“Where does reality end and magic begin, or does it blend in so seamlessly that we forget where we are?”—Sound designer and composer Melanie Chen Cole, reflecting on her work for The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin
In IRT’s 2019-2020 Season, we shared diverse stories by playwrights of color in our newly launched INclusion Series. The final production in the series, The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin, introduced a beautiful script, as well as new IRT creative partners including the director, cast members, and designers, one of which was San Diego-based sound designer Melanie Chen Cole.
The magic of creating the production was well underway when the world stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 16, 2020, the IRT made the heartbreaking decision to shutter the season, including stopping Murder on the Orient Express in its tracks and halting all work on upcoming productions. Along with that decision was the devastating duty to say goodbye, until soon we meet again, to the cast and crew of The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin.
Fast forward to the end of February 2021, and so much has changed in almost a year since our lives shifted so drastically. Among many iterations and innovations, the IRT developed a plan to produce virtually, and the "until soon" with Melanie began with her bringing her expertise to Tuesdays with Morrie—creating the soundscape remotely from San Diego!
Music plays a tremendous role in the story of the production, and Melanie worked with Director Benjamin Hanna, IRT’s Resident Sound Designer Todd Mack Reischman, and Indianapolis pianist Gary Walters to bring it all to life. “I was very excited to be asked to work on this show, because I remember enjoying the book years ago. What struck me about the story, rereading it now, is how much the themes of love and hope stands out. I believe that they’re both things we need the most right now,” said Melanie.
With love and hope, the team made music magic happen. Ben and Melanie worked with Gary to create the “soundtrack” for the show. “Working with Melanie remotely could have been extremely complicated, but our excellent sound department combined with Melanie's outstanding design skill and clear communication made it a beautiful and fruitful collaboration,” said Ben.
Melanie, a self-proclaimed hands-on sound designer, likes to immerse herself in the creative process with the rest of the design team. She typically likes to build and edit cues during tech rehearsals. “With this virtual process, I had to make sure I was able to communicate very clearly with the sound and video team the changes I wanted to complete,” said Melanie.
Melanie communicated with Todd that she still wanted to be able to see and hear the room virtually. Todd worked to ensure that she could virtually attend rehearsals and technical rehearsals and be able to make edits on the fly from California. And how did they do this? Zoom, FaceTime, phone calls, texts, and the most helpful tool, the livestream setup (complete with unexpected timing delays), all served their purpose in getting the desired sound for the production.
“Melanie is a delight—kind, thoughtful, calm, and pleasant. She is also a great sound designer. The fact that she is from my hometown of San Diego gave us some common ground, too. All of this fed positive energy into our challenge, which was key in successfully staging this show…with the designer on the West Coast,” said Todd.
Once Melanie created the sheet music for all of the production, the team had a recording session with Gary Walters to finalize the music for the show. They also worked with a San Diego-based singer, Sarah Errington, whose voice makes an appearance as Mitch’s wife.
“Even though a lot of the music is recognizable, I wanted to create arrangements that were specially curated for our version of this production. Additionally, I wanted to add transitional musical moments to represent time passing and locational shifts and keep it in our jazzy piano palette,” said Melanie.
Ready to get into show music mode for Tuesdays with Morrie? Melanie recommends listening to jazz specifically from the 1930s—Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, George Gershwin. “We tend to think of the 1920s or the late 1950s into the 1960s when we listen to jazz, but the jazz in 1930s is also influenced by popular Broadway musicals at the time,” said Melanie.
Fingers crossed on future collaborations with Melanie. “All in all it was great fun to work our magic in new and different ways, and Melanie was about the best collaborator one could ask for,” said Todd.
Tuesdays with Morrie runs through February 28. Don’t miss the production and the chance to hear Melanie's and team's work. Learn more at irtlive.com.
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