SFX Design: A Prayer For Owen Meany
By Matthew Nielson

Every once in a while, a sound project comes along that is simply just too irresistible to pass up. For Sound Designer Matthew Nielson, The Round House Theatre in Bethesda, MA's production of "A Prayer For Owen Meany" was one of those projects. The epic story pulls the viewer through the life of Owen Meany, a tragic character who is disproportionately short and his voice is affected so that he sounds as if he is always screaming. The show is rife with tons of sound cues and opportunities for an experienced designer to run wild with. And behind it all is the power of SFX, triggering each cue and helping weave the rich tapestry of the show.

This month, Matthew Nielson tells in his own words how SFX made the show's complicated organic sound design come alive and earn him a 2007 Helen Hayes Award for sound design. And how he couldn't imagine designing without a trusty copy of SFX by his side...



Round House Theatre is a cornerstone of the Washington DC theatre scene, where they have a 400-seat mainstage a 150-seat blackbox. They have been known over the years to produce work that can really move an audience and, if you're like me, makes you want to get involved. I saw my first non-collegiate show there, I was on a run crew for the first time there, and I designed my first show there. I always jump at the chance to come "home" and design a show at Round House, and I was especially thrilled when artistic director (and director of this production) Blake Robison asked me to work with him on Owen Meany.

For those who don't know, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a 600+ page epic of a novel by John Irving, and it was adapted very well into a 3 act, 3 hour long epic of a play that is a sound designer's dream. (Some people may have come in contact with the work through the loosely based 1998 film adaptation, Simon Birch.) There were some 250 sound cues worth of explosions, drones, helicopters, huge storms, music, live mics, etc., etc. I find myself saying this more and more lately, but I can't imagine designing, let alone teaching a board-op to run a show like this, without SFX.

 



There were five cue lists; one for each act, a master, and one to control the sound board.

The system consisted of SFX 5.6 build 19, a pair of Echo Audiofire-8's, a Yamaha O2r v2, four Dbx DriveRack 260's, and lots and lots of speakers. It was basically 2 mains, 3 center, 2 overheads, 2 subs, 4 surrounds, an old phonograph that still worked, a "wireless" speaker in a TV cart, and a main and a sub in the pit (which was open during part of the show).

 

 

I used just about all of the 16 outputs in SFX, plus it controlled the soundboard through one of the Audiofire's midi ports. It was so nice to be able to control channel on/off, level adjustments, and reverb assigns an levels for the few live mics in the show.

The end product was amazing. We created this amazing tapestry of a show that was one of the few I never got tired of during previews. Overall, it was incredibly rewarding, not only personally as a benchmark for my own sound design career, but also being recognized for my achievement in sound design. I'm about to go into production for a new adaptation of Treasure Island at Round House, which will rival Owen Meany in complexity and quantity. I'm
also composing all the music for the production. And I'm sure SFX will be a part of it all. As a tool in my arsenal, SFX certainly helps bring my design to life. Like I said, I can't imagine designing a show without SFX.

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Matthew Nielson is a freelance sound designer based in Washington DC. His many clients include The John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Round House Theatre, Signature Theatre, Olney Theatre Center, Discovery Theatre, Adventure Theatre, Catalyst Theatre Company, Rorschach Theatre, Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, and the Delaware Theatre Co. He received a 2007 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Sound Design, for his work on A Prayer For Owen Meany. He is also an accomplished musician and composer and some of his original compositions have appeared in productions throughout the DC area.