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Sound Design for Theater
The Playhouse at White Lake, July 2022
Directed by Michele Kiessel
This intimate One-Act play depicts the relationship between famous Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko, and his assistant Ken, also an artist. Their often turbulent collaboration and the saga of Rothko's pursuit of his would-be Magnum Opus are used to explore existential ideas of legacy, mortality, impermanence, worth, death and oblivion.
Central to the play's sound design is Rothko's record collection. The play takes place during the late 40s through early 50s, so period accurate recordings of Mozart and Schubert recordings (Rothko's favorite composers) were sourced from archive.org. I used Izotope RX to "de-age" the recordings by removing some (but not all) of the imperfections of the recordings age, as they would not yet sound so old in the time period this play is set in. These recordings were then played out of a speaker hidden onstage near the phonograph prop so that the audience would localize the source in a realistic way.
Scene Change music
Red - Scene Change 1 - Tyler Quinn
This piece demonstrates one of a few in the play where the recording was programmed to start playing out of the onstage hidden speaker, and then on cue, fading into the house speakers.
In this moment, Rothko confides in Ken that he's afraid that one day his work will fade from time and be forgotten. I used sound design to support this idea and run a thread into the next scene by fading the already playing record into the house speaker system and introducing analog artifacts back into the recording to age it. As the play goes on, these scene change cues become more and more abstract.
Red - Scene Change 2 - Tyler Quinn
In a heated exchange, Rothko goes into a prolonged tirade where he articulates his definition of oblivion.
The scene change piece here illustrates his idea with the use of a soundscape depicting a black void of nothingness. The seed of this sound is the record scratches, dust and hair. It starts off dry and gradually becomes more overdriven, effectively boosting dark frequencies and run through a reverb of incredible vastness that doesn't evoke a manmade or natural space, but rather a fantastical openness.
Red - Scene Change 3 - Tyler Quinn
Before this scene change, Ken challenges Rothko on his intent for accepting the Four Seasons mural commission. Through their battle of words, Rothko begins to question his intention but the points he raises makes leaves Ken in a state of wonder and intrigue in the way the pieces flow together. This mysterious and somewhat profane piece plays as Ken looks at them, deep in thought.
This sound takes a beautiful aria from The Magic Flute and renders it unrecognizable. The piece is played back at a low speed and pitch, and skips to and from random places in the recording. It is further obfuscated by distortion and heavy reverb.
Red - Room Tone Cycle - Tyler Quinn
During a couple of moments during this story, there are emotional beats of such delicacy and devastation. One such moment is when Ken recalls the moment he discovers that his parents were murdered and the other is during his confrontation with Rothko after he is fired. I decided to support these moments by using sound in a very subconscious, psychological way, where it is more felt than heard.
In order to do this, I played a subtle sound that could evoke the sound of silence in the room of Rothko's studio and had it play on loop for most of the play. It is almost undetectable to the audience, but when it is taken away during these intimate moments, all of a sudden the atmosphere is uncomfortably quiet. As the tension increases during these scenes, a darker variant of the room tone fades back in, as well as a very low sub bass drone. The addition of this low tone, creates an emphasized unease that makes the tension of Rothko and Ken's arguments more intense.
Moon Over Buffalo
The Playhouse at White Lake, July 2022
Directed by Natalie Carmoli
This hilarious farce depicts a dysfunctional touring theater group, as their two lead actors, struggling financially and in their marriage, make one last bid at stardom by scrambling to pull together a doomed matinee performance when they hear that Frank Capra will be attending in the hope of finding talent for his next latest film.
My design for this play was to support the farcical moments by designing impact sounds that were both violent and funny, and humorously depicting the ramshackle nature of the theater.
Moon Over Buffalo - Cyrano War Sounds - Tyler Quinn
The play opens with a second rate rehearsal of the company's rendition of Cyrano. The stage roars with the sounds of war until George, actor and director of the production, grinds the rehearsal to a halt to address the rest of the company's poor performance.
I wanted the war sounds to be accurate to the quality of playback in this era of theater at a low budget. After some research I learned that sound during this era had begun to move away from live foley to reel to reel tape playback. The director and I agreed that this made sense for this fictional theater company, as they would likely not include live sound performers in their budget. The war sounds I used were period accurate optical movie sound effects that had no reserved rights and reverted to the public domain. The tape slowing down and rising to speed were creating by running the audio through Wavesfactory's Casette Transport plugin.
