In a Purple Rose production, no choice is made unintentionally, including the chime of the doorbell or the ring of a cellphone in the PRTC’s current show, “Vino Veritas.” “It all has to serve the play,” explains sound designer Tom Whalen. “If something isn’t moving the story forward, we take it out.”
A PRTC Resident Artist, Tom Whalen has filled roles as both an actor and sound designer for the theatre since the early 2000s—sometimes doing both for a single show. His PRTC sound credits include Apartment 3A, Consider the Oyster, A Streetcar Named Desire, On Golden Pond, Annapurna, The Last Romance, 2AZ, and now Vino Veritas.
I recently spoke with him to get the inside scoop on his sound design process, and learn what challenges and successes he encountered while working on Vino Veritas.
Whalen was led into the world of sound design by his passion for music and eagerness to try something new. During his acting career, he has made a habit out of playing roles that require dabbling in various musical instruments; from trumpet, to ukulele, to harmonica. When an opportunity came along to shadow a former PRTC sound designer, he gladly accepted.
Many shows later, Whalen has fine-tuned his process for theatrical sound design. Once he’s got a script in hand, he makes a list of all the sounds the play specifically calls for.
“After that my job is to provide lots of choices, most of which don’t make it into the show,” he says, “but that’s the nature of process. For example, with Vino I provided a dozen or so doorbell sounds and ultimately one got chosen. My goal is to help the director realize what their idea is. And if they already have an idea, I try to sweeten it, make it more grandiose, and help them find out if they’re right. If I’m having trouble finding the right thing, I try to steal it from the real world.”
Elaborating on his method of “stealing,” Whalen says, “For a previous production, I needed the sound of a coffee timer going off. One day I was in line at Starbucks and I heard this ‘ding!’ After I got my coffee, I asked an employee if I could record the sound of the timer, to which she obliged. That ended up being the timer sound we used for the show, and a few audience members even recognized it! I guess it registered with their real-world experiences.”
When asked if he faced any interesting sound design challenges with Vino Veritas, Whalen recalls designing a series of behind-the-scenes sounds, which had to come from the imaginary upstairs level of the set. “We originally tried having an apprentice make the noises, but Rhiannon Ragland, the director, said it didn’t quite sound like it was coming from the right direction. With the help of our technical director, Gary Ciarkowski, our solution was to place a speaker near the ceiling of the stage behind the set and play pre-recorded noises. That did the trick.
“Choosing the right volume levels for a sound effect is always a challenge,” he added. “It makes a big difference once there’s an audience in the room. Sound travels farther in an empty theatre than in a packed house. So a sound effect is always likely to be softer once you’ve got lots of people in the room. I have to account for that.”
Vino Veritas celebrated its opening night performance on Friday March 31, with a packed audience, and is scheduled to deliver a laugh-out-loud experience through Saturday May 27. The lights are on, the volume is up, and we hope to see you there!