What were the unique sound design challenges for The Iceman Cometh?
The play takes place in lower Manhattan circa 1912 in the diviest of dive bars, inhabited by a group of people who have essentially dropped out of society. The goal was to try to capture that world in sound.
Tell me about the evolution of the sound, its own story arc.
George Wolfe, the director of the play, started our discussion with suggesting a very aggressive soundscape encapsulating the world outside of Harry Hope’s saloon. In 1912, it is the onset of the industrial revolution that introduced the automobile to the streets of New York. Harry Hope himself was phobic about leaving his bar. Having been raised in a city full of horse and buggies in his youth, Harry developed a fear that if he stepped outside the bar, he would be killed by an automobile. We decided to use that as a starting point for the sound design of the show.
Where did you draw those sounds from?
I started by going to the New York Historical Society and looking at photographs circa 1910-1915 to see what kind of vehicles were on the streets of New York City. Then I started collecting sounds of vintage automobiles from that era. That became the basis for the soundscape that leads into the transition into Act III of the play.
Was it easy to find those sounds?
There are a lot of vintage car hobbyists who like to record their cars; I sought out those recordings. George and I also discussed using songs from the Eugene O'Neill songbook, a collection O’Neill himself put together of songs that are sung or referenced in all his plays. The chapter on The Iceman Cometh contains 15 songs; I had the idea to see if I could find the original recordings of those songs, and to my surprise, I found 11 of the 15 songs recorded on Edison cylinders from 1905-1915. George was fascinated by that, and we ended up using some of those Edison cylinder recordings in the show.
When you found those, what kind of format were they in?
The Library of Congress has a collection of many of these wax cylinders that they have digitized, which you can find on their website. There are also many private collectors who were resources.
How did you approach designing the sound system?
Every time you design a Broadway show, you go into a theater that is bare walls. There is no lighting equipment; there is no sound equipment; nothing. You begin by taking basic measurements of the stage, size of the house, where you can put speakers and microphones, and then you start thinking about the demands of the show itself. You design a system that helps with the storytelling.
What were some of your favorite moments in designing the sound?
In bars at the turn of the century, it was very common to have a player piano provide music and atmosphere. I did a lot of research about the player piano rolls from this time period. We decided to use recordings of player piano rolls for some of the transitions. I chose piano rolls that were extremely obscure, that didn't have hit songs of the day. I didn't want the audience to recognize a tune that they could hum along with; this bar didn't have the money to buy the Top Ten hits recorded on piano rolls. It was very interesting to me listening to very obscure piano rolls from the turn of the century; it was like entering a listening time machine.
Did you have to do much restoration work on historic recordings?
Some of the Edison cylinders required digital repairing. I did my best to remove surface noise from the original recordings and punch up the vocals for intelligibility and clarity. The words on the recordings are essential to creating the sound design for The Iceman Cometh; that helped set time and place and aided with the storytelling of the play.