Live sound effects are an ages-old art form in ‘The Play that Goes Wrong’
Creating the sound of all that meticulously engineered chaos during the show now at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place is a complicated business.
Pop vocabulary trivia quiz! From whence does the term “slapstick” originate?
Joseph Anthony Byrd, currently starring as a dead body in one of the slap-happiest slapsticks ever mounted on stage, provides the answer.
“It’s literally a stick, sometimes two,” he says from his station backstage at “The Play That Goes Wrong.” “You bang them together to make noise when somebody gets slapped. You need the stick because you need the people in the back to hear it. Just slapping somebody isn’t loud enough.”
There is a great deal of slapping — as well as other live sound effects — in “The Play that Goes Wrong,” which was extended twice and is running through May 29 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.
There also are copious amounts of bodies falling, walls collapsing and “loud spitting” and hitting in the Olivier Award-winning show by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields.
As part of the Broadway in Chicago’s all-Chicago ensemble, Byrd is called on to manage some of the sound effects backstage when he’s not occupied playing a much-manhandled corpse on stage.
Byrd wears headphones backstage.
“You have to,” he says. “It’s really loud. Gotta preserve the ears.
“You think of comic books, when it’s all BAM! POP! POW! That’s what we need here. When someone throws a punch, it needs to be cartoonish. Ridiculously loud. You want the sound to have that extra oomph, sound you wouldn’t get just from punching someone. People have to hear the punch or the body falling all the way in the back. You can’t give them just an echo.”
There is a lot of extra oomph in the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s staging of “Murder at Haversham Manor,” the ill-fated amateur production that forms the play-within-the-play in “The Play That Goes Wrong.” The Cornley troupe, which has far more enthusiasm than skill, remains staunchly committed to getting through “Haversham Manor” even when the set is collapsing around them and as random riffs from Duran Duran’s early catalogue play with arena-rock amplitude.
Creating the sound of that meticulously engineered chaos is a complicated business. New York sound designer Beth Lake helped create the demanding soundscape, and even she isn’t sure exactly how many hundreds of sound cues there are.
“This play is unique in that it just keeps amping up and up and up and up as it progresses,” Lake says. “It builds and it builds. With other plays, you usually have little moments where you can sit back for a moment. This one is nonstop.”
The play is in the tradition of commedia dell’arte — the 16th century genre that established a template comedies draw upon to this day. You can draw a direct line from the stock characters and the brash physical comedy of commedia to the Three Stooges and Bugs Bunny. Exaggerated sound effects always have been part of that tradition, whether handled by a pair of sticks in the 1500s, a computer program today or some mix of the two, Byrd says.
“Obviously, we’re not actually going to slam someone’s face into a door because that’s dangerous and absurd,” he says. “But if we can make it sound like we did, it really punctuates the moment.”
Byrd’s sound station is nestled in a few square feet space kitty-corner to the back of the set’s fireplace, inches behind a piece of glow-in-the-dark tape. Put one toe over that tape, Byrd says, and the audience can see you lurking in the wings.
“I call this the panini maker,” he says, holding a paddle-shaped device lined up next to various hinged, taped and padded boards and sticks. “You open it up and then clap it back together. Makes a hard, sharp, loud sound, like for a shield hit.
“One of the biggest challenges in this play is the timing,” Lake says. “There’s so much going on, and it’s got to be so precise.”
Things can and do go wrong. And parts of “The Play That Goes Wrong” are interactive — an element that can never be entirely anticipated. So Byrd is ever-attentive.
One of the sound effects Byrd does not augment but does have to manage is that of his own corpus falling with an audible thump on several occasions, often from some small height.
“That is all my body making that noise,” he says. “I’ve got kneepads. And the costuming is really tailored to give me some extra cushion.”
There is more than the slapstick and the panini-maker banging backstage that the insiders won’t reveal.
“You just have to see it,” Byrd says. “Of all the comedies I’ve worked on, it’s one of the most challenging. Even playing a dead body, there’s a lot going on and a lot of noise to keep track of.”
“The Play That Goes Wrong” runs through May 29 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St. Tickets: $26.50-$81.50. More information: broadwayinchicago.com