Page 73’s world premiere of Susan Stanton’s play, Today Is My Birthday, directed by Kip Fagan, runs through December 23 at the New Ohio Theatre in New York City. The lead character, Emily, stumbles into a gig as an actor on a shock-jock radio dating show, and finds herself strangely determined to turn fantasy into reality, with the story told through a playful mixture of phone calls, voicemails, and live radio spots.
The writer and director developed the play in conjunction with sound designer, Palmer Hefferan. During the performance, she creates all of the sound cues live, in full view of the audience, sitting in a sound booth. Every noise in the play is made in the booth, from the typical sound cues of phones ringing and music playing, to the sound of people rifling through drawers or flipping through magazines—the cast rarely carries actual props. Live Design chats with Hefferan on this unusual take on sound design.
Live Design: In designing the sound for this play, how did you approach the script, given the large number of cues, and are the cues called for specifically or did you develop them after reading the script?
Palmer Hefferan: Susan Stanton wrote Today Is My Birthday with the sonic world as the structure for the play. No characters are in the same location as the main character, Emily, so all dialogue takes places through phone calls, an intercom, or radio broadcasts. The tops and tails of each scene have a sound description such as [Telephone ringing], and [Click] listed for the end of scene. Susan’s stage directions created the foundation that generated ideas for the sound design, while still allowing me plenty of creative liberties.
The initial questions the script spurred were: What is the perspective of the audience/How are they hearing these conversations? Are they in the same location as the main character, Emily? Or, are they an omniscient presence, existing between her and the people she’s speaking to?
I landed on the audience existing in the radio frequencies that these conversations travel on. Both Emily, and whomever she’s conversing with, are processed to sound like the device in which they are communicating through.
LD: How was the decision made to perform the cues live?
PH: I’ve been a part of this process since the workshop at Sundance Theatre Lab in 2015. During the first work-through of the play, we came to a scene that called for a baby crying and cooing. I can do a convincing baby cry, and it added to the comedy to have it live. That was the launching off point to discover other opportunities to perform live Foley. At Sundance, I was at the table with the actors developing the sound design, programming cues, mixing the microphones, and doing live Foley. Kip Fagan— the director—wanted to keep that sound performance layer alive for the stage production.
LD: Can you describe the creation of some of the cues?
PH: The most lively and detailed cues are for the radio broadcast scenes. Several of the scenes are on a wacky morning show with big DJ personalities. The actors, Jonny Brooks and Nadine Malouf, were great inspiration. The goal was to create the most cartoonish and amped-up radio jingle possible to compliment their comedic character choices. The elements needed to be recognizable so Woody The Woodpecker’s laugh came to mind. Then, I added layers of sounds from a typical morning commute: traffic, and horns honking, with DJ effects like tape rewind, record spins, and even a ham horn makes an appearance.
LD: What about the rehearsal process with all the sound cues and the actors? Any challenges there?
PH: During our time in Utah, I did an entire sound design of the show. Since then, there have been three subsequent workshops, including a design workshop. Going into the first rehearsal, I had a full QLab sound design and used that in the read-through. This set the pace from the start. We also had two-thirds of the cast from Sundance come back for the premiere, so from the beginning, there was a great synchronicity between the sound and collaborators.
LD: What is your live playback set up?
PH: My FOH booth is in the house left-center section of the audience. I’m encapsulated in a glass-walled booth that has no ceiling. This gives my ears some perspective of what the audience hears, while still isolating the acoustic sound of my Foley props, and giving my Foley microphone some cushion with gain-before-feedback. I worked with OneDream Sound for my rental package. I needed a compact FOH setup that had flexible programming and allowed me to simultaneously mix the show, and perform live Foley. I landed on a Yamaha CL3 console networked to QLab and a Tio 1608-D Stage Rack via Dante Virtual SoundCard. I have an AKG C-414 B-ULS microphone for Foley and Countryman B3 lavaliers with custom-made ear rigs on the actors, which connect to Sennheiser Evolution transmitters.
LD: Can you describe the loudspeaker layout—how does the audience "hear" the sound; do the live cues enhance their experience?
PH: The set was reconfigured at the New Ohio Theatre so the audience is seated on stage in a thrust configuration. This presented interesting challenges with a stage that is 29' by 26', including three rows of seats. I specified loudspeakers with 45° vertical dispersion, or less, pushing for the best gain-before-feedback possible with the intimate playing space. I selected six Meyer Sound UPA-2Ps as the main presentational loudspeakers and one Meyer USW-1P subwoofer.
There is no separation between the first row of seating and the actors’ playing space so the Meyer UPA-2P loudspeakers are just above the audience at 10'-6''. While visually the speakers are in the forefront, it also creates a wall of sound that elevates the aural landscape. Today Is My Birthday is billed as “a comedy about loneliness in the age of connection.” Though the characters are physically disconnected from one another, the live Foley links the actors to the sound design in realtime. The Foley leans into the sonic structure that Susan Stanton created, deepening the connection between the sound design, the actors’ journey, and the way the audience hears the play.
Selected Sound Equipment
Provided by OneDream Sound
Speakers and Amps
- 6 Meyer Sound UPA-2P
- 1 Meyer Sound USW-1P subwoofer
- 4 Meyer Sound MM4
- 1 Crest 6001 Stereo amplifier
- 8 Countryman B3 (W4 sensitivity) Lavalier Mic
- 8 Sennheiser EVO A-BAND Transmitter
- 4 Sennheiser EVO A-BAND Receiver
- 1 AKG C-414 w/ Shockmount
- 2 Shure SM58s w/ Clip
- 1 Shure SM58 w/ Clip
- 1 Yamaha CL3 digital mixing console
- 1 Yamaha TIO 1608-D digital stage box
- 1 Meyer Sound MM4 CEU Processor
- 1 Meyer Sound Galileo 6 IN-16 Out Loudspeaker Management
- 5 Rack PD Panel L530 to 20a Edison with Breakers
- 1 Motion Labs 200 AMP 3-Phase Power Distro
- 1 L5-30 Cable Kit PD Cable Kit
- 3 Furman M-82X
- 3 Furman SS6B
Computers & Software
- 1 Apple Mac Mini
- 3.0GHz Dual-Core i7 SSD Minimum
- QLab 3 Pro Audio License
- 1 Clear-Com MS440 Base Station
- 7 Clear-Com RS-601 Single Channel Beltpack
- 1 Clear-Com HME 800 RF Base Station
- 3 Clear-Com HME 800 Wireless Beltpack
- 8 Telex PH-88 Lightweight Headset