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The Play's the Thing

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Monday, June 12, 2006

On air

Last night I went to a recording of a live drama broadcast at Resonance FM.

Resonance 104.4 is London’s stream of experiment. I’ve listened before, but never stuck with it because what makes Resonance interesting (Innuit bell-ringers) is what makes it ahem – a challenge sometimes.

Anyway this drama was being acted out live on-air, so anything could happen, and I was a bit nervous – say I, as an observer, f****d up the recording by falling off my chair or knocking something over… What would happen if one of the actors lost his place on the page, was he going to say, sorry I’ll do that bit again?

Resonance’s offices… they’re genuine. There’s been no attempt to have a make-over or wash up. As the live broadcast of Iranian music was transmitting from the main upstairs studio, the director Jessica Dromgoole, Producer Alisdair McGregor, Johnny Brown, sound designer, actor Simon Scarderfeld, Thomas Crow, writer, and me squeezed into a small studio-cum-office below.

Alisdair chose two mono mics for an MS Stereo recording set up. The first mic Sennheiser MKH60 had a head-on capacity for recording, the second, MKH30 a figure-of-8 range, to allow the actors to move around its environs. The mics were clipped together, like barrels of a gun, and slipped into a single wind-shield.

Thomas Crowe’s Memo, was set in a cave and told the story of a cave dweller and a visitor who were locked in a spiral of fear through a series of challenging confrontations. Listening, I was fully engaged with both characters and had a clear idea of how they looked in my mind’s eye; an older character, fearful of life outside the cave, and a younger visitor having a go at him. When the recording ended, the penny dropped and I realised what I’d been hearing was one single disturbed mind, tormented by an inner voice. Or I think that was it….

The actor’s cave was built out of ten tonnes of concrete mix and imported Welsh shale – just checking you’re still with me – the actor’s cave was actually the section of the office between the cd rack and someone’s desk. Johnny Brown, sound designer, put a reverb onto the output, and the actors paced the distance of one foot square in their imaginary cave/mind/self/ego. Jessica, the director, talked about ‘pitching’ with the actors, which meant she was asking them to call out to each other ‘across the cave’, whilst standing two inches apart.

Alisdair adjusted the mix live through a Behringer mixing desk with a compressor, which received feeds from Johnny’s live output and the actors’ mics. The mixing desk fed into a laptop running Pro-Tools and various plug-ins.

Johnny, meanwhile, had looped various cave effects onto four different cds and mixed them live.

Because of the live effects and volume of the reverb, the actors were given head-phones so they could listen as they preformed the script. This helped them judge their distance to and from the mic; and for them it felt like laying down vocals against a pre-recorded backing track, so they weren’t bouncing off each other, just involved in the words on the page.

They had a 52 page double-spaced script, with 8 minutes allowed for live music cues. But at about 35 minutes in the number of pages left was looking on the thin side.

It finally came in at 45 minutes of a 60 minute live slot, so Alisdair did lots of hand gestures and after a bit of sound track for the finale, Johnny Brown, the sound-designer ad-libbed a post-match commentary with the actors and Jessica. At 60 minutes we were off-air, the Resonance trail kicked in, and we all clapped for a brief, embarrassing moment and that was it.

One last question… did you hear it?

posted by Sarah Weatherall @ 9:16 pm   


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Sarah Weatherall

Sarah Weatherall directed The Colonel, one of the winning dramas in Channel 4’s The Radio Play’s The Thing