Angel of history

by Carolyn Forsché adapted and directed by Emily Mendelsohn
designed for Site Spefic: A House in Val Verde opened: March 12, 2009

Sound Design Concept

Designing an adaptation of a poem for a house in the high desert is a daunting task, especially when the director wants to use no theatrical sound equipment--not even if it is well hidden. What resulted from these directions was a compromise, involving a set of six AM radio transmitters and practical radios in the form of boom boxes and battery operated emergency radios that were unearthed from the backyard during the fourth act. The sound design was minimal, consisting of only two cues: the preshow ambience and the end of show music that faded into static as the actors walked away from the house and down the street.

Sound and Music

Entrance ambience Download Link

The audience entered the house, and proceeded to the living space on the second floor where they took seats in the living room. An actor was in the kitchen baking a cake and had a radio tuned to this sound cue, which played music popular in the WWII era collaged against war reporting from the same era. When given the signal from stage management, the cue faded into unintelligible static and the actor switched the radio off as the play began. The above audio file demonstrates this effect after the 1 minute mark.

Final cue - Book Codes Download Link

This cue played at the end of the play after the actors unearthed six radios from the dirt in the house's backyard on a crisp March evening. Each radio played a slightly different mix of this cue, with the intended effect of making each radio an individual voice. After the scored portion of the fourth stanza of the poem, the tone in the recording played through the radios, while the voices played through speakers hidden in the windows of the house. As the actors walked away from the house and down the street, the tone in the radio dissolved into radio static and thermal noise.

System Design

The system design for this site-specific play needed to be robust, operate within FCC guidelines, and be as weatherproof as possible. The system had to be set up and struck every day during a limited amount of time because the house we were using was also a residency. I split the system into three components: the computer and amp operating the audio, the radio transmitters, and the radio receivers. I then assigned specific tasks to each crew person complete with an estimated time each job should take to complete.

Set up and Strike Details (PDF - 56k)

My associate designer, Carrie Jones, was instrumental in accomplishing the feat of AM radio transmission. After researching the FCC power requirements and the AM radio spectrum congestion in Val Verde, we decided to use six SSTRAN AMT-3000 AM Radio Broadcast Transmitter Kits that Carrie soldered and assembled. I found the broadcast quality depended on many factors, including temperature, humidity, and the model of radio used to receive the signal. The cheapest analog Radio Shack AM radios turned out to be the best at receiving the lower-power signals we were transmitting.

Design Analysis

I am very pleased with my design for this play. Despite a complicated set up and cramped run conditions (in budget, time and space), the sound ran flawlessly throughout the run. I felt we were taking a gamble by using kit AM radio transmitters, but it turned out to be a great cost-saving measure that made the sound design concept shine through. The unearthing of the radios from the ground was a very innovative idea, as the unavoidable thermal noise the radios were tuning became audible as the dirt was removed. When the radios unexpectedly began playing music at the end of the play, a magical moment was created: the radio transmitters were so well hidden the audience did not expect the radios to function as anything more than props. This breach of audience expectations is one of my key goals as a sound designer.