By August Wilson Produced by 1st Stage Directed by Deidra LaWan Starnes Lighting Design by Jonathan Alexander Scenic Design by Kathryn Kawecki Props Design by Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa Costume Design by Deb Sivigny
This play is titled after one of the legendary blues singer’s songs, and takes place in a Chicago recording studio in 1927. Tension builds throughout the session between the musicians and the businessmen - as well as amongst the musicians themselves - around themes of self-hatred caused by racism and racial exploitation.
The script calls for several moments of "live" instrumental and vocal performance. In our production it was decided that the actors would mime playing the instruments to recorded tracks during these moments. I chose to re-record original takes of the songs in the show in order to have better control over each instrument's level, tone, and localization for each moment. (I should also mention that the choice to re-record was strongly influenced by the fact that of the original recordings I found, the instrumentation seemed quite different from what might have occurred had the instruments listed in the play been used in those original recording sessions. For example: In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom I could only find recordings where an instrument that sounds more like a clarinet was playing along the melody lines instead of a trumpet. The quality of the old recordings makes it difficult to tell for sure, though. ) I was able to record performances of the guitar, bass, and piano parts on my own, and contracted studio time with a trumpeter and trombonist to record those parts. In the show, the "performances" occurred in one of two rooms on stage: the recording room or the practice room. In order to help aurally localize individual instruments I placed three hidden speakers (Bose Panaray MA12) strategically on the set, and used them in combination with the main left and right speakers hung above the stage.
The miming of the instruments proved to be a great challenge for the design and the actors. The video at the top of the page is from an early tech rehearsal. By opening night the tech was greatly improved, but it was never quite perfect for all who attended the performances, as you can gather from this review by Jenny Minich for Broadway World:
"Excepting Nelson's exceptional vocals, there is no authentic music in this production. [The designer would like to add to the reviewer's exception that actors Clayton Pelham, Jr. and Jason B. McIntosh (video) sing in the production.] The rest of the music in this production is mimed and not entirely successfully. For example, Williams is was forced to hover above the piano keys during musical numbers, which makes parts of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom appear almost farcical."
Aside from creating rehearsal tracks for all of the musical moments in the play , which included instrumental and vocal parts as well as a few isolated instrument tracks, I created the video below to help one actor visualize the hand placements and motions for a guitar part on a particular song he needed help with.
Two microphones were used in the show. One was in the control room and one was on Ma Rainey's microphone. The mics in both locations were the model Audio Technica Pro 45, chosen for their slim profile (easier to hide) and cardioid pattern. The mic in the control room was used to pick up the voices of the band manager and studio engineer as they "talked through the studio speaker". High and low-pass equalization, and light compression and distortion were used to give an effect that their tone was like it would be coming through a system of the time. It was turned on and off by the stage manager via QLab using hotkeys. It was hidden behind the pillar in the control room area out of the view of the audience.
The mic that Ma used needed to be a live mic because we wanted the moment when she and the band perform the titular song to be bigger than the rest of the "live" feeling musical moments in the show; almost like a music video. The audience could see Ma's prop mic, which was constructed to resemble a period carbon microphone. The Pro 45 was hidden on the backside of the prop. To accomplish the larger-than-life effect (with help from lighting) we started the song off with the band levels sounding natural - using only speakers around the recording room. Just before Ma begins singing, the instrumental mix spread out across the stage in stereo, more like you might hear in a modern recording, and the levels came up.
To open and close the acts, the director and I chose to create a cross-fade of sound quality - from that of old recorded media into liveness, and back out of it again. To understand what I mean, in the following video of the final moment of the show you will hear the final lines of dialog leading into the sound of a trumpet playing out into etherial Chicago. Then the sonic artifacts of the contemporary recording medium come up - the pops and scratches of a record. For this particular moment I heightened the bass frequencies of the record scratch because I found that by doing so it created a sort of heart beat - a pulse representing the importance of the recorded medium as an historical and influential social document that did not conclude with the end of the show, but rather connects us through time from then to now.