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Echoes from the past

I'm so excited for the launch of the Resurrection Podcast. It's a huge project covering the life of bisexual playwright Daryl Allen who died in the AIDS crisis. I got to work with the team on the sound design for the first staging of one of Daryl's plays, Mustang Zero-One, which is loosely based on Daryl's experiences in the Vietnam War. I was primarily working with the director Dane and the composer Matt.

Recreating a historical time period within a theatrical work was a fascinating creative challenge. It involved researching the time and place and then using real sounds to aid in storytelling.

As an example, one of the main themes of the play is life versus death. The main character, Robert, is plagued by anxiety about death and the danger that he's in both physically and emotionally. We chose a ticking clock motif for his character to create a feeling of anxiety and to represent Robert's painful awareness that life is limited. The clock motif fades away when he's with his lover who lives much more in the present moment.

Robert works in the operations room of an air force base, which is a kind of flight control centre. Here he makes life and death decisions about which planes can land in which order on the limited runway space. Although this work is extremely stressful, this is the area of life where he feels most certain and in control. As the sound designer I wanted to recreate the juxtaposition between Robert's calm demeanour and the chaotic space. To add further challenge the director, Dane, wanted the first scene to be free of music, so the atmos and sound effects had a greater role than usual in enhancing the emotional dynamics.

Another consideration was that the operations room is a real room that the playwright Daryl Allen worked in, so I wanted to recreate it as best I could. However, as a civilian who was born in a different country and time period I had very little idea what the room would sound like. Luckily there are extensive resources that I could draw upon to recreate this time and place, including many materials from the Vietnam War. My first point of research was the city of Udon Thani, Thailand, where the base is located. I listened to atmos recordings and discovered a variety of sounds you might expect to hear in this location such as chickens, crickets and motorbikes. I also researched the local weather, which I used to underscore the emotion of different scenes.

Zooming in closer I found a map of the base, which helped me think about what outside sounds would penetrate particular rooms.

I also found silent video of the outside and inside of the operations room around the same time that Daryl served. This gave me some clues as to how sounds would interact with the space. Outside the building I could see that the walls weren't particularly thick and that the roof was tin, so I expected a fair amount of incursion of sound from the world around.

Daryl refers to the operations room as 'the dark room' and describes it as 'ominous' and 'like a gigantic, dark womb'. This made me imagine a room with lots of hard surfaces that would cause excessive reverb, an impression which was confirmed by the silent video. The lack of windows in this room adds to the effect.

I imagined the sonic space being thick, so I layered some of Udon Thani's monsoonal rain (heard through a tin roof) with air conditioner hum. I grew up in the subtropics and I was trying to recreate the oppressive feeling and soupy atmosphere of the fourth day stuck inside due to non-stop rain.

The first scene in the operations room goes from order to chaos. It's quite a long scene with a lot of intense action, so it was challenging to contain the dynamics. Riffing off the ideas from Sound Design by David Sonnenschein, Dane and I mapped out the emotional dynamics of the scene using a spreadsheet and a graph. This process helped me see that the emotional peak was not during the intense action, but during the argument about it afterwards.

A bar graph plotting out the emotional dynamics of the first scene of the radio play. The intensity starts low, builds to around 80% in the middle, reduces again and then peaks at the end.
The benefit of using a spreadsheet to create the graph was that it was easy to modify parameters during our discussion

Daryl's writing gave me the impression that he felt that the military had a slight unreality to it, so as the scene became more chaotic I tried to make the sound bed feel more like a bad dream. I deployed a series of different effects on the air conditioner hum, playing it like a sort of ominous musical instrument. This was sort of cheating on Dane's directive not to use musical elements, but I got away with it.

The next task was to fill the room with objects. The silent video showed rows of men working at machines and answering telephones. I managed to find audio of some of these machines as well as standard office equipment of the day. Dane recorded extra dialogue of actors reading flight directions, which I placed around the room. I recreated a "radio" sound effect for the times when the workers from the operations room were interacting with pilots. But the real breakthrough was when I finally found video of a similar operations room that had an audio track. I realised that machines within the room made a series of beeps based off sine waves. Recreating these beeps was not difficult and they were another source of what I would consider "music" within the track.

The play moves on from the operations room to other locations in the base. The biggest surprise for me was finding out that the officer's club was not a dingy bar, but more like a fancy restaurant. The woman who ran the Officer's Club called it 'Angel's Truck Stop' and has written a history of it that you can find here.

The officer's club is the location where we hear the first of Matt's musical compositions. As the sound designer I reluctantly cut them up to fit within the world, but I hope that the production team releases them in full. Other notable sound design challenges included mixing helicopters, which require a lot of processing to sound consistent across different playback devices, and creating a dreamscape.

Mustang Zero-One is a play which depicts a high-stakes military life where the dangerous work spills over into intense love and friendships. Out of all of Daryl's plays, Dane has chosen to recreate this one because he feels it is the most personal, and reveals the most about the playwright. As the sound designer I felt like it was important to be true to both Daryl's experience and the story he was telling.

My role across this podcast also included mixing a couple of episodes. Not only can I speak to the quality of this podcast, but I found real value in the story of a queer man with a messy life who is remembered for the way he loved and protected his chosen family. With growing acceptance of queer identities (at least in certain places) there's more room for stories about queer people who are imperfect and real. Daryl's story is fun and sexy and messy, and a reflection of queer culture as I know it.

The first two episodes of the Resurrection Podcast are now available. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts, and find out more at

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