Wednesday, August 12, 2009


David Massingham, Mike Griffin, and
ultra-nerd yours truly.
In the golden age of radio, serials made use of great foley collections. Impro Mafia brought that tradition to the present for an improvised radio play - here's how they did it.

Tales from the Wireless

This year the Impro Mafia folks brought David Massingham's Tales from the Wireless to the Brisbane Arts Theatre for one night only. The first half was all short-form presented as a variety radio programme, with an olde-time narrator, and an appropriately-themed collection of radio programmes: A western, breaking news interviewing people off the street, an advice show where three experts address audience problems, a few commercials...

Instead of interrupting the show to get offers from the audience, specific gimmes were provided by the audience on slips of paper before the show: names, objects, occupations, and show sponsors. These were used as offers for the short-form games in the first half.

Luke Rimmelzwaan, Joel Gilmore, Tom Dunstan,
Amy Currie and Dan Beeston
Many of those offers were used as inspiration for the second act, a long-form radio play. Tales from the Wireless was presented as 1940s-versions of the actors, foley arists and musician themselves, on-stage recording a radio play for a live audience. The MC welcomed the audience to the broadcast, shushed them, then did a count-in to the "live broadcast". Normally when someone makes a hilarious gag during an impro scene, the actors (playing characters) have to try not to respond; in this show the actors could laugh at each other, threaten each other, panic and gesticulate wildly, so long as the audio being "recorded" was true to the story.

The star of the second half was without a doubt the foley arists and their tools. The foley guys (David Massingham and Mike Skillz Griffin, both hailing from The Sexy Detective sketch comedy show) had a big table covered in all manner of noisemaking devices, along with a microphone positioned centrally.


The guys put together a wonderful selection of strange stuff for the foley table, cooking up crazy sounds themselves, and sourcing ideas from the internet. Most of them required access to the microphone for sound reinforcement; cracking a carrot on stage is pretty quiet, but in front of the mic it makes a lovely clean snap sound.

Sometimes the foley items were used as themselves; tea cups for tea cups, a bell for a bell. Most of the time, though, the art was in making one thing sound like another. The classic example is a pair of coconut halves, clacked together to simulate the sound of a horse walking/cantering/running.

For some things, the foley sounds were amazingly lifelike. A bag of corn starch (securely wrapped in duct tape to avoid nasty accidents), grasped with both hands and kneaded with thumbs, made a wonderful sneaking sound. A partially deflated fit-ball did a great heartbeat simulation. Other times the foley was way off the mark, when the actors would clearly indicate a particular sound was about to happen, and an entirely different sound came from the foley. That conflict was a big part of the humour of the show - having the foley guys do a strange sound and watching the actors respond, or vice versa, was an absolute treat. The actors and foley guys (as themselves) were free to react with honest glee or honest horror when surprises happened on stage.

The visual of the foley guys racing around and struggling to find the right sound was a lot of fun as well.

My personal favourite foley effect? Two of the characters in the story made a pact to work together. In a stroke of brilliance, the foley guys did a very sincere (and very silent) handshake behind the microphone.


Music for the show was interesting. When we were workshopping the show, someone made the suggestion that the music should be more present in the quiet scenes than the exciting scenes. I didn't really understand it at the time; that seemed to be the exact opposite to how I'm used to structuring music for a show. As we went on, it started to make sense - the foley was the star, and subtle foley gets completely lost when there's music around. In the end the music was still a frequent part of the show, but fell away when the foley artists were poised to make some noise.

This was the sort of show where you never knew what kind of sounds or music you might need, so I came prepared. As well as packing the keyboard, I had access to a snare (with sticks and brushes), a few cymbals, windchimes, a gong, and some bongos. Every one of those got a workout during the show, too. (I had a harmonica on hand, but simply forgot to use it during a western. Sigh.) As well as that, we had a bucket of rattles, shakers, tambourines and so on, and the players made good use of those during one of the commercials.

The Foley Table

Here are some of the foley tools on the table that had successful use on the night.

Deflated fit-ball - heartbeat
Big umbrella - bat/eagle wings
Coconut halves - Horses, ticking timer
Carrots and celery - Snap for breaking things; chew for animal noises. Good eating too.
Ratchet - Mechanisms like lowering the hero into a shark-filled tank
Sheet of metal - Shake for thunder; strike for gunshots, general crashing
Plastic boxes full of rattling stuff - loading/unloading crates, dropping things
Rainstick - gentle rain
Cornstarch bag sealed tightly with duct tape - sneaking
Bucket of gravel - walking
Bucket of paper strips - rustling
Lettuce - Smash it with a hammer. It sounds like, well, nothing really, but it's a great visual
Wind chimes - fairies, flashbacks
Steaks - Face-slapping noises. Another great visual.
Swords - swordfight shing or clank noises
Rolling cylinder full of gravel - rain, storms
Inflated balloon - rub for stretching/straining sound
Party poppers - gunshots, fireworks
Styrofoam - Rub with a stick to make a writing sound
Gong - Spittoon, gong, general crashing about
Potato chip packet - static, fire
Bubble wrap - rustling, cracking knuckles
Hole punch - typewriter
Recorders and pipes - flute playing, train whistles
Pair of plaster molds - smack flat sides together for jail cell clank

More Wireless?

It seems like the more long-form we try, the more we learn and the better they turn out. This show was a lot of fun to do, and a lot of fun for the audience. Hopefully Tales from the Wireless will get another showing sometime soon.

1 comment:

Girl Clumsy said...

Oh, for goodness' sake.

As if I wasn't already crazy jealous enough having missed this show!!!

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