Archive for the Performance Category

Then She Fell – My Experience

Posted in Creativity, Performance with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2012 by deliriumdog

It’s been over a month since I’ve experienced Then She Fell (and posted an interview with director Zach Morris), yet many of its moments are still etched vividly in my mind. This is impressive considering how much has
transpired since spending those two hours enthralled inside the show’s original location at an abandoned hospital in Brooklyn. With the show moving and continuing on a new location at South Street Seaport (latest on that here), I’ve been freshly motivated to finally write up my experience with the show.

Because Then She Fell (TSF) is limited to 15 audience members only, many of you probably have not yet seen it, even after a sold-out run of six weeks. Given that, I’ll keep the spoilers light here. However, I will be giving up some details and thematic elements, so if you wish to go into the experience completely spoiler-free, you may want to bookmark this for later. I also know that many of you found this because I have written a good deal about Sleep No More, but I would first like to confront TSF on its own terms and save the comparisons for another post over in Tumblr. If you crave more details, Carey Purcell also posted a nice writeup of her experience.

TSF constructs a personal journey through the life and works of Lewis Carroll. It intentionally blurs the lines between his life and work, imagination and experience, and results in something more profound than either. It is evident that the show’s creators took some deep dives into their source material and surfaced with insightful nuggets from Carroll’s world. (It may help to have a cursory knowledge of Carroll and the characters in Through The Looking-Glass to enjoy TSF, but advanced research is not strictly required to enjoy the show.) Most characters I encountered occupied an intriguing space between fiction and their non-fictional analogs.

It’s fitting that the show begins with a tiny lecture on the word “liminality,” preparing you for the the ways the performance will be toying with your perception. You are taken between the concrete, the uncanny, and points in between with little warning. I saw the red queen transform into Alice’s mother and then back again, I saw the Mad Hatter go from quizzically philosophical to factually informative to seriously goofy.  I was both a voyeur and receiver of the gaze. I was in turns a passive observer and a challenged game player. Passing many times through a hospital ward had me questioning the sanity of my visions.

The resulting experience was not purely that of a surreal dream so much as a journey through Carroll’s waking thoughts, some whimsical, some obsessive, some tormented, others merely clever. At times, the characters would perform passages from Carroll’s work, at other times they would pontificate upon it, and other times still they would bring to life the drama and emotion of a person known to Carroll. The author’s life is a rich topic for this sort of play because there is so much about Carroll that has been mistaken, obscured, and mythologized that entering his world ultimately leads to a discussion about what is even knowable. Carrol’s relationship with Alice Liddell, especially, has only grown more mysterious with time. What is history, fiction, hearsay, fantasy, truth in this context? TSF’s creators are reveling in the spaces inbetween and manage to keep us in a state of vacillation for a full two hours.

Your journey involves being led between the 20-some-odd rooms and passageways which do not sprawl so much as fit together like tight puzzle pieces. Not everyone sees the same set of scenes (I would guess it would take two or three visits to see them all) and nobody sees them in the same order. Some scenes are viewed with two, three, or four other guests and everyone is guaranteed to experience at least a few scenes alone with a performer. My wife and I started the show together with three others and were split up and reunited several times. She had two private interactions with Carroll himself, while I only saw him at a distance. I, on the other hand, had some private moments with both Alice characters (yes, there were two Alices) that my wife did not experience. One special moment for me was hearing an existential monologue from a character hidden from view who then revealed herself to be the stunning Hatter character. I was probably the only person that night who first met her in that dramatic way. The timing was so perfect that I cannot imagine the show otherwise, and yet it is unlikely to occur for me that way again. This makes me very curious to experience the show a second time.

Movement and dance provided the backbone to the action, but the work also engaged the rest of the senses. Dialogue (sometimes with me); food and drink; sound and music; sets ranging from simple to richly detailed; group dynamics and one-on-one performances; optical illusions; and a high degree of physical interaction all played a role. Strangely missing was any specific use of smell like burning incense–a sure way to burrow deep into our brains and yank our minds back to the show when, weeks later, we catch whiff of the scent again. The only reason for this that I could discern is that it may have conflicted with the aromas of the food and drink.

The show was most engaging at the moments when I was required to perform simple tasks. Hold this, carry that, open this, drink that, wear this, place these flower petals into this small box contraption and turn the crank, etc. And, of course, when given food and drink (both savory and sweet) it was difficult to not be pulled into the moment. I recall a savory tart, an herbal cocktail, a chocolate truffle, a wine-based concoction, and, of course, hot tea several times over.

