THE Curious Incident of the dog in the night-time
Adapted by Simon Stephens, Based on the Novel by Mark Haddon
Directed by Ernest Zulia
Sound Design by Anna Mitchell Johnson
Projections Design by Kiah Kayser
Adapting Sound Design for Live Theatre Performance to a Digital Platform
Amidst a Global Pandemic
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was originally supposed to premiere in April 2020; however, due to COVID-19, the production had to be delayed to the fall. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19 restrictions we were unable to produce this show as intended live on stage. Instead we presented it as a Zoom play.
This challenged me as a designer to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and gain new technical skills to enhance my design for a digital platform.
Christopher's world is a confusing, overwhelming cacophony of fears. The soundscape of the play runs like a constant electrical current symbolizing how Christopher's brain is never vacant. When Christopher gets out of his comfort zone the sound should be alarmingly overwhelming almost like a computer short circuiting. Christopher sees the world in a vaguely robotic manner, but he sees beauty in moments we wouldn't stop to understand. Music is used as a tool throughout the production to enhance and maintain the natural rhythm of the text. Through the combination of realistic and symbolic sound effects, the audience experiences both how Christopher interprets his surroundings and how the rest of the ensemble views Christopher's actions.
& Audition / QLab Screenshots
Train Station Voices Montages
In the second act, there are three scenes in which the ensemble's voices are used to narrate signs and voices from inside the train stations that Christopher visits on his journey to London. I compiled a script of all the lines that needed to be recorded, and with the director's assistance, we chose which actors would say each line. I then sorted all of the lines by actor and compiled this recording script. The director, stage manager, assistant director and I gathered all of the ensemble actors and on the day before we were all sent home because of COVID-19, we all sat in the cramped recording studio in the film department. I was in charge of the actual recording while the director team worked with the actors. Three of the actors didn't show up, so three of the voices are me, the stage manager, and the assistant director. After we got all the recordings, I compiled them all in Adobe Audition. I then added music, sound effects and several reverb effects to make the compilation sound artistically overwhelming, meaning not so overwhelming that the audience wants to leave the theatre but enough to demonstrate Christopher's extreme anxieties.
As a sound designer, I believe one of my strong suits is my ability to find underscoring music that helps the actors feel the emotional build of a scene. One of our biggest struggles in converting our original live production into a Zoom performance was the fact the actors had a harder time increasing the stakes of some of the more intense scenes. Near the end of Act 1, there is a scene in which Christopher discovers that his mother is still alive when he finds a stash of letters she wrote him. In the staged version, Christopher is frantically building a train set that then comes to life at the end of the act. Because we didn't have that physicality we instead had to raise the stakes through intense underscoring and some dramatic video design. The script of Curious Incident has a beautiful rhythm so my job as the sound designer was simply to listen for that natural undercurrent and find songs that matched the emotional build of each scene.
Complete* Playlist of Songs Used in
*Only includes the songs available on Spotify
Ending the Act with High Stakes
Another scene that would have had theatre magic is the end of Act 1. Since Christopher couldn't build a train set, we instead opted to just have the sound of the train at the end of the act. This was one of the underscores that took me the longest time to find. We kept having to change it because the energy wasn't high enough and there was no urgency. The train soundscape actually begins at the top of that page and has a long fade cue. I wanted the train entrance to be subtle until Judy appears and the train becomes louder as Christopher officially decides he's going to leave Swindon to find his mother.
Theatre Magic & Zoom
One of my favorite things about this script, is how many magical theatre moments there are. These moments where the audience holds their breath and can't believe what they just saw. There's the letters falling from the sky, the toy train coming to life, the astronaut scene where Toby & Christopher fly... The astronaut scene has always been a personal favorite. So I wanted to make these moments still have an impact even if we weren't able to have some of the elements that we would have had in the staged version. So for the astronaut scene I searched for the perfect song that felt ethereal but also grounded with synthesizer (to sound like a computer's interpretation of something ethereal.) I then added a couple of buttons; a comet, star sparkles/glittering, and a rocket whoosh. It was simple programming but it felt effective since this is one of the rare calm scenes with Christopher.
One of the most difficult parts of sound designing Curious Incident was the trains. In Act 2, Christopher embarks on a journey to London to find his mother after finding out his father murdered a dog named Wellington. He goes from the Swindon Train Station to Paddington Station in London. I wanted to make sure the train scenes were both emotionally effect and also historically accurate. I did a lot of dramaturgy work on the trains. I wanted to make sure there was a clear distinction between the British Rails train and the Tube train. Not only did I have to create the physical sounds of the train but I also had to create the atmosphere of the train which included Tube announcements, people talking, and usually some music. All of the Tube announcements were files I recorded and wrote. Every train cue has at least 10 files that are layered on top of each other. There is rarely a moment of silence during Christopher's journey because he's completely overwhelmed. One of the scenes I'm most proud of is the scene where Christopher's rat, Toby, escapes his rat carrier and runs onto the Tube train tracks. This scene was probably the hardest to program in the entire show. I spent 3 days on just page 52. These 2 pages alone have 111 files/fades that have been individually programmed.
Logic Pro X
OBS Virtual Camera
& QLab Screen-Share
Creating the Chaos That Is Christopher's Mind
Christopher interprets the world drastically different than most people. This story really spoke to me because my father and my sister are both on the spectrum. So I wanted to try to create a sound design that helped the audience better understand Christopher. He hates to be touched so every time someone tries to touch Christopher you hear a glitch sound effect that usually acts as a button to fade in/out music. One of the most audibly intense scenes of the show is at the beginning of Act 1 where Christopher investigates Wellington's murder by talking to his neighbors. The show has such clear imagery; there's the dog, the trains, Christopher's love of maths and space. So when this scene came about I knew exactly how I wanted the chaos to come about. It's as if when Christopher's brain short circuits, he pulls familiar pieces of information to calm himself as he counts prime numbers. So some of the sound effects in this clip include doorbells, train whistles, dog barking and computer glitches. The other two clips are additional examples of Christopher's mind short circuiting. The exam room scene was such a hard scene for us to figure out in Zoom because it felt so static. So I chose to showcase Christopher's internal feelings to elevate the scene. In the last clip, Judy's boyfriend, Roger, gets drunk and hits Christopher. So I wanted this chaos to feel different more focus because Christopher is very alert when around new people. Which was why I chose to experiment with the radio static and distortion effects.
Creating Audible Choreography on Zoom
I attended several in-person rehearsals back in February 2020 when we thought we were going to be performing on the stage in April. The choreography enhanced so many scenes, so when I started working on the Zoom version I wanted to enhance the scenes that would have been choreographed with pantomime sound effects. So some of these scenes became hyper realistic in order for the audience to understand exactly what's happening. Other scenes that would have been choreographed became more sound heavy to compensate for the loss of movement.
Programming & QLab!
I think my favorite part of sound designing has always been the programming. This show was definitely a challenge to program. The show ended up having 195 official cues and 1,111 cue files. Kiah Kayser (Projections Designer), Lily Miller (Props Designer), and myself were all based in the theatre on campus. But our stage manager graduated last year, so she was based in Pennsylvania. Which meant that Kiah and I called our own cues. It was certainly a struggle the first few days of tech to be taking notes, editing cues, and writing calling notes all at the same time. But I'm glad I got the experience then because I've had to do the same thing on two other Zoom shows. We also each had to have two computers; one for QLab and one for us to talk during tech. Attached below is a screen-share video of the Curious Incident Final QLab file.
Darcy, The Tech Dog
on Opening Night of Curious Incident