When a company selects plays to run in repertory, it’s not uncommon to choose them based on a shared playwright or similar theme, or even the available company of actors. It is a bit unusual, however, for sound to be the common denominator. In a clever combination of immersive auditory experiences, two world premiere plays that put a central focus on their sound designs will run in rep at New Georges in New York City between Feb. 14 and March 4.
Sound House, written by Stephanie Fleischmann, uses the basis of the electronic sounds of Daphne Oram and her Oramics machine to surround the audience with what the press materials described as a “multidimensional object” that is “precisely constructed yet constantly shifting.” Its counterpart, This Is the Color Described by the Time, conceived by Lily Whitsitt and created by Door 10, ventures to do something just as adventurous: put its audience inside of the great mind of Gertrude Stein.
Sound House’s sound designer Tyler Kieffer searched through other female composers of electronic music during Oram’s time, including Ursula Bogner, for inspiration. But composer and inventor Daphne Oram and her Oramics machine remain central to his design.
Oram was on the forefront of the creation and arrangement of synthetic music. Her eponymous 1960s machine was a table-sized device in which she could insert strips of 35mm film. She would paint or draw on the film, which ended up looking a bit like pre-drawn polygraph results. When the film strips passed over light-sensitive elements, the marks she made would be read and would alter sound aspects like pitch and volume. Laid side by side, the strips create a stack of waveforms that resemble tracks in modern sound editing software.
Composer Christina Campanella recently joined the project to write some incidental music for the show. “The music she’s written feels like an actual conjuring of Daphne, bringing her back to life in our play,” Kieffer said. Campanella, Kieffer added, is helping to combine Oram’s classic electronic textures with a contemporary feeling.
Designers for both shows agree that working in the theatre affords them a level of control that allows them to craft precise experiences for their audiences. “When you make a record or a film or television or something, you don’t have any control of the experience that people have with it,” Kieffer said. And while some bad laptop speakers can ruin a home listening experience, Kieffer values the opportunity to shape the environment in the theatre.
“The space is just as much a character as these actual characters in the play,” Kieffer said. “We’ll have speakers all around and can try and shape the room or make it sound differently depending on what we want–you know, having an audience member hear something from a certain direction, or do they actually feel the rumble of the subwoofers in their physical bodies.”
Sound designer Ben Williams’s control over the auditory experience is even more direct in This Is the Color. Each audience member will be given a pair of headphones to wear during the performance. The goal is to allow the audience to experience the distractions of the famed Gertrude Stein’s life as she writes, thinks, reads, daydreams, and also copes with the external distractions of her time with her companion Alice during World War II. This setup allows Williams to create something immediate for his audience.
“All of the actors wear microphones,” Williams said, “so it allows a very filmic quality to the performance. They can be very, very quiet, very, very intimate. You can hear them speaking in a way that feels like they’re speaking in an internal voice.” Williams continued: “When you have the audience in the palm of your hand like that, you can do anything. You can tell any story and you can tell it any way.”
For This Is the Color, Williams drew inspiration from the improvisational synthesizer sounds of photographer William Eggleston’s recent venture into the music world. (A first album of Eggleston’s compositions was released in October of 2017.) Williams said he was most excited about the potential to do something that similarly feels like an experiment.
“We are finding all kinds of really fun ways to establish some rules about how one reality works,” Williams said, noting that once those rules are established, they can be bent and broken. “A scene can happen forwards and then it can immediately freeze and then happen backwards. All the actors can suddenly start speaking backwards.”
Williams said he feels that sound design is too often overlooked in the theatre, and sees shows like this New Georges repertory as an opportunity to make audiences more conscious while giving them a different kind of experience.
Neither show is about overwhelming audiences with all sound, all the time. As Kieffer puts it, finding the sounds that are essential and specific is crucial to making sure it doesn’t feel like there is too much sound. “It’s more about just, now that we’ve thrown a lot of paint on the walls, seeing what’s really sticking,” Kieffer said. “I think the big challenge is where to find the silence in some of this too.”