While I did not view the show as being a game as such, a good deal of gameification must have been employed in the making of it. Planning out the many tracks so that each person has a full, balanced, and continuous experience must have been a true challenge. From my view, everything flowed smoothly and seamlessly. There were a couple moments of downtime here and there but the sets and visible action made even those moments worthwhile.

I would describe the set design as both sparing and lavish. Each room had just enough detail to convey a sense of place and a mood without appearing cluttered. There was the occasional drawer or cabinet to explore. Each guest was given a ring of keys and told to keep them throughout their journey. Sometimes they proved useful to reveal details of the set, sometimes they were an amusing red herring.

When the performers would dance and fling themselves around such small rooms, I sometimes felt an element of danger–both from the possibility of being hit by a stray elbow and from the sense that I was intruding into someone’s private space. When alone in a small room with a performer, I felt a rare sense of focus and presence. Intimacy was conjured by keeping things small, close, real.

The overall tone was more upbeat than I expected. Maybe it was the set of expectations I brought to it, combined with the fact that I came from the ScareHouse dress rehearsals just a few days earlier. The ScareHouse is about as dark and disturbing as things get, so my internal darkness tolerance mechanism was calibrated for something much worse. However, my wife, who has a much lower threshold for creepiness, enjoyed herself without much stress. There was as much charm, whimsy, and humor as there was darkness.

This was also true of the music, which was a folksy mix of accordion, guitar, banjo, harmonica, clarinet, violin, bass, and voice. The recording was produced to be very direct, rather than thickened with layers of ambience and reverb, which added to the close and intimate feel of the show. One haunting passage with synth and delayed percussion stands out as if someone is tapping at a door down a long hallway. The action throughout the show was unified and synced to the same soundtrack, so each passage provides the backdrop to a number of simultaneous scenes. One very nice touch was a song with lyrics which, I’m told, were sung live by one of the performers. As I heard them sung, I saw the words being written down by another performer into a
private journal.

All in all, the mood was way less terrifying than any experience set in an abandoned hospital deserves to be. I get the sense that Third Rail’s DNA does not include a dark spiral of terror. As a group, they strike me as upbeat, cheery, supportive folks who end up keeping things on the lighter side even as they dive into darker material. Carroll’s tale of desire and obsession could easily have lead into some very dark places, but as Third Rail allows themselves to be obsessed with their work, they end up channelling their energies to positive ends. During your journey through TSF, your are shown an appreciation for artistic and personal obsession that is not betrayed by angst or cynicism. You may be haunted, but not horrified. At the end of the day, that may be the show’s greatest gift.

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Interview with Zach Morris, Director of Then She Fell

Posted in Creativity, Performance, Soundscapes with tags , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2012 by deliriumdog

I first caught wind of Third Rail Productions when my ScareHouse friends told me tales of a Steampunk Haunted House in NYC. When I looked them up this year, I discovered that they were developing an even more ambitious piece of experiential theater titled Then She Fell. Based on the life and works of Lewis Carroll, Then She Fell steeps no more than 15 audience members in an intimate setting in which all senses are engaged. Audience members view scenes alone or in small groups and are often encouraged to interact with the performers and their surroundings, even consuming cocktails and confections along the way.

Those of you following my fascination with Sleep No More (and recent writeup of STRATA) will understand why I would be interested in understanding how Then She Fell came about. It seems to me a natural evolution to go from a haunted house to a longer, immersive theatrical experience but this is the first I have heard of it actually happening.

Director and world-building visionary, Zach Morris, paused during a very busy opening week to answer a few questions about this enticing new work.

Glenn: As I understand it, Then She Fell is an outgrowth, in part, from your earlier work on the Steampunk Haunted House. What aspects of the haunt applied directly to Then She Fell? What aspects were completely new, different, and/or challenging?

Zach: Third Rail started the Steampunk Haunted House for two reasons: 1) to continue to reimagine ways that contemporary art and performance could be reframed in alternate , perhaps more accessible contexts and 2) because we have long been obsessed with the idea of ‘world-making’ – creating dense, saturated performance and installation environments that allow our audience to really get lost within a piece. At its heart, Then She Fell is an extension of both of those impulses. It is a next step in our company’s dedication to making performance works in non-traditional contexts and is an opportunity to create a longer, denser, deeper and more multifaceted world for our audiences.

