The Rasmuson Individual Artist Award

Lucy Peckham, Sound Designer

“Bringing It Home”

Project Grant Report #2 - In the Thick of It

December 6, 2018—12:45 pm

moving and shaking

As I write this another aftershock has just occurred, magnitude 4.8, epicenter 9 miles north of Anchorage and 25 miles deep, according to the website Alaska Earthquake Center website of the University of Alaska—Fairbanks. I could hear it coming, and then it rocked the house and faded past with a jolt to punctuate the end. If I ever need to create the sound of an earthquake, I know what to do.

Time has flown since I wrote my first Rasmuson report. Perseverance Theatre has opened the first two shows of the season in Juneau and Anchorage. Our Town, the sweet, simple, classic play by Thornton Wilder, was first. I composed the music as well as created the sound design. The musician/arranger Robert Cohen of Juneau recorded it on piano and organ for me. Here is Rob playing the main theme, the “Our Town Waltz.”

The second, now running in Juneau, is a new play, Franklin, about the lost expedition to find the Northwest Passage and the modern search to find out what happened. My sound design is a collaboration with previous Rasmuson recipient Marian Call and benefits from her amazing songwriting. The show’s curtain-call song, “H.M.S. Terror,” is available on Bandcamp.

Meanwhile, in October, I toured with Ping Chong + Company again for Alaxsxa | Alaska. We performed in Anchorage, Homer, Nanwhalek, Unalakleet, St. Michael, and Stebbins. The show continues to open minds and hearts, and to probe into perspectives on cross-cultural communication, wherever we go.

nonstop Chicago

But in and around all of the theatre work, music festivals, sound effects gathering and MV Tustumena oral history recording, I’ve been working on the Rasmuson project grant plan. Remember the Plan?

  1. Attend the TSDCA meeting in New York City on June 2–4. It was held at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on West 37th, just a few blocks off Broadway.
  2. Find a mentor for the Ableton Live software for use in sound design in conjunction with cue-triggering program QLab.
  3. Find a mentor to introduce me to a major venue’s serious mixing board and the job of front-of-house (FOH) mixer in a big theatre.
  4. Attend the USITT conference in March of 2019.
  5. Bring instructors of Figure 53’s sound-design software QLab to Anchorage and make the training available to anyone interested.
    And see as much professional theatre as possible.

The first two steps coincided at the TSDCA meeting, where I met my mentor for Ableton Live: sound designer Mikhail Fiksel. Misha deserves all the credit I can possibly give him for his generosity, patience, and hospitality. We found a six-day window of time when we could meet, as October gave way to November.

Misha invited me to stay with him and his fiancée Vera at their lovely home in Chicago. The plan was that we would study for a few hours each morning, then I would experiment with the new concepts he’d introduced for a few hours, maybe take a break, and then meet with him again to get the questions answered that had inevitably arisen. Such was the pattern of our days.

In the evenings, I planned to see theatre in Chicago—whatever Misha recommended. Somehow, this turned into a Fiksel-sound-design showcase! All four evenings featured sound designs and music by Misha.

First I went to the Goodman Theatre and saw Lady in Denmark, a world premiere by playwright Dael Orlandersmith. It’s a lovely single-character, long-one-act play about a chance meeting after WWII and the lifelong repercussions from it. Misha’s music gently intermingled recordings of Billie Holiday with his own composition, slowly peeling back layers of musical texture to underscore without distracting from the performance…subtle and beautiful executed design.

Next I went to the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, just outside Chicago, to see another world premiere, and I’ve fallen MADLY in love with this script. The play is called Witch, by Jen Silverman. Misha’s music and design absolutely rocked; vital, energized, driving, and anything but subtle! The precisely timed interplay between music, lights and scene changes was marvelous.

This was an intensely collaborative tech process. I was enthralled, and it made me hungry for that level of professionalism, that kind of care and time taken with tech rehearsals. Hire good people and give them time and support to do their jobs well, and amazing things happen on stage!

On the third night, I went to the Twentieth Anniversary Soiree for Second Story, which is an ongoing theatrical/crafted storytelling event held in and around Chicago. Misha is a company member there, and I had the chance to see him perform live for their big fundraiser of the year. He wrote and arranged the music that accompanied the three stories told that evening and directed the live band while playing keyboard, and then he DJ’d the dance party that followed. It was a tour de force performance by Misha in his element, plus they met their fundraising goal for the evening…and the stories were good, too.

On the final night, I went to Steppenwolf Theatre and saw a performance by Lucky Plush Productions. It is called The Better Half. I can truly say that I’ve never seen anything like it—and I was simply entranced. It was a play…but it was dance, movement, mystery, music, and projections too. It’s an original work created in 2011and now an ongoing world-premiere piece in the company’s regular repertoire. Misha created the music and sound design in collaboration with the choreography and direction. I’m absolutely in awe….

learning to work the big guns

Meanwhile, Ableton Live was kicking my butt daily. There is almost nothing about its interface that I initially find intuitive for me, and yet I've made progress slowly. Misha figured out how I could find my way into it, and then I found my way forward. But I’ve still only scratched the surface of the program.

Now, I have to use it or lose it…and that’s a challenge I’m making myself. I know enough now to benefit from some of the tutorials that are available. Thank you, Misha, for taking the time to teach me, putting another tool in my sound design tool box, and sharing it all.

Most of what I created in Ableton that week I was able to use and can be heard in the soundscapes of Franklin. As promised, I am bringing it home to Alaskan theatre…and will pay it forward, too!

Meanwhile, also as part of my goal of bringing it home, planning continues for QLab training in Anchorage on February 1–3. Sam Kusnetz and Allison Clendaniel are the trainers from Figure 53, and they are spending a little extra time exploring Alaska after the class. I’m delighted that they feel it’s an opportunity for them too!

In mid November, an introductory email was sent to 39 individuals, producers, and theatres in Alaska. I have five interested people besides the UAA students and me. I’m hoping for at least ten students. I made a brief presentation on the QClass opportunity at the AKIMI (Alaska Independent Musicians Initiative) conference this weekend to inspire the attendees to think outside their comfortable singer/songwriter box and consider sound design. After working with my wonderful collaborator Marian Call on Franklin, I know how much the music community has to offer theatre, if both sides will take the chance.

an in in Atlanta

Now for the big news…: I found my other mentorship! Huge thanks to BJ Brooks, Assistant Stage Manager of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I met and worked with BJ during his tenure at Perseverance, first as Production Stage Manager and then Production Manager for the whole company. Though he moved on, BJ has remained in touch, cool dude that he is, and somehow he managed this for me.

In March, I’ll be going there to study with his house sound engineer during rehearsals and concerts with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, plus all the other related and unrelated events held at Atlanta Symphony Hall during the week of March 10–17. I can hardly wrap my mind around the magnitude of this opportunity. The details are still being hammered out, but BJ confirmed the approval of the facility’s technical management, so I’m in.

And this is the symphony event happening while I’m there!

After the Atlanta experience, I’ll go directly to the USITT Conference & Stage Expo in Louisville (March 18–23) for a week of more training, networking, and seeing all the wonderful gear on the convention show floor! Hopefully I’ll also connect with some of the folks I met at the TDSCA meeting back in June.

Unalakleet · Autumn 2018

That’s it for now. Two more reports to go… I wish you all a joyous, peaceful holiday season, and even more for the new year!


Lucy Peckham