I can’t get too comfy and cozy in anticipation of the winter holidays or settle in to doing the sound effects for Cygnet’s new live radio play, A Christmas Carol. Not yet. Not until after I help space aliens blow up New Jersey.
When I was hired to bring the soundscape of War of the Worlds to the stage, I had to ask myself some very odd questions: What does a hillside sound like when it’s set ablaze by a heat-ray? And, by the way, what does a heat-ray sound like?
We’re basing our staged-reading of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi novel off of a 1938 radio adaptation created and directed by Orson Welles before he rocketed to international fame with Citizen Kane. Most of you probably know the story of how the program’s fake news bulletin format freaked everybody out because they all thought it was real. That wasn’t an accident. Welles’ idea was to give everyone a good Halloween scare, and the only way to do that was to go for absolute realism. He had his company of actors to listen to the firsthand newscast of the Hindenburg disaster (only one year old) for inspiration. Oh, the humanity!
Ora Nichols, the first and only woman working in her field, was tasked to match the level of realism in her sound effects that the actors were bringing to their vocal performances. She completely lived up to the challenge and the product is a gloomy, creepy, legendary piece of radio history. I recommend listening to it on YouTube.
Nichols’ design was a major inspiration for my sound design, which you are all invited to come check out on Monday and Tuesday of this week (see showtimes for details). I borrowed a couple techniques directly from her, like putting a kitchen timer in a tin bucket to create the echo of a ticking clock inside a vast astronomical observatory. I even went to Lowe’s to see if I could re-create her technique of unscrewing a glass jar inside of a toilet bowl for the reverberation of a Martian cylinder being opened by aliens from the inside. Here’s a candid picture taken by a friend I bumped into at the store!
However, most of what I’ve created for Cygnet’s reading is a departure from Nichols’ original soundscape. I wanted to give audiences the sound of the gigantic tripods moving about like the destructive war-machines they were described as in the the book. I wanted to hear the Earth being crushed underfoot (Lowe’s and Toy ‘R Us both came in handy for this particular effect). Also, I wanted audiences to hear what the aliens would sound like emerging from their metal cylinders–sloshing a wet rag inside a mug of water was helpful to that end.
There are a number of other strange little tricks I have up my sleeve to treat you with (involving a warbling metal shingle and something called a standoff column base), and I can guarantee that should you come you won’t be disappointed. And, hopefully, you won’t be able to get to sleep either. After all, it is almost Halloween.