In answer to the question of how to make a phone ring—and actually sound like a ringing phone—on stage, sound designer Nick Kourtides notes that most successful solutions are dependent on design goals, context, and the playing space.
"For example with phones, I've done Noises Off twice: once in a 1500 seat proscenium theater, and later in a much smaller space with the audience quite close," he says. "You'd better believe I used an embedded speaker for the phones. It was easier and louder in the cavernous auditorium. In a small space, an actual ringing phone was a better choice for me. I do a lot of musical theatre as well, and in those cases, especially with the typical distance to the closest audience and the million issues that are more pressing than phone rings, speaker cues work well for me too.
"I've also done a production of Assistance where I made an entirely midi-controlled 6-line office phone system, with working buttons, LEDs, rings, headsets ,and speaker phones," the designer adds. "There are several modern phones in plain, close view of the audience in that show, and you could hear dial tones, number pad dial sounds, and see LEDs react to the inputs from the actors. I thought that was essential to selling the props as not being dumb, lifeless objects. With more distance, or less present props, of course the thresholds are different.”
Kourtides asks us to consider this example, from a touring show he designed called The Object Lesson in which the audience is literally surrounding that telephone. "It has to ring for real," he notes, adding that the show played at BAM last fall and The Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer where it won the 2014 Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh award. "I can route the mic in the handset wherever I need to and also I can talk to the earpiece," he explains, as the telephone is an important prop in this play.
"I'm not advocating being doctrinal about any of this," he admits. "I've found Western Electric and Bell phones to be cheap and reliable for period shows, and I also typically insist on taking that responsibility and budget away from any props department if I am expected or advocating to make the phones work."
We'd love to hear your solutions to making phones ring on stage, so please feel free to comment below.