Working on Sound for the Pillowman


Each play has it's individual sound and music challenges due to subject matter, setting, language etc. As a sound designer and composer, the first things I ask myself are: what sound specs are already the script? What tone should I create or support? How long are the transitions? What instruments or sound palette should be collected/made and used? Pretty straight forward stuff, and honestly, not the most exciting part of the process, but necessary to move forward with the fun part.

The Pillowman is one of those plays that leaves lots of room for creative license. Included in the fabric are spooky and harrowing stories with an already atmospheric subtext waiting to be filled. Though it lends itself to subtlety there are opportunities to enhance the text in certain key places. The stories are moving and beautifully morbid, so as a designer, I wanted to be careful about taking away from that with overuse of FX and scoring. There are so many conflicting and changing emotions throughout the play, that too much mood-altering atmospheric sound or scoring could have upset the balance. It was also really important during the design process that all the design elements - costume, lighting, set and sound - were all coherent, and not dissonant in tone and presence.

My favorite genres to work with are horror, suspense, and fantasy, and The Pillowman combines all three of those things. There's just something about creating another world through audio that is so satisfying. It stimulates the imagination to new heights when you get to create that immersive experience that is so vivid in live theatre.

Once I had come up with and discussed a concept with the director, Ariel Craft, we thought about where to implement the larger bodies of underscoring. We decided that underscoring all of the 6 or 7 stories might take away from the impact of the more dream-type sequences in the play, so I concentrated on those. There are a couple of these sequences that obviously happen in a 'story world' so it was fairly easy to identify when to complement the narrative in a stronger way. For each of these stories, I created a musical soundscape that sits fairly subtly under the oration, reflecting the mood for each particular one. Over that, I implemented realistic, and altered sounds that were timed with the action to help tell the story. The production is fairly minimalist as far as props, and staged in a modest space, so sound really helped complement the narrative elements involved moment to moment.

For the first narrative I chose to use piano and celesta playing the same melody - a childish and melancholy tune a little like the kind in a music box - panned L and R. For the celesta I used one of my favorite editing effects for suspense and fantasy: reversing the audio file, applying reverb, then reversing it back. It creates a kind of anticipated reversed pre-echo that is so effective when used appropriately. I then added a little doppled delay and 'churchy' reverb to the whole track. The story at this point is a creepy tale of torture and dysfunctional family relationships, so the use of instrumentation worked well with the subject matter and context.

The second narrative has religious undertones within the fabric of the story, and gets pretty gruesome and unsettling. I chose to use Vienna female choir with church reverb set to long, increasing dissonant chords that built in intensity. Over that again I layered some altered 'found' and recorded sound, edited in Pro Tools. At one point, there is a scratching of fingernails on wood I recorded by scraping my sharpest nail along the inside of a piano stool and pitch shifting down a bit, as well as EQing out some of the top end for a nice, dead sound. Another recorded sound I collected was for a part where a TV is switched on; I decided that the most realistic approach was to simply switch on the TV, find an appropriate show (w/o too much music, or even any at all in the background) and record through the TV speakers with my Olympus PCM recorder. It worked really well with minimal editing or mixing.

Lastly, aside from a few realistic elements like door buzzers and backup gunshots, I wanted to create a preshow and intermission that really defined the subtext of the play bringing both reality and imagination into one space. As the actor who plays Katurian is on stage blindfolded for much of preshow, and sitting in a prison-like holding room that is darkly lit, cold, and sparse, I wanted to help build the insinuated inner-dialogue of the character by adding a kind of foreboding feeling to help set scene. For this I compiled a track that goes in and out of dream-like state, always coming back to that cold, hard prison space: squeaking rats, dripping water, a man crying next door, footsteps on concrete overhead, buzzing electronic sounds are layered with intermittent interruptions of a little girl (my niece, who I am grateful let me record her for this...of course, I didn't play the end result to her...she's only 8!) singing and reciting prayers, all with that reverse-reverb-reverse effect. The result is super creepy in spurts, but not overbearing, and fits with the overall and beaufifully crafted overall design aesthetic.

For more on the play please read my other blog post on The Pillowman! Or come see it yourself; it opens tonight, 6/12 and runs till the end of the month on Thurs-Sat nights. For tickets please visit

#sound #design #protools #soundscape #fx #theatre #drama #suspense

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