Finally, someone has unearthed the PROPER way to create theater: start with the sound design!
OK, maybe not. But it makes for a great experiment.
Today I am participating in Fresh Ground Pepper's Sounds Good event, which brings together 8 sound designers, 8 writers, and 8 directors into trios to create brand-spankin'-new 10-minute performances. I first heard about this project about 6 weeks ago and knew that I wanted to be a part of it. I've felt more and more drawn over the past few years to creating my own original work, not shaped by script or based upon fellow theater-makers' work. This project seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore that desire and stretch those creative muscles.
The process began with each sound designer/composer creating 10 cues. "Cue" here has a very loose meaning - it could be a single event (a door slam, thunder clap, a single breath) or it could be a fully-composed orchestral piece...or it could be an extended bed of sound. Or anything in between. These 10 cues would then be passed on to a writer (paired carefully and secretly by Fresh Ground Pepper) who would write a script using all 10 cues (in their entirety and in the order they were submitted) to be handed off to the director (also carefully paired by FGP) who would stage the piece.
When I got the acceptance email, I was on vacation with my girlfriend for a week at a friend's dive resort (the place is amazing, I can't recommend it highly enough) in Roatan, Honduras and we were diving every morning, followed by lazy afternoons in the sun, reading. I got the email one afternoon (about 30 hours after it had been sent) to learn that the cues were due 6 days later, which was approximately 12 hours after I'd get back to New York from vacation...and I had been planning to sleep for at least 8 or 9 of those hours. Clearly, I didn't have enough time to wait until I got back to New York to start working on the project and besides, I was excited and wanted to get started!
...But I had to figure out what I wanted to create.
Surrounded by the second longest barrier reef in the world, spending every morning and every afternoon in, under, and around the water, the ocean was the obvious choice for what to explore through my sound design. I knew immediately that I wanted to start and end the piece with the voice of Jacques Cousteau. I found audio online from a 1976 interview between Studs Terkel and Cousteau on WFMT; it's all about how much effect man has had on the oceans (fully 40 years before climate change becomes the hot-button topic it is today) and how preservation progress is stunted by the inherent short-sightedness of our politicians.
After scoring my Overture and Finale cues, I moved on to other textures, finding sounds of water that resonated with me: thunder, rain on a car roof, the gurgle of breathing underwater (thanks to my GoPro and some SCUBA gear.) These sounds have a wonderful, expansive, calming nature to them...so I definitely needed to disrupt that in the middle of the piece. I found a recording of a large Xerox copier that I cut up, looped, and scored to create an event that would stand in tension to the natural sounds that had preceded it. That, along with a monotonous bed of room tones and air conditioner hums, brought a dichotomy to the piece that put nature's creations up against the rough, unrefined reality of what we invent.
I promised myself I wouldn't share the images that I had formed in my head while making these cues with the writer, Max Reuben, or the director, Estefanía Fadul, but it was fascinating that very little of what I had pictured when creating these soundscapes was conjured in Max's head. No offence intended towards Max at all! He got from the cues something entirely different than what I put in, which I love! The piece centers around two people, a man and a woman, possibly recently married. The language is sparse, opting instead for a predominantly movement-based piece.
I'm totally in love with what we've created. To celebrate it and share it with everyone who can't be at the presentation tonight (myself included, I've got a show of my own to perform in!) I've created a short piece that brings all the elements of my design into a soundscape, with some additional scoring. You can listen to it here: