Taking the Breakfast Plays: New Tracks from page to audio stage

News 7 Sep 2020

'It feels so good to be in ‘a room’ again.'

At the start of the year no-one thought we'd be sharing plays recorded in bedroom cupboards and blanket forts.

Being surrounded by home comforts with the kettle only a few footsteps away is certainly a plus of creating theatre remotely but it also comes with its challenges. As this week marks your last chance to tune intoBreakfast Plays: New Tracks, we asked the writers, some of the actors and Richard Bell, the Sound Engineer, to share their reflections on the recording process.

From the Actors...

Karen Fishwick- Actor

There are pros and cons to recording a podcast play in your bedroom cupboard. It gets you up early, prepped, and ready to start the day. Unfortunately for your partner, this also applies to them, as you need that duvet to hang over the cupboard doors to create a spectacular sound fort.

The commute is short (and cheap); there is no grace, however, in clambering through the blankets, pillows and wires to reach the microphone when entering/exiting for tea breaks.

While the rest of the company I’ve just Zoom-met Zoom-watch my Zoom-screen-share, the World’s Most Patient Sound Engineer guides me through every intricate setting I did not even know existed. To record, we need to work off four different pieces of software at once and this, by my technical standards, is the closest I will ever get to driving a spaceship. The Ethernet is doing pretty well at keeping us connected from Pitlochry to London to Edinburgh. It feels so good to be in ‘a room’ again.

There is a script and a writer. There is a director. Actors! We are all bouncing ideas, exploring and experimenting with these brilliant plays. Rehearsing sections over and over so we know how to combat the latency for the live recording later. Getting out mouths around these new ideas and phrases, working out how to best colour them. Delving into new worlds far beyond the cupboard doors. It’s completely refreshing and strangely comforting how normal it feels. Nearly.

My step-father bursting into the room to see if I’ve been attacked during a particularly screechy moment reminds me that this none of this is normal. After we finish, when we’d usually be decompressing in the theatre bar, I find the upload is possibly the tensest part of the whole process. Don’t. Delete. Anything. The creative team even hang around on Zoom for the upload to complete. Now that is moral support.

  • Karen Fishwick

Robbie Jack - Actor

I've recorded audio before. Some more ad hoc than others. Radio drama tends to be at the far end of knowing that the most you need to worry about technically is an audible page turn. Paper can be louder than you'd think. Thank goodness even that has been taken care of in recent years - tablets! - and the ability to scroll silently through the script.

Never before have I had to build - and I use this term loosely - an audio booth. I remember building dens when I was a kid. Getting some throws or duvets from the house and attaching them with pegs to whatever would hold them up as walls and a roof. Like most actors at the start of lockdown, when all work had simply vanished overnight, I had bought a microphone set up at the gentle request of my agent. Apparently even actors could work from home! The Breakfast Plays were going to be my first opportunity to use it.

Fortunately, I am a geek when it comes to wanting to know how technical things work so I was pleased when Richard Bell, the sound engineer from the Traverse emailed with a comprehensive list of what we needed to know and do. A note here about Richard; He was working with a number of actors, directors and writers each with different laptops, sound equipment and technical abilities. Add in that he had no access to their homes or computers he had to imagine what they would see on their screens and in rooms. And yet, he had worked out what each person would need and how he could best explain it to them without them melting into a mess of technical terms and settings. Even when everything seemed to be going tits up during recording (like when Bhav's internet suddenly dropped out completely and we were already running on a tight schedule), Richard somehow managed to deal with it calmly (on the surface anyway) and gave options for what we could do and what was possible. He is my lockdown hero.

It was a different experience to being in a rehearsal room for sure. I had lunch in my own kitchen and read the newspaper alone (lunch in a rehearsal room is usually a good time to catch up with folk and talk nonsense). But the actual rehearsing and recording felt, if not natural, then a fine imitation of it.

For a rehearsed reading I think it achieved what should always be the most important thing: the play. The words get a chance to shine.

  • Robert Jack

Helen Katamba - Actor

Recording Matterhorn and Doomsdays was different from anything I'd done before.

Matterhorn has such a unique atmosphere, it became all about creating that darkness and urgency and connecting to the imagination in a slightly different way than if the visuals were there. Similarly, with Doomsdays, all the clarity of hiding and showing of intentions was so important, it is anyway, but there, of course, were no visual cues to achieve this. And you have wonderful characters in Doomsdays, it was a lot of fun to play with. T

he process of recording itself was new to me – I feel like I’ve picked up a load of new skills too thanks to our very patient sound technician Richard!

  • Helen Katamba

From the Sound Engineer...

Richard Bell - Sound Engineer

In my experience, recording for theatre is rarely done in a purpose built studio. You find a space that is as quiet and acoustically dead as possible and hope the cleaners don't need to vacuum, or that the plumbing won't begin a thunderous symphony at the flush of a loo. Once you have a location, you can begin to manage the environment and use appropriate equipment to capture the best recording possible.

To record remotely, we needed each actor to create their own recording space at home. In order to do this we needed to minimise any unwanted noise: external noise (washing machines, a TV in the next room, passing traffic) and the acoustic (or reverberation) of the room itself. To minimise the room acoustic, the actors surrounded themselves with an array of cushions, blankets and other soft furnishings. Some had existing setups with acoustic foam covering the walls of a cupboard, creating the look of a sci-fi command pod. Others draped duvets and blankets over the open doors of wardrobes to create a vocal booth. One even created a full duvet tent, popping their head out to join the video call between takes.

Having built their own studios, the actors were also required to act as their own recording engineers. Some had existing setups and others, having no previous experience of home recording, were sent microphones and audio interfaces. I had designed a system where the actors were able to record themselves locally and also stream high-quality audio directly to me to record. This allowed me to listen to and review the audio as we were recording, but also ensured we had a backup against momentary connection glitches.

During rehearsals and recording, we all communicated via video conference. It is also how the actors all heard each other while performing. The audio quality available on most video conference services is heavily compressed in order to enable a robust connection but still provide a functional representation of a human voice. Where part of what an actor does is listen and react to the performances of others it must be a strange experience to be asked to do that remotely.

Surely the better the audio quality heard by the actors, the easier their connection to each other? I certainly find listening to someone via a phone/internet call far more fatiguing than conversing in person.

The recording process would not have been possible without the patience and good humour of the cast. It necessitated that we threw them in at the technical deep end, guiding them through audio devices, DAWs, VSTs, sample rates and latency, all typically things that they wouldn't have to worry about. Through all of that, they still kept their heads in their performances to give these plays the weight they deserve. Do not underestimate the potential distraction of wondering whether or not you remembered to hit record.

Once the recording sessions were complete I collated my recordings and the recordings made by the actors and sent them on to the sound designers so they could transform them into the finished pieces.

From the Writers...

Amy Rhianne Milton - Matterhorn

Recording Matterhorn was ridiculously exciting, and I feel very honoured to hear my work performed by such brilliant actors.

Getting to work with Debbie and Richard was wonderful as they really dived into my idea and got excited about it with me. That was a major confidence boost. All sitting on zoom was a surreal experience, but I do think my script benefitted from it in many ways. I never missed a single note or question Debbie or the actors had because the format doesn’t let anyone speak over each other or too quickly. Yes, we all missed the buzz of a rehearsal room, but I was able to really zone in on my text and the feedback in a way I haven’t been able to do before. Karen, Laura and Helen are wonderful actors with so much patience, not just with the technical issues, but with the wild and complex world I threw them into. I had no idea my characters were that funny, warm, or bitter, until I heard the complexities they all so easily unlocked.

Getting to work with Debbie on my unruly script was so insightful, they really took my world and helped me run with it. That, as a new playwright, was the most important thing. They helped me have confidence in what I’m trying to create.

Rebecca Martin - Rabbit Catcher

It was definitely an interesting experience to rehearse in isolation; technical issues played a part in awkward moments but once we all got into the full swing of things you could feel the same exciting, creative energy bouncing off each other that you would normally feel in a rehearsal room. I was in safe hands during my experience and gained a lot of support, encouragement and knowledge from the rehearsal process.

Jamie Cowan - Contemporary Political Ethics (Or, How to Cheat)

Recording a play remotely is something I’ve never done before; I didn’t know what to expect going in, but fortunately, it turned out to be both exciting and inspiring.

The actors found a way to bring the text to life given the circumstances, and really managed to nail the pace and energy of the play. Watching the characters, the setting and story come to life in front of me is truly a highlight of my playwriting career. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to be a part of the experience, and I’m excited to be able to share the play with the world.

Conor O’Loughlin - Doomsdays

The most intense parts of the process were the rehearsal and recording days, though as is often the way these were also the most exhilarating. Despite everything being done remotely and it being somewhat uncharted territory, I couldn’t have asked for a better team of navigators and everyone involved elevated the script from words on (multiple) screens into a living, breathing soundscape.

It’s really only in hindsight I can truly appreciate the scale of the endeavour, fusing the brave new world of home recording stations and marathon Zoom calls with the requisite last-minute – and occasionally last-second – rewrites that come with getting a play on its feet for the first time. One particularly special moment that stands out to me was our incredible director Debbie inviting the cast to share their thoughts on a segment which is left quite open to interpretation, while I was strictly to observe. Helen, Laura and Robbie then offered a variety of deeply insightful and wide-ranging responses, covering all the ground I’d had in mind and probably even some I hadn’t. It was an example of that pure rehearsal room magic, unaffected by distance and technology, and something I’m immensely thankful to have experienced even in an altered form.

Uma Nada-Rajah - The Watercooler

Recording The Watercooler was an absolute joy. I love the collaborative nature of theatre. It was such a cracking team to work with, albeit on Zoom. The director set the tone of the rehearsal room- it was one of honesty, rigour and laughter.

I’m still new to the game, but there’s the feeling of needing to be on point, surgically, as a writer in the rehearsal room. I have worked with one of the actors, Anna Russell- Martin, previously and learned a lot from her. She turns up to rehearsal so well prepared- it’s inspiring. As a writer, it’s your job to know the heart and soul of your work, but also to know it like a machine, which joints have what potential range of motion etc., so you can respond to the director in real-time.

In reality, I had very little to do with the recording of the piece. That was down to Debbie, Laura, Anna, Richard and Mwen.

My only job was to make sure that I stayed muted on Zoom, and I’ve got to say, I absolutely smashed it.

What are The Breakfast Plays?

The Breakfast Plays are one of the most-loved elements of our annual Traverse Festival programme. Traditionally taking place at 9am during the Traverse Festival (and enjoyed with a breakfast roll), the bite-sized Breakfast Plays are also a key element of the Traverse’s creative development programme for writers, bringing brand new short plays by early-career writers, who are often alumni of the theatre’s Young Writers Group, to the world and showcasing the best, new Scottish writing talent to the international audiences who flock to Edinburgh in August.

Though a selection of previous Breakfast Plays have been broadcast on the BBC World Service, 2020 marks the first time that the plays have been written specifically for an audio format and been made available to global audiences on-demand, so that Breakfast Plays: New Tracks can become the Lunch Plays, or Dinner Plays, or be enjoyed at any other time you, the listener, would like.

We hope you enjoy tucking into Breakfast Plays: New Tracks.

If you're a writer looking to develop your skills and would like the opportunity to possibly see your work on at the Traverse (digitally or physically), check out our Open Submissions Workshop series and submit your plays during our Open Submissions window.

The Breakfast Plays: New Tracks are generously supported by the Noël Coward Foundation and the Turtleton Charitable Trust. The Traverse Theatre is funded by Creative Scotland and The City of Edinburgh Council, with additional support from The Scottish Government Performing Arts Venues Relief Fund.

Images: Mihaela Bodlovic