Tuesday, August 9, 2016

In the Soundless Awe

Written by Jayme McGhan and Andy Pederson
Directed by Sarah Norris
Produced by New Light Theater Project

Nominated for Outstanding Sound Design, Andy Evan Cohen & Outstanding Choreography/Movement Corrie Blissit

New Light Theater Project places writers at the center of their process and is focused on developing new works and reinterpreting classic stories.
     Photo by Hunter Canning

About the Production
In the Soundless Awe tells the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which was hit by two Japanese torpedoes on July 30, 1945, killing three-hundred sailors in the initial blast and leaving nine-hundred men helplessly adrift in the Pacific Ocean. The survivors are discovered almost five days later. When rescue ships and planes finally arrive, they witness hundreds of large shadows lurking around small groups of broken men drifting aimlessly in the current. Only three-hundred and twenty-one sailors are pulled from the blood-filled water. This production takes place twenty-two years later, finding Charles Butler McVay III, the wrongly court-martialed and disgraced Captain of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, perpetually haunted by specters, human and otherwise, who beckon him to join them. In the Soundless Awe is an horrific imagining of the final nightmare of Captain McVay, the man at the helm of the worst Naval disaster in United States history.

Director Sarah Norris, cast member Bethany Geraghty, and nominees Andy Evan Cohen and Corrie Blissit give us a little insight into the creation of this highly-theatrical and emotionally-wrought work.


What attracted you to this production?

Sarah: I’m always looking for scripts that are ensemble-based and challenge our company to stretch and grow. Not only was In the Soundless Awe a strong script for our actors, it offered unique design opportunities for our production team. When I first read the script, my head was full of crazy visuals (projections, water, movement, music, sound, gore) and I knew this script would push New Light in exciting ways.
The story itself is beautifully haunting, and based on a very real event – the worst Naval disaster in US history that is also considered the largest shark attack on record. Researching this tragedy and learning about the young men that were left in the ocean for 5 days, the terrors they faced, the sacrifices they made, and the loyalty they felt for their leader, Captain McVay, when the US government made him their scapegoat, spoke to me as an important and relevant story.
I also went to Graduate School with one of the playwrights, Jayme McGhan. For a long time, we’ve been back and forth about which full-length script would be right for New Light and when he shared with me In the Soundless Awe, I was hooked. I knew it would challenge my ensemble, but also, myself as a director. The past few pieces I’ve directed are in the realm of realism and naturalism. But Soundless Awe was written in a style and poetry that was out of my comfort zone. I knew I would have to build a trusting ensemble not only with my actors, but also with my team of designers, creating and sharing a common language for this very special play.

Corrie: I loved this idea of weaving the dream world with the real world, and how we could create this visually with sound, movement, and a set that would have a shallow pool of water on stage. I was so enthused I got to be a part of a close collaboration with the director and sound designer. Learning about these men's story and bringing to surface this tragedy that was buried by our political system, as well as how Captain McVay had been exploited and used as a scapegoat after the fact was a story I wanted to give justice to. So many men and woman vets today come home from war and experience PTSD which has been prevalent as of late but its important to realize that this has been going on WAY before we ever gave it a name.
     Photo by Hunter Canning

What did you want the audience to walk away with after watching In the Soundless Awe?

Sarah: First, I wanted them to walk away with more knowledge about a real-life man and event whose story they may never have heard before. I wanted the audience to be moved by the weight of guilt he was forced to carry his entire life, and I also wanted the show to be political and challenge an audience’s perception of the role of government and military.
As one of the real-life survivors of the U.S.S. Indianapolis wrote to me in an email, “I’m glad to hear you telling the story about the miscarriage of justice in the Court Martial of Our Captain Charles B McVay.”  The Captain of the Indianapolis (and the lead character of our production) was wrongfully accused, and it cost him his life. I wanted the audience to think about our government, our military, and the role we all play in the wars fought by the brave men and women who we send to fight them.

Bethany: As an artist, sometimes I feel like I don't do anything to make the world a better place. When we were moving into tech and previews for In the Soundless Awe, I found myself getting caught up in the little worries and frustrations of my own life. Then, we got an email from one of the survivors of the USS Indianapolis. And his words put everything into perspective. There are people who put their lives on the line for us everyday. They are braver than I will ever be. I am a storyteller. I don't risk my life, but I can use my calling to help people escape their own reality. I can tell stories that spark a discussion, that can provoke thoughts. With this project, I was able to use my gifts to honor the men and women who have given their lives for us. It was one of my proudest moments as an actor.

 What was your favorite part of working on this productions?

Corrie: Working with an ensemble and creative team that allowed me to explore developing themes through movement and play without having the have all the answers upfront was very liberating! I was fully supported from start to finish and having a team of people trust you to deliver and work through the process together allowed me to uncovering new ideas, to flourish more openly, and lead to a better telling of the story.
Sarah: We offered free tickets to active and veteran military men and women, and worked with groups like Vettix to get the word out. We had a few young Marines (very stoic, very soft-spoken) come in who we actually spent time with in rehearsal, and when they saw the production, they were proud of the work, saying it hit all the right notes. They felt like they had contributed to the story, and they were thrilled with the idea that men and women like them, human, and complex, were being portrayed on stage.

We were also in touch with Peggy Campo, one of the organizers of the annual U.S.S. Indianapolis reunion. There are only 30 living survivors left from this tragedy, and she told us that each year, the numbers drop. While she didn’t see the show, she said she spoke with the 30 survivors, and many (including herself) were humbled by the photos, the reviews, and the buzz of the production.

