Monday, March 31, 2014

Angels in America

Early this year, I had the pleasure of designing Angels in America Part I: Millenium Approaches in the Robert Cohen Theater at UC Irvine. The show represented a portion of my thesis for my MFA degree. The sound team for the show consisted of Mark Caspary (MFA 2) as the composer and Kelsi Halverson (MFA 1) as our assistant. The show was directed by Gavin Cameron-Webb. For those unfamiliar with Tony Kushner’s play, Angels is a fantastical portrayal of the lives of a diverse group of people living in New York City at the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s. The play slips fluidly in and out of real time and the real world as the characters interact with ghosts, invisible voices, hallucinations of each other, and, of course, the Angel herself. This style presents the design team with ample opportunities to change perspective and direct the audience’s focus.

The production took place in the Robert Cohen Theater, configured in a three-quarter-thrust configuration. With only three rows of seats in each audience section (a total of about 85 seats per show), the experience was both intimate and different for every seat. It became immediately clear during initial talks that the show would be extremely music and sound cue-heavy, so I knew I wanted to design a simple sound delivery system. The main speaker positions consisted of Meyer Ultra-series loudspeakers, with a UMS-1P subwoofer. The team also agreed early on upon the use of small wireless speakers throughout the props and set pieces to localize certain sound cues or to create the effect of a radio on-stage. For this setup, we purchased four Altec-Lansing IM237 battery-powered speakers to combine with UCI’s Shure PSM-900 In-Ear Montor system. The content played back through Qlab 3 and into a Yamaha LS9-32, allowing me to route a couple of sends from Qlab to some of the console’s built-in reverb effects. I also decided, in conjunction with lighting designer Stacie Marie O’Hara, to trigger certain light cues with Qlab via a MIDI connection.

Those interested can peruse my system paperwork HERE.

In initial discussions, we decided as a team to create a build of tension and anticipation throughout the show that culminated in the reveal of the angel at the very end. Mark and I decided early on to root the earliest sound and music cues in reality and to slowly expand the soundscape into a more and more otherworldly and non-diagetic style throughout the show. The shape of the space, in combination with my speaker placements, helped facilitate this illusion. Having positions in front, above, and behind the audience, as well as upstage and in the on-stage practical speakers, meant that I could easily define a space and source for the sound and music based on the scene—from a focused point (e.g., Harper’s radio) to a nebulous, reverberant, cerebral space (e.g., Harper/Prior’s shared dream).

The process of discovery and creation on this show began in early October and continued full-force until opening night. I consider it incredibly fortunate that composer Mark Caspary and I have collaborated together before, as we have already developed a language and an understanding of each other’s working styles. Despite our respective titles in the program, Mark and I produced most of the sound elements and music together. This took advantage of the power of two brains over one, but also ensured that we were always up to speed with one another’s progress and creative decisions.

With such an enormous show, it was imperative that the design team stays on top of all changes to the designs. I communicated significantly with Stacie to make sure that lighting and sound gestures worked harmoniously, and to program Qlab’s MIDI light cues with accuracy. David Phillips (scenic) and I kept in touch to track locations of props and furniture in which I hid a wireless micro-speaker. Leanna Moore (costumes) and I made sure that Hayley Palmer, the actress playing the Angel and Emily the nurse was comfortable wearing a body mic during two key scenes in Act III. Our collective designs went through many drafts, with each design undergoing at least one major revamp along the way.

Angels was an immense undertaking for all and I’m very proud of the work that was done. Team sound worked seamlessly well together (including Tariq Malik and Gabriel Barriga on audio crew). Congratulations to all on a fantastic run!

To hear sound clips from the show, please visit my web-based portfolio.

Matt Glenn
Sound Designer
MFA Class of 2014

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