Iphigeneia at Aulis
Yale Repertory Theatre
by Martin Desjardins

As a long-time user and advocate of Stage Research's SFX software, I was excited by the opportunity to bring the software to the students and faculty of the Yale School of Drama Sound Design program.  This past Spring, I was invited to write an original score and sound design for the Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of Iphigeneia at Aulis, directed by Rebecca Taichman.  Closely affiliated with the Yale School of Drama, YRT is supported by the students, and in return offers students opportunities to learn in an active professional environment.  Under the leadership of David Budries, the Sound Design program offers graduate level students the opportunity to explore both the creative and technical cutting edge of their fields.  However, as the department is largely a Macintosh-based production house, the school had not seen any use of the SFX system.

When I began talking with the staff at Yale about my technical needs, I was startled to find that SFX had not made its way into the theatre already.  It seems such a perfect match for the Drama School’s focus on complex, multi-layered designs and maintaining control over as many separate parts of the design up to and through the tech process.  Indeed, these parameters were the driving force behind the School’s move to the Akai format as a central tool of playback automation.


SFX and console

The first response from the students and staff said it all:  “This kicks the Akai’s *#@*!!!”  was one quote.  “Woah!” was yet another.  As I left town, I was told that failure to purchase SFX on the part of the department would likely “…cause complete revolt” among the students, according to Yale Repertory staff member David Baker.  What struck everyone so deeply?  I think it was the combination of flexibility, power, and ease of use.  Frustrated with the programming antiquities and MIDI conflagrations involved in coaxing the Akai S6000 into a proper playback device, and yet feeling the need to extend their capabilities beyond the limits imposed by manual operation; the straight-forward, theatre-focused programming and capability of the SFX system were an enormous breath of fresh air.

Iphigeneia was a condensed, fast-paced translation of Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis, a story whose details set in motion a number of key events in Greek mythology:  the Trojan War, the emergence of the Furies, and the murderous vengeance of Clytaemnestra and, eventually, Orestes.  From its opening moments, the production is heavily scored with original music and multi-layered, surround-mixed music & effects. 

A prologue presents the audience with Agamemnon’s hunt & killing of a deer on the sacred grounds of Artemis, an act which condemns him to choose between his success in battle, or the life of his daughter Iphigeneia.  Performed as a dance between Agamemnon and the deer, the prologue ends with the Deer’s murder.  We then find ourselves with Agamemnon in his tent as he struggles with his consequent dilemma.  From these opening moments, through the death of Iphigeniea and the abandoning of Clytaemnestra on the shores of Aulis, sound and music are a constant presence in the production.  In the nearly 90 minutes of theatre, more than 8GB of data streamed through SFX night after night, providing sound and music to all but three brief moments in the performance.

Due to the sheer amount of data, SFX was an absolutely essential component not only in performance, but in rehearsal as well.  The system was brought online & into the rehearsal hall in the 2nd week of the rehearsal process, and was thereon out used to run cues in rehearsal, tech, and performance.  Using the system in rehearsal allowed me, as the composer and designer, to easily trigger all of the playback cues, as well as to trigger a Macintosh using Digital Performer 3.0 to run real-time effects for the chorus microphones during the seven chorus songs in the play.  Day after day, night after night, the SFX system operated without failure or hesitation (which is more than can be said of the DP 3.0 system!). 

SFX Screen Shot of Iphigeneia

As a composer, I found SFX extremely useful, not as a compositional tool, but as a sort of digital assistant.  SFX provides its own means of organizing my design’s raw material, which greatly simplified maintaining and updating the design.  Additionally, SFX’s ease of programming held to an absolute minimum the amount of time I needed to setup, document, & run complex cue sequences.  As a result, I was able to spend almost all of my time in New Haven writing and recording, not programming the playback system (or rehearsing complex sequences with the FOH engineer).  In the words of the director, “The SFX system was so effective that I was barely aware it existed.  What I experienced was endless possibility in creating the score, and a delightful collaborator (Marty Desjardins) who seemed to instantaneously make changes to or develop the design.”

Cue list for IphigeneiaIn terms of data throughput & handling complex cues, the final sequences of the show bear mention.  At the end of the story, Iphigeneia is sacrificed to Artemis by her father, and we are left not knowing whether she is actually killed by her father, or spared and transformed by the gods.  A great windstorm blows up and Iphigeneia’s ultimate fate is left uncertain.  After 90 minutes of discussion, preparation, hesitation, and building tension, we come to this final moment.  The final music & storm had to be massive, dense, all-encompassing, and from the audience’s perspective, completely enveloping.  It was here that SFX’s programming powers really came to life.  During this cataclysmic moment, SFX ran a sequence whose total duration was not more than a minute, but whose content involved more than 20 tracks of audio, many with complex, three-dimensional pans.  By employing SFX’s format of multiple cue lists and event triggering, I was able to quickly set-up several three-dimensional pans of some sequence elements, and layer in additional sounds in a montage that both looked back on the rest of the design and hurled us violently past the moment of Iphigeneia’s death.  In the end, the final sequence involved five cue lists running simultaneously.  All of these were played back off of the host PC’s hard drive, and routed via an 8-output Layla Gina/24 card.  It ran perfectly every night and only took about 2 hours to program, even with the fine tuning of the complex pans.  The sequence simply would not have been possible if run manually, and would have taken too long to program using other methods I’ve tried in the past (via sampler, or other playback automation systems).

In all, the SFX software proved an utterly essential tool on Iphigeneia, and an outstanding match to the demands of the production, the theatre, and to my needs as a composer & designer.  The software allowed me to readily stay on top of a complex show with a tight schedule, and to do so in a way that made it all look too easy.

Martin Desjardins is a graduate of Yale School of Drama, his work there included Duchess of Malfi and Love of 3 Oranges. His New York credits include: Gunshy (Playwrights Horizons); Below the Belt (John Houseman); North Atlantic and House/Lights (The Wooster Group). He has also worked at The Shakespeare Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Dallas Theater Center, and Williamstown Theatre Festival. His international credits include: Rett Etter Midnatt (FINN, Norway); Embracing the Riddle (Edinburgh, Scotland); and Hairy Ape (Holland Festival).