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Communique: Thunderstorm (And King Lear) In Thalian Hall On Thursday | Historic Thunder Roll

The thunder roll in the attic of Thalian Hall. Cole Marquis is at the bottom of the stairs, and the cannon ball trough is at the right.

There will be a summer storm inside Thalian Hall on Thursday. King Lear will be egging it on. There will be 4 opportunities to experience 19th century theatrical machinations that can only be found in 2 places: Bristol, England and Wilmington, North Carolina.


Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Artsis inviting the community to experience the theater's historic "thunder roll" tomorrow (Thursday, July 12). Executive Director Tony Rivenbark will perform the storm speech from Shakespeare's King Lear to enrich the experience; he'll also give a mini-lecture about the contraption that creates a full blown storm without a watt of electricity. The whole thing will last about 30 minutes, and there are 4 opportunities to attend: 10:00am, 11:00am, 1:00pm, and 2:00pm. If you like it the first time, you can attend them all. The event is free and no tickets are required. 


I spoke with Thalian Hall's Technical Director (and my husband), Cole Marquis, and Tony Rivenbark. Listen above and see the extended transcript below.




Cole: I am the Technical Director here at Thalian Hall. I do sound, I do lighting, I do maintenance. I watch the building. I do pretty much anything that you can think of, almost anything that’s a part of this building. There's just lots of little things, and odd things, that need to be done here all the time. I am the production manager of the Main Attraction season, which means I go through all the contracts, make sure that all the artists have everything they need. Make sure that we have enough dressing rooms, we have enough staff for each of the events, and oftentimes I will work sound or lights or something for those events also.


Gina: OK so we're heading to the thunder roll.


Cole: Yes we are. We have to go up.


There's three official flights of stairs or floors here at Thalian hall. When you get to the third floor you're at the gallery level which is the bench seating. That's original from the theater’s beginning. And then after that you have to go up another flight of stairs to the fourth floor, which is where the lighting booth is. And then from there you have to go up to the attic which is another flight of stairs and you crawl through and walk across the attic, and crawl through some holes in the attic, and certain weird areas and then you get to where the thunder wall is which is essentially right over the orchestra pit area of Thalian hall. So once you get to that area then you have to climb down another set of stairs it takes you down to where the thunder roll originates, where it starts.

Gina: Oh lord is it dark. Do the lights not work? It's very dark.

Cole: This is in the attic which you will notice immediately is about 20 degrees hotter than the rest of the building. Now, you have to crawl through the wooden hole. 

Credit WHQR/gg
Cole Marquis at the attic crawl space on the way to the thunder roll

Gina: Oh my gosh, is this even safe?


Cole: Possibly. Now we crawl down this thing.


Gina: My knees are totally not up for this. I'm going to scoot.

Cole: Keep going.


Gina: OK. All right. Now I mean if you fall down, you’ll fall all the way through the theater.

Cole: That's where the chandelier hangs, through there. If you fall, you’re probably going to go through the ceiling in some part of the building.

Gina: Wow. You know I don't really like heights, this is making me a little woozy.

Cole: OK. So here we are. There's the thunder roll right there. It starts up there goes all the way down to that end over there then it drops boom and comes all the way back. It's a big V essentially.


Gina: Where are the balls?


Cole: The balls are at the end of the run here because we were doing this just the other day to do some filming for our upcoming event. You want me to run the roll?


Gina: Yeah.

Cole: These are the cannon balls.


Gina: How how heavy are they?


Cole: I think close to 10 pounds, 8 to 10 pounds. So I load a ball into the little contraption that holds the ball in place until you pull the rope, it sinks down into a little cup kind of area, and holds the ball in place until you pull the rope and that pushes the ball up and lets it go onto the track. Alright, ready?


Gina: Ready.


[Thunder Roll!]


Gina: And most historic theaters don't have a thunder roll anymore? But it used to be quite common.


Cole: I think it was prevalent for a long period of time. We are the only theater that we know of in America that still has an operating thunder roll and one of maybe one or two in the world actually that still use the thunder roll. Now, in our theater at some point in time I do believe during the 70s [actually the 50s]-don't quote me on that because I don't want Tony to get mad at me if I'm wrong- But they put a big giant firewall in between the stage area and where the thunder roll is it used to be open there so that when the thunder went on it which is filtered right down to the stage and out into the audience. Now there's a big firewall there that they put in for safety reasons, so when we use it in a live situation now we have it miced with a couple of condenser microphones that pick everything up and add a little reverb to it and make it kind of sound spooky and it's it sounds really great. But it's still working and it really hasn't been touched at all. I think there's a new rope on it, a nylon rope that we pull to make the balls go down the trough. But other than that, it's it's exactly as it was when the theater first opened.


