Cobbers create retro-sounding sounding commercials for upcoming play
The radio crackles to life. Saxophones squeal the first lines of a jingle. Then horns follow as an accent. Finally, a bright, modulated voice speaks vibrantly over the sounds, selling a product straight out of the 1950s.
This may be what the audience will hear when the play “Perfect Arrangement” opens on Feb. 11.
“‘Perfect Arrangement,’ the play, takes place in the spring of 1950. It is about two couples that live next door to each other in the late 1940s that run into some…governmental problems that started in the McCarthy era. And one of the things that is going to help us set the time period is the songs and the commercials of the time,” said Bryan Duncan, the lighting and sounds director.
These commercials are being created by Gregory Carlson’s audio production class.
“Bryan Duncan approached me about the possibility of a collaboration between the students in the class and the ‘Perfect Arrangement’ show that the theater is doing,” said Carlson, director of film studies and media activities.
According to Carlson, the script only calls for four places where the characters hear some aspect of audio on the radio — not enough work for a class of 14 students.
“Bryan is a very creative and enterprising, visionary kind of thinker, so he had the idea that… [the commercials] would expand beyond just the four pieces that appear in the show,” Carlson said.
A variety of others commercials and songs from the era will also be featured throughout the show and the pre-show as the audience is filing in and finding seats.
“I think that [the commercials are] a brilliant idea. It’s a really cool idea to blend everything together and give everything that 1950s feel, which the show does already have with the costumes and with the dialogue, too,” said Alicia Auch, a senior theater major. “We say, ‘Fellas’ a lot, and ‘ta’ as a goodbye, so I think it is a great idea to tie in that advertisement feeling that the ‘50s did have that made it so iconic.”
The project was introduced to Carlson’s audio production class the first week back after break. Duncan began by showing the class some ad examples from the ‘50s, focusing particularly on the popular brands and slogans of the time.
“Bryan introduced the project to us, and [since then] we’ve been making and putting scripts together from ads we found as well as recording them,” said Dominic Hillberg, a student in Carlson’s class. “We are starting to do the actual editing process, and putting all of the layers together. That’s getting started and should be done by Monday.”
According to Duncan, the audio production class seemed to gravitate towards the project and the students are excited that what they are making is going to be used on stage.
“Oh, it’s so cool because I didn’t think that I was going to be involved in the show anyway, and now, suddenly, I’m going to be involved in a sort of exterior way,” Hillberg said. “[My group’s commercials] are the most speaking stereotypical sound you can get: one person talking into a microphone describing a product for a number of seconds.”
Some of the appeal, too, may come from creating ads that no longer air today, such as cigarette ads, along with the challenge of capturing the sounds of the period. According to Hillberg, the ads back then were very descriptive, oftentimes describing the entire product in great detail.
“Another thing that Bryan pointed out is that if it is an ad from the ‘50s, the more sexist it is, the better because that will help bring people back into that era,” Hillberg said. “We’re not trying to hold any punches and say that these ads didn’t have a certain flare to them, because we want people to feel like this is the 1950s, which it is, so these ads are going to have rampant sexism, and racism even.”
Some of the commercials specifically referenced in the play include one for Lustre Creme and another for Spry Vegetable Shortening. According to Carlson, Duncan wanted the class to be aware of the gender biases that were used to sell products, like those sold specifically to housewives.
“The ad copy that was written and performed in some of these commercials is egregiously offensive to the modern ear, [especially in] the way in which women are depicted,” Carlson said. “So we found that very enlightening and very interesting.”
Both the topics, the commentary, and the audio style of the commercials will lend themselves to the sounds of the 1950s. Today sounds are crisp and clean, but the sounds of the 1950s were grainier.
“It was scratchy — it had a certain quality about it that wasn’t quite perfect, but still felt warm,” Duncan said.
Along with the commercials, the scenery will also add to the 1950s feel. Much of the play takes place in an old Georgetown apartment that has been refurbished to fit with the style of the time, according to Auch.
“The apartment isn’t necessarily the prim and polished perfect advertisement of a home that you might see in a magazine during the ‘50s period,” Auch said. “You’ll get kind of a mixture of the decades within the set that you’re going to be looking at, but I think it is a pretty accurate representation of what people during that time period would have done to their home”
The play itself is also a mixture, combining comedy with social commentary. According to Auch, it is funny, but it is also very honest in its portrayal of how people cope with lives that are less than ideal.
“There will be laughter throughout the entire show, but at the end — I won’t give away the ending, but there is a bittersweet sense to it,” Auch said.
The premise of the show is that the two couples who live next to each other appear to the public to be in heterosexual relationships. Behind closed doors, though, those facades fall away and the couples are in homosexual relationships, according to Auch, who plays Millie Martindale.
“I play Millie. She is one of the four and she plays the ditzy housewife sort of person, but she’s really very intelligent and sarcastic when everyone else goes away,” Auch said. “So I’m in a relationship with Norma Baxter. And Jimmy Baxter, who is married to Norma, is in a relationship with my husband, Bob Martindale.”
Auch auditioned for the role of Millie Martindale both because it fulfilled her senior thesis and because she fell in love with the script and the story it was trying to tell.
“I loved the ‘I Love Lucy’ feel to the script and the themes that it presents, like the ideas and attitudes towards people who consider themselves homosexual or anything beyond the boundaries of regular, vanilla, heterosexual relationships during the time period where that was very frowned upon,” Auch said. “The fact that we mix in this very campy 1950s feel, and then when the doors shut, and you realize who we really are…it says a lot about social commentary and how people put on public faces…and how far we’ve come since that time.”
The students of Carlson’s audio production class have come a long way as well, making these commercials and radio ad projects in only a few weeks’ time. Once the projects are completed, the next step is to have Duncan return to the class in order to listen to the audio and give the students feedback.
“It’s a collaboration, so I want [Duncan] to be able to say that this sounds like what I was going for, this needs this changed, this needs this kind of work,” Carlson said.
As the sound designer, Duncan has the final say in how he wants the pieces to sound, as well as which pieces will be used for the play and where in the play or preshow those pieces will go. Furthermore, without the outreach from Duncan, the entire collaboration would not have been possible.
“The theater department is always looking to collaborate with other departments. We’ve done that with the English department and video production. Now we are doing it with audio production,” Duncan said. “So it’s a fun time because theater is really a collaborative effort so the more we can reach out and have other people work with us, the better it is.”