Moon Over Buffalo - Rhapsody in Blue (Normal) - Tyler Quinn
This scene change uses a period accurate 78rpm recording of Rhapsody in Blue, the most popular song of the 1920s. During the change into the matinee, the recording is clean save for some grubby vinyl noise.
Moon Over Buffalo - Rhapsody in Blue (Damaged) - Tyler Quinn
After the matinee falls apart and George drunkenly falls off stage into the orchestra pit, injuring himself, the scene changes out with the same recording, but it has been mangled to humorously underscore the utter pandemonium that has just befallen the performance.
Throughout Moon Over Buffalo, the company has been preparing for their matinee, a production of Private Lives, but George, who gets drunker and drunker as the play progresses, mistakenly gets ready for Cyrano, which takes place multiple centuries before Private Lives. When George eventually emerges in the wrong costume, he sticks out like a sore thumb.
Moon Over Buffalo - Suitcase Hit - Tyler Quinn
George tries to hide from his wife that he has cheated on her and impregnated a younger actress in the company. She eventually finds out and packs her bags, about to leave him. As he trails after her, she lands a sure hit to him with her packed suitcase.
To ensure that this sound came off as both funny, I paid careful attention to the layering of multiple sounds I used to bring it to life. This included a heavy whoosh to lead it in, the sound of a book dropping for impact, the slamming of a ceramic toilet seat to add in a cartoonish quality and a bit of gorey squishing to add a painful component.
Moon Over Buffalo - George Falls Into Orchestra Pit - Tyler Quinn
The disastrous matinee closes when George, drunk off his mind, recites a soliloquy from Cyrano (in a performance from Private Lives). He eventually topples into the unoccupied orchestra pit and falls in AGAIN on his way out of it.
This sound layers in the expected sounds in such an event, like a cymbal crashing and several bits of brass clanging, but I also added in the sound of a bowling strike to add in the farcical element.
If Only The Lonely Were Home
The Playhouse at White Lake, August 2021
Directed by Cindy Beth Davis - Dykema
Performed by the White Lake Youth Theater
The second of two youth theater programs produced for the Playhouse at White Lake's 2021 Summer Season. Finegan Kruckemeyer's If Only the Lonely Were Home is told from the perspective of Penny, a girl who endeavors to help her classmate, a boy known only as "The Lonely". The Lonely is isolated and depressed as a result of crippling shyness and absent parents, and sinks into reclusiveness after a series of misfortunes lead him to believe he is becoming "invisible". Penny altruistically endeavors to boost the Lonely's confidence by attempting to prove to him that he is visible.
If Only the Lonely Were Home presents its story in a manner more poetic than narratively straight, and utilizes a tone that is highly evocative of a picture book. I approached the sound design with these qualities in mind, creating cues that emphasize the gently fantastical environment of the story and sonically illustrate abstract ideas associated with the character of The Lonely. About 90% of the real-world sound effects heard below (e. woodwork, bike crash) are original recordings that I captured in my backyard, as they required a specific performance and ambience that I would have otherwise proved difficult to find in a pre-existing sound library.
If Only The Lonely Were Home opens with the a description of the historical origin of Penny and the Lonely's hometown. The events described are illustrated with construction foley to paint an aural picture of an unsettled pasture growing into a community.
The narrative turning point of this play occurs when a boy crashes his bike and breaks his leg. Petty gossip amongst the villagers lead to this moment spiraling into a rumor that pushes the Lonely to isolating himself. Because of this moment being a source of such interest for the townsfolk, it has a very over the top quality. I performed the crash by picking up my childhood bike, throwing it against my backyard patio and layering the most clamorous moments together from several separate takes.
The Lonely, in his stupor, tries to deflect Penny's efforts by scaring her away with feelings that make him sad, which he verbally visualizes.
The "echo no one answers" is pre-recorded phrase that performed by the actor, that I processed to linger endlessly until Penny dissipates the feeling.
The "long scary shadow" is a couple of disparate recordings that have been heavily pitched down and reversed to give them a scary quality. A heavy sigh is played at a very slow rate to give them impression of a stifling darkness.
The most sonically abstract moment in the play occurs when Penny opens a cellar of happy memories that The Lonely keeps locked.
I gave the memories a twinkling quality by playing sampled crotales that I ran through a granular echo effect. Lots of the background memories (the ones not described by the actors onstage) are sourced from candid videos that I captured around my hometown when I was a teenager. They were selected based off of the universality of their content, consistency with the story's setting and consistency with the young age of the characters.
