Guest Blog: Sound Designer Alexandra Faye Braithwaite On THE UNDERSTUDY
March 2020. One by one, every single theatre closes its doors, and within the space of three days, my email inbox is filled with messages of apologies and regret-to-inform-yous, all stacking up to mean that every job I had lined up from here till next year and beyond is gone. And the same is true for all of my friends - directors, performers, designers, theatre-makers of all kinds left adrift with no work in the foreseeable.
So, of course, when Henry Filloux-Bennett got in touch asking me to help him with an 'unusual' project, I jumped at the opportunity. Not quite a radio play - not quite a film; the cancelation of live events has left many theatre-makers having to embrace technology wholeheartedly to keep telling stories in any way that we can, and I think - I hope - that we have created something in [Filloux-Bennett's adaptation of David Nicholls'] The Understudy that will engage our audience as much as we can from the safety of our own homes.
Over the course of a couple of months, a truly stellar cast was assembled [including Stephen Fry, Layton Williams, Russell Tovey, Sheila Atim and Sarah Hadland], made up of amazing people who wanted to get involved with this mad idea to try and raise funds for the industry we all dearly love. From the initial rehearsal read-through conducted (almost without a hitch) over Zoom, we started to see what this could be: an amazing bit of work that could really bring a laugh to people who need it right now.
Then commenced an intense couple of weeks, where the recordings had to be done - each actor involved used their own equipment or sent stuff by us, along with an extensive but odd list of tips and tricks for achieving the best quality voice recordings possible without actually being able to use a professional sound studio! There was the odd bump along the way, and we all learnt a lot, but by the end we managed to get some really great quality recordings courtesy of people's wardrobes/broom closets/duvet fortresses.
The madness of what we were trying to achieve was definitely eased by the fact that, as a sound team, we were able to support each other throughout the process. Annie May Fletcher took care of most of the technicalities of getting the recordings done and jigsaw-ed together, Sophie Galpin used her amazing skills as a musician to write some great tunes for the piece, and I brought my sound design and composition to the table to polish it up into what we hope is a great bit of radio drama - despite the unusual limitations of our current situation.
Whenever one of us reached an obstacle that we weren't sure how to tackle, the other two were always on the other end of a WhatsApp group chat to provide suggestions and support, and we never came across a challenge that could beat all three of us. It's also been the perfect moment for us to launch our new audio company, Broken Bird Studios; there are some good things about lockdown.
Once we'd pieced all the voice recordings together, added the sound effects and underscore, the theme tunes and background atmosphere, we did a fair amount of sending drafts of the piece back and forth with the director, Giles Croft, to ensure the storytelling was clear and engaging. After all, once you've heard someone say the sentence "What's the big deal with that?" 35 times, it just stops sounding like real words! But once we'd gone through a rigorous amount of noting and redraft, there was nothing as satisfying as having the final piece of it signed off.
I think it proved to all three of us that, in a world that doesn't currently need our particular skills in live performance and audio production, we're lucky that we can transfer our skills to digital content and use them to create something that will support the industry we all adore until it's back on its feet.
And the Lawrence Batley Theatre is doing just that. All proceeds from ticket sales for The Understudy will be split between some really awesome charities to help those in our industry who need it most: Acting for Others, the Equity Charitable Trust, Equity's Benevolent Fund and The Theatre Development Trust, run by the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre.
So, if you have a spare fiver and a couple of hours, do consider going to www.understudyplay.com and investing in the arts. Because we all know how much we're going to need live performance as soon as we're allowed to be back in theatres with you all properly.
The Understudy is broadcast in two parts: Part 1 on 20 May and Part 2 on 27 May. Tickets available at www.understudyplay.com