In particular, we are excited about creating an incredibly intimate experience for our audience. One that is multi-sensory, affords more opportunity for exploration, and lasts long enough for the audience to really get immersed in the world.

Glenn: In addition to Lewis Carroll, what material did you draw on for inspiration?

Zach: Really, this piece is borne almost entirely out of our explorations of Lewis Carroll’s writings and, in particular his life and relationship with Alice Liddell- the “real” Alice. The classic Alice texts along with the mysterious and complicated biographies of Carroll and Alice gave us ample fodder to create an intricate, interconnected narrative/thematic web that the audience gets to discover over the course of their explorations.

Glenn: What will you use in the way of sound and music for the piece? Any new compositions? What role did music and sound play in your development of the work? Did the music predate the choreography or vice-versa?

Zach: Sean Hagerty (working with collaborating musicians Isaiah Singer and Brian Olin) have created an amazing, original score for the work. One aspect that’s particularly exciting about the soundscape is that every environment has its own carefully designed mix of audio elements to give every scene, every room its own unique mood. The music was largely composed in response to the themes we were working with and movement material we were creating, though we did have a couple “jam sessions” early on where the musicians were improvising based off of the movement material we were doing, and likewise the performers responded to the sound. As we’ve developed the work, the movement and the music have become increasingly intertwined: choreography adapting to what is happening musically, and vice versa.

Glenn: I know a number of Sleep No More fans who will be attending the show. The folks at Punchdrunk actively avoid comparisons of SNM to a haunted house. Are you still embracing your haunted house pedigree? Are there still elements of horror?

Zach: Then She Fell is, in many ways, a culmination of the explorations we’ve been doing with immersive performance and environmental installation over the last five years. We have always wanted to create a work where our audiences could really explore the immersive worlds we create, giving a deeper experience then the short duration experience that is necessitated by a haunted house format. While Then She Fell is not a haunted house, it is an expanded, deepened, more complex, more lavish iteration of the immersive theatrical experiences that our audiences have come to love in the Haunted Houses of years past.

Glenn: Did Sleep No More’s success inspire or embolden you in any way, or would your current evolution have happened regardless?

Zach: I feel that there has been a surge in immersive performance that’s been bubbling here in NYC for many years– but I’ve really felt it in the last 5 years. I think there are a number of reasons for this, but can only really speak about why Third Rail started working in this form.

Our focus has always been on reimagining ways to present contemporary art and performance…and on listening to the pulse of our rapidly changing culture to determine what the most resonant frames/contexts might be. In our increasingly mediated, digitized world I think that people have started craving real, ‘tactile’ experiences. We spend so much of our lives staring at screens (ostensibly, prosceniums) that when we go to the theater, we sometimes find ourselves craving something different. Third Rail’s interest in creating immersive or exploratory experiences arose from this desire.

I see a parallel movement from a lot of other artists who, like us, have been working in site-specific performance and/or the creation of installation environments. I think that the success of recent immersive/ambulatory projects has everything to do with the fact that audiences have started seeking out non-traditional performance experiences. I see the success of Third Rail’s immersive projects as well as events like Too Shy to Stare, Hotel Savoy, Sleep No More, the Tenant, Accomplice Theater’s various projects (just to name a few!) as an indication of this turning tide.

Glenn: Experiencing such a lavish-looking show with only 14 other audience members seems like a rare treat. Were you ever tempted to “scale up” the show so more people could see it and you could sell more tickets? How did you settle on 15? Do you believe the small-audience model could be sustainable over a longer period of time by ticket sales alone?

Zach: The personal, intimate experience that each audience member gets is at the heart of Then She Fell. It has taken us almost two years to create this work, and most of that was spent figuring out how to create a work where every audience member’s experience was meticulously designed. We hope that it is, as you say a “rare treat” to have this type of experience…and believe that the small-audience model will be something that can be sustained over time.

Glenn: Congrats on the sold out, extended run. Any chance it will be extended further, or re-created again somewhere else?

Zach: The response has been utterly overwhelming and we ARE currently working on finding ways to add more shows so stay tuned! All information about added performances can be found at thenshefell.com

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Thanks, Zach. I’ll be attending the show on October 12th and will post a write-up of my experience. In the meantime, some low-spoiler first impressions are available from Dan Dickinson and Kathryn Yu. Both attended a preview as a perk for supporting Third Rail’s Kickstarter campaign for the show.

