Category Archives: Theatah

Deathscribe review

Toxic Bag’s own Steve Baldwin was one of five writers whose short plays were selected for inclusion in Wildclaw Theatre’s “Deathscribe” festival earlier this month. The horror blog Terror From Beyond The Daves has posted this cool review of the event.

Phone rings revisited

A little while ago I posted a few thoughts about using phone rings in theatre sound design, and I posed some questions about the nature of ring tones, and how to communicate to the audience that a musical ringtone was actually a phone ringing and not just some song playing on a radio somewhere.

Here’s what I said at the time:

However, there’s a further issue in that most pop-song ringtones these days are mp3 snippets of the actual recording. This is a dicey thing when you’re dealing with diegetic sounds and scoring, because if the audience hears a short piece of music in a play or film, they’re not going to automatically think “telephone.” They might first think “radio” or “soundtrack.” You could make sure the song is filtered and sounds like a low-quality mp3 through a tiny speaker, but it still may not communicate “telephone” as quickly and directly as the electronic chirps.

Since then I’ve worked on a couple more shows that required celphone rings (including a production of Hamlet in which Ophelia sends and receives texts throughout the show), and I found a simple and –on reflection– pretty obvious solution to the issue. I recorded the distinctive brr-brr sound of a celphone vibrating, added that to the sound of the ringtone music, and voila. No question what that sound is, to a contemporary audience.

So simple it’s silly. Funny how the obvious solutions can escape us sometimes.

Mr. Blood’s new show: Sweetest Swing in Baseball

Yes, we’ve been releasing soundpacks for RPGs like crazy lately, but there’s also a whole lotta theatre happening in Toxic Bag Land. I’ve just wrapped up a production of After Ashley at Moraine Valley Community College, and I’m now in pre-production for Richard III at Oakton Community College, but this weekend I’m taking some time to help the other half of Toxic Bag, Steve Baldwin, record some music for his new sound design gig, Step Up ProductionsThe Sweetest Swing in Baseball. The music is being composed by our good pal Mike Przygoda. It’s a simple jazz trio, and we’ll be recording themes for the show as well as some preshow music down in our studio.

The Sweetest Swing In Baseball opens March 23, 2012.

Sweetest Swing poster

What should designers expect from rental theaters?

I’ve been fortunate, of late, to work steadily in a few college theaters. There I find solid equipment, purchased and maintained by excellent TDs. I work with well-trained student crews who can set up the sound system and run the shows. I can walk into tech week with confidence that, even if things do break down, there’s a support structure in place to get it sorted by opening.

I’m spoiled, really.

Walking into a rental theater in Chicago, on the other hand, can be a bit of a crap shoot. Over the ten years I’ve been designing sound in this city, I’ve worked in quite a few of them, and it’s frequently an adventure. One theater’s mixing board was a 1970s-era Radio Shack DJ mixer with a bashed-in faceplate and a microphone transformer adaptor (also from Radio Shack) duct-taped into the input. At another place I found that the stage left speaker was facing a wall, and the stage right speaker was not plugged in—though there was an orphan ¼” plug sticking out the back and a severed speaker wire hanging from the grid ten feet away. Recently I spent several hours troubleshooting and rewiring a system that had purportedly been used the previous day by the outgoing production –though given the condition I found the gear in, I don’t see how.

On the other hand, I’ve also put up many shows in theaters that had nice speakers and amps, a mixing board with a full complement of functioning channels, and even (in one case) a computer running QLab…though the EQs for the mains were in a closet down the hall where you couldn’t conveniently use them for…well, anything, and there were no audio lines from the booth to the stage to run mics or specials.

But see, there I go. This last place clearly put some thought into their sound install. Not as much as I’d like, but more than a number of places. And all of their gear worked. What the hell do I expect?

No, seriously, what do I expect? And what should I expect? If the company that hires me to do a sound design is renting theater space, what do they expect to get out of their (sometimes pretty darn expensive) rental, soundwise? What does their money buy them?

