Thomas Dixon is a Chicago based sound designer and composer and a Steep Theatre Artistic Associate. He is a member of the Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association and an instructor at Columbia College Chicago. He is a graduate of Northwestern University.
Lighting Design rendering by Brandon Wardell
In this 4-part feature, PerformInk continues its INSIDE series and takes you behind the scenes of Steep’s production of WASTWATER, directed by Robin Witt.
Part 3: Sound
By Thomas Dixon
One of the characters in Simon Stephens’ WASTWATER describes her view of the interconnectedness of the modern world: “We’re nowhere near as atomized as people wish we were, you know? It’s like there are synapses. We’re connected. All of us. Just when you think we can’t possibly be, you realize that we are.”
WASTWATER is three scenes in three different locations near Heathrow Airport– the yard of a country house a few miles north of the airport, an enclosed, confined hotel room from which Heathrow’s runways are visible, and a vast abandoned warehouse adjacent to the airport. All three scenes begin at precisely the same moment in time– 9pm on June 25. An important piece of the puzzle in designing this show is how to signify this unity of time as each scene begins anew at 9pm. We’re preceding each of the scenes with what I’ve been referring to as a “reset tableau.” We take a moment before each scene to observe an empty stage. We hear the same sequence of sounds repeated in each of these three moments. A rainstorm is happening, and there’s a burst of distant thunder. A plane landing at Heathrow flies low over the stage. Then the actors come on, and we shift from this generic, unified world to the specific locations of each scene, and the rainstorm changes to sound the way it would in each of the different spaces. In scene one, we’re out in the open, hearing the rain all around us. In scene two, we’re in hotel room and the rain is outside the window. In scene three, we hear the rain falling on the high roof of the warehouse. Then in each scene, the rain subsides, and the action begins.
Another primary concern in my design is how the sounds of the same planes taking off, flying overhead, and landing aurally inhabit the space of each scene. How does the sound traveling through the material makeup of each location manifest in exciting aural ways, and what do these differences tell us about the scenes themselves, the characters in them, and the emotional content of each story?
In the first scene, the only thing separating the characters from the jets is air and distance. The planes are loud and present. The characters stop talking and watch a plane fly overhead whenever one is near. They can viscerally hear, see, and feel these routes of global transit and interconnectedness occurring all around them. More than the characters in the other scenes, they are in the midst of these synapses that form a network between the countries and people of the world.
Lisa and Mark, the characters in scene two, observe the planes landing and taking off through a window in their hotel room. The script notes that the planes are audible even in the sound-proofed room. There’s also a television in the room that constantly plays the news, forever on a repeated loop. This suggests that Lisa and Mark’s relationship to the activity at the airport and this global network is akin to the objective worldview presented by the news. They perceive it in the same disaffected, perfunctory way they absorb the constant stream of the day’s notable sound bytes. They’ve come to the hotel room for specific reasons, and the goings-on outside are secondary to their own motivations. They exist hermetically, and near the end of the scene, Lisa starts the water running in the shower, creating a blanket of white noise which creates an even greater layer of separation from the activity outside their window.
In the warehouse in the third scene, the planes manifest as mostly sub-bass roars as they pass close by. The planes are heard less than they are felt, rumbling through the space as the jets zip overhead. Mark, one of the characters in the scene, is startled and confused by the sound, not recognizing it for what it is. For him and the other characters at the warehouse, the flight plans reverberate through their lives in ways that affect them on an almost subliminal level. Their actions are influenced by these synapses of globalization, and they feel the pressure of this interconnectedness altering their own choices and lives in ways that they’re not necessarily aware they have control over.
To create these disparate locations and attitudes, I’ve created a network of sound sources throughout the theater–not just on stage and in the audience, but in the lobby and the hallway and the backstage areas. The stage at Steep is surrounded by and around the audience in non-traditional ways. Planes will pass through the lobby behind the audience. The sounds of the warehouse will seem to extend infinitely into the depths of backstage. The hope is that this sense of infinite sonic possibility beyond the playing space will impart a feeling of being enfolded and swathed in the aural worlds of these three scenes, connecting the viewer to the action in visceral and powerful ways. My favorite thing about designing sound is that it exists for an audience in a primal, subliminal way. They can’t see or touch it, but it’s intertwined with all of our perceptions of reality and being.
Simon Stephens writes plays that take the audience along on a journey with people who seem to be outwardly unremarkable. He writes scenes that involve them going about their lives in the only ways they know how. By dramatizing these snapshots of their lives, he makes us complicit in the humanity of his characters. We see all facets of ourselves reflected in them; we recognize the parts of ourselves we celebrate and the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of, and we are given permission to embrace both. He connects us to these synapses of humanity and lets us know that we are not alone.