Shakespeares!!: An Audio Design for Brown Symposium’s Hamlet Trio
by Mark Saunders Corbin
On February 8th, 2001, a version of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet opened on the Alma Thomas stage at Southwestern University as part of the twenty third annual Brown Symposium. Director Ron Bashford was hired to create a new adaptation of Hamlet with only three actors. With this challenge, Hamlet Trio was born. Bashford best described this production as “looking into a mirror, and catching a glimpse of a third you regarding that reflection.” This was a project that would incorporateall of the production and artistic elements to create one living entity, each element becoming a character in the play.
This was an Equity production staring Matthew Detmer, Charles McIver, and Carine Montbertrand. These actors were challenged with taking on the roles of many Hamlet characters, as well as playing Hamlet himself. There were moments where three Hamlets would talk to himself, such as the “too too solid flesh” soliloquy. The actors would constantly switch roles, being Claudius one moment, then switching to Gertrude, then Hamlet, and back again to Claudius. This provided for a very new and dynamic production of Hamlet.
Time was also reworked in this version of Hamlet. The scenes were treated as flashbacks of Hamlet at the moment of his death. With this concept in mind, many of the scenes were reorganized to help tell a different story. This not only provided a challenge to the audience, but also to the production as a whole regarding the transitions. In the end, actions from lights and sound provided the momentum for the movement.
Regarding the show from a design aspect, it provided many challenges for all. The two largest constraints on the design team were the time and the challenge of designing for brand new show. The time was short. We were not presented a full script until the first week in January. The build began the second week and was to be completed three weeks later for tech with little or no crew help. The design team had prior meetings with the director previous to his arrival, but the bulk of the work required his presence and the projects momentum. As for the issue of a new production, this provided challenges for us all. The set was not a reflection of geography, but a reflection of a mind. The costumes were minimalist, required to move on and off easily for character changes. All of the elements were new, and no one quite new where to direct them until the project was underway.
For me, the sound design provided many challenges in and of itself. I had been meeting with the director in New York while I was interning with a Broadway Sound Designer in the area. We had been able to hash things out to a certain point, but could not move any further until the script was complete and the actors had begun to explore.
After some of the preliminary meetings with Bashford, we came up with four basic sounds that we needed. We wanted waves. The waves would evolve into an opportunity for transition, a symbol of cleansing or washing away, as well as geographically representing Denmark by the ocean.
We needed a sound for the Ghost which evolved into a collage played back with the first appearance. The collage consisted of sea gulls, tying down a geographical reference, a high and low pitched tone, and a snippet of music to help tie it all together. The collage ended with the sound of a cock crowing, witch would be carried throughout the performance with the Ghosts exits.
Bashford gave me two key phrases and let me run with them. He said he wanted the sound of burning crystal, and a torture noise. The two sounds would be different, but both represent Hamlet’s inner struggle and turmoil. The burning crystal sound was represented by two high pitched tones played together. It was simple, but created an image of searing pain for the audience. The torture noise was not so simple. We took it to mean an auditory representation of Hamlet’s self torture, not practical sounds of torture. This evolved into a grating crash with a low rumble underneath to carry it. The base sound was a cymbal crash which was then heavily processed to get the end result.
The final sound that Bashford and I decided we wanted for Hamlet Trio was music. We thought heavily on whether or not we should use period or contemporary music and what implications each would have. In the end we chose to go with a contemporary composer. We felt that the emotions that this music created were a closer match than those that Renaissance music would emote. We choose to use several selections from the European composer Arvo Port. We chose three pieces of his, Spiegel Im Spiegel, Fur Alina, and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. We had three variations of Spiegel Im Spiegel and two variations of Fur Alina. Each piece took on a character or a moment in the play. Spiegel Im Spiegel embodied Hamlet and would resurface periodically throughout the play. Fur Alina would come to represent Ophelia and serve as an intro for her scenes. Cantus would be used twice as a red carpet to the climax. Once during a scene of defining moments, and the second as an underscore to a conversation Hamlet has with his mother and Horatio in two different times and places. This scene can be said to be the moment of Hamlets downfall, the moment that he realizes and decides his fate.
The sound system used for the production was an eight channel surround system with subwoofer, and an additional two speakers upstage behind the cyclorama. The surround system facilitated two important variables in my design. With it I was able to create different textures with the sounds giving them different meanings. I was also able to have mobility with my sound, giving us the option to create momentum. The show was run from the balcony at house right using a Mackie 24x4 console. The playback was executed from four separate decks. The cues that were mobile or that had a multitude of specific speaker targets were played off of a Fostex D-108 eight track hard disc recorder. The other cues were played off of a Sony Mini Disc player, a Sony CD player, and a Tascam CD player. The reason for the multitude of decks was due to the timing of the cues and where they were in relation to each other. With more deck options, my board operator was able to concentrate on playing the right deck at the right time instead of reassigning channels. We found the sound system to be an integral part of the final version of Hamlet Trio.
This show was a challenge for all who took part in it. In the end we all were very happy with the final product, but felt that we had not met the scripts full potential. Iit was an amazing show, with amazing talent and amazing designs. It was like no other Hamlet – it was the Hamlet Trio.