Ryan Holsopple gets mad when he goes to a show and the sound is not loud enough. But what really disturbs him — “I get kind of nauseous” — is when the production only uses sound between the scenes, to keep the audience from getting bored: “‘Here is a song out of our iPod while we set up for the next scene.'”
Sound on stage can be awesome, something that Holsopple and some dozen other sound designers hope to demonstrate in “Sound Scape,” a new theater festival at The Brick, which runs June 7 to 29, 2013 — starting with a free “Opening Night Preview Cabaret and Party.” The festival promises to put these “unsung artists” center stage.
No longer, says The Brick’s artistic director Michael Gardner, should sound designers be taken for granted, good only for “making recordings of crickets, doorbells and phone rings” and “filling your Tempests with winds, your Streetcar with street noise and your Vanyas with gunshots.”
The 11 shows of the festival include The Beckett Cycle, featuring Samuel Beckett’s radio plays, and some work more difficult to describe. See below for descriptions and audio excerpts of several of them, including Holsopple’s “I am sitting in a room.”
Update: Based on the opening night preview, which presented excerpts lasting a few minutes apiece, I most want to see:
1. Theoretical Physics of Procrastination — a one-man show written, performed and designed by Christopher Loar, who is quirky, funny, antic — and much better at performance than in either naming nor describing his show.
2. Julia Pastrana — a well-dramatized companion piece to
The Elephant Man or Suzan Lori-Park’s Venus, about a circus freak — is told entirely in the dark.
Many of these sound artists seem to be inspired by avant-garde theater director Richard Foreman. When Holsopple, artistic director of the theater company 31Down, attended Foreman’s “Permanent Brain Damage,” “the sound and visuals crushed me, damaging my perception, and that was a good thing. They were the closest thing to a childhood memory of circling a calliope on a carousel horse, going up and down, round and round hearing the music rush at me, then leave me behind, over and over. All while looking out at an increasingly blurry world of onlookers and trees.”
The Brick’s Gardner explains how the shows at the Sound Scape festival will open ears to more creative possibilities with sound:
Jonathan Mandell: How did you come up with the idea of this festival?
Michael Gardner (artistic director, The Brick): Each June, we pick a new theme and try to break the rules of theater with it. Sometimes, they’re celebrations of unsung artistic roles in the performance world. Fight Fest highlights the art of fight choreography. Sound Scape felt like a natural follow-up, championing the art of the sound designer.
People understand set design. They more or less grasp lighting design. Do they get sound design?
Sound design often takes a backseat to many of the other arts of the theater. Set design is as likely as not to be featured in any New York Times theater review. But the sound of a production is rarely discussed. In Sound Scape, we have asked our artists to foreground the aural world, make it central to the play’s expression.
Does any traditional theater already make it more central?
In the stage directions to “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Tennessee Williams writes:
“In this part of New Orleans, you are practically always just around the corner, or a few doors down the street, from a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers. This ‘blue piano’ expresses the spirit of life which goes on here…Above the music of the “blue piano” the voices of people on the street can be heard overlapping.”
A typical Streetcar production will follow these literal instructions by recording a distant, period jazz piano soundtrack with street voices atop. But will the designer be invited to dig deep into the play’s meaning and find an interpretive response to the play’s rich battles of expression and repression, civility and brutality, fantasy and reality? Rarely.
I’m not sure I grasp how they would do this. Can you give me an example of how somebody has — or could — do great justice to the sound design of “A Streetcar Named Desire”?
How about this: Contrast the usual practice with a Richard Foreman show, for example, and you’ll discover an artist for whom sound design is central to the work. So central, that he often fills the production with narration and sound bytes recorded in his own voice, controlled live by him at a sound board in the middle of the audience. The rising and falling of music,percussion, loops of recorded noise and effects are intimately orchestrated in the moment by Foreman in concert with all other elements of the stagecraft.
Does putting sound at the foreground necessarily make it an experimental work less accessible to the average theatergoer?
I like to think that smart experimental theater is accessible to anyone with an open mind. But the divide between directors who will foreground their sound design and those who use it to decorate is wide and often uncrossed in the case of traditional theatermakers. I can imagine a Streetcar with a primary sound design, but am hard pressed to think of an example of such a work that doesn’t emerge from the Avant Garde. I’m hoping that sound scape will go a small ways towards addressing this, offering as it does narrative and non-narrative works alike, all foregrounding their sound work.
What does sound design include? Any noise or sound, including the music?
The festival is challenging the audience to rediscover what sound design can be. Recorded sound effects? Live foley (sound effects)? Musical response? Abstract sound? Lack of sound? Tapestries of language? Recorded actors? Lack of visuals? The answer of Sound Scape is a resounding yes.
The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, The Ugliest Woman in the World
Sean Prendergast’s play tells the true story of sideshow freak Julia Pastrana. Even when she died at age 26, her husband continue to tour her dead body.
Gyda Arber, director: This is an excerpt of the opening of the play, illustrating the low-fi sound concept we’ve been working on. The play takes place entirely in the dark.
This is a musical passage from the sound design of the show, representing designer Mark Van Hare’s response in a dance-interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.
Muzak, machinery and ominous sounds from the elevator shaft accompany three characters as they travel up to the top of the Empire State Building.
Chris Chappell, sound designer: Our show ELE↓↑TOR is, yes, about an elevator, but it’s also (spoiler!) about a certain twentieth-century optimism with respect to technology. These snippets, taken from a much longer tour of its absurdly convoluted backstory, exemplify the show’s tension between hope and dread–between dreams of perfection and the realities of technological breakdown and obsolescence.
In this recreation of a 1969 sound experiment by Alvin Lucier, an American composer and sound installation pioneer, the performer reads a text, which is recorded in front of the audience. The recording is then replayed, and that is recorded. After that round, the previous recording is likewise played and recorded. The echo-y, mysterious quality is the sound of recordings recording themselves performed in the space in which they were recorded.
Ryan Holsopple, director, designer, programmer: I met Alvin Lucier at a festival of electronic music in Minneapolis in 2006. He gave a presentation of his work as a sound artist. It was beautiful hearing these deep movements degrading and dissolving in space.
“I am sitting in a room” is stripped down, long, repetitive, hypnotic, and, if you are in the right mood, it is an euphoric escape. Which is what I want.
Lameness of a Horse
Brian Rady, co-writer, director, designer: Lameness of a Horse is an aural and informational parade of dying horses. This clip occurs on the operating table as one horse’s limbs are sawed away.
The show is described as “a solo performance connecting procrastination, creativity and global warming.”
Sound, psychedelic visuals and monstrous puppets illustrate Dante’s classic tale.
Michael Feld, director and co-sound designer: This sound sample, constructed from many different elements of the sound scape, illustrates the ability of musical composition and sound design to immerse the audience and place them within the action of the play. This sound scape will be performed live using live sampling and surround sound technology.”