This weekend was originally scheduled to be our closing, but thanks to the popular and critical support we’ve received, we’re all thrilled to have a few extra weeks to play in London Below!
Thanks to all who have made it out thus far, and if you are in LA or going to be in there area between now and May 25th, get your tickets NOW because they are going fast!
“Greetings, and welcome to Sacred Fools’ production of ‘Neverwhere’…”
So begins the pre-show speech, delivered wryly by Jonathan Kells Phillips, playing the Marquis de Carabas in Sacred Fools Theatre’s production of Neverwhere. Jonathan is one gear in a well-oiled machine, a production so complete that it nearly boggles the mind. There’s only one problem: Jonathan Kells Phillips isn’t here tonight.
His understudy is here, it’s me, and I’m currently behind the stage-left curtain, unable to move.
As the pre-show speech continues, informing the audience what to do in case of a fire (helpful tip: just punch everything that moves until you’re outside), a number of panic-induced thoughts flood into my brain, including the following:
Did I preset everything?
A common concern for most theater actors, but elevated in this case, as I have no idea what I’m doing. I race through the props I’m responsible for in the show: the statue used to ward off the Beast of London, the pocketwatch stolen from Door’s house, the fire extinguisher I use to bludgeon myself in the head in Scene 4. A moment of terror overtakes me as I realize I didn’t set the fire extinguisher, which is followed by relief as I realize I made that prop up.
In what order do I enter the first scene?
Do I follow Marz, Carlos, Cassandra, or Senator Strom Thurmond? And what the hell is Strom Thurmond doing in this show? He wasn’t in the book. And isn’t he dead?
Am I wearing the right pants over the other pants I wear?
Sounds silly, right? But seriously, during certain parts of the show I wear two pairs of pants at the same time, which leaves virtually no room for error, since if I walked onstage wearing the wrong pants on top I would look like a moron.
What’s my name, and am I dead?
It’s Bob, and no.
Then, before I am able to devise even more concerns to levy upon my already levied brow, the pre-show speech is over, and the show has started. I try to take a deep breath and relax before the first scene, but I can’t, because everyone else in that scene is walking onstage, and it’s time to take the plunge.
The next few hours are a blur – I remember almost nothing about what occurred onstage, though I can say with relative confidence that I avoided destroying most of the set or brutally, albeit inadvertently, injuring any of the main cast…except for when I stabbed Vandemar in the neck with a rapier. Sorry, Bryan. Seriously, I don’t know what I was doing with a rapier onstage.
I do remember moments from the performance, but instead of recalling some above-average acting moment I pulled off or a cue that I missed (of which, I’m sure, there were many), I vividly remember those moments that occurred once I stepped offstage and behind the curtain. After nearly every exit I made I was greeted by a member of the regular cast shaking my hand, cracking a smile, or mouthing some words of encouragement to me. That, more than any applause or laughter from the audience, meant the world to me.
You see, being an understudy is weird. On one hand, it’s a great gig as you don’t have to attend as many rehearsals as the main cast, so you aren’t as mentally or physically drained as they are. Instead, you fill the role of an observer, watching their run-throughs, marveling at their choices and the production level of the play, picking out the moments you want to steal from the actor you’ll be covering. On the other hand, when the time comes for you to fill in for that actor, the lines, blocking and cues haven’t been ingrained into your body. You can’t FEEL the play as well as if you were in the main cast. It’s a strange, uneasy sensation.
So when your number is inevitably called and you step into the Marquis’ shoes, having the main cast be as supportive as the folks in Neverwhere were makes a world of difference. These actors, and let’s not forget the awe-inspiring backstage tandem of Suze and Yonie, were just as responsible for me successfully completing the performance as I was. Without their words of encouragement, the occasional nudge in the right direction, and the overall “we got your back” mentality…well, I may have finished the performance, but it would have been far more terrifying.
To the cast and crew of Neverwhere, I look forward to the remaining performances I get to share with you. Thank you…it has been an honor.
Beautifully writ, as always!
We were honored, to say the very, very least!
