understanding of what it means to be human.
7. Theatre will undergo a ‘Great Divide’.
a. The über-Show (Prohibitive Ticket Prices, Reliance of Spectacle, Integration with High Technology such as Digital Projection, interactive interface, animatronics, digital actors, holographic imagery.) The actor will be the smallest gear in the machine. The corporate committee will adjust the events of the production for the greatest return of capital gain. The art will consume itself in its own self-indulgence. The stories will be Spiderman-meets-Cirque-De-Solei, Rock-n-Roll retrospectives with the living old members of bands performing with their projected holographic dead lead singers, theatrical versions of Jerry Bruckheimer films. It will be a sick ocean of bleak morals, short-attention-span-theatre, explosions, planetarium lighting—like shiny bits of foil which distract the bird yet do him no great service.
b. The unter-Show, or The Theatre of Reclamation (People will awaken to the reality that they have been absorbed into a commercial bubble of seduction and control. We will look to see each other’s faces within reality instead of buried in the screens, Google-Glasses, and ear-pieces of devices and smart phones and electronic interfaces. There will be the reclamation of the soul, of our tormented environment, of ever-rarified intimacy, meditation, the skill of focus, of the willingness to ‘get the most out of art by giving to it’. There will be the investment of deep attention and respect to gain the rewards of the well-constructed story. People will leave their watches, their texting, their saran-wrapped mints, their hypno-chains of technology behind and return to the intimate theatre of small houses, salons, and found spaces. Together, they will take journeys of the internal collective minds. They will talk to each other about their experiences over a glass of wine beneath the stars—a rule-breaking moment with a true tobacco cigarette (or perhaps a different kind of cigarette) made from the leaves of a local organic farmer.
8. Those in column a. will tire of being bullshitted-by-committee and gradually move to column b. where they will be welcomed home with open arms.
9. Stories will be told in all the forms, from the classical to the absurd, from the tragic to the comedic, from the mythological to the fantastical, and the actor will tell the story, the minds of the audience will make the magic, and the lighting, music, scenery, and costumes will be the work of an intimate dedicated few who commit themselves only to the whole of the play as one soul working in tandem, not disparate detached groups whose collaborative roles are dictated by a caucus of bourgeois snoots. There will be the technology of the shadow puppet, the marionette, the lost arts of pantomime and clowning, dance, music performed with instruments made of wood and strings instead of circuitry and auto-tune.
10. Reclamation Theatre will be much like a return to the telling of great stories around a small fire, thus there will be a renaissance of true culture, and thus our species will survive and prosper in peace.
What happens if we replace the music of King Lear with the comedic circus music of the theme song from The Benny Hill Show (Yakity Sax, by James Q. "Spider" Rich and Boots Randolph). It may be that we laugh at a new comedy borne of tragedy, thanks to the power of sound design. It may be that when the Fool is killed, after the laughter has died down, in the quietude of contemplation, an old woman in the audience begins to slowly, carefully, unwrap her lozenge—the saran wrap crunching and crinkling, drawing the ire and attention of those who managed to get this far without turning on their cell phones to check out the score of the Gator game. And somewhere behind an array of computers and levers and dials and speakers, illuminated in the dim work light is the Sound Designer, carefully examining the reaction of the crowd to the woman he paid to unwrap that lozenge. And for the few who were offended by her significant interruption of the comedy of King Lear within the psychoacoustic atmosphere, he was so proud they cared enough to be angry.
1. "What is a Sound Designer for Theatre." What is a Sound Designer for Theatre. Association of Sound Designers 2017, 2017. Web. 10 Apr. 2017. <http://www.associationofsounddesigners.com/whatis>.
2. Chao, Tom. "Mystery of Greek Amphitheater's Amazing Sound Finally Solved." Mystery of Greek Amphitheater's Amazing Sound Finally Solved. Livescience.com, 5 Apr. 2007. Web. 10 Apr. 2017. <http://www.livescience.com/7269-mystery-greek-amphitheater-amazing-sound-finally-solved.html>.