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‘The Woman in Black:’ Enhancing a Horror Classic

Bryan Reesman • November 2021Theater Sound • November 23, 2021

For more than 30 years, The Woman In Black has haunted London’s West End theater district with its shiver-inducing ghost story inspired by the Susan Hill novel of the same name. A U.K. tour has also been very successful, and after an 18-month Covid shutdown, the spirited tale has returned to inhabit the upstairs The Club Car at New York’s McKittrick Hotel.

Even successful, long-running shows can need a tune-up to make the sound more vibrant. That’s where sound designer Sebastian Frost came in. When he set out on his freelance career, one of Frost’s first audio gigs was touring The Woman In Black around the U.K. in the late 1990s. Through that experience, he developed a good relationship with the producers and director Robin Herford. When he saw the show recently, Frost felt the work of original sound designer Rod Mead, as effective as it was originally, needed updating.

Tape to Disk

The original sounds were originally on “about five ReVoxes,” recalls Frost. “The West End version, and the U.K. touring version, and then the other versions, have always used derivatives of those ReVox tapes — first transferred to cart, then to MiniDiscs, and then finally onto QLab. But nothing happened to any of the audio in the meantime.”

In order to redo the West End (Fortune Theatre) and U.K. touring versions before opening the show in New York, Frost remade and added cues. “I remade everything in multiple layers with the ability to make it immersive and more involving when we arrived at the McKittrick,” he says.

A quick breakdown of the show will help flesh out why the sound design is essential to the piece. Aging solicitor Arthur Kipps hires a young Actor to help him recount a horrifying tale from his youth when he had to go through the possessions and receipts of the recently deceased owner of Eel Marsh House, as a supernatural mystery unfurls around him. He seeks to exorcise the dreaded memories of a haunting he experienced by acting it out. The Actor portrays a younger Kipps, who fills in the various support roles. The sound and lighting men of the “theater” onstage help create and sustain an atmosphere of dread throughout the show, which has minimal props and a gauze curtain that hides a secret room for part of the show.

Sound greatly heightens the tension in the story. Wind blows around and even inside the house. A train passes suddenly and noisily through a tunnel, offering the show’s first jump scare. What sounds like a heartbeat emanates throughout the house at a crucial point in the story. The sounds of a horse carriage accident and screams rock the theater during a couple of key moments.

The Immersive Approach

Frost expanded the original six channels of audio into 18 channels on QLab. “I added a few more loudspeakers for specific purposes, including a surround rig and more loudspeakers on stage,” he elaborates. The show is being mixed through main and backup QLab 4 systems, each running 18 channels into an Avid Venue SC48 console, driving a mixture of 24 Meyer Sound (UPJ-1P, UP Junior, MM4XP and UMS-1P subs) and six QSC (K10 and K8) speakers.

The scene with the heartbeat sound works differently in New York than the U.K. productions, as it pans around the room as the Actor trails it, moving through the audience, trying to determine its origin. Other atmospheric cues help to create imagery in the minds of the audience, with soundscapes of a train station, a hotel, a marketplace and a cemetery.

“There are a lot of sequences where you hear wind inside the house, and as he steps outside the house, there’s more wind, and it turns around you,” says Frost. “I’ve got six channels of wind playing at any one point through those sequences, as well as other sounds.”

This time, Frost could thicken those sounds, gaining more flexibility in terms of texture, whereas previously he could only make the wind a bit louder or quieter. “Now I can introduce other winds and other sounds to help shape it in a more subtle and evolving way,” says Frost.

A Compact Venue

Slightly wider than it is deep, the McKittrick venue is different from the traditional theater where the show plays in London. Frost says he had the challenge of making the sound smooth throughout The Club Car.

“It’s a small room, and some seats are closer to some loudspeakers than others, and I’m trying to make it effective for every seat in the house, especially with a low ceiling as well,” says Frost. “It can be difficult to make sounds seem as if they’re far away, which you often have to do in play sound design. There are a few plug-ins I use in creating the sounds to help do that, and I spread them around the room using the plug-ins AnyMix by Iosono and Doppler + Air by Sound Particles, which is great. I spent a lot of time within Pro Tools using plug-ins to re-master and re-make a lot of the sounds.”

Frost received invaluable support from Greg Hanson (McKittrick’s audio supervisor) and Megan England (McKittrick’s head of audio systems/assistant supervisor), along with production stage manager Carrie Boyd, who operates the show. “This was also the first time in the show’s history that we programmed all of the lighting cues into QLab to provide better show synchronization,” says Frost. “QLab triggers all lighting cues, allowing for one-person operation.”

Quiet Sounds, Too

One might assume the sound at the McKittrick seems louder because The Club Car is a smaller venue with a lower ceiling. It also has more of a surround sound aspect than the U.K. versions. But there are some really quiet sounds that are important to the show.

“Sometimes, we’re trying to make the rocking chair as quiet as possible,” says Frost. “It’s a tricky balance. It needs to be loud enough that everybody can actually hear it, but quiet enough ideally that you’re not quite sure what it is when it first starts.” He notes that while many sounds can exist at similar levels in other shows, how loud the individual components are in The Woman In Black are critical to how the show is perceived and enjoyed.

Despite a lot of the glass at the rear of The Club Car in the McKittrick, Frost says there have been no issues with sound reflections. “It’s a “rather nice room to operate in. We do have to make sure all the fridges and coolers in the bar are off during the show. When we first started, they were all on, and the show is really quiet.”

Sounds from the Past

A big challenge in reworking the sound design for The Woman In Black was to be as faithful and respectful to the source material as possible. Frost says the director was not keen on using anything beyond the original sounds, due the strong connection he had to them for the last three decades. Frost remade most of the classic sounds and added some new ones using his own extensive library of personally recorded and purchased sounds.

In terms of the sound design, Frost had to retain certain pieces from Mead’s original design. “The scream you hear from the back on a couple of occasions happens to be Robin Herford’s son, recorded 30-odd years ago, when he was eight,” says Frost. “Obviously, all these recordings were in a slightly decrepit state, so I spent a lot of time working with iZotope and Pro Tools to clean them up and remove nasty bits. The voice of the woman is Robin’s late wife, so there are a couple of bits that I couldn’t remake entirely. I spent a lot of time cleaning those up in surround and with other things.”

The audience size for each of the productions varies. The McKittrick’s capacity maxes out at just below 200; the Fortune in the U.K. seats close to 450, and the U.K. tour is generally between 800 and 1,200 seats per venue. Just turning up the sound in the bigger theaters does not mean it would fill it out properly, and the surround capabilities in England are different than at the NYC show.

“Sometimes you can make the big sounds really impactful,” says Frost. “Obviously, we don’t have time or budget to put a proper surround system in [on tour]. So we have just two fallout loudspeakers at the back of each level, which really serviced the stuff that needs to come from the back of the room, but by no means would that be called a surround system.” (The Fortune, meanwhile, has four speakers per level in the back.)

Having played for 30 years in London, The Woman In Black is the second longest-running show in the West End after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which has been playing since 1952 and is the longest running show in history.

Asked why he thinks The Woman In Black possesses such allure, Frost replies, “Because people like a scare, they like a little bit of drama. There’s a surprising amount of humor in the first half of the show as well. I think a lot of people like a ghost story, and there are not many opportunities for those that you get to see on stage.”

Thanks in part to the enhanced sound design, this one will creep you out — something not easy to do on stage.

Bryan Reesman is an East Coast-based writer.

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