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Melodies for The Liquid Plain

Vincent Olivieri • Sound Design • October 1, 2013

Dembi (Kimberly Scott), Cranston (Danforth Comins) and Adjua (June Carryl) on the docks of Bristol, RI, where the action of The Liquid Plain occurs.

Dembi (Kimberly Scott), Cranston (Danforth Comins) and Adjua (June Carryl) on the docks of Bristol, RI, where the action of The Liquid Plain occurs.

Victoria “Toy” Deiorio explores the shanties, solos and speakers behind her sound design for Naomi Wallace’s newest play

Before Victoria “Toy” Deiorio had a career as a sound designer, before she was in a rock band, and before she started teaching sound design, she wanted to be an actor. As an actor, one of the companies she wanted to work with was Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She never got the chance to tread their boards as a performer, but her wish came true (more or less) when OSF called to offer her a position designing sound and writing music for the world premiere of Naomi Wallace’s The Liquid Plain. For Deiorio, this project was full of brand-new opportunities: a new play, a new theatre company, a new director (Kwame Kwei-Armah), and a new roster of design colleagues. It also offered Stage Directions an opportunity to track a design from inception through completion; I interviewed Deiorio multiple times during the production process, examining the ways that a design grows and changes as the production comes together.

The Liquid Plain is set in both 1791 and 1837 and revolves around a group of people living and working on a dock in Rhode Island. At the center of this group is Adjua, who escaped from a slaving ship, and Dembi, a runaway slave from South Carolina; the rest of the company is filled with black and white men and women from America and Europe. The first act centers around Adjua and Dembi hiring a ship to return them to Africa, and the second act, set 46 years later, focuses on Adjua’s daughter Bristol as she learns about her mother’s past. The Liquid Plain had its world premiere at OSF this past summer, and Baltimore’s Center Stage will produce it in the spring of 2014.

Early Conversations

 

Victoria “Toy” Deiorio

Victoria “Toy” Deiorio

I first spoke with Deiorio a few weeks before rehearsals started. She had been working on the play for some time already, focusing primarily on the series of shanties that Wallace wrote into the text. Historically, shanties were work songs, designed to keep spirits up and coordinate efforts for larger tasks (hauling rope, for example), so they were harmonically simple, easy to sing, and in major keys. Deiorio wanted to stay true to the shanty genre as she set Wallace’s text to music, but she also needed to write for the play, which suggested a darker tone and minor keys. Deiorio wrote a few sample shanties in this darker tone for Kwei-Armah, but the director felt that the tone was too dark. The shanties needed to be “less minor;” the rest of the sound design could carry the darker tonality, but the songs needed to provide a counterpoint to the darkness in the play.

 

Deiorio focused on the shanties first out of a practical need: the actors needed to learn the songs early in the rehearsal process, and in order to enable that, Deiorio needed to provide melodies, recordings and manuscripts to music director Darcy Danielson by the first day of rehearsal. As she worked on the songs, more questions arose. Would the shanties be sung a cappella or with accompaniment? If there was accompaniment, what would it be? These questions were left open-ended, with instrumentation options ranging from traditional instrumentation to modern dubsteb. Deiorio had other questions about the metering of Wallace’s songs, which did not fit easily into a shanty structure, but rather than broach those subjects with Wallace immediately, she decided to live with the text for a while to see if time created solutions.

Starting Out

Deiorio did not start her professional life as a sound designer. Originally from New Hartford, NY, she studied Musical Theatre at Syracuse University and classical acting in London. After graduation, her professional life took her from performing musical theatre to performing with a rock band, and then into the non-performance side of theatre, where she wrote plays & musicals, directed, worked as production manager, and built a national career as an award-winning sound designer. She is based out of Chicago, where she also heads the sound design program at The Theatre School at DePaul University.

The Liquid Plain was produced in OSF’s Thomas Theatre, a flexible space that was set up in a thrust configuration for the show. The Thomas had two other shows that were also playing in rep with The Liquid Plain: King Lear and a new musical called The Unfortunates. The rep system meant sharing audio equipment, which meant that Deiorio needed to coordinate her technical needs with the two other productions, each of which had drastically different aural requirements.

The sound system consisted of Meyer M1D cabinets at left, right, rear left, and rear right positions. JBL AM4215 cabinets were placed in the corners of the theatre, and the low end came from a pair of Harbinger HX118S subwoofers. All of the passive loudspeakers were powered with QSC PL218 amps except for the subs, which ran off of a QSC RMX1450. Playback was QLab2 on a Mac Mini with two Echo Audiofire8 interfaces, and routing was handled with a Soundcraft 6000 desk.

In addition to the house system, Deiorio added a few specific touches for The Liquid Plain. Two JBL Control 1 loudspeakers underneath the “dock” sourced water sounds, and one JBL Control 5 over the deck served both as a source for gull sounds and to source sounds directly to the dock. Two Audio-Technica AT815R shotgun microphones picked up dialogue in specific moments where Deiorio wanted to add reverberation to the room; she used a Lexicon MX300 for reverb processing.

Working In Rehearsals

 

Dembi (Kimberly Scott) and Nesbitt (Josiah Phillips) wait to see if Gifford (Richard Elmore) has drawn his last breath.

Dembi (Kimberly Scott) and Nesbitt (Josiah Phillips) wait to see if Gifford (Richard Elmore) has drawn his last breath.

My second conversation with Deiorio happened after rehearsals began. She had flown to OSF for a few days, and spent time in the rehearsal hall with the company as they began to tackle the play. Those days, Deiorio recalls, were “fantastic.” She returned from Ashland energized and with a clear idea about where the design needed to head.

 

“I have it in my head,” she told me at the time, “I just have to get it out now.” In the first few days of rehearsal, as Kwei-Armah and the acting company did table work, Deiorio sat in the rehearsal hall and wrote music. She worked in headphones so as not to disturb anyone, but she was able to hear the rest of the room as she worked. At the end of each rehearsal day, Kwei-Armah and Deiorio would review the music she wrote. Being able to hear the actors’ voices as she drafted the music gave Deiorio a stronger connection to the play, and by meeting with Kwei-Armah immediately after rehearsal ended, the director and composer were able to have very mindful discussions about how the music and the text connected.

In the early days of rehearsal, Deiorio wrote underscoring and transition pieces without regard for where in the text the music would occur. “I told them that I would just start writing and then we’ll try to plug in where we feel they’re right.” Like the characters in the play, the music was influenced by African, Irish/English and American traditions, and as she wrote and discussed with Kwei-Armah, an aural vocabulary started to emerge for each character. Style, tonality and consonance all began to firm up, and the instrumentation started to coalesce around three instruments: clarinet, violin and mbira (African thumb piano).

Despite her early work on the sea shanties, some of the songs needed to be tweaked during the first few days of rehearsal. Deiorio worked to edit the songs to accommodate singing abilities and dramaturgical needs. For instance, when the character Cranston first appears at the beginning of the play, he has lost his memory. To incorporate that disjointedness into the music, Deiorio created a song that does not flow well from line to line. In those first days of rehearsal, she recalls that there was some concern about whether such a non-musical approach to the song was working, but as the company rehearsed the scene and discovered the characters, the value of the song’s musicality became apparent.

Deiorio returned to Chicago energized and excited to continue to work on The Liquid Plain. She brought violinist Susan Voelz into her home studio to record all of the shanties in major and minor keys, uptempo and downtempo. The recordings comprised a library of music from which Deiorio could pull to create underscoring and transitional music elements. In addition to the tonal music, Voelz recorded pops, squeaks and other noises for use in the sound design; by pitching some of those sounds down, for example, Deiorio could create a stylized version what the sound of waves hitting the hull of a ship might have sounded like to the chained-up Africans during the middle passage.

Looking Back

My final conversations with Deiorio came after The Liquid Plain had opened and she had returned to Chicago feeling proud of the show. Being a new play, Wallace had continued rewriting right up to opening night, and the entire company had to remain nimble in order to incorporate the new text. Deiorio noted that the rewrites “did change the ending of the play almost daily” and that while she tried combining music, thunder and abstract sounds in different ways to support the changes, in the end, a simple tone gave the right feeling of infinity to the end of the play. That tone was a product of the Voelz recordings, which ended up being the major musical element in the design. Larger ensembles felt too big for the text, so with the exception of one quartet (in a senator’s house) and some mbira and drumming, the recorded music was entirely solo violin. Technically, Deiorio found that some of her early choices paid off in unexpected ways. In particular, the loudspeaker specials she installed under the dock, overhead, and upstage of the RP screen let her “image most of the sound design from the stage out, which for that space is really rare.”

Deiorio credits a supportive and engaging team of designers and technicians with helping to make her first production with OSF so successful. “Ashland is the most incredible place to work,” she said again and again. She specifically noted the aptitude and can-do attitude of the staff; “Nobody says ‘no’ there. The most they’ll say is ‘Well, let me try it, and we’ll see.’”

GEAR LIST:

Under Dock speakers: JBL Control 1 (x6)
Overhead speaker: JBL Control 5
L/R Mains: Meyer M1D (x6)
Corner speakers: JBL AM4215/64 (x4)
Backstage speakers: JBL Custom with 12” drivers (x2)
Subs: Harbinger HX118S (x2)
Voms: JBL MS112 (x2)
Amps: QSC PL218’s for all passive speakers except subs
Sub Amp: QSC RMX1450
Shotgun mics: AT815R (x2)
Booth Console: Soundcraft 6000
Reverb: Lexicon MX300
Interface: Echo Audiofire8 (x2) synced via external word clock QLab V2 running on a Mac Mini

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