Sunday, September 1, 2013

Photo-of-the-Week #122 - On Stage at Winchester Little Theater, Winchester, Virginia, December 2007

Most of the photos I feature in this weekly blog post are of places and either of something I found interesting or from nature. But, from time to time, I like to change up with a photo of some other significance to me. This week's photo is from one of the few times I've been on stage during a theatrical production.

So, to make this clear, I do not suffer from stage fright. If it's an opportunity to speak to a group of any kind, in any location, for any reason, just show me the way to the stage, platform or whatever. I'm not shy and have no fear of public speaking. However, I have never aspired to be an actor or perform in a theatrical production in front of an audience. My role in theater has always been behind the scenes, more specifically, designing and developing the sounds that bring a show to life and give it more layers and depth. It can be as simple as a phone or doorbell ringing to creating a radio program to play through an actual radio prop on the set to the subtlety of a soundscape playing in the background to create the effect of being outdoors in the evening or in an airport terminal or on a city street with traffic passing and so on. Occasionally, I would do off-stage voice-overs like the judge charging the jury with their responsibility from the classic drama "12 Angry Men" and similar off-stage voice roles. I also provided the pre-show off stage announcements.

I was the primary sound designer for about ten years at the Winchester Little Theater, a very active, 83 year old, professionally operated, community theater in Winchester, Virginia. The show reviews often credited the sound design as a critical factor in the exceptional quality of the productions. This was my contribution to the arts and I was very happy with my role. But, one day, one of the directors decided to do the staged radio drama version of "It's a Wonderful Life" as a holiday offering for the community. The director insisted that the show be as authentic as possible to an actual radio drama produced live during the 1930's and 1940's. That meant that we actually did live sound effects on stage along with announcing, music and commercials.

So, what you see in this photo is the stage set for "It's a Wonderful Life." In the foreground you see two microphones on stands used by the cast of actors to perform their lines just as they would have in the '30's and '40's. The show utilized up to about 30 performers, several playing multiple roles. Behind the microphones you see a raised and well-lit set. The set was left over from the previous production, a Neil Simon play, I believe, and we simply decorated it for Christmas. On the set to the left you see all the sound equipment I specifically brought in from my own inventory and set up for the show. Along with it were all the live sound effects we used during the show. We opened and closed doors, walking through the snow was done in the cardboard carton using corn flakes, we broke glass, popped corks, essentially everything we could do live was performed in front of the audience. A few sound effects were pre-recorded since it was not possible to create those effects live in the theater. 

I couldn't hide. I was right there running the board (the control mixer) and directing two assistants who were helping me create the live effects. I also did a short, pre-show, audience warm up to explain what they were about to see, hear and experience. I demonstrated a couple of the sound effects, first with the audience closing their eyes and then showing them how we actually created the sound effects. Each performance was recorded and I took the best of each of the performances and made a final, edited version of the show that aired on the local radio station on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. It sounded great, even if I do say so myself.

So, there you have it. Finally, Ed Helvey, the sound designer, on stage, performing as...a sound designer. They got me. We did the show for at least three years and the last year I directed from off stage and had someone else on stage who I was training as a sound designer. It's a wonderful life.     


Linda Sand said...

I don't know if you've ever attended a performance of Garrison Keeler's Prairie Home Companion but they do it all live, on stage. It was fascinating to me to watch Garrison read his notes then just drop them onto the floor next to his red tennis shoes.

Ed Helvey - Professional Nomad said...

No, Linda - He's played Wolf Trap outside the DC area for years, but I've never been available to see him when he was here. But, I taught these techniques in a media production class to elementary school teachers attending a special course when I was attending Syracuse U. for my Masters degree in Television-Radio. It's also how I directed the cast at the end of the "It's a Wonderful Life." There were too many cast members moving to and from the mics during the performance., Leaving sliding paper on the floor would have created a serious accident hazard since many of them had to move in and out very fast and some were children. At the end of the show the entire cast had "scrap paper" they all threw up in the air for the gesture that the show was over. They couldn't throw their actual scripts because they needed them intact for the next performance. The audience didn't know the difference, because all the paper had stuff printed on it.

Keillor is a real national treasure. He has done so much to keep an art form alive. There are still a few other live variety radio shows - the Grand Old Opry, the Wheeling Jamboree and Mountain Stage produced by WV Pubcast (public radio and TV), but they are different than PHC. It's all changing though. You were lucky to have caught a live Prairie Home Companion. I saw both movies, the theatrical version and the documentary. Maybe, one day before Keillor retires (again) I'll have a chance to see him, live. Maybe if I get to St. Paul (you're from that area as I recall) I'll seem him at the Fitzgerald Theater - what a treat!