So Many Phones, So Many Actors

by Brad Berridge

Reporters reach for their phones in Barrington Stage Company’s world premiere of His Girl Friday.Creating a MIDI “switchboard” to get multiple, period-perfect phones working correctly for His Girl Friday

​“A number of phones crowd the center table. Four of these phones communicate directly with the various newspapers; the fifth is an outside line, and extension of the switchboard in the criminal courts building.”
–Opening stage directions, His Girl Friday by John Guare

Barrington Stage Company’s ambitious production of His Girl Friday, a lively adaptation of the classic film (from John Guare), brought the whip-fast dialogue and action of the movie to life onstage—without the benefit of over-dubbing, foley artists or a special effects track. I was brought in to design sound for the play, and you can bet that the first thing caught my eye was the number of phones called for. (Yes, pun intended.) Still, “No big deal,” I thought. Phones are easy; either a nearby speaker or a Tele-Que are all that’s required. And then, on page 86, I saw this: “All the phones begin ringing crazily”—followed by more description of how a barrage of reporters scramble onstage to answer them and begin to furiously dictate news reports. 

So seven phones ring, and then are answered in (likely) random order (this is after a prison break and gun fight after all), and we have to figure out how to make it seem real in this play that takes place in 1939. This is a bigger task than the playwright initially indicated. Any interruption in action because a phone was still be ringing after it was answered would instantly pull the audience (and the actors) out of the play. My team—Associate Sound Designer Beth Lake and BSC’s Sound Supervisor Patrick Calhoun—and I knew we had to get this working in an organic way that would never be noticed by the actors or audience. 

After many brain-storming sessions, we knew that trying to choreograph the scene in a precise order of rings and pickups would be unreasonable to ask of the cast. Based on the action in the scene, the reporters all rush in and grab their phone (or phones) as quickly as they can. The only way to make a realistic looking (and sounding) scene was to come up with a technical solution. What we arrived at made for a seamless looking scene that was realistic and reliable.

First, we assessed the props that were to be used in the play. The older style phones, with a separate, corded ear-piece were accurate to the period and specified by David Barber, the scenic designer. The phones gathered did not have working components in them so we knew we knew we would be localizing sound with small speakers, hidden on the set. We originally specified Meyer MM-4XPs for this task but for the sake of the budget, we found the Pyle Pro PCB3. These three-inch “cube” speakers were capable of 100 watts, more than enough for a phone ring. At less than $30 a pair, it was an easy decision. 

Second, we had to figure out how to trigger QLab (v3) to stop the proper phone from ringing when it was picked up. We found the MIDI Solutions F8, an 8-input MIDI footswitch controller that provides eight 1/4-inch phone jack inputs for connection to footswitches or contact closures, which can be used to trigger MIDI events. The F8 connected to a PreSonus Firestudio Mobile via MIDI to get the MIDI messages into our show computer running QLab 3. (To download a PDF of our wiring diagram, click here.)

Next we had to get the phones to trigger the F8. By building simple contact closures on the phones and running the connected wires to the F8, this was accomplished. The contact closures were extremely simple. Small pieces of metal on the phones that touch (closed) when the earpiece was “hung up.” When the earpiece was lifted off the cradle, the closure would become open and send a signal to the F8. 

Finally, we had to program the F8 and QLab software to communicate properly to ensure there would be no hiccups. The F8 has proprietary software to program the unit with. We programmed it so that each input would send a unique Program Change MIDI message when it was triggered. The corresponding QLab cue would be triggered to stop that exact phone from ringing simultaneously. The show was a hit and no one noticed that the phones were not actually ringing.

One last “pro tip”: Any time you have a phone pickup, add the “ring out” by grabbing the end of a ring and have it follow the stop cue for the ring. Now if I could just get the constant ringing out of my ears…