When I was but a wee lad of 25 in Calgary, during the early 90s, I was the head of audio at Alberta Theatre Projects; a medium sized theatre in (the then) Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts. In 1994 I was in my second season and I was given one of my first professional sound designs on a show called The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
It was a very heavy audio show (for the time) with 5 reel to reel decks (including a 4 track), a Digital Audio Tape machine and 2 Emulator II (or EMU) samplers that were operated by a second person. The EMU samplers were a huge deal in the eighties, with a massive 256K memory using an 8 bit sample rate at 27.7 kHz and a pair of 5 1/4 floppy drives that loaded a full set of samples in under 15 minutes. They ran about $10000 each at the time but were incredibly useful for musicians like Depeche Mode, New Order, Tears for Fears and The Pet Shop Boys.
You can see one of them in use in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Ferris makes puking sounds with an EMU II.
We used our Emulators for sound effects that needed to be heard quicker than the pre-roll on a reel to reel deck (about a half second to a full second depending on the machine and the speed it was set at). We needed two EMUs so one could be in use while the other was loading, and they were usually used for small effects like gunshots, doors, telephone rings etc.
Wow…. I’m old.
There was one particular sample that I made which was used in Search for Signs that became very, very popular. His name was Fluffy the cat. Dianne Goodman, the stage manager for Search for Signs fell in love with Fluffy and would play the sample every chance she could get. It became one of her favourite past times during rehearsals. After Search for Signs, and from that point on, every time the EMU was called for I had to make sure that there was a place for Fluffy on the keyboard so everyone could have cat noises during rehearsals. Bob White, during particularly heavy rehearsal days, would scream out “Give Me A Fluffy!” and whoever was near the EMU would play the sample. It became one of my signature sounds.
When I was hired by Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1998, I made sure to bring a copy of the Fluffy! sample with me, but MTC didn’t use samplers very much and were employing mini-disk technology with a Richmond playback system, so Fluffy got put on a shelf and was forgotten for awhile.
Fast forward to 2005 and the upgrades for audio at the MTC mainstage when we bought a Yamaha PM5D digital mixing console and 2 frames of Level Control Systems (LCS) Matrix 3. The Matrix 3 uses the Wildtracks playback system which turns the whole unit into a massive sophisticated sampler that can be controlled with almost any computer or tablet.
When I first set it up, I had the LCS running through the PM5D and there was no way to tell if the PM5D was muted or live from my front of house position during levels. I needed a quick way to test the system. So I pulled Fluffy off of the shelf and made a customized button that I could hit at anytime without affecting my mix. It would play fluffy, at a low level, in a speaker very close to me, and I would know that I was ready to go.
The first production that I used the new system on was The Tempest at the beginning of our 2006-2007 season, and I built a complex 20 track storm scene as the showcase of our new audio gear and it was a lot of fun.
During the rehearsal period, it was decided that the character of Ferdinand (played by the incomparable Peter Mooney) would pick up a piece of wood from a pile of logs, walk offstage right, and drop it in the wings… and then repeat it for fifteen minutes all the way through intermission. I remember thinking “that poor guy, having to spend his entire intermission moving logs in front of a disinterested audience, while everybody else is taking a break backstage”.
After the first run through on stage, it came up in notes that the dropping of the logs offstage was doing a lot of damage to the stage floor and it was hard to hear the wood hitting the floor. So it was decided that instead of Peter dropping the logs, he would pass the logs to an assistant stage manager, and I would provide the sound of a log dropping each time he went offstage.
All I could think was “poor me, having to spend my entire intermission playing a sound of a log in front of a disinterested audience, while everybody else is taking a break backstage”.
I built a customized button labeled “LOG” that played a sample of wood being dropped, and settled in for the tech rehearsal intermission with the rest of the creative team, watching Peter carry a log into the wing to an ASM named Natalie, while I played the sound of a log dropping.
