Harry Bagley holding Betty (Jonathan Green)
from Cloud Nine, photo by Michael Bailey
NOVEMBER, 2005 DEPARTMENT OF DRAMA
THE HELMS THEATRE
In Cloud Nine, Caryl Churchill uses a contrapuntal, two-act structure in order to satirize the Victorian Period and Colonialism. She does this by setting Act I in British colonial Africa and the other in a London park during 1980. Act I is written with a comic view of the strict Victorian setting and utilizes gender and racial role reversals. These role reversals allow Churchill to create a special mirror, allowing her audience to study social constructs of femininity, race, masculinity, etc. In Act II, several characters reappear, and although twenty-five years have passed for them, the setting is one hundred years later in 1980. In Cloud Nine, Churchill asks her audience to accept the most unique of people, despite sexual identities and race, and demands they not be forced into “normal” societal roles. She creates this contrast by successfully comparing two vastly different societal structures.
My goal as the designer for this piece is to heighten Churchill’s comparisons of colonial and modern society. Some obvious ways to emphasize the contrasts is through comparison of 19th century environmental sounds and those of the London in the late 1970s. The script also presents some dramatic considerations for sound design. For instance, Churchill introduces her characters in both acts through song. This requires the sound designer to find or create accompanying music. Also, in the first act, the threat of tribal attacks seems to always be a possibility for the characters.
Other dramatic considerations include environmental sounds of both 19th century Africa and a 20th century metropolis. The comparisons of these two environments allow me to present a metaphor for “jungle.” The setting of each locale is primarily relayed through sound design, as there is little scenery in this production. Cloud Nine was part of the Department of Drama's Fall Festival.
Churchill introduces her cast of characters through song at the beginning of Cloud Nine. In the script, these lyrics are presented. The structure of the music implies the feeling of an insistent march, as if the characters are "plowing" their way into the African environment. Given the importance of these lyrics, and the fact that they are the primary exposition for this piece, melodies were custom fitted to the natural rhythm of the spoken lyrics. The aesthetics of Gilbert and Sullivan music were used to reflect the rigidity of the Colonial setting. Melodies are very present in this composition for the actors to sing along with. Another challenge of this starting place in the play is to tell the audience through sound that the setting is in Africa, near plains, jungles, and exotic wild life. As this song starts, a short soundscape infers the exotic setting.
As stated in the overview above, Cloud Nine has two acts. This set of cues and the six sequences below were created in a similar way, and all serve as transitions between the five scenes comprising Act 1. The goal for these transitions is to create short musical collages of South African singing and drumming. To create these, I use recorded chants from various African tribes. I cut them into smaller pieces and arranged them into new compositions. These mini vocal collages are supported by multiple layers of original African drum rhythms. This is achieved through using MIDI technology and sampling software. This particular transition uses the same African bird sounds as heard in the beginning of "Come Gather." These sounds create a "bookend" for this first scene.
Created using a similar method to the above three sequences, this sequence also includes underscore that extends the dramatic environment of dialogue about flogging at the top of the scene. Each of these transitions uses surround-sound. This set of cues comes from speakers above the audience seating areas. At the end of the drumming, the sound shifts to speakers at the stage level, surrounding both the characters and the audience.
This composition is a sort of "exclamation point" for the end of Act 1, and is a cacophonous combination of the above transition pieces. It ends with a crescendo followed by the slow decay of reverb. Although all are mixed together here, each of the collage's components comes from different speakers both below and above the audience.
Act 2 takes place one hundred years later in London during the winter of 1979-80. In a similar fashion to Act 1, Act 2 begins with a song. However, this song is now played through a 1980s boombox in the park. "Cars" by Gary Numan Is used as a model for the music created to accompany the lyrics for "Cloud 9" provided by Churchill. Since the playwright calls for this expositional piece to be played on a radio, I sang the lyrics. In this mockup, you will hear "Cloud 9" in full 1980s fidelity at first. This serves as overture music. Toward the end of the mockup, the high fidelity sound deconstructs to that of a radio with an announcer. Until this point in the music, the content comes from the speakers above the audience's head and then switches into a prop radio on the stage. Also at this moment, the city/park sounds heard in this mockup starts playing around the audience and characters from floor level speakers.
During Act 2, African drum transitions are replaced with ambient sound transitions. Instead of using music for scene transitions, environmental ambience is used. This ambience represents a scene just performed for the audience and crossfades into the ambience representative of the setting for the coming scene. However, toward the end of Act 2, African influences, primarily in the form of distant drumbeats "creep" back into the modern London city environment of the act. This "Finale" cue is really the only prominent music used in Act 2, and serves as punctuation at the end of the play just before the conventional blackout at the end. Curtain call is underscored with the "Cloud 9" composition described above.