The Dramaturgy of Sound: A Lobby Experiment

By Kate Robinson, MTC Literary Department

The lobby is the first space we walk into when we go to the theatre. It serves an especially valuable purpose for a dramaturg working on a production, by providing a canvas for education and engagement between the work and the audience. The lobby is simultaneously a preparatory and reflective place, an arena to contextualize and digest what has been seen onstage.

As I began creating the MTC lobby display for Nambi E. Kelley’s stage adaptation of Native Son, based on the novel by Richard Wright, I prioritized personal engagement. One of my goals was to create a lobby activity that would allow each theatregoer to individually interact with the show’s thematic and historical issues. Kelley’s adaptation strives to place the audience inside the mind of its main character, Bigger Thomas: a Black man struggling against racism and poverty in 1930s Chicago. In the theatre, we experience Bigger’s psychological struggle along with the rest of the audience. I decided there should also be an activity that allowed audience members to experience those feelings in solitude. My medium of choice for this experiment: sound.

First, let me admit: sound is not my primary area of expertise. I’m more familiar with footnotes and “Works Cited” lists than the intricacies of sound-editing applications such as Garageband or Audacity. However, I put my dramaturgical sensibilities to work, and approached this experiment with narrative and structure in mind. To begin, I needed a guiding idea, and I found it by returning to the source text. Richard Wright titled the first section of Native Son, “Fear”; Nambi E. Kelley adopted this same title for the first half of her stage adaptation. Fear is a driving motivation for Bigger’s actions; it is, in a way, a character unto itself. But what does fear sound like? What are those sounds that make our heartbeat quicken or our stomach drop?

Now that I had a framing question, the next steps were to bring it to life. I half-expected I would need to go into the field with a microphone and recording device, gathering my sounds as an entomologist might gather bugs. I was delighted to discover that others have already done that work for me, and the Internet is overflowing with sound effects and audio clips. I followed the suggestion of our sound designer, Joshua Horvath, and checked out – a crowd-sourced sound effects database. I was aware, as I sorted through the endless sound files, that I had a responsibility to my listeners not to scare them into heart attacks. Fear is a powerful emotion, and to incite fear is a delicate balance requiring care and contextualization. 

Tailoring a soundscape, I found, was a similar process to writing poetry. It involved identifying sounds that I felt embodied or evoked fear, and carefully placing them in a narrative order, considering the rhythm and cadence they created. I contemplated sounds that Bigger might be hearing as he navigates the streets of Chicago’s South Side, avoiding arrest. Even the most ordinary noises provoked anxiety when put in the context of fear. I first explored sounds that seemed obvious, sounds that horror-movie soundtracks had conditioned me to fear: police sirens, trains approaching, dripping water. In my search for a sound clip of footsteps quickly approaching from behind, for example, I stumbled on a clip of footsteps on gravel. This clip became my travelling clip for the soundscape, providing a sense of narrative by transitioning us from place to place. Next I sought out sounds referenced in the text. The novel, Native Son, begins with an alarm clock, so I too, began my soundscape with an alarm, hoping that this would wake up the listener and pique their interest. As I discovered, it takes quite a bit of digging to find a sound clip of a period alarm clock from 1939, as opposed to a modern, electronic alarm. After sorting through a variety of cell-phone alarms, tolling bells, and incessant beeping, I found a clip of an old wind-up, mechanical clock alarm. I also found a clip of a glass vase breaking that could double as a window breaking, and a jazz concert recording that seemed like perfect background for a South Side bar atmosphere. I decided against adding the terrifying roar of an electric furnace, which nearly destroyed my eardrums.  

As I began playing around with these clips in a sound editing program, Garageband, I initially lined them all up evenly: one sound would end and then the next one would start. But after listening, I realized this approach lacked the naturalistic rhythm I had hoped for. I then revised the file, layering the sounds over one another, so that the piece had a walking cadence to it.

When revisiting my initial intention—to put the listener inside Bigger’s mind and experience his fear—I considered adding another sound to make the listener more aware of the person they were following: a heartbeat. It is an intimate sound, one that we immediately recognize and feel within our own bodies. I layered in a sound clip of a heartbeat increasing in speed in hopes that it might create a more intimate relationship between the listener and the intangible sounds.

After finalizing the whole soundscape file, the next challenge was practical rather than artistic: how to make it accessible to patrons? Finding a device that would play the clip easily (and without distracting users with irrelevant information) was actually a surprisingly large roadblock. I couldn’t very well just leave my personal laptop in the lobby for anyone to use, nor could I find a spare office laptop that would turn on properly; ultimately, I opted for my four-year-old iPad that was sitting at home in my closet collecting dust. Setting up a location for the activity in the lobby needed consideration as well. I returned to my original objective: to evoke a solitary understanding of Bigger Thomas’ struggle. With this in mind, I built a listening station using a small table and a single pair of headphones, which I backed against a wall. Now, the experiment was ready for some test subjects.

During the first week of performances I observed patrons interacting with this activity in real time. Two things quickly became clear. First, I saw that it was successful in encouraging individual patrons to participate in isolation. Second, I noticed that the soundscape also invited conversation. Patrons would listen individually, and then share their experiences with friends and family, discussion about the activity prompting discussion about the show itself. This was an unexpected but positive outcome. I chatted with a few staff members about their experiences with the soundscape; two advised me to use a different computer program, Audacity, for future sound editing. They could see promise in the activity and the sounds I had chosen; with Audacity, they noted, I would have more tools with which to tailor the length, speed, and quality of the sounds.

Overall, I found that working with sound was a technically challenging yet artistically rewarding experience. It has given me a new appreciation for listening to what’s around me—everything from the hum of the air conditioning in the office to the clang of the construction on Miller Avenue—and approaching these sounds as narratives rather than background noise. I look forward to stretching my newfound auditory muscles again in the near future.