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NYC Cast of UNITY (1918) Makes Sound the Star

NYC Cast of UNITY (1918) Makes Sound the Star [photo

How do you transport an audience from a small dark theater to, say, a train platform in another reality? Maybe you bring a recorder to a train station and capture the ambience. Or maybe you Google "train sounds" and download an audio file to your computer. But what if you thought a little more outside the box? How about jiggling some boxes of matches and nails and whacking a spoon against a crow bar?
That's what the cast of Unity (1918) is doing at the Gene Frankel Theatre in Lower Manhattan. The play by Canadian author Kevin Kerr tells the story of love and loss in the small town of Unity as the Spanish Flu wreaks havoc on the world. But this particular performance, directed by KJ Sanchez, is unique. Not only is it the show's U.S. premiere, but each member of its nine-person cast also plays the role of sound maker. 
Actor Joe Jung's the Artistic Director of the group behind the production, Project Theater. He coordinated sound for the show and says his inspiration stemmed from the play itself. 
"The first line of the show is, 'The sound of a thresher, a distant horrible roar,'" Jung said. "And so Kevin Kerr wrote this play with the sound almost acting as a character."
But creating an organic soundscape for a two-act play was no easy task. Actress Beth Ann Hopkins says it was a collaborative effort.
"When you're working as a team to create a sound, you just have to be ready to throw away your ideas as soon as you get them -- nothing's precious," Hopkins said. "So as long as you don't take personal offense if someone doesn't like your train sound, it's a faster, more efficient process."
Hopkins' cast-mate and Associate Artistic Director of Project Theater Jessi Blue Gormezano agrees. She says the sound design often required cast members to work outside designated rehearsal time. Gormezano recalls one late night when she really just wanted to go home.
"(Gestures to castmates) These three cats were banging on giant plastic trash cans to create fireworks? I don't know, but their innovation and just delight in trying things was infectious, so I stuck around and listened," Gormezano said. "They were high off the possibilities!"
Gormezano says the sounds produced during that night of creativity didn't even make it into the show. But actor Joshua Everett Johnson says all the hard work was worth it once the cast finally landed on something right.
"Everyone would go, 'Eh, you know [the sound effect] is okay, oh that sounds a little better,' and then all of a sudden you'll look across at the other person you're working with and your eyebrows will both go up at the same time and you'll all kind of go, 'Yeah that's it, yeah that's it!'" Johnson said.
Some effects, like a doorbell for a telephone ring, seemed like obvious choices. But Joe Jung says others, like a dreamscape or a burning fire took months of trial and error to perfect. 
"It's not only making something that sounds like fire, but what gives it a little bit more so that it's not like we're trying to recreate exactly the sound of fire?" Jung said. "If you're going to do that, then you might as well just record it."
But Jung says the cast's greatest challenge was creating a sound effect for wind.
"We were agonzing over [the wind effect], and it was just the bane of my existence," Jung said.
Beth Ann Hopkins says the wind effect went through about eight different stages before the cast was satisfied. And she says the final sound isn't even of wind at all.
"It's the sound of wind hitting other objects that created the mood that we wanted because, you know, [the characters in the play] think the wind carries the flu with it, so we ended up doing something that was spooky and mysterious," Hopkins said. 
Hopkins says developing the complete soundscape for Unity was a victory. And Jessi Blue Gormezano says it gave the play's title a heightened meaning, as the sound-making challenges performers to act as one entity.
"Every choice Beth Ann makes affects me, and every choice Joe makes affects me, and I have to be open and live to it," Gormezano said.
But Joe Jung says the show's true circuit is not complete until the audience arrives.
"Suddenly when somebody hears somebody clanking on a pipe over their heads in the audience, they feel it; they can feel the water dripping, and at the same time, you just feel this kind of intake of breath, and that's the magic of the show and of the soundscape," Jung said.
Unity (1918) runs until August 23rd. For more information on the production, visit Project Theater's website, or click here to purchase tickets online.


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