If Only the Lonely Were Home includes two musical numbers. This production features original composition by Renee Carpenter. The actors sung live onstage, but because of Renee's busy schedule, her piano performance was pre-recorded by me and played back with in the theater with QLAB. Pre-recording the accompaniment of the two songs also proved beneficial by giving the actors a demo that they could practice along with in rehearsals and outside of them.
The Playhouse at White Lake, August 2021
Directed by Jason Bertoia and Debra Freeberg
For the Playhouse at White Lake's annual anthology of short plays, two directors focused on two distinct acts of this program. Jason Bertoia helmed the comedically based first act, while Debra Freeberg directed the more serious and dramatic second half.
With each of these small plays, sound served a purpose that was different from the others, but part of my design was also to weave a connecting thread through all of them with a music cue. These cues effectively faded out the previous narratives with lyrical, compositional or historical content relating to it's story.
Photos 1-4 by Aidan Lynn Smith, Photo 5 by Cindy Beth Davis-Dykema, Photo 6 by Tyler Quinn
Alexa - Perfect Harmony - Tyler Quinn
Kids Voiceover - Bookstore - Tyler Quinn
Wind, Reverb and Whale - Pequod Meets the Ocean Steward - Tyler Quinn
Huge Storm - Pequod Meets the Ocean Stewarad - Tyler Quinn
The first play sees a couple meeting shortly before seeing a show and idling away time jovially by listening to music, played from an Amazon Echo. The couple's divergent tastes are humorously illustrated when they verbally command the device to stop playing the other person's music.
In this short, the Alexa is treated as a third character, and even has scripted dialogue. To fully immerse the audience in this situation, I used Amazon's Polly service to procure text to speech files of the scripted lines, so that they could be spoken by the very recognizable Alexa voice. The provided sound clip demonstrates the most humorously chunky bit of dialogue given to it.
This short uses it's unconventional characters (literally sentient books) to explore themes of mortality, identity and purpose. After a YA bestseller is made nervous by about the potential life they will lead by an envious tome of poetry, they are confronted by their destiny in the form of a horde of kids, excitedly picking them off the shelf.
The kids in question are not seen, but are present as a loud voiceover played back over speakers in the theater to give them an imposing, larger than life quality with which the bestseller sees them as having. For these voiceovers, I enlisted the help of some of the youth theater performers to ad-lib these lines based off of my direction. They were recorded by the onstage mics during downtime of a rehearsal for the previous show.
The Pequod Meets the ocean Steward
In this play, Captain Ahab is in the thick of his destructive obsession for revenge against the whale that took his leg. During the chase, he comes face to face with Stevens, an anti-whaling activist. An argument ensues between the two, which sheds lights on past traumas of both Ahab and Stevens that have proved destructively prophetic in both of their lives. In the end, both parties switch alignments, with Ahab renouncing his destructive obsession and Stevens seeking symbolic revenge against the tormentors of his past, using the white whale as a composite of these figures.
This play is underscored by still sea soundscape. I decided to forgo using wave and ship sounds and instead use only the sound of an ominous, droning wind. This gives the ambience a limbo-like quality that supports both characters asocial, objective driven existences. While mixing live, I boosted the reverb on Ahab's voice while he was giving monologues, to give it more gravitas.
The short ends with the sound of an enormous storm. Whereas the still-ocean wind illustrates the exterior world of the characters, the storm represents the inner world of their psyches. It's chaotic, angry and hellish. To create it, I layered over a dozen discreet sounds together to achieve the right feel. Several different recordings of crashing waves are layered together and distorted to make them heavier. Very detailed deluge sounds are made from recordings of myself pouring a watering can of liquid into a plastic basin outside. I also layered in the chiming vintage ship bell owned and performed by my grandmother.
The Playhouse at White Lake, July 2021
Directed by Cindy Beth Davis - Dykema
Performed by the White Lake Youth Theater
I. Paper or Plastic
The more light-hearted first half of the 2 One-Act youth theater shows for the Playhouse at White Lake's 2021 Summer Season is about a girl's stressful first job as a cashier at her local grocery store. She gets an illuminating glimpse of the ugly side of the real-world through unruly customers, apathetic management and exhausting work routines.
At the time of my work on this production, I was working a day job at a grocery store, and used my experience there as influence for the sound design. For instance, the preshow music was comprised of the ubiquitous, inoffensive pop songs from the years of 1996 - 2013 that I heard over the PA shift after shift.
Photos by Cindy Beth Davis-Dykema
Paper or Plastic is comprised of numerous vignettes where Sarah, the heroine of this story, is faced with a different customer, each offering their own challenge. These vignettes segue between amusing interludes, where a voice advertises products in absurd, comical ways over the PA.
