by Theresa Rebeck
Produced by: Seattle Public Theater
Directed by: Kelly Kitchens
Photos by: Paul Bestock
During the production process, The Understudy turned into one of my favorite designs. The Understudy takes place in a Broadway theatre performing an undiscovered Kafka play. This fictional play has cast two movie stars, a very famous star (who we never see) and a smaller action star, Jake. Roxanne, the Stage Manager is running an understudy rehearsal with Jake and the understudy Harry, who is a former lover of Roxanne. Egos, jilted lovers, and a stoned board operator make for a very amusing rehearsal. My first instinct for the sound design was to play off the absurdity of the characters to the point where the Broadway play was so over the top it was horrible. As I got to know the characters I realized this wouldn’t tell their true story. To make this absurdist would have denied the authenticity of the characters. Despite different backgrounds and talents, these were passionate, driven, and gifted people. They had their many flaws, as we all do, but were able to come together out of their commonalities. The play within a play needed to be good, the actors needed to be talented for this to come across, and the production elements needed to support that. There were a lot of challenges in this show. I needed to create a Broadway caliber sound design. I had to utilize the equipment the theater had and an almost non-existent budget. Because of the limits of the budget, scenic design was more minimalist, so lighting and sound were heavily depended on to bring the wow factor. Another big challenge was the fact that this was an “undiscovered Kafka play” that was being performed, so a copy of the play script didn’t exist. I had to create a cohesive design for a Kafka play using only the few scenes “rehearsed” in the script, a few clues from dialogue, and looking at other Kafka plays. My concept for the show was to create a deconstructed Kafka world through sound. I started by borrowing speakers and renting a sub woofer to have as a canvas to paint my directional sound with. Speakers were hidden in multiple parts of the set as well as surrounding the audience. Each “scene” from the Kafka play utilized synthesized frequencies and abstract or representational sounds coming from a variety of speakers to create the soundscape. The sound was meant to be tense, to make the audience slightly uneasy. It was fragmented. I took sounds from the location or that signified that type of location and weaved them together with sounds that represented the mood or were mentioned in lines. When combined with the frequencies, the result was a complex, yet minimalist soundscape that kept the tension going and sounded great and clear despite not having Broadway quality speakers.
Inn – Underscores a Kafka scene set in the pub of an inn. One character pulls a tape recorder to start taking documentation of a judicial questioning. This soundscape contains a honky-tonk piano which ties into the dance at the end of the show, a typewriter, general bar ambiance, whispering, and a whirring tape recorder playing under it all.
Set Change – There are quite a few moments in the show where the stoned board operator in the booth plays the wrong cues or moves the set around when she isn’t supposed to. I pieced together construction sounds to match the movement of certain set pieces, both for the abstract effect as well as practically to cover up the sound of our scenery moving which didn’t move as gracefully or silently as it would on Broadway.
Executioner – As the board operator brought in cues at the wrong time, there is a point she moves the set to a scene which isn’t called out in the script. That left room for us to decide what we wanted it to be. The cast decided it was a scene with the executioner. I used a tympani played backwards with a shovel digging in dirt to set a twisted sound that only played for a few seconds before the stage manager cut it off.
Trial 1 – This is the scene that gets “rehearsed” the most in the show. It has a lot of tension in it as one of the characters in the Kafka play begins to have things turned around and becomes the one being interrogated rather than the one doing the interrogating. I utilize a low frequency and hum in the sub that grows in intensity throughout the scene. Other sounds are a contrasting oscillating high frequency, a bit of static, as well as musical instruments used in ways they were not necessarily meant to be, such as a cymbal being scratched to produce an eerie gong type song.
Trial 2 – A little later in the Kafka scene, I layered in some additional sounds of hammers tearing down a wooden structure and the stretch of a rope preparing to be a noose as the former inspector begins to realize his impending fate.
Storm-Distant – Towards the end of the Trial Kafka scene, the former inspector is left with his gun to ponder his now lack of power and his fate. As he processes all this a storm begins brewing in the distance. I represent this storm with low rumblings of an earthquake mixed with war noises, explosions, and gun fire. Instead of lighting strikes, I once again used the theme of misused musical instruments by replacing the lighting with the striking of the physical strings on a piano.
Storm – The former inspector in the Kafka scene accepts there is nothing he can do and says ‘the storm is upon us’. The actor of course has to say the cue line multiple times before the board op takes the cue. When it is taken, the sound that plays is the heart of the storm. The former inspector drops to his knees and sticks the gun in his mouth. He ends up not being able to pull the trigger and collapses to the floor in tears. This sound layered over the distant storm and I added wind, landslides, rocks tumbling, and a lot more piano hits.
Dungeon – At the very end of the Kafka play the script mentions it’s a very beautifully lit dungeon. The underscore sound for the dungeon combines a reverbed drip with the hallow continual sound of a knife sharpening indicating the impending doom. The music is reverberated as well to sound much like a drip of water. The resulting sound is both beautiful, relaxing, eerie, and unnerving.
Dance – The script doesn’t tell us exactly what context this dance is in, only that it’s there. The understudy himself is confused as well at the purpose of the dance. The choreographer included a noose sequence at the start of the dance as the production team decided to put this dance at the end of the Kafka play while the main character gets executed. Then the dance moves to a place of feeling triumphant and filled with freedom. Our actors and stage manager begin dancing it together after they find out the Broadway play is closing that week. It grows and fills them with triumph as well until the board operator shuts everything off in the middle of the dance. Blackout. End of show.
Everything came together so well in this production: lighting, set, sound, acting. A story that in the beginning seemed cheesy and absurd, really had a lot of meaning in the end. The story inspired me to get to know who others truly are under the persona they present; to continue to band together around the joys of commonalities, and to strive toward them together even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.