In-your-face Theatre with In Your Face Sound Design

Tracy Letts' play, Killer Joe, was given its ultra realistic soundscape by Sound Designer Norman Kern in the San Francisco Bay Area Premiere this past year.

Sound Design reviewed by Aifen Wang

Norm took a play, Killer Joe, that is highly realistic with over the top blood and sex. While he accomplished supporting the individual sound cues, including intricate television and radio cues, a perpetual storm, and a pit bull bark that sent you out of your seat, he made choices with all of the above that added a good dose of humor that balanced and strongly enhanced the production. As usual his cues were seamless and technically perfect. - Lee Sankowich, Producer/Director of Killer Joe

Unlike most playwrights, Tracy Letts considers sound to be a very strong story telling tool for theater. Award winning designer Norman Kern created a sound intensive production. Sound started from the beginning to the end of the show and included over 100 sound cues for a script of 72 pages. "A script like Killer Joe is sound designers' dream," Kern said. Thanks to SFX and its abilities, Kern was able to create the reality of a white-trash trailer park in Dallas, Texas - with everything from a vicious pit bull to the rain bouncing off the roof of the trailer.

At pre-show, television static was heard with light flickering. A speaker was placed inside the prop TV. The SFX sound computer was used not only to control sound but also to trigger the lighting console. In addition, the script demanded sequences of television moments, from Cannon television show, Texas Lotto announcement, to Lone Star Beer commercial. Throughout the show, these complicated television sequences were timed exactly and carried out by one operator pressing a simple computer space bar. Five cast members supported by sound and lighting locked together in precision timing played the story of this trailer-trash black comedy perfectly.

Quote from Cast - Ryan Montgomery (Chris Smith) - Norm's design acted as an integral character in 'Killer Joe'. At our first tech rehearsals, Howard and I felt compelled to "watch" the TV. Actually, we were listening to the funny bits that Norm threw into the design. Even after hundreds of performances I often found myself playing into the "scoring" of the show. The rhythms that Norm found played beautifully with our choices as well as with Lee's. It was great to have a sound design that enhanced our performances so dramatically. I'd work with Norm again in a heartbeat.

Ansel Smith and Chris Smith watching TV

Mood setting is a major part of Kern's sound design. Subtle ambient sound of the environment helps a vivid story telling. Attention to detail, Kern's realistic rain (hitting the tin-roof) facilitated the set designer's trailer interior. In addition to select the right sound, Kern believes that volume settings as well as speaker placements are crucial to a successful sound design. Sound effects are only noise until they are addressed by proper level settings and placements. Inadequate use of effects can take audiences out of the story. On the other hand, with the proper use of sound, it empowers the production and becomes a part of the story. Kern used SFX to control the sound levels - the louder storm and thunder clasping and the subtle rain, wind, and distant thunder were accurately set for his design.

Junk-yard dog T-BONE came alive. We heard T-BONE barking upstage whenever Ansel or Chris entered or exited the trailer. SFX was used to vary the loudness of the barking in order to make it sound as if T-BONE was chasing the men. Kern recorded many sound effects over the years because of film sound designs. T-BONE is a pit bull. He recalled teasing a friend's rottweiler to get the ferocious barking effect and afterwards could not get near the dog. The recording was exactly what he needed because pit bulls and rottweilers have similar temperaments, and Kern was able to design T-BONE's bad attitude for the right moments.

Kern designed the radio changing from one station to the next until Joe found Hank Williams. Popular country songs from 50's to 80's were used to score the scene. The mood on stage transitioned unnoticeably from the Joe/Dottie's odd dinner conversations through the awkward undressing to the sensual moments of an incredible poignant provocative end of ACT 1.

Killer Joe and Dottie
Quote from Cast - Anna Bullard (Dottie Smith) - It wasn't until "Killer Joe" that I fully appreciated the subtle hand of a truly masterful designer. I have never as an actor or audience member experienced a sound design so intricately and intimately wedded to the psychological underpinnings of a play. What struck me most was his incredible ear for dialogue in the background radio and television clips he'd so painstaking timed to underscore the scene – inevitably, the sounds that emerged in our dialogue pauses were eerily appropriate for the moment, uncannily timed to comment and support without distracting from the action at hand.
The playwright Tracy Letts clearly defined the parameter of sound but gave the designer enough freedom to create. A specified sound in the second act (an evangelist on the radio) was used to help the transition into the next scene. SFX was used to move the sound from the house mains to the trailer radio that Joe was listening to. The Texan evangelist preaching recording Kern found was so amusing that we hardly sensed the transition black out.

A speaker hidden in the kitchen corner helped the fight choreography. Kern used the sound of silverware and plates to create the impact of Joe punching Sharla in the first fight scene leading to a gruesome Joe/Sharla's shocking performance. There weren't as many sound cues in the second ACT. However, they were significant. Joe turned on the radio again for the final dinner scene. Against typical anticipation, this time joyful Mozart was chosen for the radio music to further boost the dynamic of the later finale fight. The end of show, all hell broke lose in the climax of the final fight.

Having served in the United State Air Force as a police officer, Kern never believes in using sound of a prop-gun on stage. It not only sounds fake with unpredictable explosion but also loud and detrimental to actors' ears. Kern EQ'd and processed a Foley gunshot to make it sounds realistic as if it is fired in the small space of a trailer. SFX fired three shots: the first silenced the radio. No one doubted the gunshots. The finale was a bloody mess and took the stage manager/crews a good hour to clean up afterwards - not to mention several bloody laundry loads costume crews had to deal with before the next performance. Killer Joe ended with a WOW.

Norman Kern is an award winning sound designer/composer for theatre and feature film. This year, he received four nominations and won two Theatre Critics Circle Awards for musical, drama sound design, and original music. He has used SFX for over sixty productions and would never dream of using anything else. He has been representing and supporting Stage Research, Inc. since 2001. Norman Kern is a member of United Scenic Artists - Local USA-829.