A mix inspired by the people, places, and things of @neilhimself’s “Neverwhere,” by @michael_rholmes
But there’s one author whose tales and characters have left a particularly indelible mark on my brain. And that’s Neil Gaiman. After discovering and quickly devouring several of his works about six years ago, I immediately declared him to be my favorite author to anyone who asked the question of me. And my favorites of his titles? That would be American Gods…and Neverwhere. Delightedly discovering Door’s red-haired, short-statured, elfin features to be similar to my own, I told anybody and everybody that if they ever staged Neverwhere in the US or remade the miniseries or turned it into a movie, I would do anything in my power to be a part of it.
Two years later, I moved to Los Angeles from Chicago. And…not a lot happened in that time, but two years after THAT, I met my soon-to-be boyfriend via OKCupid. In the Favorite Books prompt, I said (verbatim):
And then it turned out that soon-to-be boyfriend was a member of Sacred Fools. A theatre I had no idea WAS a theatre even though it had existed only two blocks from the only apartment I’d ever inhabited in LA (I’d thought it was a Latin dance hall).
Flash forward nine months. I’d been shyly tiptoeing around the edges of the Fools enough that a few people knew me, most didn’t, but I’d stepped onto the stage a couple of times in the Fools’ 24-hour theatre blitzkrieg just to reawaken live acting muscles that had gone dormant after graduating years ago. I wasn’t sure I was ready to dive back into the long hours of commitment that theatre requires. Hell, I didn’t think I had the chops. I hadn’t been in a show in…oh god, five years. But then I attended the Fools’ annual gala where they announce the next season’s shows…and my stomach fell into my shoes when they announced Neverwhere.
Right place, right time.
This was a sign. This was fate. Now I knew I’d have to get serious about re-entering the theatre world if I was going to have a shot here. Out of all the theatres and production studios in all the country…a portal into London Below was- almost literally- right in my own backyard.
Nine months after that, I had my first mainstage acting credit at the Fools under my belt for A Kind of Love Story. I also had a perfectly otherworldly audition monologue from The Skriker in my pocket. My confidence was back. I was ready. But when it came time to write down on my audition form what part (if any) I was auditioning for, I didn’t write Door. And I didn’t write Croup, who I’d have wanted to be even more had gender-blind casting been a goal. I didn’t write anything.
“Yeah, right. In what world?”
Due to overwhelming public demand we have joyfully extended our run! Beginning on April 25th we’ll be adding thursday night performance and we will now close on May 25th!
But don’t wait to buy those tickets, get ‘em NOW because they are going Fast!!!!
When Scott contacted me to let me know that his proposal for Neverwhere had been accepted into the Sacred Fools season, my first thought was, “Well, I should probably read this play.”
Exactly two pages into reading the play, I thought, “Well, I should probably read this book first”
So, last spring over the course of several weeks, I cheated, and during my morning walks, I listened to the Neverwhere book on tape (or ipod, rather). Incidentally, this was read by the author himself . Best book on tape I’ve ever heard. Apparently, Mr. Gaiman’s talents are rather limitless.
Though not necessarily an imperative stage of the design process, I am so glad that I decided to read the book before diving into the play. Obviously, a stage version of this epic story has to be streamlined to avoid a play lasting what I imagine would be several weeks. But in reading the book, you naturally get a much more extensive and vivid picture of the universe Gaiman created. As I became progressively drawn into the intricate and magical world of London below and increasingly amazed by the extensive detail of each element of the story, one thing became abundantly clear to me: The was going to be the largest design I’ve ever worked on.
Listening to the book, I remember specifically one passage that really lodged in my mind. It was the first description of the Great Beast of London during one of Richard’s nightmares:
“It is huge. It fills the space of the sewer: massive head down, bristled body and breath steaming in the chill of the air. Some kind of boar, he thinks at first, and then realizes that that must be nonsense, no boar could be so huge. It is the size of a bull, of a tiger, of a car.”
What a BRILLIANT description of a monster! And what a challenge! I knew I would have my hands full on creating the innumerable components of the underworld. Individual sounds would not work in creating any fragment of this place. Each piece of the world would have to be textured and layered. The beast would have to be a combination of animals (and machines), and each area of this sprawling world would have to be peppered with hints and tastes of different places. After all, the story tells us that London below is composed of people who have fallen through the cracks, and the labyrinth where the beast lives is described as “… a place of pure madness, built of broken fragments of London Above. It is a world of the lost and the forgotten. Sewers and marshes and corpses and stone and mud.”. For me, I wanted the underworld to sound not necessarily like any place immediately identifiable, yet maintaining hints of the world we’re all familiar with.
