PITTSBURG, Kan. — Plastic foam bowls, pebbles, popsicle sticks, sand, gel beads and whistles found at the dollar store were splayed out in front of communication students at Pittsburg State University during a rehearsal on Tuesday in the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts.
What do all of these items have in common? These everyday objects will play an integral role in the radio play “Tall Tales of the Dangerously Daffy and Definitely Delusional” to debut on Halloween.
Jason Knowles, assistant professor of media production at PSU, has been teaching his audio production class over the past month on how to incorporate foley sound effects in an old-style radio show to broadcast on live radio at 11:30 a.m. Thursday. The show will run for about 30 minutes, and listeners can tune in to KSEK-AM at 1340.
Named after the sound effects artist Jack Foley, the technique uses common objects to re-create sounds used in films, radio shows, videos and other media platforms. This method, which began in the 1920s, is still a common way to produce sounds, despite the progression of recording technology over the years.
“Foleying has been used a lot in live radio plays for as long as radio and radio dramas have been alive, but it’s also used in filmmaking as well to do sound effects,” Knowles said. “The idea was, at the start of this month, to get them into the live aspect of it in the radio play. Next month, they’re going to translate these foley skills over to doing sound design and postproduction.”
Eight PSU students are taking part in the radio show “Tall Tales of the Dangerously Daffy and Definitely Delusional,” which features short stories with unexpected twists and turns. With the help of Knowles, a few students will be voicing characters and narrating while others will be reproducing sounds nearby or recording the show in an audio booth.
Knowles said he was inspired to create the old-style radio show by Orson Welles, whose radio drama “The War of the Worlds” was broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938.
“I loved Orson Welles and his version of ‘War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells,” he said. “On Halloween eve, he did this radio production, but he styled it as a news report, and half of his audience thought it was an actual newscast because they tuned in halfway through the performance. It didn’t create a huge mass hysteria, but it caused a panic.”
The production is a mix of student ideas and works from Aaron Shepard, an author who allows people to use scripts and writings for free. Knowles said the stories may appear to be random, but that is because students pulled a variety of ideas out of popcorn buckets to help draft the scripts, which is about 32 pages long. For example, one of the stories follows a large Scottish hero who fights the dragon terrorizing his town and ends up saving the puppy held in its lair.
Although the show is mainly meant to be visualized and heard, the public will have the opportunity to witness a free, live version of the show and see how the sounds are made during the broadcast at the Dotty & Bill Miller Theatre inside the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts.
“A lot of the extra visuals, they’re (the live audience) going to have to use their imagination,” Knowles said. “I’ve actually seen in the past when we do this, the audience will close their eyes and listen to it just as they would on a radio show.”
While reading through the script, Vanessa Topia, 21, clacked two plastic cups against a wooden table to re-create the sound of a horse galloping through a field. Topia, a senior who’s majoring in communications, said the foley technique can be hard to master right off the bat, especially when having to find the correct objects in a matter of seconds.
“I think that’s probably the most challenging thing is making sure you know what’s coming up next and make sure you’re following the script,” she said. “I think setting it up by the scene will help, but right now, it’s our first time. It was fun. I’m going to practice more at home.”
Michael Weaver, 20, a junior at PSU, narrated a few of the stories while also playing some of the featured characters. Weaver said he’s learning how to differentiate his voices to play other roles without the audience noticing.
“As professionals are saying, my character and the narrator kind of sound similar, so I need to figure out how to differentiate between the two a little better,” he said.
Knowles said he hopes his students learn how to capture the essence of storytelling through the exercise. If the show goes well, the goal is to make this an ongoing tradition for communication students.
“That’s the most important thing, is the story,” Knowles said. “The story is the foundation for everything, and stories should drive technique, and the technique drives the technology. That’s a philosophy I tell all of my production classes.”