Of course, one very valid response is, “work all that out in your production meetings. Get a gear list from the rental space and figure out what more you might need, and make arrangements. A rental theater can’t be all things to all people and shouldn’t be expected to cater to your grandiose need for surrounds, subs, 4 onstage specials, 16 wireless mics and wedges for the band if the majority of the shows they host are only as demanding sound-wise as The Glass Menagerie.” And that’s a good point…so I think I’m talking about two different issues here: gear selection and gear maintenance. As far as selection, the basics are fine, and all I think I can reasonably expect: some FOH speakers, amps, a mixer with a few channels. A CD player is nice, but do people design shows for CD much anymore? A cable for plugging in an iPod or iPad might be a good, modern alternative (and they cost less than ten bucks at Radio Shack). The in-booth QLab rig was a great find (I will admit, it’s nice to not have to wonder where the show computer is coming from), but does that fall into the “I can reasonably expect this to be there” or “my, that’s a nice extra perk” category?

If the audio gear is itemized on the rental house’s list, that’s lovely. Without insisting that I be able to test-drive the system in advance of tech, though, I can only trust that what the list promises, the list will deliver. Which brings us to gear maintenance. Walking in to find a pile of broken or improperly-wired sound equipment is frustrating and takes valuable tech time away—sometimes hours, sometimes days. Ultimately I’m not expecting a custom install or a big mic closet or infinite routing options. I’d just like to find all the gear that’s promised on the rental list in working order.

Is that too much to ask?

Lighting designers, I’d like to hear from you as well: what do you expect to find already there when you walk into a rental?

Paper Machete: Best Comedy Variety Show

The Paper Machete is a weekly show in Chicago, run by a couple of very awesome people I know–Christopher Piatt and Ali Weiss. From time to time (though not as often as I’d like), I help them out by recording the show for their podcast. This week, the Paper Machete was named “Best Comedy Variety Show” by the Chicago Reader.

Congratulations to Christopher, Ali, and all of the fantastic Chicago performers who have made the Paper Machete so amazing!

The Paper Machete happens every Saturday at 3pm at the Horseshoe at 4115 N. Lincoln Ave. It is FREE, and shows usually run around 90 minutes with one break. For more details, see the Paper Machete show news page.

GO. Did you go? I said “go…”

The April 2011 issue of Live Design magazine contains a fascinating article by Fitz Patton about using motion sensors to trigger sound cues in theaters. Patton points out the very real issue of visual latency in cue-calling (especially in large halls), which is compounded by the inevitable lag time –caused by neurological latency– between when the stage manager gives the cue and the operator hits “go.” He then describes a scenario in which a sound cue needs to sync up with an actor leaping from an orchestra box to the stage, and how the use of motion sensors under the stage enable precise triggering of the desired impact sound.

I don’t know that any of the theatre companies I’m currently working with would be able to afford this kind of setup, but it’s still pretty flippin’ awesome. Check out the Live Design website for some of the results of their human-reaction time research.

Updates, April 2011

More quick notes on what we’re up to.

• Joe has just finished tech week for Harvest at Oakton Community College. The sound design for this dystopian sci-fi play features extensive computer-glitch effects by Joe and music by Donny Who Loved Bowling. Harvest opens tonight and runs through May 1.

• Steve and Joe are currently mixing Bennie Woodell’s feature film “The Sad Café.” The film will screen at the Portage Theater in Chicago on May 22. For more info, visit the Sad Cafe Facebook page.

• Joe is doing final sound design and mixing for Getting To Know‘s newest release, Getting to Know the U.S. Presidents: Lincoln.

Now playing: Putnam County Spelling Bee

I just got done with tech week for the musical Putnam County Spelling Bee at Moraine Valley Community College. It runs this weekend and next.

As it’s a musical, the sound design (as far as effects are concerned) is not extensive, but due to the layout of the theater we had a few fun challenges with balancing front-of-house PA and monitor bleed, while making sure the cast could hear the band. So in a way it was just fine that the show had a low cue count; my attention was able to be focused on the PA issues.

