In this 3-part feature, PerformInk Kansas City’s INSIDE series takes you behind the scenes of Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of MY OLD LADY through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past articles click here.
By Jonathan Robertson, Sound Designer.
The sound of Israel Horovitz’s MY OLD LADY falls into two broad categories: scene transitions and practical effects. Choosing the right music for scene transitions can be a delicate matter, but in this case, it seems that many of these choices are made for me by the playwright. Israel Horovitz includes very specific music notes in his stage directions. At first I found Horovitz’s specificity to box me in and limit my options. Deeper script analysis revealed that these directions opened me up to new choices I wouldn’t have otherwise found.
Consider a few of these stage directions: “Mellow jazz;” “Something cool, possibly Coltrane;” “Single sax, slow and profoundly sad;” “Bach, single cello.” We have two very different musical characters here, Jazz and Classical. We also have two very different characters on stage, as well, Mathias and Mathilde. This is the dichotomy – the pull between classical/jazz, old/new – that I decided to base the musical narrative of my sound design.
I hired a Kansas City improvisational trio, the Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes, to record all of the transition music. The trio is David D. McIntire (saxophones), Ryan Oldham (trumpet), and Brian Padavic (bass). Their repertoire consists of original music composed by members of the trio, and new arrangements of old material. For the sound of MY OLD LADY, we chose a combination of their arrangements and a few new arrangements of Bach.
I wanted the trio to sound intimate, but not like a studio recording. I chose to use all ribbon mics on the trio in the studio, and record them at a distance from the mics (about 3 feet). That way the recording sounds more like we are in the room with the trio, and not like a close-mic studio recording. Saxophones (baritone and tenor) and trumpet were recorded using an AEA R-84, and I put a Coles 4038 on the bass. I printed reverb through a Bricasti M7, and mixed all the tracks individually in the theater. In situations like this I’ll take individual tracks into the theater and make critical mix decisions during quiet time and during tech. Working with individual tracks allows me to send sax to one loudspeaker (house left, for example), and trumpet to another loudspeaker (house right). I have flexibility moving these instruments around the stereo field.
Whenever possible, it’s important to me that we craft transitions like these and employ local musicians to record music specific to the production. It’s great to have the know-how and the technical facilities to record in studio, or in the theater. While I’m tracking the musicians, I try to get special effects from them as well. In this design, the most fruitful special effect I got was knocking on the body of the bass. I was able to mix this sound with two practical effects with great success.
There are a few practical effects in this show – a couple of door knocks/openings, record player music and noise, and the sound of a gunshot. I was surprised at how effective it was to blend the bass body knocking with door knocking and even the gunshot. It also always useful to have individual dry and reverb tracks of each of these.
Working on MY OLD LADY has been a very rewarding experience. I started out thinking that the playwright really forced the sound design, only to find that his stage direction opened up the design to a world of new possibilities.
Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of MY OLD LADY by Israel Horovitz will begin previews on January 11 and continue its run through January 29 at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station. Performance and ticket info at www.kcactors.org or 816-235-6222.