These voiceovers were performed live in the theater by one of the actors, who spoke into a handheld microphone. I had this audio feed running through a harshly bandlimited equalizer to give the effect of aged intercom technology. The clangy sounding reverb was carefully constructed in the board to mimic the rather unattractive effect of sound reflecting off of the densely arranged surfaces of a large grocery store.
Store Announcements - Paper or Plastic - Tyler Quinn
Drum music played a significant role in the narrative of this production. Before Sarah decides to throw in the towel and quit her job, she meets Angus, a long-time employee of the store who reveals to her the secret of maintaining his sanity, despite the drawbacks of the jobs; meditation, specifically in the form of listening to loud music (pictured right). The curtain call (pictured below) happens right after this episode, so the director and I decided together to run with the idea of using music, and used a Purdy Shuffle drum solo because it had a dryly playful quality that complimented the overall tone of the show.
Angus's drum music was recycled from drum tracks I recorded for a past project. The curtain call music is an unused original recording that I set up to test a microphone configuration for a studio recording project.
Drum Music - Paper or Plastic
II. Our Place
The more heavy-hearted second half of the 2 One-Act youth theater shows gives glimpses of the lives of several characters over multiple time periods who are united only by their connection to well-worn swampland dock.
My overall design concept for supporting this play with sound was to create rich, detailed ambiences that immersed both the audience and the actors in the titular place, as it is the very nucleus of this story. All of the vignettes of this play have a different tonal nature, ranging from romantic to wistful, to humorous to carefree to tragic and the ambiences reflect these emotional tones.
In this first Vignette, Jake and Holly meet on the dock in what Jake intends to be a romantic date. His attempts at wooing Holly take the form of spouting impressive anecdotes about himself ad nauseum. When Jake's ex girlfriend, Anne, unexpectedly shows up on a date of her own, Jake's anecdotes quickly become exposed as falsehoods.
I designed this ambience to have a romantic, almost fantasy-like quality to evoke a sense of warm nostalgia that would compliment the nocturnally idyllic nature of this vignette. I recorded the crickets and waves at a fishing bridge near my house after midnight and the higher pitched insects in my front yard.
Nighttime Ambience - Our Place - Tyler Quinn
Still Ambience - Our Place - Tyler Quinn
Fishing Cast - Paper or Plastic - Tyler Quinn
This piece shows Beth attempting to comfort her father, Jonathan, by taking him to the dock for a morning of fishing, as he suffers with the late-term effects of Alzheimers. Beth desperately uses the familiar environment and activity to jog her Father's memory and despairs after failing to remember the fishing cast technique that Jonathan had taught her. However, shortly after giving up, a breakthrough is made and Jonathan once more demonstrates to his daughter the fishing cast.
For this vignette, I used an ambience that would fit this more elegiac story. I pulled an ambient recording from my own library of the early morning stillness from the shore near a lakeside cottage in Michigan that my family has vacationed at for decades.
I briefly immerse the audience in Jonathan's Alzheimers with sound. Beth recounts an incident where Jonathan believes he is trying to pick his daughter up from preschool. In doing so, Jonathan subconsciously reaches for his keys. I supported this moment with a brief soundscape of raucous voices of young children, and processed it to sound distant and hazy to reflect Jonathan's fading memories.
The fishing cast was given a special sound effect to accent it as a moment of great significance in the story. The actors flicked a fishing pole prop onstage that would produce a brisk whooshing sound that was audible to the whole audience. When the cast was unsuccessfully, all that would be heard was the flick, but when the cast was successful, I would follow it with the sound of the fishing reel jettisoning the line into the distance, and the plop of the lure hitting the water after a brief pause.
Vacation Ambience - Our Place - Tyler Quinn
Face Hit - Our Place - Unknown Artist
This piece of Our Place gives a bit of levity to the heavy vignettes before and after it. It tells a far more comedic story with two parents, Al and Brenda, taking their two kids, Nicky and Sherry on a family vacation to the lake. Although Al is possessed by an unbridled optimism, the rest of his family has mixed feelings about the rustic surroundings, and the ramshackle appearance of the dock and canoe. The hijinks reach a head, literally, when Al asks his daughter to hand him the oar, and she smacks him in the face with it, sending him reeling into the lake, as a result of her overexcitement.
I designed the ambience of this part to be as animated as possible, and to give it a quality that suggested a muggy, uncomfortable quality. I used the sound of cicadas to give this ambience the hot feeling it needed.
