The Electro-Acoustic Company Member
a staged reading of 4.48 Psychosis by Sara Kane
The moment our art, theatre, becomes static, it dies. Contemporary theatre productions have come a very long way in the technical and design areas especially in the last hundred years. The technical side of theatre has expanded to include many different technological advances, largely thanks to the way that computers are being implemented into the theatre. Plays, musicals and operas come alive in remarkable ways bringing the audience closer and closer, emotionally, to the production.
What we have lost sight of in all this spectacle of glorious technology, is that theatre is the one art form that physically manifests before the audience’s eyes. Theatre exists in real time and only in that moment of time. Even the art of music can be captured via recordings, which produce an extremely close facsimile to what the artist, or rather composer, would want the audience to experience. Pictures and cameras don’t even come close to the ‘theatrical experience’.
This leads me to a current problem with contemporary theatrical designs. The actors mold and evolve the text of the play from the first read through to the closing performance. The designs of those shows evolve until opening night where the last edit is made to the lights, sound, projection, scenery and costumes. In contrast, the lighting and sound designs become static, monotone, or dare I say predictable, once the production has opened. On one performance the actor could discover something new within the text and bring that to life, while the same old thunder and rain cue stays ever so vigilant and constant, not reflecting the newly found emotion or perspective. I have had many conversations with actors, and even had a similar experience myself as an actor, where a characters monologue had a specific meaning. After performing the show a number of times, a realization of the intent of the monologue or even the subtext dawns on the actor. But where, or more specifically when, do the designers make modifications of their designs in light of this new outlook, if any is needed at all? The beauty of theatre is that it is created in real time in front of an audience and if the design cannot be created in real time just as the actors do, then what are we doing? We might as well be creating a sculpture, or painting, or another piece of art that is created and stays ever true throughout the test of time.
On the flip side, having a design that has the freedom to be unbound by control potentially poses a problem. A lot of sound and lighting cues directly affect, inform, prepare, heighten, highlight, punctuate etc., the actor(s) in a way that needs consistency as to not throw off their performance as well as ensuring the story is being told. This could also derail the action of the play if, for example, a loud musical cadence hit at an intimate moment of the play, or if a light were to come on that was nowhere near the action. So it requires a small extent of restraint, or predictability and direction, to ensure the action of the play as well as the intentions of the director and designer(s).
What I am proposing is a sound design that is still controlled by the stage manager to be called at specific and deliberate moments of the play, but that the actor(s) action influences the design. This gives the play the room to evolve with the actors throughout the entire run of the show. An example of this would be an atmospheric underscoring cue that is modulated, filtered, or pitch shifted, by the voice of the actor. This is not to say that the audience will hear the actor(s) direct or indirect (a treated sound that is manipulated through electronic means) voice. The point to be made here is that the actor(s) voice would be picked up by one or more microphones and brought into the computer where it is then analyzed for its pitch, harmonics, rhythm and loudness. The computer can then use that information to change a parameter of a synthesizer or move a sound effect around the space. The actor’s voice could also trigger a cue from a list of options that will depend on how the actor chooses to say a word that night, unbeknownst to them. The relationship then becomes an aural atmosphere that is shaped and defined by the designer while colored by the actor.
This all requires that the role of sound designer to the production be reevaluated. Undertaking this type of approach to design would require the sound designer to be at all rehearsals with some sort of sound system that is analogous to the sound system in the venue. The rehearsal process would need to be inclusive of the sound design from the first rehearsal. The sound designer would therefore become a company member, the Electro-Acoustic company member.
During rehearsals I would have a sound system of a similar set up to that of the actual venue. Meaning, I would have microphones and my computer to experiment and create the sound design during the rehearsal. This is so the design can be part of the rehearsal process and can be implemented over a longer period of time instead of being crammed into the play in a few days of tech. Tech then becomes the time to adjust levels to accommodate the different space, as well as any other minor modifications, with the option to evolve a few minor parts of the design.
In order to verify the validity of this form of design or definition of the sound designer, there must be an experiment. It will need to test the ability of the technology, designer, director, actor(s) and most importantly the text itself. This form of design may need to change some of the traditional roles of each of the members of the production, but if the story is not conveyed then the form of design is without merit. So the question is: can a performance have an Electro-Acoustic Company Member and still tell the story?
To perform this test it seems the best way is to do a staged reading of a play that yields this form of design. I want the text to warrant such a design, or even beckon for this form of sound design. It is the text of the play that must come first. Although there are many plays out there that could work with this form, there is one play in particular that stands out: 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane. . The play is written in the style of a poem or free form. It has no specified characters, locale, stage directions, playwright notations or even precedence of past production directing concepts. It is an exploration of a personal fight with clinical depression and thoughts of suicide. There are even passages of the play with numbers scattered around the page counting from one hundred to zero in increments of sevens. This apparently is a common psychiatric test to evaluate a person’s concentration and memory.
Since this is an experiment, the question I will be asking myself is: did the play remain static from one performance to the next and did it make the audience receptive to the play itself as apposed to the sound design? If there is a change from one performance to the next, no matter how minute, then the design has succeeded. If the audience is more fascinated with the design or distracted by a sound and missed the action of the play, this form has failed to be ‘theatre’ and has become a sound sculpture. Keeping the action of the play in tact is of the utmost importance. I believe that this sound design method will stay true to the text and be more in the sprit of the essence of theatre. Thus, allowing the actors to evolve the show over time and have the sound design parallel the change with them.
To read my thesis in full, click here