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Follow Glenn Ricci / Delirium Dog on Twitter and Facebook.

Sleep No More Episode of The ScareHouse Podcast

Posted in Performance, Scarehouse with tags , , on July 24, 2012 by deliriumdog

Here is the companion post to the episode of The ScareHouse Podcast in which I interviewed Careena Melia and a panel of Sleep No More “experts.” Click the link to listen, then click around this post for more info.

Please heed the WARNING I make during the introduction about spoilers and the value of first seeing the show knowing NOTHING about it!

The panel members (Kathryn, Allison, and Evan) were among the first people I noticed blogging about Sleep No More last year when I first became interested in the show. After connecting with and following them online for a few months, they all struck me as just the sort of witty, intelligent types you’d want to listen to in a podcast. And I was right! I’m happy to be able to share our discussion with you all.

Image

Careena Melia (above) was incredibly gracious about granting the interview. It took a few volleys between the Punchdrunk media outreach arm and I, and some persistence on my end to schedule it, but I think that’s a good thing. Glad they were doing something to make sure I was serious and not just some hapless dude with a microphone. As far as I know, nobody has done an audio interview at any length with a performer in the show, so I’m very proud to be able to bring this to you.

I recorded all of this in the first week of July 2012, when I visited the show three nights in a row. My conversation with Careena happened a couple hours before the July 3rd performance. The interview with the panel was recorded two days later, which was nice because we could all listen and respond to Careena’s interview.

Your handy guide to the podcast:

See Careena Melia‘s personal site for more background and photos. She’s also on: Facebook | Twitter

Evan Matthew Cobb’s blog, “Scortched the Snake,” is a great aggregator of all things Sleep No More. For newbies and experienced viewers alike, it’s worth a daily visit. Also on: Facebook | Twitter

Allison Meier has covered Sleep No More in “Allez, Allie!” her wonderful blog about art and travel in NYC and abroad. She’s also on Twitter.

Kathryn Yu is a photographer who frequently tweets and tumblrs about Sleep No More, food, cocktails, and other things hip and novel.

Unless it directly relates to sound, I have been posting my Sleep No More experiences on my Tumblr blog of the same name.

Most Sleep No More blogs (and there are many) have gravitated to Tumblr, so a search for “Sleep No More” there will turn up many other sources, voices, and stories all singing the show’s praises.

If you’re looking for a more official introduction, here is the New York Times review that drew a lot of us in.

Studio 360 spoke to the show’s director Felix Barrett early in the show’s run. Worth a listen.

Then of course, there is the show’s official web site. And naturally: Facebook | Twitter

Music heard in this podcast: Vortex and Delirium Philharmonic by Delirium Dog.

If you see the show, drop me a line somewhere (see below) and let me know what you think!
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Follow Delirium Dog on Twitter and Facebook.
 

The Sounds of Sleep No More: Revisited

Posted in Creativity, Music, Performance, Soundscapes with tags , , , , on May 8, 2012 by deliriumdog

I’ve had another visit (#4 for me) to the McKittrick since my first commentary about the sound design to Sleep No More. My initial thesis was that while the soundtrack melded beautifully with the other elements of the show, it was among the least ground breaking aspects of the production. I noted that much, if not all, of the music is taken from pre-exisitng recordings, which is a common practice for plays. The reason this is surprising is because SNM is no common play production. Boundaries are stretched, envelopes are pushed, and genres are bent every which way when it comes to the action, presentation, and set design…but not so much for the soundtrack.

[Note: I have since posted a response of sorts from the producers themselves in which they explain how the music itself inspired them.]

To be clear: this is not a value judgement. I think the soundtrack is aesthetically beautiful, lovingly constructed, melds wonderfully with the visuals, and represents a great amount of hard work on behalf of Stephen Dobbie and anyone who helped with the installation. If you read my first post, you will see a good deal of praise for what they’ve done.

So did that thesis hold up as I listened through once again? Basically yes, but I heard some things that complicate my original take. Overall, I was impressed about how well the soundtrack holds up to repeat listening. More on that in a bit.

