Tag: Radio Drama (page 1 of 2)

Barney’s Version

In March 2003, my radio drama colleagues and I recorded a play called Barney’s Version, based on Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s last book. The play was adapted for radio by Howard Wiseman, and directed by Greg Sinclair, or Gregory J. Sinclair, as he was always known in the credits. (Once, when one of Greg’s dramas went long and had to be cut for time, I suggested we save a second or two by cutting out the “ory J” in the credits.)

Barney's Version Cover Art

Matt Willcott, a year away from retirement but still giving it his all, performed sound effects. The glue in this massive production (and by CBC radio drama standards Barney’s Version was a definitely a massive production) was Associate Producer Colleen Woods.

There were many fine actors in this production, including Denis O’Conner (The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi, and a veteran of over 300 radio plays for CBC/Radio Canada), Kathy Greenwood (Whose Line Is It, Anyway? and The Wind At My Back), acclaimed actor, director and critic David Gardner, and Wendy Crewson (The Santa Claus movies, in which she played Tim Allen’s ex-wife, and Air Force One, in which she played Harrison Ford’s wife), among others.

Greg had briefly considered fellow Canadian Richard Dreyfuss in the role of Barney, but ultimately decided on Saul Rubinek, who was also Canadian. Rubinek had enjoyed big parts in major Hollywood productions working alongside the likes of Nicholas Cage, Clint Eastwood, Nick Nolte and Christian Slater. He’d been working as an actor since he was a kid, on the stage, television, radio and film. He had also written, directed, and produced.

Saul Rubinek

Saul Rubinek

How do you get someone of Saul Rubinek’s stature to star in a Canadian radio play? Our casting director, Linda Grearson, put a call into his agent. Not only was Saul available, he was interested. This wouldn’t be his first gig for the CBC. He’d cut his teeth working on CBC Television productions. Saul lives in L.A. with his wife and two kids, so Greg flew him in.

I’d first heard of Saul Rubinek at school at Ryerson, when a teacher had screened a copy of a film about a Russian named Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko. In nineteen forty-five, three days after World War Two, Gouzenko defected to Canada along with one hundred and nine documents proving that the Russians were trying to steal atomic secrets. Gouzenko’s defection sparked the Cold War, as the West used the evidence of espionage to end their alliance with the Russians. Gouzenko, fearing for his life, was given a new identity and became known for wearing a sack on his head during public appearances. But he lived a middle-class life in the Toronto suburb of Clarkson and died of a heart attack in nineteen eighty-two at the age of sixty-three.

Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko

Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko

Curiously, the film about Gouzenko, which was written by well-known Canadian journalist and writer Rick Salutin, doesn’t appear on Saul’s extensive filmography on IMDB. Nor is it mentioned in a Wikipedia article about Gouzenko. It’s no doubt buried in the CBC’s television archives, and may never see the light of day again.

Since seeing Saul’s portrayal of Gouzenko, I’d seen him in the films The Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood and The Family Man with Nicholas Cage. He was an accomplished, well-regarded character actor. Rick Salutin called him “very funny.” Greg Sinclair believed that Saul, along with fellow lead Wendy Crewson, were among the best in the business.

When I first learned that Saul Rubinek was going to star in one of our plays, I thought, okay, that’s cool. My next thought was, I wonder how much of a pain in the ass he’ll be. I was thinking that a guy like him might be a bit full of himself, and used to being coddled with craft services, limos, trailers and the like. We didn’t have stuff like that in the CBC Radio Drama department.

Saul showed up on the first day all business. Okay, what’s happening, what are we doing, what page are we on. Short (5’7”, the same height as Tom Cruise) and plump (not fat), with big bushy eyebrows, he looked more like an accountant than a leading man. He could convincingly play Eugene Levy’s brother.

He insisted on wearing headphones during the first scene. I was not happy to hear this. I wasn’t keen on actors wearing headphones. There was the problem of headphone leakage, limited mobility for the actors (the headphones weren’t wireless), and actors becoming too conscious of their voices. In my view, the actors needed to perform their scenes without worrying about what they sounded like. Also, there were a lot of scenes in this play, with many different setups. It would be a pain in the ass to have to run headphones for Saul in every different scene. I was afraid this might be just the tip of the iceberg, the first of many such demands.

I set up the headphones for him.

Immediately after asking for headphones, Saul asked for a table to set his script and other assorted paraphernalia on. I hauled out an old desk that we used as a sound effects prop. Saul set all his stuff on it. Matt pointed out that the table I had selected, which was on wheels, was missing a wheel. It was liable to tip over. Oh. No worries—I found three or four old books to prop it up. But when I lifted it up to shove the books under the problematic corner, the table promptly flipped over, tossing all Saul’s papers onto the floor in a jumbled mess.

I braced myself for an outburst. None came. Without saying a word, Saul leaned over and picked up all his papers without complaint while I finished stabilising the table.

This was a good sign.

We got through several scenes in a brusque, efficient manner, with Saul completely focussed on the task at hand.

For one scene he needed to be sitting, so I provided a chair for him. He sat down before the microphone. We’d gotten rid of the desk, so I thought maybe he might like a music stand to put his script on.

“Wanna stand?” I asked him, holding up a music stand in one hand.

“I’m sitting,” he said.

Greg, Matt and I laughed, thinking that he was joking.

Brandishing the music stand, I repeated, “No, do you wanna stand?”

“Can’t you just lower the mic?” he asked.

I realized that he wasn’t joking, that he had misunderstood.

I repeated as clearly as I could, “Would you like a stand?” but by then he was talking to Greg about some plot point, so I left the music stand in front of him and returned to the control room.

Shortly after that Saul began pestering me about being heard in the control room. Whenever we finished recording a scene, and my presence was required on the studio floor, I muted the microphones, effectively turning them off. You don’t want to have microphones on if you think you might have to handle or move them. Also, when I was on the floor I wanted to be able to speak to the actors and sound effects engineer candidly, without anyone in the control room hearing me. Several times early on Saul tried to talk to the director in the control room after I had muted the microphones, and when he was unsuccessful he didn’t get angry per se, but he was visibly irritated:

“Why can’t he hear me? Can’t you set something up, you know, some kind of permanent mic on the floor which just automatically switches on at the end of every scene so I can talk to the director?”

I told him, “Saul, that might be a good idea with you, but to tell you the truth, other actors, we just don’t want to hear what they have to say,” which earned a laugh from Greg, Matt, and Wendy, and even Saul laughed.

“I’ll tell you what,” I told him. “I’ll suggest it to the other engineers, but it probably won’t go over very well.”

“Why don’t you just build it with a switch so you can turn it off whenever you want?” Saul suggested. “And remember: if you create such a system, you must call it the “Rubinek” system.”

So he was obviously not without a sense of humour about the whole thing.

When I did bring it up to the other engineers in one of our bi-weekly meetings, one of my fellow Recording Engineers said (referring to Saul), “Get over yourself!”

Still, I tried to be much more diligent about leaving the mic on so Saul could be heard in the control room, and any time I had to turn it off, I warned Saul that we wouldn’t be able to hear him for a couple of minutes. I continued to set up headphones for him in every scene. By the third day of recording, I felt that Saul had adapted to the pace of radio drama recording. He’d warmed up considerably (or maybe I had warmed up to him). He was calmer, more relaxed.

There was an old grand piano in the studio. Between takes Saul would sit down and play. He always played the same piece, Gnossienne 1, by French composer Erik Satie.

I was impressed to hear Saul play this piece because I happened to love it. My sister Susan had played it when she was studying piano in High School, inspiring me to memorize it myself. Other than my immediate family, I didn’t know anyone else (other than CBC host and musician Tom Allen, maybe) who even knew of the piece, let alone knew how to play it. Impressing me even more, Rubinek had figured out how to play it by ear, and he played it well.

During another break, Saul told us about working with Clint Eastwood on the set of “Unforgiven.” Saul had a major role in that film as a journalist by the name of W.W. Beauchamp. He told us that Clint always did two takes of every scene: one take and a safety. To block the big fight scene at the end, Clint came in and said to everyone, okay, you figure it out, I’m going for a coffee. Then he went away, came back a couple of hours later and asked, “You got it all worked out?” And then shot the scene.

After getting the master shot and the safety in the can, the cast and crew spent three days shooting extra coverage of the scene, getting all the little cutaways and close ups.

“If you watch that scene,” Saul told us, “you’ll see just one person sitting, and that’s me, because I knew they would take three days to shoot the coverage and I didn’t want to be standing the whole time.”

Saul was just getting into directing himself at that time. He spent a lot of time with Clint learning about directing, and has since directed several television features. The impulse to direct was strong in him. He couldn’t resist the temptation to direct other actors during the recording of Barney’s Version.

“No you have to say, “the Twelve year old!” very aggressively, not mildly,” he instructed David Gardner, who played Barney’s lawyer, referring to Barney’s favourite scotch. Gardner, an accomplished director himself, didn’t appear to mind. It was obvious that Saul’s intent was to make the scene as effective as possible.

Another time Saul burst into the control room to tell Greg to tell an actor something he felt strongly she needed to know, presumably not telling her himself out of fear of offending her. Greg took this all in stride. In fact, the partnership between Saul and Greg was a potent one as they constantly challenged the limitations of the medium.

One obvious limitation of radio is that you can’t see what’s going on. For this reason you have to exercise considerable caution when conveying action in a radio play, especially when attempting traveling shots. A traveling shot is a shot in television, film or radio in which the camera/microphone follows characters on the move. Think Xander on his skateboard in the opening shot of the very first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, skating down the street and into his high school. Another famous example is the seven minute and forty-seven second long tracking shot that opens Robert Altman’s The Player. Imagine how confusing that shot would be without pictures.

Travelling shots can be tricky in any medium. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the pilot episode, regretted the time it took to set up and execute the travelling shot with Xander. He was used to film. In film, you can take more time to get a shot, unlike television with its stricter shooting schedules.

In radio, writers often write travelling shots accidentally. They don’t even realize they’ve done it until they get to that scene in the studio and the recording engineer exclaims, what the heck? This is a travelling shot! You do realize how difficult travelling shots are to convey on radio, don’t you? To which the writer responds, why are you surprised? Didn’t you read the script before getting here? To which the engineer grumbles, well, the director should have caught it, at which point the director jerks awake in his chair and asks, what scene are we on?

Travelling shots are tough to present on the radio because the listener can’t see what’s going on. If you fail to convey the fact that the characters are moving through the only two options available—dialogue and sound effects—then the listener won’t understand what’s going on and your production will suffer.

However, it can be done if you know what you’re doing. There was a scene in Barney’s Version in which Barney runs back and forth between his living room and his kitchen trying to remember the word for “colander.” When I first read this scene in the script, I immediately considered it a mistake and began contemplating how it might be re-written so that it wouldn’t be a travelling shot. I thought it would be tough to make the listener understand that Barney was moving back and forth between a living room and a kitchen.

Director Gregory J. Sinclair

Director Gregory J. Sinclair

Greg and Saul begged to differ. As I’ve mentioned before, we were blessed with a terrific studio in which multiple set ups were possible. Greg instructed me to set up a living room acoustic space directly adjacent to our built-in working kitchen. The kitchen acoustic was completely different than the living room acoustic—listening to dialogue spoken in one, you could not mistake it for the other. This was critical.

To make the travelling shot work, we set up two stereo microphones, one in front of Barney’s chair in the living room, and another covering the kitchen. We kept both microphones live, so that when Barney (Saul) moved from the kitchen to the living room and back again you could clearly hear the change in acoustic. Saul made lots of noise while moving back and forth so that the listener could clearly track his movements.

By this point in the show we had completely established the living room as a distinct acoustic environment, by (among other things) consistently using the same sound props (leather chair, glass of scotch, tape recorder). This, together with liberal use of obvious kitchen props (cutlery drawer, dishes etc), made it abundantly clear to the listener exactly where Barney was at all times.

When I wasn’t setting up neat tracking shots for Greg, he kept me and Matt Willcott busy lugging stuff around, couches, chairs, tables, from one set up to another. Matt and I hardly ever did this kind of thing. It was radio, after all. It wasn’t like anyone was going to see the furniture. In most radio plays, we just imagined the chairs and tables were there, unless we really needed to hear them somehow, and even then we just used a stool to double as a table or to create the squeak of a chair being drawn back. But Greg was going out of his way to make the actors—Saul in particular—comfortable. Many of our actors were experienced film and television actors who preferred to perform their actions with real props.

From time to time, as we lugged one piece of furniture or another, Matt would grumble, “Who’s gonna see the table on the radio?” That’s when he wasn’t saying, “Tippets and Richardsons: you tip it and I’ll rip it!” (Tippets and Richardsons being a well-known moving company in Toronto.)

“You know, I’m a recording engineer, not a mover,” I told Greg. “I’m supposed to be more of a white collar worker.”

Wendy Crewson overheard me. “Well, you’re an engineer, right? There’s all kinds of engineers. Sanitation engineers, for instance. Don’t they move things?”

“I think whether I’m a sanitation engineer or a recording engineer depends on the drama I’m recording,” I told her.

Later, I asked Wendy what it was like working with Harrison Ford.

“He’s a wonderful person,” she told me. “Not at all like he comes across in interviews. He’s a party boy, a lot of fun. He used to zoom up to my trailer on his motorcycle and bang on the trailer. Come on, let’s go! he would shout, and then with me on the back of his motorcycle, smoking a big doobie and thinking, if only they could see me now! we’d zoom off for Thai food.” Apparently Harrison loves Thai food.

Wendy Crewson

Wendy Crewson

When she told me that Harrison was a nice guy, I told her I’d ask Harrison the same thing about her.
“You know what I think he’d say? The exact same thing I said about him,” she said, and laughed, because really, what else are ya gonna say.

All of the actors in Barney’s Version were superb. This is not surprising. Casting Director Linda Grearson never let us down. We had no trouble attracting top-notch talent. Actors seemed to like making radio plays with us. The atmosphere in Studio 212 was always pleasant. And when you’re performing for radio you don’t even have to memorize your lines: you have the script right in front of you.

Two performances stand out. Kathy Greenwood was sincere and touching as Barney Panofsky’s ill-treated second wife. Kathy brought an endearing quality to the role that made Panofsky look like a fool for not loving her properly. And Saul as Barney Panofsky was a revelation to me. It wasn’t Method, I don’t think—when not in character, Saul was himself—but when he sat in Barney’s chair and drank Barney’s scotch and tried in vain to remember what a colander was called, Saul Rubinek inhabited Barney Panofsky. He didn’t just lift the words off the page. He strapped Saturn 5 rockets to them, achieved escape velocity, and placed them in orbit. As I recorded him, I tried to figure out how he was doing it.

For one thing, he knew the script cold. He may have memorized much of it. If not, he’d clearly gone over it many times. He was not one hundred percent married to the script. If he felt the need to change a line slightly to make it sound more natural, he changed it. Subtle changes here and there. He was not afraid to grunt and clear his throat and fart and burp and inject whatever other flourishes he felt were required to bring Barney Panofsky to life. Nobody objected.

I don’t expect I’ll ever fully understand the alchemy involved.

Saul’s work was illuminating in other ways, too. Looking back, I see that in a few short years I had become lazy, conservative, and rigid in my thinking. Saul was operating on a whole different level. His energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism challenged me to open my mind, to think bigger, to do better. His example has informed my work ever since, whatever form that work has taken.

Cherry Docs

My first official sound effects gig was on a drama called Cherry Docs, written by David Gow, directed by Damir Andrei. Cherry Docs was originally a stage play, and is about a liberal Jewish lawyer defending a neo-nazi skinhead from a murder charge. Or rather, it’s about the journey these two men take together as they confront one another’s prejudices and their own. Or rather, it was about me learning how to make sound effects for a radio play.

David Gow

Playwright David Gow

Because the truth is, I remember virtually nothing about Cherry Docs itself. I had to look up the plot. This has nothing to do with the quality of the play, which is quite well regarded. It has to do with the fact that we recorded it a long time ago, and as we were making it, I wasn’t thinking about the story as much as I was thinking about how sound effects could help tell that story.

I had been schooled in the basics of the craft. I knew to comb the script to figure out what sound effects were required. I knew to divvy them up into three categories: sound effects that I would perform live with the actors, sound effects that I would create and record separately, and sound effects that I would source from CDs.

Damir Andrei

Director Damir Andrei

On the first day of recording with the cast, my very first sound effect was lighting a match for the main character, a foul-mouthed, violent neo-nazi skinhead played by Randy Hughson. Hughson’s character was supposed to be smoking a cigarette.

Why was I required to light the match? Couldn’t Randy have lit the match himself? For that matter, couldn’t Randy have performed all the sound effects himself? It’s true, Randy could have lit the match. But he probably wouldn’t have known where to light the match in proximity to the microphone. Lighting the match too close or too far away could have ruined a perfectly good take.

Also, lighting a match is simple, but it’s just one example. Sound effects sequences could be a lot more complex. Sometimes several sound effects were required during a single take. We preferred actors to concentrate on their performances rather than having to clink glasses, light matches, pretend to tromp around on snow and so on.

And then there was the business of how to create the sound effect to begin with. It wasn’t always exactly an intuitive process. Lighting a match is pretty straightforward. Lots of other sound effects aren’t. There are tricks, such as waving a thin stick in front of a mic to create the whoosh of an arrow, or touching a rag to a hot surface to create the sound of frying. We had an entire room full of bizarre contraptions and knick-knacks capable of making all sorts of weird sounds. Devices for making wind, doorbells, screen doors, the sound of someone getting hanged, or their head chopped off. It was useful to have someone around who knew where all these contraptions were, and how to make them work.

Actor Randy Hughson

Actor Randy Hughson

Anyway, there I was, the alleged sound effects specialist about to perform my very first professional sound effect. On the first take, at the appropriate point in the script, I dutifully lit the match, and promptly dropped the lit match in Randy’s hair. Fortunately, I was able to blow the match out before any damage could be done, but I was mortified. Thank God Randy wasn’t actually the foul-mouthed, violent neo-nazi skinhead he so effectively portrayed!

(I actually did see someone’s head burst into flames once. Fellow recording engineer Wayne Richards invited me to a party at his house at which he opted for candles over electric lighting. Joram Kalfa and I were in the kitchen talking to a young woman with long red hair when she stood too close to one of the candles. Her hair caught fire with a great whoosh. Within seconds her head was a great ball of flame. It was something to behold. Rather than admire it, quick-thinking Joram stepped forward, took a deep breath, and blew the woman’s head out as though it were a giant birthday cake candle. Her hair was slightly singed but she was fine.)

I mentioned that the main character of Cherry Docs was an intensely hostile neo-nazi. This set the stage for a slightly surreal moment when Damir, the director, instructed the actors to “just take it down to stupid f***ing paki at the bottom of page twelve.” Everyone laughed at Damir’s apparent obliviousness to the extremely offensive nature of what he’d just said (reflecting sentiments which, I hasten to add, no one present endorsed).

Shortly after my inadvertent attempt to set Randy on fire, the fire alarm in the Broadcast Centre went off. This was a complete coincidence, having nothing to do with my incident with the match. Moments later, standing on John Street alongside the rest of the occupants of the Broadcast Centre waiting to get back inside, Randy turned to me and asked, “So how long have you been doing sound effects?”

I looked at my watch. “About fifteen minutes,” I said, much to the amusement of recording engineer Greg DeClute.

Back in the studio, I recorded as many sound effects as I could with Randy and the rest of the cast. Recording sound effects with the actors is usually a good idea. Not only does it ensure that the sound effects are recorded in the right ambient space, it enhances performances as actors respond to the sound effects in the moment. It also makes for less work in post.

Still, it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed. I always felt slightly embarrassed doing sound effects with actors. Sometimes the sound effects felt silly, such as using a knife and fork to eat an invisible breakfast on an empty plate. Or I’d make a stupid mistake, such as almost setting Randy Hughson’s hair on fire. We had two dedicated sound effects specialists on staff, Matt Willcott and Anton Szabo, guys who actually knew what they were doing. Me, I was just a dilettante. I never forgot that. Still, whenever called upon to perform live sound effects, I always did the best that I could.

SFX in Studio 212

SFX in Studio 212

Once I was finished with the cast, I turned my attention to recording wild sound effects, a process called “foley” after Jack Donovan Foley, a pioneer in the field of film sound effects. Foley is the process of recording sound effects in isolation. They’re mixed into sound tracks afterwards. I was a lot more comfortable doing foley than performing sound effects with actors.

Foley can be recorded anywhere. I recorded most of the sound effects I needed for Cherry Docs on the floor of Studio 212. Over the years my colleagues and I recorded car doors, squeaky doors, jail cells, elevators, breaking plates, baths, showers, decapitations, hangings, sword fights, fist fights, even gunshots in various parts of 212. For Cherry Docs, some of the action took place in a car, so I spent one afternoon recording myself driving my Pontiac Sunbird, speeding up, slowing down, turning, using the windshield wipers, buckling the seatbelt, and so on. We often talked about preserving and cataloguing the sound effects we created ourselves, to save time on future productions, but nobody ever got around to it.

Any sound effects that I didn’t record with the cast or as foley I sourced from CD. We had quite an elaborate sound effects collection. Thousands if not tens of thousands of sound effects, collections from Canada, Britain, the US, with names like Sounds of a Different Realm, Evil FX, Hollywood Edge, Top Secret, Wacky World of Robots, Widgets and Gizmos, Star Trek, Sound Ideas, and so on. Despite the breadth of our collection, it didn’t have everything, which is why we often had to create our own sound effects.

While I was busy recording and gathering sound effects, recording engineer Greg DeClute created the dialogue edit, choosing all the best performances from the actors and making a single continuous dialogue track. When he finished this to the director’s satisfaction, he handed it over to me to do the sound effects assembly.

When it came time to do the sound effects assembly, I was always grateful that I’d already recorded as many sound effects as possible with the actors. Anything that I hadn’t recorded (the foley sound effects and anything sourced from CD) needed to be loaded into my workstation (in those days a Mac G4) and then placed on separate tracks using our digital audio editing software, Sonic Solutions (we would move to Pro Tools a few years later). The sound effects usually took up a lot of tracks, layered on top of one another. A scene with characters arguing in a car might include a track of them arguing, another track with the sound of their car, yet another of passing traffic, several spot tracks of blinkers, wipers, seatbelts and so on, and maybe a music track as well.

Once I finished the sound effects assembly it was time to mix the show. In those days we almost always mixed big shows in Studio 212 with the cast long gone and the studio floor mostly empty. Cherry Docs was no exception. Greg sat on the left and I sat on the right before the Neve Capricorn console in the control room. Damir, the director, sat behind us.

Mixes were usually a collaborative process, although that depended on the director. For Cherry Docs, we followed Damir’s direction, but everybody provided input into what sounded best. As the mix progressed, we moved dialogue, sound effects and music around that weren’t quite in the right places. We added electronic processing where required (e.g., if a little reverb was required here and there). Greg equalized the dialogue track of a character who was supposed to sound like he was on a telephone. The Capricorn console remembered every move we made on the various faders and dials, and played it all back afterward just the way we mixed it.

Once we were happy with the mix, it was time to print it. We turned down the lights, launched the CD burner and DAT backups, pressed play on the console, sat back in our chairs and listened, hoping to God that we hadn’t made any mistakes. If we did, we stopped, fixed them, and started the print over again with a fresh CD.

I loved the Neve Capricorn, but it wasn’t perfect. Every now and then one of us would notice that it had fallen out of automation. When it did, we leapt out of our chairs cussing and swearing, trying to re-engage the automation before it missed any of our carefully programmed moves. If we caught it in time, we were fine. Usually, though, it was too late, and we were forced to start the print all over again.

Once the show was successfully printed, we turned up the lights and handed the finished CD and backup DATS to Damir, who (hopefully) checked it one more time before presenting the finished product for broadcast.

And Greg and I moved on to our next projects.

Tools of the Trade

I felt as though I had been tailor made for Radio Drama. As though all my experience in radio from the age of sixteen, all the writing I had ever done, my stint in community theatre, my interest in music, all of it had conspired to prepare me for making radio plays. I had even written and produced a radio play before, as a student at Ryerson. Still, I had an awful lot to learn.

John McCarthy set about teaching me.

Up until this point, John had been an enigmatic figure to me, part of what I imagined to be an elite cadre of high-end recording engineers, well beyond anything I could ever aspire to be. Tall, bearded and bespectacled, from a distance he appeared aloof and serious. As I got to know him, I realized that he certainly wasn’t aloof, and although the jobs he occupied demanded a certain degree of seriousness and thoughtfulness—qualities that come naturally to John—you could not have a conversation with him without plenty of laughter.

A certain wizard

A certain wizard

There is something about John that has always put me in mind of a certain wizard. A staff in one hand and a conical hat and he would not be entirely out of place in a Tolkien novel. It is his bearing, his comportment. Like Gandalf, John is a counsellor, an advisor, a mentor. He was responsible for the two most pivotal moments of my career: inviting me into the radio drama department, and ultimately promoting me into management. Although he has never performed any actual magic that I’m aware of, I’m fairly certain he could kick Sauron’s ass.

On my first day in the drama department, John sat me down in a suite called Dialogue Edit and launched a piece of high-end audio editing software called Sonic Solutions. I had used similar software before, two programs in particular: D-Cart, also used by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at the time, and Dalet, a version of which we still use today, but Sonic Solutions was considerably more powerful than either of these.

John showed me the basics, and then made a special point of showing me hot-keys—keystroke combinations that I could use instead of a mouse. He told me cautionary tales of people who had relied on “mousing” only to wind up with carpal tunnel syndrome. I heeded his words and learned every possible hot key combination. Not only did this make me a fast editor, I never suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome.

John gave me an edit of a radio play to practice on, an adaptation of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I spent several hours replacing the existing sound effects with completely ludicrous ones, turning a serious dramatic work into something completely ridiculous. I was quite proud of the result.

“What have you done to my beautiful radio play?” John exclaimed in mock outrage when I played it back for him.

Once I was up to speed on Sonic Solutions, it was time to tackle the Neve Capricorn console in Studio 212. This was a rather more daunting task.

Recording Engineer Greg DeClute spent a few days teaching the console to me and a handful of my colleagues. On the morning of the first day, Greg challenged us to get tone up on the board. The purpose of tone, you might recall, is to line up audio equipment and establish continuity. Getting tone up on the board is the first thing I always do when confronted with a new console. I had never failed to get tone up on a board before. It’s pretty easy to get tone up on analog consoles.

Naturally, nobody who didn’t already know how to do it could get tone up on the Capricorn. On a digital console like the Capricorn it’s not exactly an intuitive process. After showing us how, Greg told us about a producer who was asked by a writer what would happen if everyone showed up to a recording session except the recording engineer. Would the producer be able to operate the Capricorn and record the show?

“Of course,” the producer told the writer confidently.

The truth is he wouldn’t have stood a chance. With all due respect to the producer in question, without training, he wouldn’t even have been able to get tone up.

I wasn’t sure I was up to the task myself. Did I have the kind of brain capable of adequately understanding something as complicated as a Neve Capricorn in an environment as complex as Studio 212?

This was nineteen ninety-nine, the year before my children were born. After taking Greg’s course, I had the freedom to come in on weekends to experiment. My goal was to make sure that I was able to record from every possible source, play it back through Sonic Solutions, route tracks through the various outboard processing gear, and mix it all using the Capricorn’s automation. This was the bare minimum I needed to know to make a radio play.

During his course, Greg had encouraged us to learn more than the bare minimum. “Be super-users,” he told us. “Seek to understand as much as possible about the gear you’re using. Don’t run to someone else for help every time you run into trouble. Figure it out for yourselves. Be the one that other people run to.”

Those are his exact words.

(No they’re not. It was a long time ago. And Greg doesn’t use words like “seek.” But it was something like that.)

I also needed to master Studio 212 itself. I needed to understand how to accurately translate the written word into sonic reality; how to get the most out of the acoustic spaces available to me. Doing so wasn’t necessarily straightforward.

On a conventional radio show, you position a microphone in front of the host and guests and make sure their levels are good. Sometimes it’s a little more involved, such as when you want to have a band in the studio or someone wants to cook something or practice Tai Chi live on air (I’ve dealt with both). Everything has to sound “on mic” all the time. This is presentational radio, where radio shows present content to listeners in a straightforward, unambiguous manner.

Radio drama, on the other hand, is representational. Much of what goes into a radio play represents something other than what it actually is. The trick is convincing listeners to accept the reality that is being represented. Actors represent characters that they’re not. Sounds represent sounds that they’re not—for instance, squeezing a box of corn starch wrapped in duct tape to represent a character walking on snow.

Few people I know actually think in terms of presentational versus representational radio. It’s not necessary to be conscious of the distinction unless you happen to be mixing the two, in which case you risk confusing your listeners, the way Orson Welles inadvertently did with his live broadcast of The War of the Worlds. When you move into the realm of representational radio it’s usually a good idea to let your listeners know that you’re doing so, though if done responsibly it can be fun to toe the line. The show This is That, currently airing on Radio One and Two, is a good example of this.

The challenge for those working in representational radio is how to make listeners believe that what they’re hearing is what you want them to think they’re hearing. For instance, take the sound of a nobleman getting his head chopped off by a guillotine. How do you create that sound without actually chopping off someone’s head? Even if you did chop off someone’s head (which I would advise against), listeners might not understand what they’re hearing without visual cues to make it clear what’s going on. It might be necessary to produce a sound that conveys the idea of someone getting their head chopped off that sounds even more like someone getting their head chopped off than the sound of someone actually getting their head chopped off, if you catch my drift.

I once recorded a scene from Romeo and Juliet with a novice director. Juliet was supposed to be on the balcony with Romeo on the ground. The director suggested that we place Juliet on a chair to convey that she was higher than Romeo. I explained to the director that height wouldn’t “read” on the radio. Placing Juliet on a chair wouldn’t convey to the listening audience that she was on a balcony. Listeners at home wouldn’t be able to see that she was higher.

What we needed to do was record the scene from Romeo’s point of view, with that actor close to the microphone, and place the actor playing Juliet an appropriate distance away from the microphone. Not so far away that the actor couldn’t be heard, but far enough away to convey the idea that the two characters were a fair distance apart. That Juliet was on a balcony would be clear from the context of the play. We just needed to nudge listeners’ perceptions in that direction. “Theatre of the mind” would do the rest.

I don’t mean to suggest that any of this is rocket science. But I did need to understand it all before I could get to work.

The Pitch

(A short, light-hearted fictional homage to Radio Drama and Studio 212)

Sam Kelly found a seat on the GO Train, opened his laptop, and sighed. He needed to finish a spreadsheet detailing all the latest DaletPlus netXchange issues before a conference call on the matter at nine am. There was a crazy amount of work left to do. Unfortunately, before he could isolate himself from the rest of the passengers with an insulating layer of headphones and iTunes and get to work, damned if Reginald Runciman didn’t plunk himself down in the seat opposite him.

“Kelly!” Runciman said. “Long time no see.”

This did not bode well. It wasn’t that Runciman was a bad guy. It was just that he’d been dead for five years and was known to be a talker. Sam would get little work done this morning.

He forced a smiled. “Hey Runciman, good to see you. Coulda sworn you were dead.”

Runciman, a former radio drama producer, had indeed been found dead late one night in an editing suite still clutching a script in his cold, dead hands. The cause of death had never been conclusively determined, but it was commonly believed that his recording engineer had strangled him to death in frustration for demanding one too many edits. Runciman had been a notoriously demanding producer.

“Dead as the proverbial doornail,” Runciman confirmed.

“And you’ve come back to haunt me now because…?”

“I have returned to atone for my many sins.”

“What sins?”

“Sitting on development committees rejecting perfectly good ideas, mostly. It is my intention to atone for these sins by helping you with your radio show pitch.”

“What radio show pitch?”

“The one you’re going to write to help you get back to your true love, radio production.”

“Thanks, but I’m good. I like management.”

“Because you make so much more money?”

“Uh –”

“Cause your benefits plan is so superior? ”

“Um –”

“Cause you like ordering people around?”

“I do like that part,” Sam admitted. “For instance, I order you to leave me alone.”

The ghost of Runciman ignored Sam. “I have arranged for you to be visited by three spirits. The Ghost of Radio Archives, the Ghost of Radio Ideas, and the Ghost of Radio Yet to Come.”

“Three spirits? That’ll make this story way too long!”

“They’re all experienced radio folk, perfectly capable of talking to time.” The train pulled into Ajax station. “Speaking of which, my time’s up.” Runciman stood to get off. “Don’t mess this up, Kelly!”

Resolving to seek therapy at the earliest opportunity, Sam shook Runciman’s hand and watched as he got off the train.

A small, elderly gentleman wearing a bowler cap got on and took Runciman’s place. Sam recognized him right away. “Hey, you’re Allan McPhee, former host of the CBC Radio show Eclectic Circus.”

“I was that man once,” McPhee intoned in his best announcer’s voice, still smooth and honeyed despite his death over a decade earlier. “Now I am the Ghost of Radio Archives.”

Sam was impressed despite himself. “It’s a great honour to meet you, Mr. McPhee. You were a great wit in your time.”

“Whereas you are a great nit wit in yours.”

Sam was slightly offended. “Why do you say that?”

Allan McPhee

Allan McPhee

“Because you gave up your dream of creating your own radio show to join the dark side,” McPhee explained. “I despised managers when I was alive.”

“I enjoy being a manager,” Sam said. “But I regret not creating my own radio show.”

“It’s my job to help you get that dream back, son,” McPhee said. “Grab on tight to my hat.”

Sam did as McPhee instructed and off they flew, miraculously squeezing through the closed Go Train doors into the archives of radio past. Sam found himself in the Toronto Broadcasting Centre in Radio Drama Studio 212, where he had spent nine fruitful years making radio plays. A large cast was assembled on the floor with Ann Jansen directing. A younger version of Sam himself sat in the control room operating the Neve Capricorn console.

“I remember this,” Sam told McPhee. “We were adapting Canadian author Jane Urquhart’s novel Away for radio. It aired on Sunday Showcase and Monday Night Playhouse.”

“Since The Rosary first aired out of Moncton’s CNRA in 1925, radio plays of all shapes and sizes have aired regularly in this country,” McPhee said, “on CBC Radio series such as Sunday Showcase, Monday Night Playhouse, Vanishing Point, The Mystery Project, Monday Playbill, Nightfall, CBC Wednesday Night and more.”

“Thanks for that almost completely indigestible bit of exposition,” Sam said. “It is true that radio drama once thrived in this great country of ours.”

McPhee touched his hat and whisked them elsewhere. Three gentlemen stood on a stage before three Neumann U-47 microphones. Other gentlemen leaned over various sound effects apparatus, awaiting their cues, the whole lot of them flanked by an orchestra. An audience was present to witness the shenanigans.

One of the men announced into his microphone: “The first important method of communication over long distances was the Runner.”

The second said, “The most famous of these messengers was the Greek Goonican, who ran 300 miles to Athens, bringing news of a great victory.”

The third, puffing, said, “My lords, greetings. I come from the great warlord, Arnold Princiopolies. 300 leagues have I run! Over the Ionicous, down the plains of Olympus, through the snowy wastes of Sabrina, across the arid deserts of Xerxes and I did swim the boiling waters of the Hellispont and over…”

“Yes, yes, yes, but the message?” the first man interrupted.

“Ooh,” the third man said. “Ooh, then I’ll nip back and get it.”

The audience erupted with laughter. Sam was ecstatic. He whispered to the ghost of McPhee, “It’s Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe back in their Goon Show days — these guys influenced everybody from Monty Python to the Beatles.”

“And now they shall influence you. Note their absurdist, rapid fire dialogue, their groundbreaking sound effects and the resulting realism. Observe how the three actors play almost all the parts themselves.”

“Yes, if I were to make a radio show this is exactly what I’d make,” Sam said.

“Not exactly,” McPhee said. “Although you would incorporate elements of it, you were more ambitious than that in the past.”

McPhee touched his bowler hat yet again and transported them to a studio where a younger version of Sam was arguing amicably with a friend. He’d once made a radio show pilot with the fellow, a talented writer. Although one of the pilots had aired to a fair bit of acclaim, the show had not been picked up by the network.

Sam’s friend was saying, “Maybe the network’s not going for it because we made it both light and dark. Maybe it should be one or the other. Can you name one other show in the history of entertainment that’s both funny and serious at the same time?”

“La Vie est Belle,” Sam said, naming one of his favourite movies. “M.A.S.H. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rome.”

Sam’s friend did not appear convinced, but the conversation reminded Sam of his earlier ambitions and he felt a pang of regret at not having pursued them more aggressively.

Man was made for joy and woe,” the spirit of McPhee quoted. “And when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go. Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.”

“That’s it exactly,” Sam said. “That’s what I was trying to tell him. Sting, right?”

“William Blake. Shortly after this conversation you gave up your dream of making your own radio show and fled into management’s squalid embrace.”

“Somebody’s gotta run the place,” Sam said.

“I’m dead,” McPhee said. “I can have no more dreams. You’re still alive. You have no excuse.” McPhee touched the tip of his bowler hat yet again.

Sam jerked awake on board the GO Train. Just a dream, he thought with mixed emotions, a little disappointed to discover that he was not actually supernaturally obligated to propose another radio show, but at the same time relieved that he would not have to risk failing at it a second time.

Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He spun to find a snowy haired gentleman with large glasses smiling at him from the adjacent seat. “A is for Aardvark,” the gentleman said with enviable enunciation.

Sam gaped at Lister Sinclair, former host of CBC Radio’s Ideas. “Let me guess. The Ghost of Radio Ideas?”

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures,” Sinclair said.

“Are you suggesting that if we only broadcast facts we’re not conveying the whole truth to the Canadian public?” Sam asked, gamely trying to keep up with the brilliant polymath that was Lister Sinclair.

Ein blindes Huhn findet auch mal ein korn,” Sinclair observed.

Sam gave up trying to keep up with the brilliant polymath that was Lister Sinclair.

“I wrote a great deal of radio fiction in my time,” Sinclair said. “I must say I find its current absence from our airwaves unfortunate.”

Lister Sinclair

Lister Sinclair

“It’s not all gone,” Sam said. “There’s a bit of satire. Some sketch based comedy. That’s about it, though.”

“What do you propose to do about it?” Sinclair asked.

“Me? What can I do about it? I don’t do production anymore. I manage a maintenance department, for crying out loud. Even if I were still in production nobody would listen to me. They probably get dozens of proposals every day. Radio drama costs too much anyway.”

The train pulled up at Pickering. Lister Sinclair stood. “I tried management once. Didn’t quite work out. Perhaps you have a stronger stomach for it than I did.”

He got off, his manner leaving Sam with the distinct impression that he was disappointed by Sam’s outburst but not particularly surprised. Sam shrugged the Spirit’s reaction off. He was under no obligation to propose any radio shows just because a couple of ghosts said he ought to.

The lights switched off abruptly. When they came back on Sam found himself standing outside drama studio 212. Someone concealed within a black cowl stood alongside him, his or her face completely obscured by the garment. Sam tried unsuccessfully to peer into the hood but it was impossible to tell who or what dwelled within.

The black-cowled figure that Sam presumed to be the Ghost of Radio Yet to Come raised a skeletal finger toward studio 212. Or at least, at what had once been drama studio 212, for both control room and studio lay torn asunder. An older version of Sam clad in an ill-fitting suit stood in the ravaged control room instructing members of his staff which equipment to keep and which to throw out.

Sam regarded this future version of himself with horror. Never in a million years would he decide to destroy his beloved drama studio. But he knew that if his boss ordered his future self to shut down the studio he would have no choice but to carry out the order lest he lose his job.

