Audiography: A Dramatic Audio “Autobiography” of Hallie Flanagan Davis

This project explores narrative sound technique by presenting a dramatic audio autobiography–or audiography–of Hallie Flanagan Davis (director of the Federal Theatre Project, first woman to win a Guggenheim, and Grinnell College alum). The format of the audiography is similar to a radio drama. I used primary source materials–correspondences, newspaper articles, and Flanagan’s testimonies with the House Un-American Activities Committee–as the basis for the script. I recorded dramatic interpretations of the source material for use in the audiography. These recordings are embellished with period-appropriate audio filters* and “distortion,” environmental sound effects, and narration. The overall result is sonic-cinematic, using sound to distinguish between public and private/internal moments, and exploring the use of diegetic and nondiegetic sounds.

A little background: Flanagan was director of the Federal Theatre Productions (part of the WPA), which reached well beyond the usual theatre community, entertaining and informing the masses in the Great Depression; she created spirit-lifting children’s theatre, and her “living newspaper” plays were informative for a politically unaware public. I was drawn to this project because I, like Hallie, grew up in Grinnell and pursue theatre as a means of creative expression and social dialogue. As a theatre artist, I am also obviously interested in creating art in narrative contexts. This particular piece only showcases two “chapters” of Flanagan’s life (the first appeals on the local level; the second appeals on the national level). One day I’d like to create a full live radio drama about Flanagan’s life and professional pursuits.

I used QLab for playback. The piece is meant to be played in a room with three or four speakers, so that QLab may control movement of sound around the space, helping ground the audience in the space of the piece (the train sweeps around the audience, each person at the Committee hearing has their own position, and so on). The stereo version still utilizes some of these spatial techniques, but not to the same extent. The screenshots give a sense of the QLab workspace (120 cues, not counting some auto-follows!) and the nature of the programming/preparation that went into the creative process.

Downloadable File

*I used the reverb filter that I created in my listening machine proto-project for the House Un-American Activities scene.


One thought on “Audiography: A Dramatic Audio “Autobiography” of Hallie Flanagan Davis

  1. Hi Kate,

    This is such an ambitious project, and you have done a fabulous job with it. There is clearly room for further development, since it ends a bit abruptly in the midst of the congressional hearing. It is a strong beginning, and I am glad to hear that you are interested in returning to the project some day.

    I may have mentioned previously that I think this would work well as a live play presented with minimal staging, props, costumes and scenery–where the only ‘props’ are the ambient sounds you use to frame the piece. It would put a lot of pressure on the composition of the soundscape, but the a live narrator could move freely through the space, and add some spontaneity to the timing…I think it would add a really interesting dimension to the work.

    That said, the current iteration is very strong. Just a few details to consider tweaking: the voices dominate the texture a bit throughout, for my taste. For instance in some of the memories, you might consider making the voices a bit more quiet while increasing the ambient soundscape to give a sense of a more ‘homemade’ recording. You could even achieve this effect by recording with a lo-fi approach–using a tape recorder, or recording the voices in a louder room. (Of course this is a risky approach since you could end up with unusable audio, and I can certainly understand not wanting to take this risk given time constraints.) In general, throughout the work, I wanted the ambient sounds to have a bit more presence and the voices–excluding the narrator–to have a bit less presence.

    That said, the distortion of the vocal recordings in the courtroom scene is great and quite effective. I imagine, though, that in a real recording you would have a lot of additional ambient background sounds–perhaps doors opening or closing, typewriters, whispers or other sounds. Perhaps consider adding some ambient room noise, etc.?

    The only other thing to consider would be transitions between the narration and the memories. I think you could play around with these more. Don’t be afraid to experiment unconventional approaches: drowning out the narration, having the narrator stop mid-sentence, as if drifting off into a memory, having the narration and memories co-exist at times…though the genre is quite different, perhaps listen to Radio Lab or other shows and take some time to really analyze, moment by moment, how they are approaching the use of all of the different sounds. There are many possibilities, and it never hurts to borrow tactics from a variety of contexts…

    In any case, Kate, really great work on this project and throughout the semester. I hope you will continue to work on this project! If you do, I would really love to hear it.


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