That Whole REMIXED Thing

First, a response to reports I’ve read about the April 1st REMIXED show.  When I first read the invitation to the show, I was hearing in my head all kinds of ways one could mash up the existing soundtrack with elements of modern electronica. (Trip hop rendition of “Is That All There Is,” anyone?) Sounds like my little fantasy, perhaps, but it was inspired by the fact that the SNM New Year’s party DJ reportedly did something similar to that. (Lest anyone thinks I’m angling for Punchdrunk/Emersive to hire me for their next Remix–which I won’t discourage–I wonder why they didn’t just find that guy to do the remix.) Initially, I was desperately jealous of everyone who scored tickets for that event. I figured Punchdrunk and Emursive would prove me wrong by crafting a totally mind-blowing new soundtrack.

But no. For REMIXED they reached no further than pop songs from the 80’s. Some guests were impressed by their selections, others were nonplussed or disappointed. (I become mostly depressed by 80’s music, so I was no longer jealous after reading this news.) At best, seeing a dance set to Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight” would have produced in me a kind of sugar high that would have me crashing shortly after the giant drum fill kicks in. I’ve always been jealous of friends who snap into fits of pure nostalgic ecstasy every time they hear Mr. Mister or Chaka Khan or [insert favorite 80’s one-hit wonder here], but I just don’t have that in me. Surely it’s my loss.

Hey, while we’re digressing: remember 1985 when Phil Collins was pretty much the coolest guy in the wide world of music? Difficult to do now, isn’t it?

RELATED: Delirium Philharmonic
ReMixing electronica with the Philadelphia Philharmonic

Anyway…

In my previous article, I pictured the show’s producers being fans of certain film soundtracks and songs and, rather than working with a composer to create something new, using those very same recordings in their new original work. Call it an homage, call it appropriation, call it whatever you want, but with REMIXED that still appears to be their primary mode of soundtrack design. Of course, if they were to take the time to do something truly new and brilliant, one would hope it would be used for more than one night. It was an April Fools joke, after all, so I’m probably overstating my case.

Our Regularly Scheduled Soundtrack

Okay, back to the original soundtrack that they’ve used nightly for over a year. My respect for all aspects of the soundtrack increased during the 4th listen. Here are a few additional details I noticed:

My best guess is that few, if any, of the soundtrack elements were used verbatim. I noticed more manipulation, especially in some of the old crooner tunes, like an added  “preverb” effect (a kind of reverse echo) added to the vocal range to evoke a ghostly quality. Some additional vinyl scratchiness may have been added to some tracks. Some tracks have more than one sound layered upon another. A friend who attended with me claims to have heard a piece from the Halloween movie soundtrack that was manipulated to fill more time than the length of the original track. In all these respects, each musical piece is treated like a sampling of sound to be woven into a larger ambient soundscape rather than a solitary composition.

The result of all these pieces stitched together–running in parallel in multiple spaces at the same time–is a huge 4-D woven quilt of sound. A collage. A pastiche that, taken as a whole, can be seen as a new orginal work.

Each track flows so seamlessly into the next that I suspect the whole soundtrack was carefully mixed and mastered so that all the songs play well together. (That is, each track was tweaked so the overall volume, loudness, and EQ was consistent.) Nothing distracted me, jumped out at me in a bad way, or took me away from the experience in any manner. This is a great feat in and of itself.

I cannot place where the soundtrack to the banquet scene comes from, and it sounds like an original amalgam of different sounds. I remember one moment when the track was droning down in the lower registers and a high-pitched violin slide cut through the din. A man in front of me looked around to figure out where that sound came from. It leaped out of  the mix so much he thought it came from another source. I love it when that happens.

While I was keeping an occasional eye out for speaker installations, I was never distracted by their placement. However, some were clearly visible. I approve of that visual compromise because the sound is always clear and immediate. The system sounds great.

There was some bleed between sounds every now and then, but I consider that a feature not a bug. I avoided the witches’ rave this time (curious what was happening at the same time) and could hear the pulsing kick drum in other rooms and other floors. I was more likely to notice footsteps from the floor above–a natural sound that added a lot to my awareness of multiple planes of action.

I continued to notice the characters reacting to subtleties (and not-so-subtleties) in the music. It’s clear that the performers have heard the pieces enough to be able to react and anticipate each dramatic flourish and use them to their advantage. I was reminded of this phenomenon when the hostess in the bar, who surely had heard many times the music that’s piped in before the band plays, sang a line in the music just moments before the vocalist in the recording sang the same.

