A Streetcar Named Desire at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts

By Brad Rembielak

This summer, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. showcased the playwright Tennessee Williams in a series of three of his most famous works: A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Glass Menagerie. Sound Designers Scott Lehrer, Jon Gromada, and Associate Designer Sten Severson used Stage Research's SFX sound playback software as a key component of their designs. Scott Lehrer's work on Streetcar illustrates this.

SFX was an important tool for designer Scott Lehrer. A Streetcar Named Desire, with a run time of about three hours incorporated over two hours and twenty minutes of sound and music cues and contained over 100 sound cues. How did he approach putting together a show with so much sound playback?

Lehrer initially sat down with director Garry Hynes to discuss the script and the concept of the show. Streetcar, set in the lively French Quarter district of New Orleans, is full of references to music and Jazz. It seemed natural, according to Lehrer, to draw those references out of the book by incorporating into the show an ever present "sonic background" -- whether it was coming from a radio or from a club down the street.

Once Hynes and Lehrer decided on general moods for scenes through listening to period recordings, Lehrer assembled a jazz quintet in the studio. Recording different riffs and solos, the band provided Lehrer with a palette of material that he could work into the show. All source material was recorded on a Mac in ProTools, and by maintaining separate tracks per instrument, he could later pull out or combine tracks for particular moments in the show.


The next challenge was making the actors feel comfortable with the nearly constant music onstage. Lehrer prefers to introduce the underscoring as soon as possible in the rehearsal process, so that the director and actors can get used to it. But, with the schedule for Streetcar, the earliest he could incorporate the music was during tech. This is when SFX made his job easier.

Lehrer used a Mac at his tech table during rehearsal and had it networked to the sound operator's SFX PC through the terminal control and file transfer program, Timbuktu. During rehearsal he was in ProTools, pulling out tracks and doing a quick mix on them to transfer over to the SFX computer where they will be played back. For example, when he found a scene where the musical underscoring wasn't working, he searched through his source material for something more appropriate, mixed it on the spot, and then transferred it over to the SFX system for another go.

One interesting source of music in this production was the establishment of an offstage Jazz club that was to sound as if it were located a few blocks away from the action on stage. By applying heavy doses of echo and reverb, Lehrer had this offstage source sounding distant, and had it sound like it was bouncing off the walls of the narrow French Quarter streets, creating the illusion of a night club around the next corner.

Since SFX is famous for its ease of use by operators, operators worry less about which cue to run next and can pay more attention to reinforcement. This is especially important with this production of Streetcar as the operator has to continually monitor the musical underscoring to weave it into the energy of the scene at the appropriate levels.

Like Streetcar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie also were due ambitious sound designs and the sound designers and operators benefited from Stage Research's SFX by enabling them to focus on the art and provide the best possible design.