Sound-Walking Chapter 1: History


Entering Professional Theatre

Through Sound-Walking

Chapter 1: History

NASWA

By John Bent Jr. (MSW)

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Introduction

Welcome to the exciting world of sound walking, an age old profession in professional theatre. You are about to enter a world of exciting days of standing, sitting, and moving about while loud audio cues are played behind you such as thunder and pigeons.

Just as it’s sister profession, light walking, sound walking is an integral part of bringing a production to the stage. Through this series of documents you will learn some of the history, techniques, etiquette, and diet of sound walking.

 On stage
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Early History

Much to the surprise of many theatre professionals, sound walking actually predates light walking. The early greeks employed sound walkers to distract the lions while performing skits written by the likes of Sophocles and Aeschylus during the games in colosseums. These skits (usually performed at half time) were the precursors to the great goat song theatre of the ancient Greeks. Many of these early sound walkers were sacrificed for the greater good of the theatre. It could be said that sound walking saved the theatre of the Greeks, and we owe much of our modern theatre to sound walking.

The Heads of Ancient Sound Walkers were often sold as souvenirs.

The Heads of Ancient Sound Walkers were often sold as souvenirs.

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In Shakespeare’s theatre, sound walking was used to test the acoustics of the theatre. The sound walker was asked to scream and yell at various pitches and volumes until his throat exploded. In this way, the actors would know how far they could go until their throats exploded, thus saving their careers. Due to the fact that women were not used in Shakespearian theatre, the sound walker would often be a eunuch in a dress.

Shakespearian Sound Walking

Shakespearian Sound Walking

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The Golden Age of Sound Walking

It wasn’t until the 1950’s that sound walking became the proud profession we know today. This feat can be attributed to the godfather of sound walking Jack Apogee. During the set up of a production of  “All About Eve”, a technician brought in a Altec A-7 and placed in the middle of the stage. The set designer said “well, that can’t go there”. The technician replied “well if we need the sound of Margo going down the stairs, the speaker needs to be here”. “What if we hide it behind something, say, an actor?” “Well what would that sound like?” “I don’t know, Hey Jack, stand in front of that speaker”. And thus, modern sound walking was born.

Jack Apogee. The Godfather of Sound Walking.

Jack Apogee. The Godfather of Sound Walking.

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After Jack opened the door for sound walkers every where, it wasn’t uncommon for theatres to employ 2, 3, or more sound walkers. One of the trail blazers for sound walkers, was a man by the name of Jimmy Hong, nick named “The Cowboy” although the reason behind that nick name is lost in time.

During the set up of the opening production of the San Francisco Repertory Theatre’s season, Jimmy was set to do an extensive sound walking session. The sound designer was employing a new technique by using a broadband audio signal to test for sound pressure levels while The Cowboy walked the boards. This signal was called “white noise”.

When Jimmy was told what the signal was called, he stormed off the stage waving his hanky and clicking his spurs. He was obviously upset. An apprentice sound walker asked what was wrong to which Jimmy replied “They’re using white noise, and as any Lady knows, you never use white noise after Labour Day”.

When the sound designer (Robert Brown), found out about this, he asked “Well what if we use red noise instead?”. Jimmy replied “Out of the question. I will not have people think of me as a harlot, walking around in the likes of red noise”.

So Robert Brown’s assistant, a young whipper snapper named Aldert van der Ziel, suggested a

compromise and wrote out a formula:  Pink Noise

Jimmy listened, and found it usable saying “Pink noise is a perfectly acceptable noise for a brisk autumn day”.

It can be said, that if wasn’t for Sound Walkers like Jimmy “The Cowboy” Hong, many of the audio innovations that we enjoy today would not exist.

Jimmy “The Cowboy” Hong

Jimmy “The Cowboy” Hong

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Prejudice and the start of the N.A.S.W.A

By the mid-sixties, prejudice threatened the way of life for most sound walkers. Light walking had become the new darling of the theatre world, and sound walkers were shunned. On touring productions, sound walkers were delegated to the back of the bus, and separate washroom facilities were given to sound walkers. This prejudice all came to an end in 1969.

A sound walker who was employed at the Empire theatre in Los Angeles, used the facilities designated for light walkers in open defiance. A riot broke out backstage, light walkers on one side, sound walkers on the other.

In the aftermath, the owner of the Empire theatre, named Garth, called the sound walker, named Luke to his office and fired him. Garth came from a long line of light walkers. His Grandfather, Jim Slader, was one of the first light walkers on Broadway.

It was then that Luke started an organisation to stand up for the rights of sound walkers everywhere, and the North American Sound Walkers Association was born.

The N.A.S.W.A. was founded on the concept that all walkers are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of walking, sitting, and moving around in sound.

A protest march was begun in the streets of Los Angeles ending at the front steps of the Empire theatre. Garth had to relent, and rehired Luke.

Thus the young Luke Soundwalker defeated Garth Slader and the evil Empire. Ironically, it was discovered that Garth was actually Luke’s Father, but that’s another story. A motion picture based on the events was later made, but the story changed dramatically with the addition of droids and spaceships.

Luke's Sister Leia during the rebellion against the Empire

Luke’s Sister Leia during the rebellion against the Empire

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The Future of Sound Walking

Advances in sound walking have kept up with the advances in other areas of stage craft such as haberdashery and corset tying. But due to a lack of credible programs in north america in recent years, potential sound walkers have had to attend european classes to receive accreditation.

Due to this lack of educational programs, the industry has been flooded with substandard sound walkers. This has given rise to alternative walkers. The Japanese started using robots in place of humans, but this experiment failed due to the robot’s lack of artistic prowess.

In the next chapter we will talk about techniques in sound walking and accreditation programs in North America which will be used to fend off the robots and their ilk.

The Japanese Answer to the lack of accredited sound walkers.

The Japanese Answer to the lack of accredited sound walkers.

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4 thoughts on “Sound-Walking Chapter 1: History

  1. Tim Beaudry says:

    Fascinating! I must now rest, while my brain absorbs this information.

  2. Mollie Brown says:

    Did you have a bad night? I do not think the ancient Greeks sacrified sound walkers or used them to quiet the lions…perhaps you are confusing this with the Roman games of later times?

  3. Mollie Brown says:

    Or perhaps my sense of humor is atrophied, and I did not recognize the joke…

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