In the Eye of the Hurricane: Key Largo Sound Design

(Photo by Jeff Lorch)

The tenth character in Geffen Playhouse’s production of Key Largo was a massive, flashing, thunderous hurricane. Working alongside a talented creative team, comprising scenic designer John Lee Beatty, lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, projection designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, and costume designer Linda Cho, sound designer Alex Hawthorn helped realize the hurricane’s arc on stage. Read about the scenic design, lighting design, and projection design here. 

Director Doug Hughes met with Hawthorn in New York to discuss the visual and aural design elements of the play. “One of the first things Doug said to me is that the storm…is always in the room, and it needs to have an arc just as any character does,” explains Hawthorn. “I likened it to through-scoring a play, but instead of using traditional musical instrumentation, I would be orchestrating this piece with wind, rain, and thunder.”

Aware of the play’s sense of heightened realism, Hawthorn wanted to keep the sound feeling natural with moments that approach the supernatural. “The storm had to be omnipresent and had to have an emotional arc, but we also had to tell the story clearly to the audience,” he says. “This was a play, and a period one at that, so neither Doug nor I wanted to ever notice any sort of amplification of the actors. I would usually approach a piece like this as a foot mic show, but Doug in his wisdom knew he wanted the ability for the storm to really rage while still hearing the actors shout, and so he asked me if I could achieve a transparent reinforcement of the actors with wireless mics.”

Photo by Jeff Lorch

Hawthorn, Kaczorowski, and Beatty convened in a rehearsal room and poured over drawings to determine speaker positions. “I knew I needed to design a speaker plot that could both transparently reinforce the actors as well as place sound around the set and the theater,” notes the sound designer, who preferred speaker positions at head-height both left and right. The theatre’s architecture did not sufficiently hide the (rather large) speakers, and consequently, all three designers had to compromise.

“On the output side, the system could have easily supported a musical, and a decently loud one at that,” quips Hawthorn. “I knew that I needed clarity at quiet volumes, but also the ability to get loud, even louder, momentarily, than most rock musicals.” The main system featured a pair of d&b audiotechnik V7Ps to frame either side of the stage. The cluster comprised d&b Y7Ps, while a variety of d&b’s E-series covered fill.

“I also needed the audience to experience the movement of the storm like when it was off-shore, when it closed in and finally hit the hotel, and then when we moved it over the audience, so there were speakers scattered all over the stage,” explains Hawthorn. Geffen Playhouse’s inventory of Meyer Sound UPM speakers were positioned overhead with a house Meyer UPJunior offstage right. “The poor crew offstage left had to deal with a Meyer 700-HP subwoofer with a UPQ placed on top of it offstage with them. I was always on my best behavior to make sure no one was standing in front of that stack before I fired a thunder cue.” Hawthorn also had a full complement of left, right, and rear surround speakers, as well as two channels of over-audience speakers.

Photo by Jeff Lorch

“The cast were all in the Sennheiser Digital 6000 series with DPA 4060 mics, which also had a huge effect on keeping the reinforcement transparent, and both the packs and mics did a great job of holding up even when some of the cast were standing in the spray and rain,” praises Hawthorn. QLab and Mainstage were used for playback and light vocal effects, which ran into the house Yamaha QL5 console and then into a Yamaha DME64N, which created a series of timed vocal zones so that Hawthorn could keep the voices of the actors localized to where they were on-stage at any moment. “This is a technique that I’ve used on shows many times before and which I first learned about when working with Scott Lehrer on the Broadway revival of A View From the Bridge in 2010 (also my first time working with Peter Kaczorowski).”

To grow the storm organically over the course of the play, Hawthorn relied on generative audio plug-ins, utilizing two software offerings from Le Sound: AudioWind Pro and AudioRain Pro. “Prior to this, I would have had a series of different rain loops—a selection of light, medium, and heavy—and cross-faded between them, but with this new technology, I was able to dynamically fade different parameters of the rain, including the density, weight, and tonality, to create weather textures that felt far more realistic than a traditional looped-recording-based design,” notes Hawthorn. “I could have heavy, ploppy raindrops coming from the overstage speakers that surrounded the scenic skylight and a noisier general downpour in the offstage left speaker. I was even able to start with just a few droplets hitting the skylight and then slowly faded up the density control into a full rainstorm. Ninety-nine percent of the rain and wind in the show is algorithmically generated by the software. It’s not recordings of wind and rain except for one specific moment when I knew I wanted to give the audience something new.”

Photo by Jeff Lorch

Hawthorn determined many of the plugins during rehearsal, when he could best help actors react to the storm and increase the tension. “It was also the opportunity for me to find the right emotion and tone for each thunderclap,” he adds. “Some wanted to be low ominous rolling thunders. Others needed to have a sharp crack and disappear almost immediately. It was all determined by the emotional tenor in the play at that exact moment.”

The thunderclaps themselves were complicated combinations of several elements and sound effects. Hawthorn pulled from three libraries: Boom Library’s Thunder And Rain surround edition, Hollywood Edge’s Peter Michael Sullivan Signature Series disc 1, and a collection of recordings sound designer Jason Romney has made publicly available. “So many thunder recordings I auditioned sounded dated to me. The recording quality was missing that top-end sizzle and the chest-thumping low-end,” Hawthorn comments. “But these three libraries really gave me all the ingredients I needed to cook up a variety of thunders that all still sounded like they came from the same storm.”

The sound designer worked alongside James Grabowski, house sound supervisor at the Geffen, Jake Delgado, A1, Austin Taylor, A2, and Dan Gower, Hawthorn’s “indispensable right-hand man” and assistant. “I really love working at the Geffen, and this show in particular felt like the best possible combination of a skilled, experienced design team with the equally skilled and dedicated staff of the Geffen,” concludes Hawthorn.

Suggested Articles:

Live Design's 2020 Design Achievement Awards announced the winners of the Theatre category during a virtual awards presentation.

To kick off 2021 with a good start, Live Design has collected its most visited stories of 2020. Below are the top industry updates, webinars, and case

The Augusta Symphony's A Little Night of Music, a livestream performance, featured lighting design by Cliff Smith of Quest Sound & Productions.