Andy: My favorite part was getting all the special sounds to happen in ways that got "wow!"s from the cast and crew. For example, the first time the cast was on stage and heard the torpedo explosions near the top of the show, they gasped as they could feel the explosions in their bodies (instead of just reacting to a sound played back over laptop speakers in a rehearsal.) 

Bethany: The play ends with Captain McVay welcoming death, surrounded by the bodies of his crew and the ghosts of the past. At one of the first performances, we took our places for the curtain call, and several of the audience members leapt to their feet. I could see on their faces how moved they were with the story we'd told, and that brought me to tears. Also, New Light Theater Project was very active in reaching out to veteran groups. They made the show free for veterans, as well as for currently enlisted service men and women. One night at the curtain call, we were greeted with an "OOH RAH!" There were a group of marines in the audience. I felt so proud to honor them and to be able to share what we do with them.

What was the most challenging part of working on this production?

Andy: The most challenging aspect was the sheer number of cues that I had to blend as the show shifted from reality to dreamscape and jumped around different eras and locations. One paragraph could be luscious underscoring, then the next paragraph frightening (as the sharks approached!) only to go into a weird weather report or dance sequence. It took a lot of rehearsal hours to incorporate the non-narrative structure of the piece into my own vocabulary for sound and music so I could orchestrate it the way I felt the playwrights and director wanted it to be.

Corrie: The pool of water that was going to be on stage was a worry for me from start to finish but also part of the attraction of the whole production. Not only was I worried about actors slipping, getting hurt, etc, but also how the movement might be hindered or changed drastically once we were in the theater and working with the water. Would actors be afraid to move? How much choreography would need to be modified? Then there was the thought of what if the water doesn't work out? How could we create the sense of being in water without it being cheesy or laughable which I think we accomplished very well!
Photo by Hunter Canning

What was the most unexpected thing that happened during this production?

Andy: I knew immediately that a key part of the sound design was to be able to have subwoofers concealed under the audience risers (so the explosions could come suddenly and forcefully). I also knew from the first production meeting I was able to attend (a little less than 2 weeks before tech!) that there was no money in the budget to rent subwoofers (and the theater company did not own any). But miracles happen in Indie theater. The video designer knew a guy who had some subwoofers and actually showed up on load-in day with the equipment we needed. Even though they required quite a bit of repair, I was able to get everything working by the first day of tech.

Corrie: One of my fav scenes visually was a dream sequence where Cpt. McVay was having a conversation with Hashimoto via video and I literally had to choreograph that on the spot the day before we had a preview. I took this red fabric we had decided not to use and created a movement sequence that implied a funeral and proper burial of McVay. We laid him to rest and it was as SMOOTH AS BUTTER the transition for him to awaken out of the dream and continue onto the next scene. All of it created and learned within the span of about 45 minutes.

What was it like working with New Light Theater Project?

Andy: I was very impressed with New Light Theater Project and everything they did for the show, and seeing how they approached other shows (with completely different storytelling and technical requirements!) excites me even more about working with them in the future. NLTP loves to experiment, take risks, try new things, and finds scripts from all over (their current show which I am working on, Strange Country, is from a first-time playwright based out of London, UK) that are both fun and fascinating to work on.

Corrie: We all truly get along so well! Its always a "YES AND..." We support each other and also challenge each other to look at all possible sides and outcomes to the story so that our main focus is to serve the writer's intention to our best ability.

What was it like to work with Andy and Corrie? 

Sarah: Corrie brings such positivity to her work that is contagious. Our acting ensemble were not all trained in movement, and sometimes it can be intimidating asking an actor to go outside of their comfort zone, especially with the non-traditional movement we were bringing to the table. But Corrie made sure everyone felt incredibly safe to explore and bring their own ideas. A choreographer is half-artist, half-teacher. Not only can she come up with original and fluid movement, she is also able to communicate it to a group of actors. She excels at both, and we’re lucky to have her.

Andy went above and beyond in creating the soundscape for this production. His idea to incorporate large subwoofers under the audience so that they felt the vibrations when the missiles hit was an incredible affect. He was extremely collaborative and provided much needed backup assistance for our projections, worked closely with Corrie to align the sound with the beats in her choreography, and spent a lot of time with us in the rehearsal room, capturing the mood and exploring options to better serve our story.

Bethany: Corrie Blissit created a movement vocabulary for this production with a specificity that told the story. Each scene had a different quality of movement; whether it was the men abandoning ship, floating adrift for days or being attacked by sharks. Being an actor herself, she gave us both the shape of the work as well as the autonomy to make acting choices within the movement. Friends who came to see the show told me they felt like they were really in the water with us. All of the choreography was grounded. There was no extraneous movement, each action had a purpose and told the story. I think that's why it was so successful. 
Andy Evan Cohen is a magical wizard. He crafted a soundscape that underscored nearly the entire show, that was at times eerie and haunting, and at other times terrifying and unsettling. He had bass speakers under the seats in the house so when the ship was hit with a torpedo, the audience felt like they were on the ship with us. He built these textures and effects into the sound, so that nothing was literal, but it gave the actors and the audience very visceral reactions to what was happening. He took what we were doing, and gave us a score that in turn inspired us to be better. I just can't praise him enough.

You can follow these artists on Twitter:
New Light Theater Project  @newlighttheater
Andy Evan Cohen @AndyEvanCohen
Corrie Blissit @corrieblissit 


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