After about 20 trips, I looked around and no one was paying attention to what was going on onstage….. and the button for the log was awfully close to the one that played Fluffy. I quickly reassigned the cat to the same speaker that the log sound was coming from, and on the subsequent trip that Peter took to the stage right, I hit the log cue and Fluffy at the same time.
[audio http://http://www.mts.net/~bent/Fluffy.mp3|titles=Fluffy! with a log]
There was a very… VERY long pause before Peter came back for another log, and when he did, it looked like he was biting his lip to try and hide a smile. Nobody else in the theatre knew what had happened, nor were they even paying attention. So, being the scamp that I am, I gave him another Fluffy.
Natalie came onto com, obviously laughing very hard and said “JBJ! Stop it! You’re going to get us into trouble!”
After that rehearsal, it was decided that Peter would only have to do ten trips back and forth with the log, so he could take a break. The tenth trip always had an added fluffy, through the entire run.
The very next production was Orpheus Descending; one of the greatest audio triumphs that MTC has ever seen. With Peter McBoyle as sound designer, and the late great Marc Desormeaux as composer, I learned a doctorate degree’s worth of audio information. More on that show in a future post.
During levels for that show, Marc pointed at my screen and asked “What the hell is a Fluffy?” and I explained what had happened in the previous production of The Tempest. Miles Potter (the director) and Peter McBoyle both expressed their concern that there was the potential for a wayward keystroke that would cause the sound of a cat to appear on the stage. “Seana McKenna will kill you if she hears a cat during this show!”
I assured them that it wouldn’t ever happen, and we started our coffee break.
Then, behind me, I heard Marc’s one-of-a-kind laugh as he said “You know JB, that kinda sounded like a dare to me. I think you should add Fluffy to a cue and see what happens”. “ARE YOU CRAZY?” I replied, “I’m not adding a cat to Orpheus Descending!”
…. but in the back of my mind…. I had an idea.
Again, during a technical run through, I decided to become a scamp. I asked Marc to sit in a certain place in the theatre during the run, to listen for anomalies, and during one of the loudest parts of the play, Fluffy played at a low level in a speaker that was almost right beside him.
After the run, at the notes session, Marc just said that “I think your anomaly would like a saucer of milk!” and laughed his infectious giggle like he always did. Then he asked what the score was in the Ottawa Senator’s game to divert the attention away from a suspicious director and sound designer.
Marc later told me to lower the level, but keep the cat in the show. Nobody will ever hear it, but I’ll know it’s there.
Ever since, and to this day, Fluffy has appeared, in some form, in every single show at the MTC mainstage. The vast majority of the time, he plays very lightly in a place where nobody would ever hear him. During the production of The Shunning, where a funny cat sound would be grossly inappropriate, Fluffy played in a single upstage speaker, thirty seconds after the exit music had concluded. The audience and actors had long vacated the theatre by that point, and the only people who had any chance of hearing him, would be the cleaners. BUT Fluffy was still in the show. I never tell anybody where Fluffy is, but if someone backstage happens to hear him in the right place, I acknowledge it.
A Christmas Story, which was the last show we did at MTC, was one of those rare opportunities where Fluffy could make an appearance at an appropriate audible level, so I added the cat to the fracas of audio when the Bumpus hounds steal the turkey.
During rehearsals, Gord Tanner, who played the Old Man approached me and said “I heard Fluffy!” and he told me where he had heard the cat. I congratulated him on finding my signature kitty sound, but one of the gaggle of children actors on the show, of course, asked “Who is Fluffy?”
So I explained the story, and the fact that Gord had figured out where he was, but didn’t tell any of the kids where Fluffy appeared in the show. They became slightly obsessed with the cat, and it became an aural Where’s Waldo kind of game.
On closing night, I was presented with a small plush tiger and a card saying that this was Fluffy.
I asked why they had given him a bindi, and was told “We’re ten years old, we know how to use the internet. We’ve read your blog.”
It looks like I have a new mascot now as well. I think he’ll hang out with me all of the time from now on…