New England in the near future. It is night. The shutters are closed. We hear birds rustling outside the house. A fluttering of wings here and there. NAT is asleep. DIANE is trying to tune the radio.
That's the opening stage directions for The Birds. You know the one, a novellete originally written by Dauphne du Maurier — the same tome that inspired Hitchcock's famous film and later a play by Conor McPherson.
In the play a couple takes shelter in a barn following a sudden attack from a flock of blood-thirsty birds. It's a terrifying show, but only if it's believable. And to make it believable, you have to make the birds come to life. Cue: Mark Landis, the College of Charleston theater professor who designed the sound for PURE Theatre's 2013-14 production of The Birds.
"It's the end of the world. Humanity is being wiped out. I wanted to fill the stage with an ominous soundscape," says Landis. But how do you transform the pleasant twittering of a naturally happy-sounding species into a cacophonous rumble of pure terror?
"I tried to gather as many different species of bird sounds, collecting sound effects of birds flapping their wings," he says. Using his computer, he mixed the various species to craft a flapping hell. Landis most difficult task was creating the sound of birds crashing against the house.
"I took a single thump and I put it into my computer and kept tweaking it, changing the pitch, filtering the sound, etc. until it sounded like a bird had thumped into it," he says.
"I was terrified," says Melissa Tunstall, CP's editorial assistant, who reviewed the play. That terror is likely why Landis has been nominated for Best Sound Design Theatre Charleston award this year.
But, for Landis, it wasn't all avian racket. He was also tasked with creating fake radio broadcasts to be heard by the cowering couple.
"The characters hear a broadcast and people are talking about the horror of what's happening. Subsequent broadcasts gets worse," he says. Since the radio scenes were scripted, Landis needed to find some voice-over actors, a task that wasn't as easy as it, well, sounds.
"Charleston is a fairly intimate theater community, and that includes the audience," says Landis "I thought it was important that the audience not recognize local actors voices." To avoid that, he called in some old pals. "I got some actors in Chicago to do the voices. They made the recording and sent it back to me." Minor details, but important ones. Details so seamless you hardly notice they're there.
"If you do your job right, the audience should not pay attention to sound cues. Like the lightening, it should be supporting what's happening on stage," he says.
Perhaps that's why novice theater reviews so often wax poetic about the cast and costumes, but tend to give elements like props, sound, and a lighting, a fleeting mention. And yet in a small theater community with even smaller budgets, it's the sound that can be an easy and cost effective way to bolster a show. "Doing sound is cheap," confirms Landis. "Well accept for the time it takes."
When asked how many hours he spent on The Birds, Landis laughs. "I'm not sure, but my wife may have kept track," he says. Whether Landis will take home this year's best sound award, we don't know. But win or lose, his work certainly deserves one of the best sounds, that of thundering applause.