This soundtrack is in the performers’ blood now. They probably dream it at night and inadvertently hum it during the day. Of course they would be responding to it in their performance in all kinds of ways. It’s impossible to discern from my standpoint what may have been the originally drafted choreography and what has developed over time in response to the music. All of the action feels both structured and organic at the same time so I do not even try to figure it out and just enjoy what I’m seeing.

Taking these additional observations into account, I’m still trying to decide if it even matters that no new music was created explicitly for Sleep No More. My bias is so much in the direction of incorporating original music into any new work that I can’t completely let it go. To me, being original and groundbreaking means that the music should be made mostly from scratch. However, the soundtrack as it is truly works and is difficult to criticize on it’s own terms. I have only read praise for it and I doubt many visitors to the McKittrick will give it a second thought. I imagine most people feel and intuit exactly what the producers intended. It’s hard to fault them for that.

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The Sounds of Sleep No More (Part One)

Posted in Creativity, Performance, Soundscapes with tags , , , , , , on March 6, 2012 by deliriumdog

I’ve been meaning to write something about Sleep No More, the experiential play/haunted house/adventure game/so much more. It’s Macbeth by way of Hitchcock and Lynch. It’s 100,000 square feet of gorgeously designed sets that you are free to explore, masked and silent, with other audience members who are also instructed to remain masked and silent. You encounter characters in the story (who you recognize because they’re not wearing masks) and choose whether or not to follow. There is very little speaking, so most communication between characters is done with action and dance. Really cool dance, mind you. I admit I do not have an innate appreciation for dance, but the tight choreography, often in small spaces among the audience members, really won me over. The soundtrack comes from popular music of the 30’s to 50’s (Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and the like), Hitchcock movie soundtracks, and a healthy dose of eerie droning and distant, foreboding thunder.

That’s the basic gist. Still, if you haven’t yet visited The McKittrick Hotel, you don’t get it. Sorry. I can keep throwing more words at you, but I know it won’t help. What could I write that hasn’t already been written many times and still fails to capture it? Yet I must say something because it’s an experience that will never leave me. It’s transformed me in a way only the best works of art can.

–> DD’s Facebook Page

Oh wait! Not much has been written about the sound! So here goes…

While highly effective, the music (and I’m guessing all or most sound) in SNM was taken from existing recordings. There was no original music composed just for the show. Because the show is so impeccably executed overall, I can discard the notion that they simply could not find a composer to work with and instead went dumpster diving for old LPs. They clearly wished to evoke a certain prohibition-era feeling and nothing does that like playing scratchy recordings from that era, give or take a couple decades.

The only sound-related person in the credits is sound designer (and graphics designer) Stephen Dobbie. His credits include two earlier Punchdrunk productions. He started with the company as a graphics designer, so I can only guess that he developed a latent talent for sound design while on the job. This is not a crazy notion as a producer is more likely to choose someone they know is on their creative wavelength and generally good to work with over someone with a pile of credits. Dobbie obviously has the taste and chops for the work and a sense of the Punchdrunk’s vision, having shared the same air with them for a few years prior.

(If anyone involved wishes to set me straight about the above imagined scenario, please do so!)

Drones, Big Bands, Film Soundtracks, Techno…

I love how the soundtrack often envelopes you in a deep drone like violins played through an ancient system of air ducts. This eventually becomes background noise, your mind able to filter out all but the instinctive feeling of dread. Then the crispy crackle of a needle on a pre vinyl platter pokes through and a familiar big band crooner from the 30’s roots you into into the era. Or so you think. We’re in dream logic here, and after all, whose dreams are free of historical anachronisms?

The soundtrack pieces from Rebecca and Vertigo often come in during major interactions between characters. It’s as if all the other sounds are what is happening off-stage or in between major scenes and the movie music follows around the key moments of the story.

Then there’s one modern tune that stands way the hell out. It cranks at around 170 beats per minute (BPM as we say in the business), rocking a variation of the amen break over a single, gripping synth-bass line. It screams “Rave!” as the lights go nuts and creates a frenetic space that leaps through another window in time entirely. It’s a key scene in which the witches reveal their second vision to MacBeth and stands out nakedly (wink to those who saw it) in contrast to the whole rest of the show.

Dobbie may not be a composer, but he clearly understands dynamics and contrast.

Since I did not dedicate a great deal of my brain analyzing the sound system during my stay, I cannot say how many separate sound sources there were total or even on a given floor. There were times when large areas of multiple rooms would be playing the same track, and then a separate track would kick in in a separate room or area. All I know is that coordinating it all must have been a real bear, as was running all the wiring. The sound sources did not appear to get more local than the room level. I did not hear objects emitting their own sound, or any aural tricks being played. It was quite loud at times, but not ear-splitting loud. Because the crowd was not competing with their own vocalizations, extra-huge volume was not required.

