Monday, December 8, 2014

"Would you run sound..."

Recently, I was asked to design and run sound for a production of A Christmas Carol. This is perhaps my least favorite of all seasonal stories.  I view this season as Scrooge did prior to the arrival of the Spirits.  On the other hand, I designed the original sound plot for this version of the play, and the idea was to have a reunion reading of it as a benefit for the theater.  Their original production premiered many years ago.  It became an annual affair; I always got someone to be board operator.

I was a sound designer and/or board operator for perhaps a little more than 12 years. (Alas, that's getting a bit fuzzy.)  During that time, I worked on almost 100 productions.  I was beginning to feel tired, that I was approaching the end of my run, that it was time to go.  And I think I was right, but as I wrote in another blog, I miss it.  I just hadn't realized how much until the night of the first rehearsal.

The performance was to be a reading.  Actors did the characters they originated once again, except they didn't have to memorize their lines.  Last Monday night, it clicked how much I missed that wondrous atmosphere in a rehearsal room.  The jokes and seriousness, the anticipation and the memories.  I also noticed that more sound cues had been added through the years.

I was around for the transition from mini-discs to computer programs.  In fact, toward the end of my time, everything was done by the touch of the space bar.  The computer program (SCS) was designed by someone who worked in community theater and understood what it was like, what demands were made of the designer, and how the impossible had to be done nightly.  The resultant program is a sound designer's wet dream.  A cue can be programmed to fade out automatically or fade out after another cue has started and trigger yet another cue.  One production I did had 53 cues in a 12 minute segment, something that would have been impossible if done manually.

We loaded the sound cues into the computer Thursday and did a rather crude attempt at getting cues in...hearing what was there as opposed to what I needed.  The real fun came Friday and Saturday, when I had to program the laptop.  It had been years since I did that, and at that time the main programming was done by my editing engineer.  Plus, I was now working with a "new and improved" edition.  Remembering and learning...with the performance on Sunday.

Naturally, I got better/faster at programming as I went along.  Because it was a reading and not a fully-staged production, some of the cues that were designed to cover action onstage had to be shortened.  The director wanted to add this and take out that.  By the time I finished Saturday evening, I had a list of 50 cues for a 90-minute reading on two files, because one file holds on 80 steps or tasks.

We had a final read-through Sunday afternoon.  Some cues had to be changed.  Music to fill a hole had to be re-programmed.  An automatic fade was mistimed.  Details, refining, setting.  And as frustrating as it sometimes was, I was eating it up.  After a short break for dinner, spent by me in transporting the laptop from the rehearsal room to the theater and setting up the soundboard, we had a cue-to-cue rehearsal.  A cue-to-cue is exactly what the phrase implies...the actors read up to a cue, which is then executed, and they continue until someone tells them to stop.  Readjustments are made, mostly with timing.  It was strictly a lights-up-lights-down show, so the cue-to-cue was for sound only.

The cue-to-cue ended around 6:30.  The performance was set to start at 7.  The cast was in the green room...resting, joking, reading, whatever it is actors do.  I, meanwhile, was in the theater making (literally) last minute adjustments for timing or volume.  At 7, when the cast walked onto the stage and took their seats, I had two files, one with 80 steps, nearly 40 on the other, for a new total of almost 60 cues.

And it came off almost perfectly.  What made me smile at some point during the production was that the actors were reading.  Their books were in front of them, they acted with their voices and a little with their bodies, but not really doing any movement.  The set was that of the currently running play.  There were no lighting effects, no costume changes.  Meanwhile, I was doing what I would have been doing for a fully-mounted production.  90 minutes of "being on"...and loving every second.

It felt so good to sit where I'd sat many a night for many a year, running the sound that I'd plotted and my engineer helped me prepare.  Decades ago, Gene Autrey sang a song, "Back in the Saddle Again."  I was.  And it was wonderful.  There's that line from the prologue to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:  "The theater is a temple, and we are here to worship the gods of Comedy and Tragedy."  It felt very good to be back in the temple one more time.

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