Gina: And how exactly does it does it work?


Credit WHQR/gg
The trough that carries the cannon balls


Cole: So, there's a long trough that goes... it's basically if you picture a V on its side, so the balls, you have to load them up into the top and there's a little place where they sit, one ball at a time sits in the little cup there, and then all the rest of the balls that are going down are behind that. And as you pull a rope, it lifts the one ball up and it pushes it up to trough level and it starts to roll.


Now, the trough itself has small ridges that are cut into it all by hand. I'm sure, back in the day, it has small ridges and so as the ball going down the trough it kind of bounces on these ridges. And it gets to the end and it drops down into the lower part of the trough and then it rolls all the way back to the beginning point. And so we usually do, there's four balls in it right now. We'd usually do them a few seconds apart and it kind of gives this impression of like a coming storm and then it eventually kind of tails off at the end. And that's how it works and then we have the rain barrel up there which you can do at the same time. And a piece of metal that we bang on to give some kind of thundercrack kind of sounds.


Credit WHQR/gg
The rain barrel

Gina: That rain barrel, it sounds like wind and rain.


Cole: Yes, and that's original too. That's also from 1858 when the theater opened and that did not work for a long time, even when I first started working here. The rain barrel was just kind of sitting there. And recently in the last few years County Commissioner Rob Zapple got it working again and put some gravel in there and filled that up and put a rope on it and now it's working just like just like new. Just looks old.


Gina: So you just spin it and it makes the gravel...

Cole: Yeah. It's a rope that is just tied in a continuous loop around it. And so you just sit there and you pull the rope and it just turns the wheels, it goes around, you can do it forever.


Gina: That's Cole Marquis, the Thundermaker at Thalian Hall. You know, it's too hot up there.

Cole: Way too hot.


Gina: OK, well let's go see if Tony can say something about King Lear.
Hi Tony. You're going to do Lear's storm speech.


Tony: Yes right. I'm going to do the storm speech from King Lear. And and while that's happening the thunder roll is going to be happening. Tony: The thunder will start and then the rain will start. And then I will start the speech. And that's where, of course, he's wandering in the fields, he's been you know thrown out of everybody's house, nobody loves him anymore, the egomaniac is now down to the bottom he's really fallen. He's almost basically a homeless person and he's railing at the storm and saying "go ahead bring it on" you know. "I can't fall any lower. You can be no more evil than my my daughters." So he's calling out the storm and saying go for it, you know.  And we'll h ave an introduction to help set the stage about the thunder roll and this theater and and special effects. One of the great shows that was done here many times was Rip Van Winkle with Joseph Jefferson. And there's a great scene where he goes in the clouds Henry Hudson and his crowd, the thunder comes from them bowling. So that's another place that that thunder could have been used is this scene from Rip Van Winkle.


Gina: And Cole said, but he wasn't sure, that the firewall was put up in the 70s---


Tony: No, it was actually after 1952, 1954 actually when it went up. And that's really kind of when the thunder roll was kind of rediscovered as an object. There's no writing about it at all up until then, but it's clear that it was part of the original structure of the building because you can see the way things are built around it. But when they put up the fire wall, which separated the attic from above the auditorium and the orchestra pit from the stage itself, that basically walled off the thunder roll from the backstage. And so the backstage attic area would have served as kind of a sounding tunnel in a sense to help that that thunder sound and to give an echo. So I think that reduced its power, so now we cheat a little and add a little sound reinforcement to approximate what we think the sound was like.


Gina: And this is the only working thunder roll in America?


Tony: Yes. The only one. There's one at the Theatre Royal in Bristol, England, that's the only one that I know specifically about anywhere.


Gina: And why did you decide to do this?

Well I mean, every once in a while we just come up with an idea. A lot of people will tour the theater and we talk about the thunder roll, but because it's in the attic and it requires a certain amount of effort to operate it, you know people would say, "Oh wow I'd love to hear that." So then this idea, what if we did a day where we dedicated and we would do it several times and provide an opportunity for people to come in and learn about it and then actually hear it in context of understanding it? And so that's why we decided to do it. So we decided it would be a fun event. I don't know that July was the smartest thing for the people who have to be up in the attic.


Gina: I was just there.


Tony: Were you just there?


Gina: I am still sweating.


Tony: It's warm. So I think maybe spring or fall might have been smarter for that, but it'll be fine for the audience because we'll be down in the cool. But people up in the skies will be, you know, close to the heat of lightning.