Climbing The 39 Steps 4


The cast of The 39 Steps. Clockwise from bottom-left: Maggie Canniff, Peter Fitzgerald, Bruce Church, Brian Dunham

Looking back, it’s been two years since I started working at my “small room”.  Although I had done a significant number of shows (mostly musicals) at other venues before this, doing the sound design for The 39 Steps began my love affair with the MMAS Blackbox Theatre.  It was my first time doing an extensive sound design for a play and it was one of those 4-month experiences that acts as a reference point for all work to follow.

When the theatre’s executive director  approached me, he said “Here’s the script.  I think we need a little help with the sound for this one” – to this day I still chuckle about the project sizing.  Later that day I sat down and did a quick read through.  Wow, lots of sound cues. Lots!  I went through the script a second time and started creating a formal run list of the cues.  I ended up with an initial list of something like 110 cues.  After talking with the director, we decided to approach the show as an old Hitchcock style film.  Not so much to track Hitchcock’s own film version but to create an extended set of sound cues that included many more musical interludes and underscores to fit the campy, goofy melodrama of the play – a chance to be the “music director/editor” too.  At this point the cue list had grown to over 150.  Even at this early stage, I knew  the list would grow as I started working with the actors.  And as I researched the show itself, I discovered that the original production won a 2008 Tony award for best sound design for a play.  I took this as a personal challenge to stay true to the importance of sound to the overall production.


I started by transferring the cue list into Ableton Live and then designing a few key sound cues to preview with the director and cast.  Luckily for me I decided to create both ambiences (longish environmental loops used as background for specific location) as well as sound effect cues.  I had used Live as both my sound design tool as well as my tool for playing the cues.  I depend on Live’s abilility to modify effects in real time,  but my demands on the tool as a cue-player had been fairly basic sound effects hits.  For this show I really needed to have independent control over multiple layers of simultaneous cues.  As I got into it, I began to understand the limitations of a powerful but general purpose tool like Live compared to a tool like QLab that is tuned for this exact purpose.  Although I had used QLab before I had never gotten deeply into the detailed level of control it provides.  So about a month into the sound design effort (about 3 months before opening night), I decided to switch my sound cue playback platform from Live to QLab.  This approach continues to be my standard workflow – Live for sound design, Qlab for control of the cues

Early Work With The Cast

At this point I also started bringing some of the prototype sounds to rehearsals to get comments.  The director and actors loved this and commented that they’d never worked on a show where the sound cues were available so early in the process.  As we all discovered very quickly, The 39 Steps is a unique show in terms of the importance of the sounds and music and their interaction with the actors.   One approach we found to be useful was for me to send  mp3’s of critical sounds (like the sound of the interior of a train car) to the actors so they could work through detailed body movements, etc. at home, outside of rehearsals.  And of course these early interactions led to requests to modify the standard scripted cues and to add additional music and sound effects to personalize our production of the show.  At this point I think the sound cue count was at about 200.  One of the nicest compliments I received during this stage was being referred to as the “5th member of the cast”.

Into The Theatre

At about T-minus 4 weeks we moved into the theatre space itself.  And even though I had tried to think through possible ways to use the space, it was the first time I was designing for a blackbox environment.  I was genuinely surprised at how many new ideas surfaced when we all started working in the space.  I had seen several show at this theatre in the past and was always intrigued with idea of adding addition speakers to create a full-immersion sound environment.  Ultimately I ended up adding 3 more speakers,  located Left/Center/Right along the back wall of the stage.  These, combined with the existing stereo speaker pair at the rear of the audience gave me a tremendous flexibility in the placement of sounds and music in the space.   The power of QLab running into my beloved Metric Halo 2882 8-channel audio interface created an unbelievably powerful design tool.   Several elaborate effects were created including a plane making several passes (machine guns blazing) around the theatre and a Scottish band marching across the stage.  Sometimes you worry that maybe nobody but you really notices the difference between 2 and 5 sound sources.  But I was approached after each performance by at least one audience member who raved about the unique “sonic experience”.  I think this ability to play with detailed sound localization is a significant difference between the black box experience and bigger venues.


Halfway through tech week, the director approached me apologetically one night and asked if I could add a couple of new “last minute” cues before opening night.  I told her several things that night that have become part of my design philosophy:

  • Never apologize for asking to add things that make the show better.
  • The sound design isn’t finished until the final performance is over.
  • Never surprise the actors!  If I add a new sound cue (even a subtle one) I always tell the actors and even try to walk through that segment of the show so they have time to internalize the impact.

I remember adding 2 new sound cues that were only experienced by the audience that attended the last of our eleven performances.  Ultimately I ended up with 300 sound cues.  My only regret is that we didn’t record any of the performances – I started doing audio recording of all the shows soon after.

Work on The 39 Steps was an incredible learning experience, both technically and personally.  Here’s to setting the bar high.

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4 thoughts on “Climbing The 39 Steps

  • Dan Weston

    Diving into doing 39 steps Sound Design myself right now for our small community theater. Have done many shows over the years, this is the hardest! Happy I have years of my work to pull on! Just wanted to say, I enjoyed the read — know I am not alone in the OMG factor.

    • Bruce

      I’m a couple days late in responding – we opened our new season this weekend (Steel Magnolias) and I was focused elsewhere.
      Thanks so much for your note. And welcome to the adventure that is The 39 Steps. I am convinced that it is one of those rites-of-passage shows that any sound designer will always look back on and smile knowingly. It is still my reference show when people talk about how complex they expect a sound design to be for an upcoming production.

      I stopped by your theater’s web site. It looks (and sounds) like you and I are working in similar spaces. MMAS is a 75-seat black box theater. We do somewhere between 7 and 9 productions per season, plus some special events/concerts/etc.

      If you looked elsewhere on this site, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted for a while. Seeing your comment has generated a spike of adrenaline and I’m planning to get busy posting again. I’m about a year behind in talking about shows.

      I’ve also had this long-standing belief that there’s a whole community of folks like us doing sound in black box, community theater environments. I started back into theater sound doing work in larger venues but I am absolutely hooked on the black box experience.
      Not sure if you have contact with others in a similar situation. Would you be interested in sharing insights, solutions, workarounds, war stories, etc. around sound design in “small rooms”?