(Of course, a musical can have a high demand for sound effects–my design for Evil Dead: The Musical had a couple hundred cues. So, y’know, excuse the above generalization please!)

We also brought in Figure 53’s QLab software for sound cue playback, to replace the SFX rig we used on the previous ten or so shows. I’ve been using QLab more and more for shows over the last couple of years, and I really enjoy it.

Next, I turn my attention to a show called Harvest at Oakton Community College, and a summer production of King Lear at Moraine Valley. Time to start my research!

Congratulations to the cast and crew of Putnam County Spelling Bee! Have a great run.

The Elephant Man is open!

My most recent sound design project opened tonight: The Elephant Man, produced by Bohemian Theatre Company and directed by June Eubanks. For my part, the show features live Foley-style sound design which is performed by the actors (as opposed to a dedicated Foley artist). I also composed the music for two of the songs in the show.

The Elephant Man runs January 7 — February 6, 2011 at Theatre Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave, Chicago.

Elephant Man poster

The de-evolution of phone rings

Or when is an emblematic signifier no longer emblematic?

Back in the 1990s, when a radio script would call for a telephone ring, we’d generally put in a 1980s-era bell telephone ring, because it was still a sound most everyone associated with a home telephone. Office phones and cellular phones could have an electronic beep, but even though more and more home phones were electronic we still hung on to the Ma Bell sound, because it was the simplest and quickest way to communicate “telephone” to a mass audience.

But that was the ‘90s. It’s a whole ‘nother world – not only have I only seen one or two old bell-type phones in use in recent years, but a phone ring…isn’t a phone ring anymore. Barring exceptional circumstances, you really can’t use the Ma Bell ring in a contemporary setting.

Before we go any farther, I want to point out that I’m not some old fuddy-duddy wanting things to go back to the way they used to was. I like being able to customize my phone ring. I like that I can have certain rings for certain callers. It’s all cool. This is more about the challenge in sound design: what sound do phones in commercials and plays and movies make now? In an office setting, you can still do an electronic chirp, though one of my co-workers has his phone set to repeatedly ask “are you there? Are you there?” when he has an incoming call. In a home setting, I have yet to see anyone using custom ringtones…though I imagine by this time next year anyone who still has a land-line will have a phone capable of playing Lady Gaga when the telemarteters call to interrupt dinner. But a character in a contemporary play/film/spot who’s using a celphone? Here we have a challenge.

With that challenge we also have an opportunity. The simplest thing to do is use our 1990s logic, and hold ourselves back in time a little. Just use a standard electronic chirp, one of the preset rings on a phone that are generally too dull for anyone to actually use. But the opportunity we have is that we can use a ringtone to make a statement about the character. What kind of ringtone would this person put on his/her phone? Perhaps s/he is in fact straightlaced enough that one of the flat factory ringtones is just fine, but on the other hand, maybe not. In a production of Cupid & Psyche that had an extensive Radiohead soundtrack, we used a version of “Creep” for Apollo’s ringtone. This functioned on two levels: Apollo is the villain of the piece, and in that regard he is, in fact, a bit of a creep. But beyond just the title, because the song is about self-loathing and insecurity, the ringtone made a comment about Apollo’s character in the show as well.

However, there’s a further issue in that most pop-song ringtones these days are mp3 snippets of the actual recording. This is a dicey thing when you’re dealing with diegetic sounds and scoring, because if the audience hears a short piece of music in a play or film, they’re not going to automatically think “telephone.” They might first think “radio” or “soundtrack.” You could make sure the song is filtered and sounds like a low-quality mp3 through a tiny speaker, but it still may not communicate “telephone” as quickly and directly as the electronic chirps. For Cupid & Psyche we addressed this by arranging the “Creep” ringtone using celphone chirps.

Perhaps I’m holding back too much. Maybe audiences are already cuturally conditioned to the point where an mp3 ringtone in a sound design will work fine. And I’m certainly fine with the old Ma Bell sound being a “period piece” sound effect. Let me know what you think.

%d bloggers like this: