Writer, Broadcaster

Category: Radio Drama (Page 2 of 6)

Live Effects with a Dead Dog

Gracie Heavy Hand (Edna Rain), Thomas King (playing himself), Jasper Friendly Bear (Floyd Favel Starr), and me

One day I showed my wife a picture.

It was me performing sound effects for the radio show Dead Dog Café.

“You look a little silly,” she suggested.

She’s probably right. Judge for yourself: that’s the pic at the bottom. That particular picture’s staged, obviously, but it is an accurate representation of the sort of sound effects I was called upon to perform. Just—not usually all at once.

Of all the jobs I ever had to do for CBC radio, the job I hated most was working for the radio show Sunday Morning back in the eighties. There were a couple of jerks on the show at the time (not the host—I liked Mary Lou Finlay).

Performing sound effects came a close second.

At least I got paid for it.

Don’t get me wrong, I had nothing against sound effects per se: I loved sound design, for instance—taking sound effects from different sources and electronically creating worlds out of them that you could fully believe in. But I didn’t like performing sound effects live with actors. It just wasn’t my specialty. We had a couple of guys—Anton Szabo and Matt Willcott—who did specialize in it. They were good at it. Then Matt retired and the rest of us had to divvy up the job. Myself, I preferred being the recording engineer, or producing, or jabbing forks into my eyes. Anything other than perform sound effects live with actors.

So when I was assigned to do sound effects for the Dead Dog Café I was a bit dismayed. I concealed my feelings on the matter from Dead Dog producer Kathleen Flaherty. I really liked her and didn’t want to let her down.   

Making matters worse, I had been shipped a Compaq Armada laptop from Edmonton especially for the Dead Dog Café recording sessions that was not making me happy. It had an audio program on it called Dalet, a program I loathed at the time because of what I perceived to be its editing deficiencies. I’d always likened editing on Dalet to “editing with your elbows” when compared to other programs such as ProTools (I would change my mind later when we upgraded to DaletPlus and I received training from Brian Dawes). I was stuck with the laptop because it had been pre-loaded with many of the music and sound effects cues that I would be required to play back during the taping sessions, and I didn’t have time to come up with an alternative. (Eventually I would come to appreciate that someone had actually made my life a lot easier by prepping the laptop for me.)

Floyd Favel Starr, Edna Rain, Thomas King, and Tara Beagan taping the Dead Dog Cafe in Studio 212

I went into the first taping session with a sense of dread. I was afraid that I wasn’t adequately prepared, and that everything would go wrong. We were taping on a Sunday morning. Greg DeClute helped me bring some props in on the Go Train. He brought his son Randy’s hockey sticks and I brought some umbrellas belonging to my daughters. In the studio, I wheeled out the Dead Dog Cafe door—the one with the bell attached to it, held together with duct tape and wire—and several other props I would require. The cast arrived. Gracie (Edna Rain), Jasper Friendly Bear (Floyd Favel Starr), and Tom King (playing himself, or a version thereof), along with someone new to the show, a woman named Portia (played by Tara Beagan).

I had prepared my sound effects by reading the scripts and getting a sense of the sounds required. I deleted all the dialogue, leaving me a list of sound cues. Any sound cues that were kind of vague, I referred back to the script to see what the context was. Most sound cues were obvious. Like, say, “plunger.” How many different kinds of plungers are there? 

Dead Dog Plunger
Dead Dog Plunger

Shortly before our recording session I reviewed my list, a couple of weeks after having created it. Seeing a plunger listed I thought, well, we don’t have any of those kicking around in the studio so I’d better bring one in from home. I found one, disinfected it, stuck it in my bag, and carried it all the way in on the train along with the umbrellas and Greg’s hockey sticks. I placed it close by so that when the script called for it I would be able to grab it easily.

We started recording. The actors read their lines. We got to the sound cue that said, “SFX: Plunger!” I grabbed the plunger and begin vigorously plunging the floor, making “thwocking” sounds that I thought were really quite outstanding.

Producer Kathleen Flaherty immediately called a halt to the proceedings. “Cut! Joe, just what the heck do you think you’re doing?”

“Uh… making plunging sounds. Is it working?”

It was not.

Turned out the cue was actually calling for a plunger to test Tom King’s blood sugar level. It was a medical device. Which was obvious when I took a closer look at the script.

D’oh!

Fortunately the Dead Dog Café was a comedy show. Everyone had an excellent sense of humour. We had a laugh about it and moved on. And I learned to read my scripts more closely.

Margaret Atwood during Dead Dog Cafe taping

We had a guest on the show that day—Margaret Atwood. I’d met her years earlier—spent four days at her house, actually, recording her interviewing Victor Levy Beaulieu (and vice versa)—but she didn’t appear to remember me. There was no reason for her to have (it wasn’t like we’d stayed in touch over the years, exchanging Christmas cards). But she was friendly and pleasant, like just about everyone else I’ve worked with at CBC Radio over the years (there really have been precious few exceptions).

The entire Dead Dog Café team was unfailingly friendly. Always interesting, consistently entertaining. Tom King told us stories in between takes. He told us how he’d lost a lot of weight recently, after dramatically adjusting his diet upon learning that he had diabetes, remarking that although he still ate bananas, he took great care to eat only bananas that weren’t particularly ripe. He spoke of writing, of particular interest to me. He was fond, he said, of instructing his students to practise writing passages with no adjectives. And that is why, you will observe, there isn’t a single adjective in this piece.  

It was a privilege to be amongst these folk. And yet, as much as I appreciated the experience, I never did really warm up to performing sound effects with them. And not just because I’d made a silly mistake with a plunger.

I just never got comfortable doing it.

Whenever I was assigned to perform sound effects live with actors I almost always felt apart from them. Ill-at-ease. Often, the actors all knew one another. At the very least they could relate to one another. I was a part of the cast in that I had to perform with them, but I was not one of them. I was just this guy off to one side smashing plates and tinkling teacups.

Looking a little silly.

Me attempting to perform multiple Dead Dog Cafe SFX

To the Ships!

Certain projects that I worked on generated “take aways.” Lines that were too good just to forget about. The project might have been good or lousy, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the quality of the take-away. Some take-aways were crude and cannot be repeated in polite company. Others were crude and can perhaps be repeated in polite company. Others were just funny… at least to me.

For instance, I once worked on a radio play called “Heart of a Dog” in which a character kept muttering (in a Russian accent) “arsefessor” (don’t ask me why) to refer to another character who was a professor. For years afterward I would hear my colleagues muttering from time to time, “Arsefessor!” (Hey, I never said these take-aways were in any way socially beneficial.) The thing is, after you’ve worked on one of these plays for a month or two (or three), certain words and lines got burned into your brain.

Another take-away came from an adaptation of the play Trojan Women. The play called for one character to summon the warriors to the ship by calling out, “To the ships!”

So one of our sound effects engineers — I’ll call him Pat — was called upon to utter these immortal words, as all the actors had left by the time the crew realized that this line hadn’t been recorded. Pat was a brilliant sound effects foley artist but a quiet, unassuming man. So when called upon to cry out “To the ships!” he said it as if commenting on the weather, not as if summoning an army to battle as the script called for.

On the second take Pat generated enough enthusiasm to make the line sound like he was asking for someone to pass him a jar of peanut butter.

The third take sounded like a question: “To the ships?”

Each take fell woefully short of the necessary vigour, but became increasingly hilarious for the crew in the control room. And the line, “To the ships!” became the rallying cry of the CBC Radio Drama department.

To the ships!

Nora’s Mental Tune-Up

Here’s another fun bit I got to produce on the summer replacement show NEXT with host Nora Young and producer Alison Moss.

We hired actor Andrew Gillies (Orphan Black) to do these bits. I’d worked with Andrew before on my adaptation of Tom Godwin‘s The Cold Equations. Andrew had played the captain of the Stardust for us. Now he played a Scotsman trying to tune up Nora’s brain.

I’ve pasted the script below, with the actual produced bits at the bottom of each one.

Photo by David Cassolato from Pexels

Part One

NORA: It’s easy to spruce up your body… okay, well maybe not easy, but you do have the option of going to the gym and hiring a personal trainer.  But what about your brain?  What if you could give your brain a tune-up too?

SFX: WOOSH! INTO NORA’S BRAIN

SFX: GRINDING, SQUEALING GEARS OF A BRAIN OUT OF WHACK

McSCOTT: (THICK SCOTTISH BROGUE) Och! Listen to that.

NORA: What?  What is it?

 SFX: OBNOXIOUS WHIRRING

McSCOTT: It’s nae wonder you cannae do arithmetic in a brain like this.  Your neural net… it’s all gummed up.  Och, and that basil ganglia. (BLOWS ON SOMETHING)  Tsk tsk.

NORA: Oh my.

McSCOTT: But dinnae you worry, lass, I’ve seen worse.

NORA: You have?

McSCOTT: Aye.  This monkey once.  Couldn’t count to two if its life depended on it.

NORA: What did you do?

McSCOTT: Lipid soluble molecules past the blood brain barrier.  Before you knew it that monkey could count to five.  Nae… you leave it to me, lass…

SFX: Power Tool Roars to Life

McSCOTT:    You’ll be doin’ math in nae time.

SFX: EVERYTHING OUT WITH A WOOSH

 

Scottish Brain Guy Part One

Part Two

SFX: POWER TOOL SHUTTING OFF

SFX: BRAIN ONLY SLIGHTLY OUT OF WHACK

McSCOTT: That should do it.  Tell me, lass: are ya feelin’ at all perspicacious?

NORA: Excuse me?

McSCOTT: Peripatetic?  Cogitative?  Erudite, scholarly?  The least bit sagacious?

NORA: I’m sorry?

McSCOTT: Are ya feelin’ any smarter, lass.

NORA: Uhhh…

McSCOTT: I’m guessin’ that’s a “nae,” then.  Nae worries, got a few more tricks up me sleeve yet…

SFX:      SWOOSH OUT

Scottish Brain Guy Part Two
 

Part Three

SFX: BRAIN HOPELESSLY OUT OF WHACK

McSCOTT: Och!  It’s nae use.

NORA: No?

McSCOTT:    I kin make ya smarter…

NORA: Uh huh?

McSCOTT: But… but not without changin’ the fundamental chemistry of your brain.

NORA:      I see.

McSCOTT: But if you dinnae mind me sayin’ so…

NORA: Uh huh?

McSCOTT:     I think you’re just fine the way you are…

SFX: BUMPER

End

Scottish Brain Guy Part Three

A Host of Data

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

I worked on a summer replacement radio series called NEXT once with host Nora Young and producer Alison Moss. They were so great to work with, and indulged my passion for high production radio with bits like this one, which introduced one of the episodes.

Boy I loved making stuff like this.

Here’s the script, with the actual produced version at the end.

NEXT: A Host of Data

SFX: OFFICE AMB BG

NARR: Indefatigable Nora Young surfs the net, quietly sipping tea.

NORA: (LOUD SIP)

NARR: She is thinking furiously:

NORA: Hmm… I wonder what today’s show should be about? 

NARR: Friend and colleague Alison Moss appears in the doorway.

ALISON: Hey Nora!

NORA: Oh!

SFX: KNOCKS OVER TEA CUP

NARR: Startled, clumsy Nora knocks her tea onto the computer.

SFX: COMPUTER SHORT CIRCUITS

NORA: Dag nabbit!

SFX: OFFICE AMB BG OUT

SFX: WOOSHING DATA STREAM

NARR: A freak chain reaction occurs.  Our hapless host is drawn inside the computer!

NORA: Noooooooo!

SFX: NORA LANDS WITH A THUMP INSIDE COMPUTER

NORA: Oof!  (GRUNTS IN PAIN) Where am I?

NARR: Nora is trapped in a virtual landscape of ones and zeroes.  Drowning in a sea of binary information, Nora comes face to face…. with herself.

DRONING NORA VOICE: Nora Esmerelda Young, born nineteen sixty-four, daughter of Clem and Doreen, brothers John, Alfred, Immanuel, postal code L2N 3G5, (CONTINUES BG) 

NORA: (OVER VOICES) All this information… about me!

DRONING VOICE: (CONTINUING) Favourite food: schnitzel, last purchased July 28th, 2004 at Loblaws on the corner of Dufferin and Brock…

NARR: Clever Nora can only to come to one conclusion:

SFX: OFFICE AMB BG

NORA: That’s it!  I’ll make the show about data!

END

Nora Young: A Host of Data

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