Anatomy of a Play: Meet 'Frankenstein's' sound man

Raindrops and Nine Inch Nails change the way you experience theater. And this man is the conductor.
Connor Toms in "Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus"

Connor Toms in "Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus" Photo: Chris Bennion

Connor Toms and Jim Hamerlinck in "Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus"

Connor Toms and Jim Hamerlinck in "Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus" Photo: Chris Bennion

Sound designer Nathan Wade

Sound designer Nathan Wade Florangela Davila

When Book-It Repertory Theater put on a production of “Moby-Dick,” the great white whale was no more than one big white sheet.

It would be “too easy” to do something literal, like come up with actual whale sounds, figured composer and sound designer Nathan Wade.

Too easy and to be honest, too meh.

“And nothing New Agey. No Yanni. I wanted to find a musical cue that suggests and evokes a whale that was looming,” he explains.

So Wade, who is also a musician, took a bow to an electric guitar and scraped the strings. The final sound was slowed down in production so “it has more of a moan to it,” Wade says.

Wade is 41. In college at Ball State University in Indiana, he considered becoming a playwright or a theater director. But as a musician, he naturally gravitated towards sound.

He was asked to be the music supervisor for a school production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” That meant pulling bits of music from anything he could find. He was really into jazz at the time.

“You’re aiding the imagination,” he says about his role in a play.

And that means finding evocative bits of music, creating his own, mixing together sound effects or all of the above.

Take rain. It’s not one continuous sound or else it would sound like static. “When you hear rain you hear it hitting different surfaces. On the roof or hitting a puddle.” So Wade pulls together 3 or 4 different rain sounds and then they’re run through different speakers. So the sensation is, well, rain.

Sound, says director David Quicksall, deepens the audience’s emotional experience. “It viscerally hits the audience, whether they know it or not.”

Quicksall has worked with Wade for more than a decade. He brought him on to do the sound design for “Moby-Dick,” back in 2009.

The final soundscape, according to Quicksall: brooding.

The pair also collaborated on “Dracula” in 2003. Scary, trippy.

And now there’s their current show, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

Unrelenting.

“For example, there are times during the play’s most intense moments when all that is heard is a low-pitched drone. It goes on under all the action. The audience’s anticipation of something dark around the corner is heightened and exploited,” Quicksall says. “ It’s awesome.”

“You’re looking at my studio right here,” says Wade, pulling out a laptop from a black shoulder bag. The bag also carries an external hard drive as well as a Happy Baby packet of apple sauce.

For the past two years, Wade has been working as a stay-at-home dad; his wife Jodi is a nurse. “Frankenstein” is his first foray back in the theater after several years trying to make it as a musician with the (now defunct) post-apocalypse Americana band, The Dark Pioneers.

When Quicksall first brought up “Frankenstein,” the director mentioned the song “Burn” by Nine Inch Nails. With those lyrics: This world rejects me/This world threw me away/This world never gave me a chance/The world’s gonna have to pay.

It got Wade thinking about the band and Trent Reznor and how Nine Inch Nails has been publishing “stems” of their songs online, available for others to remix as they see fit.

So that’s what he did, using elements of the band’s songs, also throwing in some Ennio Morricone. He’s a huge Morricone admirer. Wade envisioned something unorthodox and detuned, a David Lynch-meets-steampunk soundscape for “Frankenstein,” which is the biggest he’s ever produced in terms of the amounts of sound cues used: between 600 and 700.

The final product is also the one that makes him the most proud.

Florangela Davila is Contributing Arts Editor at Crosscut. A freelance journalist, she is also a regular contributor to NPR-affiliate KPLU-FM. She's a former faculty member at the University of Washington and a former reporter at The Seattle Times. You can follow her arts-centric Twitter feed @florangela or email her at florangela.davila@crosscut.com.


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