In this 4-part Inside series, PerformInk Kansas City takes you behind the scenes of Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of THE REALISTIC JONESES through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past Inside articles click here.
By Jonathan Robertson
“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”
What are the sounds of memories fading away? Do neurons make a sound when they die? These may sound like Zen riddles, but these are the types of questions I’ve pondered while designing the sound world of THE REALISTIC JONESES. Early on in the play we learn of a fictional degenerative nerve disease called the Harriman Leavey Syndrome, which affects the language center of those who suffer from it. And that’s all we know, other than a few clues of symptoms in the dialogue.
At its core the story is about two neighboring couples who live in a small mountain town suburb and happen to share the same last name. Bob and Jennifer Jones have been living in the unnamed town for a while, and John and Pony Jones just moved in. In the play the four get to know each other and find their once-separate worlds overlap in more ways than they expect.
One thing that strikes me in the dialogue is the number of references to listening and to the sound of things, particularly the sound of things that make little to no sound. At one point Jennifer remarks, “You can almost hear the clouds go by.” In the middle of a conversation, John quips, “Did you hear me listening, just then?” And later, John poignantly states, “I always think I’m hearing something. But it’s like something in my blood. Something’s flowing through me.” I think this invites the audience to listen more deeply to the play.
The playwright, Will Eno, has provided dozens of stage directions for pauses in the action. Some of these are simply described as brief pause, a short hiccup in dialogue. Other pauses are more profound: All remain still and listen. Or, He listens intently for a few more seconds. Or even when Jennifer tells us, “I’m just going to sit here and listen for a while.” I hear these silences as an opportunity to listen for what it might sound like to live with Harriman Leavey Syndrome.
Operator tool on Ableton Live
To go back to my initial Zen riddles – the sound of memories and neurons disappearing – I think these things sound like silence. But, not just any silence, the type of silence experienced after a long, continuous drone. The kind of silence the Joneses escape to a mountain village to hear. The silence you get when you leave the city for a while. To this end, I’ve designed a “hum,” a bubble of sonic energy that will float in and out of scenes, giving me the opportunity to create silence whenever I need it by simply removing the hum. I’ve created this hum using a tool in Ableton Live, called Operator. Essentially, it’s a synthesis tool using frequency modulation to replicate classic analog sounds. The hum I’m working with here is simply a series of sine tones.
Another tool I’m using is a harmonic resonator. The characters in this play spend a lot of time outside, in the mountain ambience. If I process the sound of mountain ambience through a harmonic resonator, I can add a small degree of pitch to what is normally un-pitched and random. Then, during pauses in dialogue, I have options – I can choose to remove the natural ambience, the resonance, or the synthesized tones.
At one point Pony describes her husband as an avid listener. “John loves listening. […] The other night, I was talking about us being old and, he was listening so much, he started crying.” While I don’t aim to make anyone cry, I do invite the audience to listen deeply and intently, and “hear” the silence that we create in THE REALISTIC JONESES.
Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of THE REALISTIC JONESES by Will Eno will begin previews on May 24th and continue its run through June 11th at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station. Performance and ticket info at www.kcactors.org or 816-235-6222.