Impeccable Timing

Now that I’ve had my 3rd visit to the McKittrick, I have a deeper appreciation for the show overall and noticed much more detail about how the sound underscores the action. Most guests will notice the large flourishes. They draw your attention as if to say “Hey, you in the mask, over here! A scene is about to happen.” My first time through, I incorrectly concluded that the actors use these obvious swells of music to cue them into major scene changes. I now know that’s totally wrong. (How bush league for me to even think it!?) Whether it’s music or pure ambient sound, the cast is constantly in sync with every beat.

Indeed, the whole show is timed succinctly, but I didn’t realize to what extent until I saw one character take a drink, put down the glass, and then heard the deep bass rumble of a far-off thunder clap. It punctuated and heightened the drama of the moment. Even if the audience did not consciously notice it, I’m sure they felt it. There was no proper music playing at the time, just a fairly loud drone built from strings, other atmospherics, and rumbly weather. Other sounds loud and soft continued to follow the actors’ marks and I came to realize that while the two actors in this scene were not dancing, they were executing a type of ballet along to an ambient soundtrack.

Other scenes have actual dancing to actual music and there again, once you notice, you can’t help but be impressed with how music and action play to each other. The choreography has (and here, lacking dance vocabulary, I’ll stick with film) a Jackie Chan-like precision to it. Often times it is stage fighting as much as dance. A good bit more fluid and musical than most fighting you see on screen, but definitely violent. As with an action flick, the score punches up moments in the action. Unlike an action flick, they had to match the choreography to the score rather than the other way around.

A Matter of Focus

This all speaks to Punchdrunk’s pedigree as a theater company. As much as SNM borrows some DNA strands from film and haunted attractions, their approach is pure theater. That is the approach of taking an existing text (in this case, MacBeth and bits of Rebecca) and adapting it–creating sets and adding live action to that underlying work. In this case, you could say Punchdrunk is adapting the hell out of the underlying work, and making an entirely new work (and artform) in the process, but it’s an adaptation nonetheless. Using existing compositions is very much in keeping with that theatrical tradition. I can imagine the directors listening to the soundtracks of Rebecca and Vertigo years ago and dreaming about how they could one day be incorporated into one of their plays.

Having said all that, I still find it interesting that the wellspring of creativity and innovation that is evident in the set design, choreography, and overall approach to SNM does not spill over into their approach to sound. You may say “hey, Glenn, don’t be a downer, the sound really worked for me!” and yes it does clearly work. But imagine how different an experience it would be if the sound were as original, strange and off-kilter as the rest of the production elements. While so much of SNM manages to destabilize you, the familiarity of the sound actually has a stabilizing influence.

With the ScareHouse, I’ve always felt strongly about making as much original sound as possible. Yes, there are times when I needed to use canned material and didn’t have time to record 1000 flies. And there is even a Victrola player in a corner of Forsaken that plays about 45 mins of classic tunes similar to those found in SNM. But when it comes to the big set pieces, like a theme song for a major character or the music played by a large, broken pipe organ, it’s all made from scratch. I like to think that this added layer of detail makes for a richer experience and helps to further throw our visitors off-balance.

–> More Music by Delirium Dog

I’m not saying this to be smug (ok, maybe just a little), but to highlight different angles of approach and areas of focus a production company can have. Consider again how Punchdrunk blows wide open many aspects of a traditional production of MacBeth: It’s mostly silent, features dance, set in a separate era, incorporates plot strands from a 1940’s film, lets the audience inhabit the set, is incorporated over 100,000 square feet…the list goes on. Any one of those elements alone would sound terribly ambitious and unique. I would not say the same about the sound.

Does that make it a failure? Not at all. An opportunity missed? Maybe. Hard to say. What I do know is that while Sleep No More pushes so many boundaries in ways I’m still trying to fathom, the sound design remains one area with the boundaries firmly in place.

[Note: I have since posted a response of sorts from the producers themselves in which they explain how the music itself inspired them.]

