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Communique: Commentator Nan Graham | The Roar Of Thunder (And Other Sound Effects)

Thalian Hall
Tony Rivenbark holds a ball that creates the sound of an approaching storm in the thunder run

WHQR Commentator Nan Graham is excited about sound effects-especially the really big (and really old) one at Thalian Hall.

Nan :      Dust removal for a computer. [hissing]

Gina:      We take them for granted. Those sound effects on stage and screen, yet they are carefully produced by the director and producers to flesh out the performance and story. Without them, our theater experience would be less rich, according to commentator Nan Graham.

Nan: Back in Shakespeare's Day, the all-important sound effects enhanced every production. Audiences expected, terrifying and stirring sound effects as well as stunning visuals. As part of the entertainment. Cannons mounted in the space above the stage, call the Heaven, were a valuable asset in the Globe Theatre. Loaded with gunpowder, they gave the sound of thunder storms or battles with sins, have sword fights and carnage. Visuals were not neglected. Bladders of animal blood as well as entrails were secreted beneath actors clothes to be open to give the effect of being pierced with a thrust of a prop sword. Fireworks created both crackling sounds as well as bursts of light for battle scenes, thunderstorms and tempest.

In the room under the stage, appropriately called the Hell, actors gifted with crowing, howling, and barking skills and musical affects chimed in on cue to amaze the spectators. Ghostly moans- think Hamlet as well as metal sheets rattled for thunder augmentations to those cannons were only part of the Elizabethan sound effects team waiting in the Hell. Trap doors for the ghost entrance, wires harnesses for God's and fairies descending, flowers and petals to be flooded from balconies, trumpets and drums to announce the arrival of dignitaries and buffoons. Is there a difference?

About those cannons, one performance of Henry the eighth on June 29, 1613. The sound effects turned into a real spectacle when the canon ignited the thatch roof of the theater. In less than two hours, The Globe as well as the house next door had burned to the ground. Three thousand theater goers escaped without serious injury.

By the 1700s, theaters recognized a need for a less hazardous sound effects system. The thunder run was created to give the effect of the cannon shot without the possibility of unfortunate incendiary mishap. The wooden chute was designed to fit above the stage in the area, called the Heaven. The zig-zag trough allowed cannon balls to thunder down the device and rumble like lightning or the roar of a battle. There are still working thunder runs in Europe. In the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, the device was repaired and put into service for a production of King Lear to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the theater.

Recently in Wilmington's Thalian Hall, the second annual thunder run demonstration was held. Executive Director Tony Rivenbark gave a smashing execution of Lear's famous heartbreaking rant during the disastrous thunderstorm on the heath with full found effects. The performance was a hit with the crowd who came to hear the mighty rumble from the past. The shoot, not Tony. Well, both, actually. It was a fun event to celebrate the fact that Thalian Hall has the only operational thunder run in this country.

Gina:      Commentator Nan Graham is in her 23rd consecutive year of making sounds for WHQR, and she loves her job. Communique is a production of WHQR Public Media.

Nan: [crackling] No, it's not a crackling fire. It's a plastic cookie bag.