Fury About Sound

I was able to see Cadence Theatre’s THE CHRISTIANS last weekend and, as per usual for Cadence, it was a great production: thought-provoking and a fascinating exploration of issues universal and personal.

I had read a number of reviews beforehand that included writers’ mixed feelings -- or downright annoyance -- about the use of handheld microphones in the production, even during intimate scenes

between characters who are husband and wife. The playwright, Lucas Hnath, specified the use of handhelds, saying in the program of the original production, “The microphones help a great deal in terms of theatricality…This is a play where, at times, the most dramatic thing a person does is to decide whether or not to speak. By giving everyone handheld microphones you can actually see the decision happen.”

I appreciate different reviewers' opinions but one thing that I didn’t see mentioned was the unique sound of handhelds. The Theatre Gym space is pretty cozy but, even in a small space, there was an additional level of intimacy in the sound of voices, sometimes quiet and uncertain, coming across clearly as the actors murmured or breathed softly into their microphones.

Presenting an appropriate sound mix is an ongoing challenge in local theater. The big out-of-town tours continually struggle with getting a clear sound at the Altria. Spaces like Infuzion nightclub where 5th Wall produced MURDER BALLAD presented specific challenges. Even with exceptional productions like Cadence’s last show, FUN HOME, the sound balance could vary widely based on where a patron was seated.

Sound was a particular concern when staging WINGS at Firehouse. The story was originally conceived as a radio play that aired on NPR back in 1978. If you listen to the original production (and I highly recommend it), the experience Emily goes through is captured and explained entirely with sound, much of it very jarring and disorienting.

One of the particular triumphs of our production, IMHO, is the sound design by Blue Herbert, a design that includes sophisticated presentations of noises and sound effects in a series of speakers placed all around the theater. In contrast to THE CHRISTIANS, our director and producer didn’t want the performers miked, which required that some exceptionally strong vocal talent needed to be cast.

A final aspect of the sound that is so important is the music, of course. Kim Fox’s 3-piece ensemble delivers music that can be disturbing or disjointed but also soaring and ethereal. The composer of the piece, Jeffrey Lunden, took particular care to write music that reflected Emily’s mental state and also embed repeating themes that acted as a reminder of her life before her crisis as well as her journey through it.

We are incredibly lucky that Lunden will be attending the show this coming Thursday and then sticking around afterwards for a talkback. He’s a fascinating guy with a lot of great insight and experience to share.

There are a lot of shows that I have recommended to people because of incredible performances or

dazzling dancing or transformative stories. This may be the first production that I’m encouraging people to see because of how it sounds. WINGS closes this coming weekend and, if you haven’t, you should see it. You owe it to your ears.

One more thing: I’m really excited about the next VCU Commonwealth Society class that starts on March 15th. It’s going to be an interactive exploration of all aspects of theater production and several really cool folks have already signed on to do hands-on work with class participants including stage make-up, fight choreography and dialect work. Five Thursdays, 1-3pm, lots of fun, plus signing up gets you a ticket to AN OAK TREE, Firehouse’s next production. Please sign up or tell your friends. Thanks!

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