Those looking for new frontiers in theater may not find it in what they see on stage but instead in what they hear.
Cadence Theatre Company first employed the sound design team of Robbie Kinter and Ryan Jones for its ambitious production of “Equus” last season. The two have collaborated on a number of original scores for dance productions and choreographer Scott Putnam brought them in to do the same for the intense story of a troubled boy accused of blinding horses.
“We went through the script page by page and Scott told us exactly where he wanted every sound cue and how long he wanted it,” recalls Kinter. “We wrote 23 pieces of music, scoring the play like you would a film or a dance.”
Given that they mostly developed new music for “Equus,” the pair was confused when Cadence called them to work on “John,” the uneasy drama the company just opened this weekend. “The playwright, Annie Baker, specifies most of the music and it is mostly pieces by Bach,” says Kinter. Instead of original work, director Rusty Wilson was looking for an ambitious environmental sound design and the team accepted the challenge with gusto.
“Sound design sometimes gets thrown together as an afterthought with all of the sounds coming through a couple of house speakers,” says Jones, who has done sound design in the past both for Firehouse Theatre and Theatre IV before it was merged into Virginia Rep. “But for ‘John’ there will be at least 10 different sources of sounds on stage or in the theater, including cell phones, a jukebox and even a player piano.”
Jones describes a device made with 2x4s and a broomstick to replicate the creaking of floorboards and another that generates an authentic screen door squeak. Actors will activate three or four of the noisemaking devices during the show, manually creating effects in the manner of old-style foley. “When I hear bad sound, it really takes me out of the experience,” says Jones. “None of these effects will come out of house speakers.”
It makes sense that director Wilson brought in a particularly adept team given that sound is an integral aspect of the play. “John” explores the troubled relationship between a New York couple visiting a possibly haunted bed-and-breakfast where they meet a blind woman who regularly hears strange noises inaudible to anyone else.
Kinter, well-known to many Richmonders as a percussionist for the band Rattlemouth and a professor in VCU’s Department of Dance and Choreography, gained an appreciation for Baker through the process. “She has done an incredible amount of research,” he says. “Almost every sound cue has a deeper meaning that you wouldn’t know unless you had Google going through the whole show.”
Noting that this is only the second theater production they have worked on, Kinter acknowledges they are still learning. “We had huge dreams about what we could do but had to dial those back because of the expense.” Jones says that the company had to go over budget to buy the player piano used in the show. “Tell people to talk to [scenic designer] Rich Mason if they are interested in having one,” he says. “I’m sure he’ll sell it to you.”
“John” runs through Nov. 12 and is being produced in partnership with Virginia Rep.
Running: Chamberlayne Actors Theatre’s "I'll Be Back Before Midnight" won’t be back after it closes October 29th.
On Deck: TheatreLab kicks off its season of “Women at War” stories with “Mother Courage and her Children,” opening Oct. 28.