Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Deanna Choi – Episode II: Tech Week Strikes Back

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Deanna Choi is training in sound design with Thomas Ryder Payne (“TRP”) at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto and the Stratford Festival.

Episode II: Tech Week Strikes Back

(May 9, 2016) My first shadowing TRP at Stratford is quite literally… shadowing. Upon arrival at the Festival Theatre, he lets me in at the stage door and I stumble into the house in the pitch dark. Finally, a dim lighting cue comes on and I’m able to inch my way to the sound table. They’re setting levels today. I glance at the stage and my heart nearly stops. It’s Mackers, directed by Antoni Cimolino, and they’re getting set up for Act V. In non-theatre parlance, that would be “when the other half of the cast dies." The current LX cue (from Michael Walton) bathes the stage in an eerie, cold wash that allows the metallic glint from set pieces to stand out. I won’t give too much away, but the set (designed by Julie Fox) looks fantastic.

I am put on screenshare with the theatre's sound computer and TRP's own laptop. It's almost voyeuristic, seeing how TRP creates sound cues and flits from screen to screen. After observing him work for a while, I realize that one of the biggest tricks to sound design was revealed in the movie Shrek. In a scene where Shrek explains to Donkey why ogres and onions are similar, he says exasperatedly,
"NO! LAYERS! Onions have layers. OGRES have layers. Onions have layers... you get it. We both have layers."
Layering is key. Layering of sound cues creates depth, adds texture, and allows the flexibility to change the temperament and tone of cues during tech. What I mean by this is, rather than a wind cue being one track of wind, TRP synthesizes a whole new track combining at least 3 or 4 different wind sounds. Then there will be another track with the wind cue with reverb added, or a reversed sound. He has a rule where he never re-uses a sound cue from a previous show, in order to make each show have its own unique aesthetic. Antoni Cimolino even grumbles at him at one point, "Can't you just re-use that thunder you had in [King] Lear? Any leftover Lear?" To which TRP shrugs and says, "Give me a moment and I'll find something."

He dives back into soundland and creates a new crack of thunder, adds a bit of reverb, balances out the EQ, normalizes, exports the track, transfers the file to the show computer, then step by step informs Scott Matthews (the head of sound) on which cue to load, where to add a fade, and which levels to set in which speakers. All this in a matter of minutes, because tech time is precious and every second of IATSE time is paid for.

I can practically hear Yoda going,
"Swift of keystrokes must you be."
I should mention: for various reasons which are unbeknownst to me, Stratford's policy regarding the relationship between designers and technicians is particularly strict. Designers are not permitted to actually handle any of the equipment in the house. Designers have to communicate everything verbally to technicians and operators, who then make changes to the board and the cues. It's a tech game of broken telephone.

As my Jedi training progresses, there are two more lessons I learn: 
“Light of foot and sure of ear must you be. What hear did you, hrmmmm?” 
Once we move on to cue-to-cues with actors, and finally run-throughs with the whole cast, I am sent to sit in various parts of the house as a second pair of ears. I trip around in the dark, scurrying up and down the aisles as quietly as humanly possible, sitting up front in the orchestra, in the balcony, near the aisles, under the balcony, left and right. The Festival Theatre has hundreds of speakers, and even for this show they are using no less than 24 grouped channels, which means upwards of a hundred speakers. Having a wealth of speakers at your disposal means that you can place certain sounds in different parts of the house to achieve different effects. Perhaps there is a rumble of thunder in the distance (sound in the balcony rail), or a bell pealing from within the castle (sound placed upstage), or a door knocking stage right, or a baby crying (a Bluetooth wireless speaker placed inside the crib). That being said, sound is a strange animal that bounces off different surfaces and interacts in unpredictable ways. A sound cue that sounds fine from the middle of the house might suddenly sound harsh if you're sitting too close to the stage, or a cue might be distracting if it sounds too much like it's coming from behind you or from the side when the supposed source of the sound is in front of you on stage. 

Allow me to illustrate with another example. In the opening of the play, the three witches enter and intone,

FIRST WITCH: When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
SECOND WITCH: When the hurly-burly's done, / When the battle's lost and won.
THIRD WITCH: That will be ere set of sun.
FIRST WITCH: Where the place?
SECOND WITCH: In the voms.
Okay, so Shakespeare didn't actually write that last line, but he may as well have. After a run-through, I report back to TRP. The voms (the aisles at audience level that lead to a backstage area below the stage) are a heavy traffic zone for actors as they transition from one scene to the next. In one of the final battle sequences, there is a sound cue that lines up with actors fighting on stage. In some instances, however, depending on how close one sits to the stage, it can be distracting for an audience member watching the action on stage to hear the movement of actors who are not in the scene. I suggested that we add the sound cue to the vom speakers to help cover up some of the extraneous sounds.

Four weeks pass by quickly. At another point I make a suggestion about a sound cue placement but I’m unable to articulate what it is about that particular sound that feels jarring. Is it levels (volume)? Is it the EQ? Is it the speaker placement? Timing? Balance? Or something more aesthetic, a quality embedded in the sound itself? The instrumentation? I ramble on about something or other, and though TRP does his best to understand what I’m saying, I can tell he’s confused.

A three-foot-tall green Jedi sighs, 
“Much to learn, you still have.”
Until next time, Theatre Ontario readers.

Related Reading:

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 3, 2016.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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