The process of building Neverwhere was an often tedious and tiresome one. Pulling the sound elements alone to build the design took several weeks. I found myself more exacting than usual in find just the right sounds that would work. When I couldn’t find them in my sound library, I went to different design websites I know. When I couldn’t find them there, I went to youtube to try to find just the right sound. Once building began, a brain scrambling process took over. I had created a separate folder for each effect of every scene. With each different effect, I would throw every element I pulled into one of my sound programs (either Audacity and ProTools) and begin an extensive audition process of trial, error, and process of elimination. Sounds would be discarded and replaced. Shifted to different effects in other scenes. Levels raised and lowered ad nauseum. Tempos adjusted, pitches changed. Pieces sent through filters, given flange, reverb, echo, or any number of effects. Here is an example of the LOOK of the sound of London Below. The Floating Market:
This is just the file for the general ambiance of the scene. It contains none of the details like Old Bailey’s birds or the drone underscoring his monologue or the echo of the Beast. You can, however, see the hint of London above we tried to texture in at the bottom of the file where we textured in just a touch of the muzak from Herrod’s (“Girl from Ipenema” and “Wave”)
The only real general note I tried to keep in mind concerning the whole of the play was that I wanted London above to sound much more like a haze to Richard and London below to sound music more specific and clear and almost musical to him. even in its most horrific places. This process was made easier by the addition of the glorious score by Ryan Johnson, whose work I found blissfully mirrored in tone with almost everything I created. I wanted London itself to sound more like static to him, from the streets to his apartment to his office. But below should be an absolute wonderland to him. Here’s a look at his office:
Noise. All those elements you may find in any office anywhere. But I wanted it to sound like it was all piled up in Richard’s cube.
After 2 straight weeks of rising at 8 and going to bed at 2, the design was complete, and we began the process of creating the show in the computer at the Fools. When I was in high school, all my aptitude tests told me that I should go into engineering, and it’s truly during the show building process where all the mathematical elements of those aptitude tests come home to roost – especially during this project, when we decided to put all of the sound, music, video, and lights into one program. Because of this, all fades, crossfades, starts and stops had to be painstakingly run over and over and over and over again to make sure the timing was juuuuuuuust right. Add 2.3 seconds of fade here, take .7 seconds off a delay on a cue there, etc., etc., etc. In other words, a whollllllle lotta math. Each blast of magic sound I created for Door using the family powers to enter any particular place had to be synced within a hair to Matt Richter’s kaleidoscope of lighting effects and Ben Rock’s and Anthony Backman’s video projections to create just the right overall feel. I feel that I understand the process that classical composers go through a lot more now, because the individual designs alone are really nothing. It’s only when they all come seamlessly together that you get a symphony.
And ultimately, the last and most important stage of this process lies in placing all this chaos underneath the story being told by the actors. For as fun as all the pops and whistles we create can be, they’re worthless if they override the story. We’re ultimately there to shade and fill out color and support. This cast was incredibly game and willing to work with everything we threw at them. They were uniquely patient as we tried to find levels and timing to match up to the groundwork they had already laid down. And for me, as a designer, the most fun part is when you see an actor USE an element you built to enhance their actions. Julia Griswold and Donnelle Fuller have been magical in incorporating the rat and pigeon and Beast sounds into their work. And all of the cast have found places where they can use sound elements to their advantage. As someone who is primarily an actor, myself, THIS is the part of the design process I enjoy most; when you see an actor recognize and embrace the knowledge that you’ve given them toys to play with.
Without a doubt, this is the hardest I’ve ever worked on a show. But the reason I was so motivated to push myself so hard is because I have never been around so many people who have put so much toil and effort and heart and guts and determination into bringing their A game to a project. It has been a creative process of true artists and professionals. You can never know how an audience will respond to your work, really. You can think you’ve done a good job, but it’s all such a crap shoot at the end of the day. However, I can tell you as someone who’s a pretty relentless perfectionist, I am genuinely proud of my work on this show, as well as the work of everyone else involved. I would hope that everyone who comes to this show can understand the Herculean effort that was made by so many people in bringing this project to life. That’s not just theatre club. That’s love.
Mind the gap. And enjoy Neverwhere!