The Pick: Sound and writing influences for new play 'Numb'
This fall, local theater company Goat in the Road Productions (GRP) will premiere its new original play, 'Numb'. 'Numb,' presented in association with the Cachet Art and Culture Program and the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum (NOPM), explores the complicated history of anesthesiology and 19th century medicine.
So what exactly does it mean to be an original play? In the case of 'Numb', this means that the cast, director and a team of designers (sound designer, mime consultant, lighting designer) produced the play's themes and resulting content through movement improvisations, writing exercises and lots of conversation and editing. Nonetheless, the ensemble behind Numb didn’t generate their ideas from thin air; rather, several inspirations and influences guided the creative process.
Two key artists who contributed to the final product are writer/director Chris Kaminstein and sound designer Kyle Sheehan. Each has comprised a top 5 list of the music, plays and books that shaped their work on 'Numb'.
Sound designer Kyle Sheehan's influences:
• François Couperin – Les Barricades Mystérieuses
I grew up with this piece of music (my mom would practice it on the piano), so when it was decided that we wanted some music that sounded “baroque-y” for Numb, it was the first thing that came to mind. Couperin literally wrote the book on harpsichord music (The Art of Harpsichord Playing), so it’s not impossible to imagine the real Fanny Burney, Anna Burney or Elizabeth Wells – three of characters from Numb – playing it at home on a fortepiano.
• Franz Schubert – Piano Trio in E-flat
At first, I had every intention of using one of Schubert’s lieder’s from his Winterreise,
but it became clear that music with vocals just wouldn’t work for our show. I used this piece as a placeholder at first. It’s an all-time favorite of mine, but was used prominently in Stanley Kubrick’s film, Barry Lyndon, and I was trying to use music that didn’t already have a cultural reference. As it turned out, the cast fell in love with it; we couldn’t find anything that came remotely close to what it achieves in emotion, tone and pace, so we kept it. Yes, it’s anachronistic for the period we’re working in, and yes, Kubrick got to it first, but we couldn’t be happier with our choice.
• Mozart – String Quartet no. 15 in D-minor (arranged for solo piano)
Originally, we were going to use the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 14 where this piece is currently being used. The Beethoven quartet is arguably the most melancholic music ever composed (at least Wagner and Schubert thought so), but for our purposes it was too melancholic. I had never heard an arrangement of this piece for piano and completely fell in love with it. My first thought upon discovering it was how there are moments that could almost live in a Scott Joplin rag (just add some syncopation and there you go). It was kind of a no-brainer for Numb.
• Stan Brakhage – Passage Through: A Ritual
The only time I’ve been lucky enough to see this film was in film school. Passage Through is just shy of an hour long, and as I recall, there’s less than 3 minutes of actual images in it. The rest is black/darkness/negative space with a piece of music written by Philip Corner creating a kind of shapeless form for the film. Corner’s composition is a re-working of Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses, wherein he stretches the short baroque piece into an ephemeral, hour-long abstraction. But before I’d even considered using Couperin for Numb, this film was at the front of my mind. Our play has almost no set; the physical objects coming to life aurally and through the pantomime of the actors. I feel like we’re playing a similar game as Brakhage. Somehow the heightened lack of formal elements makes the experience special and also impossible to parse outside of a theatrical setting.
• Lars Von Trier & Jørgen Leth – The 5 Obstructions
I saw this documentary just before I went to film school, and it’s safe to say that it more than anything else has shaped my approach to the creative process. The idea is simple but not easy: create formal rules for your project – maybe arbitrary, maybe practical – and don’t violate them.
When Numb director and writer Chris Kaminstein approached me about working on the play a year ago, the first thing he told me was the rule he was imposing on the project: there were to be no sets, and whatever was lacking due to this rule was to be accomplished through the sound design. That alone was enough for me to sign on to the project, and even though we’ve bent that rule a bit, I don’t think we’ve broken it.
Writer/director Chris Kaminstein's influences:
• Rude Mechs - Method Gun
The Rude Mechs are a group of Austin performers that have been making weird/funny/fascinating work for more than a decade now. In 2010, they premiered The Method Gun, which is a kind of faux documentary ride into the world of a theater company that has lost its guru. The structure of the play, written by the ensemble and writer Kirk Lynn, is really simple and effective and kind of leads to one of these great moments of fantastic theatrical magic.
During the writing and composing of Numb, this was a really useful guide on how to make multiple storylines into a cohesive whole.
• Radiolab - Colors
Radiolab has been a key general influence for us. As a company that likes to comb through history for potential theatrical topics, it’s been useful examining this show, which does such a fantastic job of culling entertaining explanations out of complicated topics. The “Colors” episode has a great section about the Mantis Shrimp, an animal able to see a wider color spectrum than us lowly humans. The way that Radiolab uses vocal harmonies to make colors come alive is also excellent.
This is a sort of under the radar show that will hook you once you start listening. Sean Hurley, a radio producer out of New Hampshire, has created a character/alter-ego named Sherwin Sleeves. Gravelly voiced Sleeves tells a story in each audio episode – some of them are from his days as a travelling actor, some are from his life now in a small mountain town, but all of them toy with the audience's minds. Hurley does a remarkable job of combining the very-grounded with the surreal and trippy.
If you’re looking to start an adventure into Sherwin-land, I might suggest episode 3: Lizzy Queelfight and the People of the Trees.
This podcast has become wildly popular in the last couple years and certainly for good reason. The folks behind it -- creator Roman Mars and team Sam Greenspan, Kate Mingle and Avery Trufleman -- are able to take really interesting design concepts in our world (everything from architecture to technology to urban planning to…time itself) and transform those concepts into easily digestible audio for listeners' ears. I love this show -- another example of history told in an entertaining, engaging way, something we have attempted to do with Numb. One of my favorite episodes is “The Great Red Car Conspiracy”.
• Gerald Imber - Genius on the Edge
This is the book that really began Numb for us, even though none of the specifics have made it into the final product. Genius on the Edge tells the story of William Stewart Halstead, a 19th century surgeon and medical pioneer. He was rigorous in his approach and invented all sorts of procedures we take for granted today, including gallbladder surgery, which he first performed on his mom. On her dining room table. Boom. He was also addicted to cocaine for most of his life (for those of you who are fans of The Knick, this might sound familiar. Clive Owen's character in the show is based on this guy). Halstead was our first inspiration to look at the quest for painlessness and what that meant to the people who first experimented with it.