The sound of Al being hit in the face with the oar combines the sounds of multiple wood impacts and the sound of flesh being struck. But the secret ingredient I used to give this moment a bit of extra impact and comedic oomph was the slamming of a particularly resonant toilet seat I recorded in my basement. This sound is somewhat reminiscent of the Hanna-Barbara stock sound effects associated with their cartoons, and also prevents the sound from being too realistic.
The final vignette of our Place tells the heartbreaking story of Stanley and Sidney. Stanley struggles with behavior problems and doesn't see eye to eye with his mother and stepfather, so he runs away to the dock. Unbeknownst to him, his stepsister, Sidney has tracked him to the dock. The young girl enthusiastically badgers him for a winter swim in the lake, leading Stanley to angrily drown out her voice by listening to heavy music on his headphones. He doesn't hear when she slips off the dock and falls to her death, drowning in the icy winter lake.
The script of Our Place calls for the soundscape to be dominated by loud music when Stanley puts his headphones on. The director and I were initially hesitant to include this element because of how cinematic of a technique it seemed, and we weren't sure if would emotionally resonate or would be distracting. To our surprise, the moment worked best when we included this technique. The piece of music I used was programmed in QLAB to play from the top of the vignette as Stanley put his headphones on, and fade out abruptly when he removed them, and was replaced by the nighttime ambience, and could be switched back and forth with the press of a button based off of what the actor did with the headphones.
It's a Wonderful Life: Radio Theatre
The Playhouse at White Lake, December 2020
Directed by Cindy Beth Davis - Dykema
Performed by the White Lake Youth Theater
This play was produced by the Playhouse at White Lake in response to the constraints and societal zeitgeist surrounding the COVID-19 Pandemic. Voices actors were recorded 6 feet away from each other with masks on and sound effects were recorded individually on stage during a separate session. The audio was synced to a festive video of a yule fireplace and livestreamed to patrons who purchased a ticket.
Since the radio drama has become a distinctly retro form of storytelling entertainment, I designed the overall sound quality to give a vintage impression, rather than distractingly evoking the limitations of 1930s radio broadcast quality. This was achieved through a combination of my choice of microphones and digital effects used during editing.
The sound effects were all created by using small antique props and household items to create impressions of larger than life sounds to support the modest scope of the story and medium.
This piece demonstrates the overall quality of the program, with dry, heavy, grainy vocals and the underlying musical motif of a solo violin.
Ice Cream Shop Scene -
Multiple foley props were used to create the detailed soundscape of the ice cream shop including a glass mason jar, an ice cream scoop, a door in the theater, an antique brass bell and a pack of jelly beans. Additionally, a baseball glove was struck to evoke the sound of Mr. Gower hitting George.
3 main components were used to create the sound of Bert's taxi, including an antique coffee grinder for the motor, a vintage style brass horn and a lidded plastic filing box for the door.
Windows Breaking -
I designed the sound of windows breaking out of a satin bag filled with tiny pieces of metal surrounding a glass bottle that were violently jerked and shaken.
Mary's House and Telephone -
Telephone sounds were created using a bicycle bell and a non-functioning rotary phone. For the sound of a voice heard through a receiver, the respective voice had several bands of high frequencies removed at an instananeous value, creating a very harsh, gritty and unnatural tone. The comedic moment with Mary's mother was emphasized by placing the sound of it low in the mix, with high frequencies removed (this time gradually, creating a physically natural tone) and far to the right in the stereo field, to create a the sonic illusion of it happening on the other end of the house.
Piano and Tension Increasing -
In this scene, George Bailey's breakdown is accompanied by the unnerving sound of a child practicing piano. In the first part of this scene, it is unobtrusively muffled and quiet, creating a sense of space and supporting the quiet moment between George and his young daughter. During the second part, it is far more present, functioning as a disturbing score for George's utter loss of control, and the ensuing silence is made all the more uncomfortable.
The piano was performed by me. To approximate the sense of a child learning how to play the piano, I recorded myself writing an arrangement of Silent Night in real time, using my less than intermediate skills on the instrument.
River and Angelic Descent -
For this scene, where George Bailey is standing at the edge of the bridge contemplating suicide, I directed the water and winds sounds to have an intense turbulance, creating an intensely dramatic weight.
I created the sound of Clarence descending from heaven with a heavily processed wind chime.
Photos on this page taken by Ashley Erdman, Aidan Smith,
Cindy Beth Davis-Dykema & Tyler Quinn
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