“Answer me one question, Spirit,” Sam said. “Is this the shadow of the thing that will be, or is it the shadow of something that may be, only? Make that two questions. Why am I suddenly talking like a character in a Dicken’s novel?”

Still the Ghost pointed his bony finger toward the studio.

“Let me get this straight,” Sam said. “If someone doesn’t start making more shows with dramatic elements real soon we will have to shut down studio 212 because future utilization reports will show that it’s under utilized. So I have no choice but to pitch a radio show that will use the studio and maybe they won’t shut it down. Right?”

The Spirit remained infuriatingly mute.

“I’m not the manager I was,” Sam said. “And I will not be the manager I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope! … I will honour radio drama in my heart, and pitch another project as soon as possible. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the destruction of radio drama within the CBC!”

Sam awoke writhing uncomfortably in his seat on the Go Train, disturbed not only by the vision of seeing himself preside over the destruction of drama studio 212, but also by the obvious plagiarism of Dickens in the previous paragraph. To his enormous relief no spirits sat next to him on the train.

Inspired, Sam abandoned the spreadsheet he’d been working on, completed his radio show pitch, and submitted it to the Program Development Department that very day.

Unfortunately, the Program Development Department rejected Sam’s pitch. Not only that, they shut down the entire radio drama department for good, calling upon Sam’s own maintenance department to dismantle Radio Drama Studio 212. Sam himself turned off the studio lights for the very last time, though it pained him grievously to do so.

Which just goes to show that you can’t reliably glean the future from a mute spirit in a cowl. And even the most well-intentioned of ghosts cannot always successfully influence the affairs of men — they are ghosts, after all. Their time is past.

Saddest of all, not all endings are happy.

And when this we rightly know,

Thro’ the world we safely go.

Creating Sound Effects for the radio drama Faint Hope in Studio 212

Creating Sound Effects for the radio drama Faint Hope in Studio 212

Asparagus

In nineteen-ninety-two, while on vacation in Halifax, my girlfriend and I went to see a play.

There was a statue above the stage in a little alcove. I assumed it was just a part of the theatre’s decor.

Before the play started, Lynda leaned over to me and whispered, “Do you think that statue has anything to do with the play?”

It's a Stone Angel, silly

It’s a stone angel, silly

“You mean that stone angel?” I asked, realizing as the words came out of my mouth that of course it did, because the play was an adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.

The play was directed by James Roy, who worked for CBC’s radio drama department back in Toronto. I didn’t know James then, but I knew of him, so when I returned to work I sought him out to tell him how much I had enjoyed his play.

Seven years later James welcomed me into the Radio Drama department, where I had the honour of working with him on many radio plays. Seven years after that I was invited to record a play in Blyth, Huron County, during the Blyth Festival, at which time I learned that not only is James an accomplished director, he was also the founding Artistic Director of the Blyth Festival.

The Blyth Festival is unique. James, along with his co-founders Anne Chislett and Keith Roulson, created a festival dedicated to the production and development of Canadian plays, which was at one time—and perhaps still is—the only five hundred seat theatre in Canada devoted solely to Canadian plays. Not content with merely producing plays, James and his partners also created an Art Gallery, and the whole enterprise is still going strong forty years, ten artistic directors, a choir and an orchestra later.

Blyth Festival

Blyth Festival

In the summer of 2006 I drove up to Blyth in a rented car accompanied by sound effects engineer Anton Szabo, who would be doing live effects for the reading we would be recording. That afternoon we sat through a rehearsal of the reading. Actually, I snoozed through the rehearsal in a really comfortable armchair. I was suffering from cat allergies which were waking me up in the middle of the night with the sensation that I couldn’t breathe, a sensation that would linger throughout the day. At the time, I had no idea that it was because of cat allergies, so it had me rather on edge.

Anton and I set up the next morning. AKG 414s on each of the actors and another one for Anton’s sound effects. Anton had a keyboard sampler plugged in for additional effects. I was situated on the stage not far from Anton’s setup, well behind the actors, but visible to the audience. I had two DAT machines but I’d learned my lesson at the Royal George; they were only for backup. My main recording would be done on ProTools on a Mac laptop. I was getting a 60 hertz buzz on one of the lines. Somebody that worked for the theatre lifted the ground on an extension cord. It did the trick.

We recorded one dress rehearsal, and then the actual performance. I don’t remember much about either recording except that they went well.

What I do remember is asparagus.

After the performance, James, Anton, myself and several others went for supper at the Stage Manager’s house. I am doing the Stage Manager a great injustice by not remembering her name. She had a house on a hill outside Blyth. But not just any hill—it was a hill from which you could see for miles and miles. A house from which you could see the sun set, but not set into the rooftops of houses halfway up the sky. Here it set directly into the horizon, painting half the sky wonderful shades of red, one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The Stage Manager had a garden out back in which she grew fresh vegetables, some of which I may have eaten, but all I remember is the asparagus. I’ve had asparagus soup before, and possibly actual asparagus, but I had never eaten fresh asparagus straight from anyone’s garden before.

I was astounded.

Hmm... fresh asparagus!

Hmm… fresh asparagus!

The asparagus was sublime—the food of, if not all the Gods, then at least those with sense enough to eat vegetables. I couldn’t stop eating it. We ran out. Seconds before I capitulated to symptoms of withdrawal, the Stage Manager went out and picked more, God bless her.

The asparagus wasn’t all that surprised me that night. I found myself enveloped in a wonderful sense of fellowship. It was a privilege to be part of such a company: directors, stage managers, writers, sound effects engineers, producers, and me. Colleagues, but also friends. We had a lovely meal, and a lovely talk. Such a night had snuck up on me unawares. I felt as though I belonged. I felt as though I could breathe. I felt as though I could eat more asparagus.

So I did.

A few weeks later I bought some asparagus at Sobey’s and served it to my family. It was the first time they had ever tried asparagus. It was stringy and tasteless. We all hated it, and have never eaten it since.

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