Designing Sound for Into the Woods

By Robert Dagit, Sound Designer, Into the Woods and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Photo by Jon Gardiner

If a bookcase falls in the theatre, do we hear it?

34,237 feet of Microphone Cable, 516 Sound Cues, 80 Board Scenes, 51 Speakers, 34 Amps, 19 Actors, 6 Musicians, 2 Keyboards, and 1 Mixing Console…. Maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

This will be the third time I’ve worked for Into the Woods. As with all shows, it starts with the question of “what is the story that this production wants to tell?” It was very early on that we decided that we wanted a more intimate and in some ways exposed show. While most productions emphasize the big and the fun that a musical naturally embodies, we wanted to emphasize the realness of these make believe characters.

Garrett Long as the Baker’s Wife. Photo by Jon Gardiner

Luckily for PlayMakers Repertory Company, we have Mark Hartman working again on this show as Music Supervisor. He has worked with us on Cabaret and Assassins. It was in discussions with him that we talked about having a smaller orchestra very early in the process to help emphasize the intimacy of the music. Personally, I love this condensed orchestra as every part is almost a solo and shines it it’s own unique way.

After the first meetings: there’s a partial split on the design process with Sound Designers. On the one side there’s the engineering aspect of the system and on the other is the sound effects side.

On the Engineering side, there’s a large amount of system setup that’s done to ensure the best sound for every seat in the house given the equipment available. This includes charting out speaker placement, amp matching, dispersion angles, and timing the system out for the space. In addition, there’s mapping out the thousands of feet of cable, charting out the stage box hookup locations, and the very tricky wireless. The wireless was made a bit more of a challenge as there’s not only the 22 channels used in Woods which presents its own challenge, but also an additional 20 channels of mixed frequency in the Kenan theatre for Johnny Johnson that must stay clear with each other during the run that must be coordinated.

Lisa Brescia as the Witch and the Ensemble. Photo by Jon Gardiner

On the Sound effects side, one of the key elements I wanted to read was the realness of the Giant. In most productions, the Giant is looked as an evil force coming into the world and is often played in a comic or stereotypical light. While she does possess the destructive force of a tank, she’s not destroying the neighborhood without reason. She befriended Jack (Jorge Donoso) who paid her back by killing her Husband at the end of Act 1. We’re very lucky to have Kathy Williams to volunteer her voice for the Giant. I’m hoping that while the giant does give a destructive presence, the choices we made on vocalization does help emphasize the fact that she is not an evil force by nature.

L to R: Garrett Long as the Baker’s Wife, Jessica Sorgi as Red Ridinghood, Jeffrey Meanza as the Baker, Lenore Field as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Katy Castaldi as Lucinda, and David Adamson as Cinderella’s Father. Photo by Jon Gardiner

Given I’ve already been asked a few times how the Giant’s footstep was done: there’s a combination of design and engineer elements that come together to create her larger than life walk. First, putting together the right combination of sound elements together for the cue itself. The footstep cue is a combination of a concert base drum, a sonic sweetener, a low frequency oscillator, and a few other parts to create a base sound effect. From that, a pitch shift was done to create four variations of footsteps as our footsteps naturally change pitch slightly with every step. For playback, the main system subs have been re-tuned for use for this show and Midsummer’s. In addition, an extra sub was installed below the center deck just south of the trap. Once the Giant comes into close quarters, the deck vibrates with each step. While testing the sub, it was interesting to find that the deck vibrates in different areas depending on the specific frequency played through the sub.

If you haven’t gone and seen it already, hurry up and buy your tickets for Into the Woods. It’s an intelligent and complex version of the show, and I’m happy to be a part of it.