"The Conversation" With SFX
By Joseph Fosco

Creating the sound and music for Pyewacket Theatres 2005 Chicago production of The Conversation was a truly exciting project.  So when David Mogentale, the Artistic Director of New Yorks 29th Street Rep, asked me design the show for their production, it was a welcome return to a show that has sound at its very core.

The Conversation is an adaptation of the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola movie of the some name.  The story centers on a surveillance expert, Harry Caul, who is hired to surreptitiously record a conversation between a man and a women in a crowded city park. He must then extract that conversation from the city and park background noise and deliver the final tape to the man who hired him.  As he proceeds with this work, Harry comes to believe he is getting involved in a murder.  Although Harry attempts to keep himself and his work separate from the possible murder, his own training and skill get him involved and eventually trapped in the resulting situation.


The sound cueing for this show is quite involved.  Sounds come in and out to obscure portions of conversations, or sometimes individual words.  At other times a recording of the conversation continues as live actors mime the words while the action momentarily shifts to another location.  And then there is Harrys work playing, rewinding and manipulating the recording to gradually extract the conversations dialog. 

The Chicago production had a limited sound budget so sound was run on 3 CD players with 4 speakers  2 mains and 2 on-stage practicals.   The number of cues and lack of automation, kept the engineer very busy, and made this a difficult show to run each night.  In New York, we wanted to expand the sound further.  It was clear that sound was not only important to the plot,  but sound is also the way the lead character perceives and relates to the world.  It became a goal to have the sound not only support the story, but also be the mechanism by which the audience is allowed into the world of Harry Caul.

To accomplish this, 29th Street Rep received additional funding from the Edith Luytens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation specifically for sound.  I knew that this expanded role for sound required automation, and I speced an SFX rig for this show.  As a matter of fact, when I spoke to the theater about my equipment list I told them we could replace any piece or pieces of equipment except the SFX system.

29th Street Rep is a relatively small Off-Off-Broadway Theatre with 62 seats.  It was not going to require a lot of speakers, however I did want to be able to create a very full sound that engulfed the audience.  In addition to the SFX rig, the sound system consisted of 2 Meyer UPA-1Ps for mains, an Altec Dual 15 inch DTS215 sub, 2 small JBL speakers for on-stage practicals.  29th Street Reps regular mains were repositioned to provided depth and surround capabilities.  One speaker was placed in the back of the house an one was placed upstage center.  In addition we used QSC amps for power and Ashley EQs.   A Mackie 1604 VLZ Pro mixer was used exclusively for routing.

Using SFX to control this larger system provided many more options to create a sonic environment that allowed us to transfer Harrys experience of the world to the audience.  For example, in the one of the opening scenes, Harry is monitoring the recordings of the park conversation from his van.   When the audience is listening and watching the characters being recorded, sounds of the city park entirely surround the audience.  Vehicles and other conversations move naturally around the theatre.  Then when the action switches to Harrys van, all the park sound shifts upstage to the small speaker Harry is using to monitor.

In addition to these types of environmental sounds, I wrote and recorded a fair amount of music for the show.  This music was primarily constructed of the type of abstract electronic sounds Harry would hear in his work.  Using SFX at 29th Street Rep, I was able to separate out many of the individual tracks and control their movement around the theatre.  One of the most effective uses of his was during transitions.  As the transition started, the music would begin and swirl around the audience.  Then, as lights came up on the next scene, all sound would quickly move to the upstage speaker and fade out, effectively returning the audiences attention to the stage.

Finally, due to the nature of Harrys work, many practical cues needed close syncing with the actor.  The actor playing Harry would start and stop tape recorders, or play the recorder, rewind, then play the recording again.  SFX allowed us to keep the sound perfectly in sync with all these actions.

Using SFX allowed me to use sound in a much more expansive manner.  In addition perfecting the design during previews was quick and effective.  And finally, running the show night to night was a breeze for the engineer.

It was fantastic working on a show where the sound was such a critical part of every element of the show.  From the story itself, to revealing plot, to providing point of view it all required sound.  Using SFX allowed us to create a very consistent show with sound that completely enveloped the audience.  Everyone involved was very happy with the sound of the show, and we were very excited when shortly after opening the sound design was nominated for a New York Drama Desk award.