Challenges in Foley for Stage versus Studio

“If I run out of hands, I can use my mouth, too.”

Wait, it’s not that kind of article!

The podcast phenomenon has aided our current audio drama renaissance. It has also invigorated the live radio theatre scene. For years, the “busy season” for radio theatre has been October through December. Theatre towns like Chicago can rely on at least one of our two-hundrish storefront companies staging Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds, while many make Theatre on the Air-style productions of It’s a Wonderful Life, The Miracle on 34th Street, Herschel and the Hanukah Goblins, and A Christmas Carol a staple of their holiday programming. 

With new generations discovering the arts and mechanics of aural storytelling, audiences can now develop ongoing relationships with these characters and creative ensembles. How better to capitalize on this than through tours and stage events? The audience is there, and a deeper sense of local community invariably follows. Many audio dramatists are already trained stage actors, so taking their characters from the studio to the stage is a natural transition. 

A touring podcast clearly benefits from having its original voice cast recreate their performances live, but the show’s full soundscape may not necessarily come along for the ride. I certainly don’t mean to disrespect the talented sound designers who create those worlds safely nestled in our earbuds! Many of these artists bring their craft to the stage right alongside those voice ensembles; seeing them at work gives the audience a whole new appreciation of their skills. Horror podcast juggernaut The NoSleep Podcast has just announced their third national and first European tours, along with house composer Brandon Boone; weird fiction darling Welcome to Night Vale has toured annually since 2013, joined by both their house composer, Disparition, as well as special guests for ‘The Weather. Our Fair City incorporated live fringe show appearances into their repertoire in 2012; to flesh out the world of Hartlife both aurally and visually, they added a live D.J. and a live Foley artist.

Foley art is named for Jack Donovan Foley, a pioneer of film sound design for Universal Pictures back in the 1920’s. His name has become the official term for the practice of adding in replacement sound effects in film, tv, and radio, when they cannot be captured on set. In radio theatre, it is often used as the catch-all for sound effects, whether they are produced by musical instruments, mechanisms built expressly for Foley work, or common household items that were drafted into A Life In The Theatre. A sound designer’s goal is to make sure that audio drama scripts are produced as compelling and cohesive stories without visuals. For a stage show, Foley further incorporates prop design, percussion, choreography and puppeteering to draw the audience into a world they cannot see, only dream of. 

While many of the techniques employed in Foley onstage and in the studio are the same, the differences in approach are almost always caused by the differences in resources. This can mean certain limitations, but it also affords opportunities for greater theatricality from the performers and more profound complicity from the audience. Remember: in theatre, we are part of the finished product both aurally AND visually. These resources are chiefly time, space, budget, and personnel.

  • Time: In contemporary sound design for screen and radio, you have the luxury of multiple takes. In stagecraft, precision is essential for communicating clearly with your audience. This of course means that the more complex your soundscape is (i.e. duration of sound, number of props, number of Foley artists, level of proficiency), the more rehearsal you will need to successfully integrate all the elements. A barbershop quartet rehearses differently from a soloist.

  • Space: In a sound studio, you may set props up for recording in front of the mics and then strike them at your leisure, or even move your microphones to the props needed. A stage set is likely to have a small area dedicated to microphones that will remain stationary for the whole production. Consequently, your props will need to be quickly and quietly portable. A stage Foley show is apt to use a briefcase to simulate the sound of a car door slamming rather than that of an actual car door slamming. Rehearsal is also your time to develop spatial relationships with those props, organizing them based not only on when you need them, but whether you want to milk how they are revealed to the audience--the concept of “Closure” will be familiar to comic book fans thanks to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

  • Budget: Speaking of props in the show, here are several broad categories of props you’re likely to have in your arsenal: 

    • Props that provide a single specialized sound will be items like shoes for footsteps. While in a film you would likely differentiate many types of footwear, you may need to scale down for a stage show - one pair of male and female dress shoes, then work/athletic shoes, children’s shoes, etc. It’s fun to have a couple specialty pieces for visuals, like a pair of red pumps for the femme fatale, or a squeaking rubber chicken for clown shoes ;) 

    • Props that can act as multiple sounds, depending on how they are used, not only help save space and cost, but encourage the audience to celebrate the versatility of the performers. Musical instruments are a great example, and having musicians in the cast for both their skills and their instruments is a major asset. In the 1920’s, silent movie houses employed ‘trap drummers to accompany films live. ‘Trap, short for “contraption,” rigs could score anything from a collapsing house to a bear attack, thanks to their figurate (and literal!) bells and whistles. There’s also more music and musicality integrated in sonic storytelling than we realize thanks to nearly a century of cartoons.

    • Props that are single-use/expendable (i.e. breakables, produce) can eat a big hole in your budget, and should be added as close to tech as possible, miming or subbing with non-perishable stand-ins until then.

  • Personnel: Often, as in the studio, the radio theatre employs only a single Foley artist, or perhaps a pair. Unfortunately, we rarely have the studio’s luxury to go back and layer additional sounds on top of each other. The more eager hands you have at the mics, the more complex the story CAN become:

Best of  WildClaw Theatre’s Deathscribe  2015; pictured: Foley artists Jeffrey Gardner and Ele Matelan. Photo by Clark Bender, used with permission. See? Hands and mouth!

Best of WildClaw Theatre’s Deathscribe 2015; pictured: Foley artists Jeffrey Gardner and Ele Matelan. Photo by Clark Bender, used with permission. See? Hands and mouth!

Audiences and actors alike see the rewards of adding a live Foley team to their productions. Audience members can engage with the voice actors while also sneaking peeks at the Foley team. If you see what effects are set up next, you can try to guess what direction the story will take! Voice actors benefit from having a soundscape truly support them in real time, rather than being dependent on the press of a button.

Has your show taken the leap into live events? What’s something you wish you and your team had known before you started?


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