If this song did not exist prior to production, Punchdrunk would have had to invent it

Even though they limited their creative expression to the selection of existing musical works, the choice of what I would call the show’s theme song was a master stroke. Each evening plays out in three one-hour cycles, which loosely end/begin with two characters in separate locations singing the existential pop song “Is That All There is?” (If you read the lyrics, it’s about as unlikely on paper to be a popular song as SNM is a popular play.) On one floor, a male witch is lip syncing a straight-up replay of the Peggy Lee version while one floor up, a female witch (Hecate) is syncing to an ultra-creepy, a heavily pre-verbed male vocal–possibly Tony Bennet‘s rendition. Her face shifting to a haunting grimace as the first lines of the song surge from out of nowhere, one could believe Hecate was channeling Tony Bennet’s spirit from the afterlife, if not for the fact that he’s still alive. It’s a highly doctored piece of audio (may even be mostly original) and is easily the creepiest moment in the soundtrack. This is a hint towards what could be done if all of the audio were just as original.

[UPDATE 5/21/12/: The movie The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is also referenced in the SNM soundtrack, features the song “Que Sera Sera” in two scenes. “Is That All There Is?” could easily be the B-side to that more upbeat take on life.]

“Is That All There Is?” The answer is embedded deep within the experience that is Sleep No More. As the musical question lingers, the show loops over again and you can watch the same events or others and have a completely different experience. You never step in the same river twice. The sequence of events continues to reveal new layers of complexity and your appreciation deepens. After enough time in the world of Sleep No More, you realize the reason you are there. It’s the same reason you are here on earth: to pay attention. Pay attention to what is happening right now because your experience will not be the same again. Even if we were to loop your life over and over, you would see it differently. You never can even step in the same river once. Just pay attention right now and you will reap the rewards. If that’s all there is, I’d say that’s enough.

Summoning my Inner Tom Waits

Posted in Creativity, Delirium Dog, Music, Performance, Scarehouse, Video on January 17, 2012 by deliriumdog

In much the same manner as the DD video for Absinthe Cola, the new video (below) was a mostly unplanned, quick shoot using sets inside The ScareHouse. I’m still amazed how well their sets show up on video. They’re so beautiful that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, really, except I’m also one of the fish in this analogy.

The role of the shooter was played by Steve Friedrick, who co-produced and co-directed the video with me. He also handled all the editing and post-production, which is great because I would have gone insane looking at myself so much. I also would have made it a lot blurrier and layered a lot more effects over my face. In fact, the extent of my contribution to post-production, when Steve was showing me draft edits, was to tell him to use more effects and to dirty it up more. The original footage (shot with my Canon T2i) was painfully crisp and clear. You could count the whiskers on my chin. I don’t know how any actor can survive the scrutiny of the HD camera lens these days. I’ve been noticing more lately how on-screen talent (from newscasters to dramatic performers) use makeup and other techniques to hide the natural process of aging. Some appear to have a “no extreme close-ups” written right into their contract. Anyway, while I’m not afraid of revealing any “age lines,” I’m still a little weirded out by seeing my face so clearly. Especially when I’m performing a caricature of evil incarnate.

I knew that I could not successfully embody said evil if I just played it straight (whatever “straight evil” means). So here you get me channelling Tom Waits, which, either because I’m not being very successful or because I’m not actually Mr. Waits, ends up looking unique enough for a music video. Steve brought the goggles and they are roughly half the character. That wicked smile was quite painful to hold and my jaw hurt at the end of each take. The twitchy dance technique also burned quite a few calories and I was pretty well wiped after a couple takes. Such is the price we must pay for our art.

Alien Visitation

Posted in Delirium Dog, Music, Performance, Scarehouse, Video on December 5, 2011 by deliriumdog

I have a good deal of video footage from our work at The ScareHouse this year. Live stuff and other bits we shot specifically for music videos. I was sifting through it all and planning on cranking out a quick live video, but decided to do more to it. The live footage by itself is interesting, but does not exactly hold one’s attention for the several minutes a song lasts. So I started adding graphics and effects, learning new software all the while, and before long realized that it was going to be a longer endeavor than I initially planned.

That’s where the alien comes into play. A single, focused idea that gives you a little taste of the Delirium Dog live thing we were doing married with some semi-hot alien-dancing action. Ursula has always wanted to put on a puppet show so I brought the alien along for her to play with when she was not singing or pressing buttons. It was her idea to add the lights to his (or her?) arms, which really makes it. We’ve talked about doing our whole act as a puppet show. It could happen. Until then, you’ve got this as a teaser.

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