“Gentlemen, let’s start our Friday engines.”
With those words from director Stuart Carden, the tenth day of rehearsal for Travels With My Aunt commences. Today’s challenge: creating asoundscape for Henry Pulling and his Aunt Augusta’s trip to Brighton.
Allow me to contextualize the scene for you a bit: Henry Pulling, a retired banker living in Southwood, England, meets his estranged Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral. After a bewildering reunion, Henry (embodied at this point by actor John Hoogenakker) and his Aunt Augusta (played by Sean Fortunato) are speaking on the telephone and Henry somewhat reluctantly tells her, “I have nothing to do tomorrow. If you would like to go to Brighton…” From there we immediately transition to the pair on vacation in Brighton where Augusta spent some time as a young woman. The scene is accented by the appearance of actor LaShawn Banks who has transformed into Hatty, a fortune teller and old friend of Augusta.
Meanwhile, the fourth member of our cast, Jeremy Sher, has been stationed off to the side behind a makeshift podium, topped with assorted objects including a saucer cup, a handkerchief and three wine glasses filled with differing amounts of water. As Henry and Augusta hang up their phones, Jeremy starts to fly the handkerchief through the air as if it were a seagull while stunningly accurate seagull squawks erupt from his throat.
This moment of transition from telephone conversation to the Brighton seaside is our task for the next hour. As they were blocking the scene yesterday, Stuart and his four actors came up with the current version of the transition, but Sound Designer Mikhail (Misha) Fiksel is in the rehearsal room today to finesse and revise those choices.
Although the script talks about Aunt Augusta wanting their hotel to “be at the centre of all the devilry, with the buses going off to all those places,” Misha made an astute point about opting for seaside sounds rather than traffic ones. “We’re going to have plenty of opportunities to make bustling cityscapes later,” he said, noting Henry and Augusta’s trip to Paris as a prime example.
Stuart wanted the transition to retain a sense of driving energy so that we are propelled from the rather static phone call into the completely new and interesting environment of Brighton. Misha loved the seagull noises but advocated to leave out the accompanying flying handkerchief so that Jeremy had his hands free to add some more sounds.
Ultimately, the following transition was decided upon. As John says the word “Brighton,” Jeremy comes in with some port noises (by ringing a bell and making a fog horn noise with his voice into a tea cup), punctuated by those instantly recognizable seagulls. After a few seconds of establishing the new location, the horn and bells end while Jeremy continues to use the tea cup over his mouth to create the soothing sounds of the English Channel surf, and the action continues. A few lines later, while Aunt August and Henry are having their tea leaves read by Hatty, Jeremy rubs his finger along the rim of the wine glasses, creating a delightfully eerie sustained ringing to accompany the fortunes being told.
“That was a great next draft of that moment,” Stuart asserted to his team when the scene ends, and he’s right. Both about it being great and about it being only the next draft of a long and complex developmental process. There are still two and a half weeks before our first performance and every one of these moments scattered throughout the play will continue to be shaped and refined. Be sure to come check out the finished product when Travels With My Aunt opens next month.