When sound effects are needed in theater productions, shows may use recordings found on the Internet.
But back when radio was the main source of entertainment, sound artists had to create everything from slamming doors to footsteps in the snow. These specialists took everyday objects and used them creatively to produce all kinds of sounds.
These days, creating non-computer generated sound effects could be considered a dying art. But William Rickman not only learned to be a Foley sound designer in the 1940s, but teaches the art to another in “A 1940s Holiday Christmas Carol,” PowPAC’s holiday musical that opens Friday and runs until to December 18.
The show is a play within a play. Set on Christmas Eve 1943 in Newark, New Jersey, it focuses on the Feddington players as they play their version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. The two-act musical explores the chaos and madness of creating a live radio show.
Foley is named after Jack Foley, a sound effects artist who developed many of the sound effects techniques used in film. His pioneering work dates back to the 1920s, the beginnings of sound cinema.
“I started in 2016 … when a friend in another radio room asked me if I was interested in Foley Live,” Rickman said. “I had never done it before and thought I would give it a try.”
Few in the area specialize not only in creating sound effects, but also in front of an audience using techniques from 80 to 100 years ago, Rickman said. He had to do a lot of research.
“It’s a dying art because a lot of people prefer to do it electronically. It’s easier because of the availability on the internet,” he said.
The La Mesa resident served as the Foley designer for five theatrical shows, often because a radio show is part of the plot. This is the first time that Rickman is not also the actor who creates the sound effects on stage.
“The character is in my twenties and I’m 54, so I can’t pull it off,” he said. “But it was an honor to teach someone how to do it. It was great fun.
His student is John Thompson, who plays noisemaker Isador “Buzz” Crenshaw.
This is the first PowPAC show for Thompson, 32, of Carlsbad. He heard about community theater from director Kelli Harless when they were in a production of Patio Playhouse in Escondido.
“The role (of artist Foley) was the only one I was interested in,” Thompson said. “For the other roles, they were looking for singers and I’m not a confident singer.
“I knew it would be a challenge, but I felt like it was interesting,” he added.
Having never seen a stage show with Foley incorporated, this was a new experience for Thompson. He said Rickman’s tutelage has been extremely valuable.
“He provided most of the tools that I use in my performances,” he said. “It was important that he shared his thought process.”
Rickman created the Foley station that Thompson uses on stage. As he set it up so that all the necessary props were within easy reach, he would ask Thompson to move the props around so they were in more comfortable places for him to create the sounds. Rickman compared it to being a chef setting up kitchen utensils in the most convenient way before cooking.
Thompson said he was surprised by some of the props. For example, a can of cornstarch, when pressed near a microphone, sounds like footsteps in the snow. A hinge attached to a board can make the sound of a creaking door.
While Thompson’s character is responsible for creating all the sound for the radio show portion of the musical, he relates to the other cast and also delivers an emotional message near the end.
“(Buzz) is a versatile character,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s training was not Rickman’s sole responsibility.
“The biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to create sound effects in a practical way,” Rickman said.
He can’t use anything that existed after 1943, so the plastic items he finds at a home improvement store are out.
“Everything on the stage should look the way it’s supposed to be there and be functional,” Rickman said. “I had to do a ton of research.”
Rickman said the play’s script gives ideas for creating some of the necessary sounds and when they should occur, but doesn’t say how to actually do it. He has some Foley props he’s used in previous shows, but there were some he had to create for this show.
“There was a lot of trial and error, which adds to the challenge and makes it fun,” Rickman said. “Design is a challenge that pushes you to think about something…it’s an enjoyable challenge.”
“An effect is for a window to break,” he said. “But we can’t have broken glass on stage. Typically, you use a crash box, where you smash windows inside a box. But there is a safety factor here.
How the sound of the window breaking is created is something Rickman declined to share ahead of time, so as not to spoil the surprise for the audience. However, he said it had nothing to do with the glass.
This is the first PowPAC production for director Harless. She has many friends who have been involved with PowPAC, which is how she got tapped for this holiday show.
The Escondido resident said she got into theater building sets, which led to her acting, directing and producing.
“By being an actor, I’m a better director, and by being a director, I’m a better actor,” Harless said. “It’s all part of the process. What is important is that I learn, grow and develop my craft.
Although this is her first time leading this show, she staged a play on a radio show. Before television, radio was people’s “lifeline,” she says. He provided them with entertainment and news, especially in times of war.
Harless said she cast Thompson as artist Foley because she saw how meticulous he was when he did lighting work on other shows, and she knew he would be. Ready to take the challenge.
“It’s his first time and he’s doing an amazing job,” she said.
The cast also includes Steve Murdock, Geoffrey Graeme, James Schlarmann, Brian P. Evans, Cody Dupree, Jamie Feinstein, Melanie Mino, Ruth Russell, Emily Awkerman (the live pianist and musical director of the show), Alli Brown and Bart Schilawski.
“A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol” can be seen at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays from November 18 through December 18. There will also be broadcasts at 2 p.m. on Saturdays on December 3 and 17. weekend.
Tickets are $28 for general admission and $25 for seniors (60+), students, and active duty military. Group tickets for 10 or more people are $23 each. Shop at powpac.org or contact the box office at 858-679-8085 or [email protected]
The PowPAC Theater is on the second level of the Lively Center, 13250 Poway Road in Poway. For those who don’t want to take the stairs, an elevator is at the back. Parking is free.