Rarely a day goes by that I’m not listening for at least a few minutes to a radio play or an audiobook. They have become weaved into the fabric of my life. David Ian of Unchained Productions recounts a live performance of The Hobbit at a Middle Earth Convention. This is SO neat! Read on.
“In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit,” the narrator Cindy McGean begins at the microphone. Flanking her on stage is a phalanx of microphone stands where actors, script in hand, play the voices of Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin Oakenshield, Gollum, the trolls Tom, Bert & William, and many other characters of Middle Earth. On the floor in front of the stage, sit two long tables filled to the brim with sound effects props. They will provide the sounds for cracklings fires, clopping ponies, booming thunder storms, creepy spiders in the dark forest, and the drip, drip, drip of Gollum’s cave. The former elementary school gym now turned to small stage theater is filled with audience members, hobbit fans of all ages, and some even dressed up as if they came directly from Middle Earth.
This is the scene at the McMenamin’s hotel and pub housed in a former elementary school in Portland, Oregon, on the weekend closest to JRR Tolkien’s birthday (which is January 3rd). The building is transformed for a day into a Middle Earth convention, which includes Lord Of The Rings and Hobbit films played in the auditorium, and in the gymnasium, a local audio theater troupe, Willamette Radio Workshop, performs a live rendition of Tolkien’s original classic, The Hobbit.
A half-dozen voice actors hold scripts in hand, and play a wide cast of characters famous to the “There And Back Again” tale of Bilbo, the dwarves and the dragon. The sound effects operators bring the scenery backgrounds of Mirkwood, Gollum’s cave, and Smaug’s lair to the mind by using only sound. They also make the clamoring chaos of dwarves eating up Bilbo’s larder, the mighty fury of Smaug’s attack on Lake Town, and the huge vast scope of the Battle of Five Armies.
“We have some help making sounds on that one,” says Shadoe Smith, the sound effects designer for the production. “It’s audience participation, so we have the audience divide up, one side the Goblins and Wargs, and the other side Men, Elves and Dwarves. We have them fire arrows at each other, sonically that is. They make shooting arrow sounds directed at the other side, and then they make death and dying sounds when they get hit by their enemy’s arrows. It’s a lot of fun. We also distribute small garden tools to all the actors who bang them together to make a great big sword and shield battle sound. Everyone’s involved in the climactic battle.”
Night sounds props are also handed out to the cast of actors and they all contribute to making Mirkwood sound eerie and dangerous with creaks and calls coming from all around. This very immersive live audio experience is a great favorite of attendees. Live sound effects help to create settings and to support the action being described in narration or dialogue. It’s also very fun to watch.
“I discovered this irony of doing sound effects for an audio production,” sound designer Smith says. “Sound effects have a very visual dynamic to them.” Among the arsenal of sound props used in the production are items specifically designed to make sounds, such as a hand crank wind machine, or rain stick, or even a small mini door. But also included in the sound inventory are ordinary items from the kitchen, or garage or garden shed that are employed to make sounds. It’s a form of magic in itself that an ordinary eggbeater or garden trowel might be manipulated in some way that enhances the scene going on at the time.
“Of course, there’s the coconut shells that everybody loves that make the hoof sounds of the ponies, I think that is by far the audience’s favorite.” When asked what is Smith’s favorite prop, he breaks into a smile.
“There’s the scene where Bilbo and the dwarves are about to be eaten by trolls who have captured them, and Gandalf gets them to argue amongst themselves until the sun comes up and the trolls turn to stone.” And the sound effect of the trolls turning to stone? “I grab two handfuls of corn chips and slowly, slowly crush them together, and it sounds like the creaking of stone solidifying together. When the chips are transformed into corn chip dust, the trolls have turned to stone.”
Sound effects like trolls turning to stone can be subtle, while others can be more obvious. When Mowry is portraying the dragon Smaug flying over Lake Town setting the city alight with its fire breath, he opens and closes a large size umbrella to create the sound of dragon wings flapping. All of this goes to make sounds that create the illusion that the story is happening right inside the gymnasium where the performance is being done.
“I’d be looking out at the audience while we were doing a scene,” Smith says, “and at first I thought we had tired out some of the audience because there were a number of them sitting in their chairs with their eyes closed. But then I realized by the smile on their faces that they were listening with their eyes closed and were visualizing the story as it unfolded. That’s something very unique to experience with audio drama.”
The production is an yearly favorite that has been going on at this annual celebration of Middle Earth since 2009. Fans love to flock to the gymnasium and settle in to chairs with a coffee and hear their favorite and familiar story every year. And that, strangely enough over the years, has become a bit of a problem. Even the best stories start to lose their shiny luster after constant repetition, and the live radio troupe wanted to keep it fresh, even for the fans who had been coming for over a dozen years in a row.
To keep the familiar story engaging, the director of Willamette Radio Workshop, Sam A Mowry, whose deep bass voice thrills the audience with his Smaug rendition, decided to shake things up a bit. Literally. The live radio experience is now called “The Hobbit’s Greatest Hits”, and its arrangement is a bit different than narrator Cindy McGean’s faithful adaptation of Tolkien’s book. Now the story consists of the first scene performed first (Bilbo’s tea with the dwarves), the last scene performed last (the Battle of Five Armies) and all the scenes in between are numbered, and slips of paper with those numbers are placed into a hat, shook up, and then drawn out randomly by an audience member.
“That keeps it alive, for certain, and keeps us hopping at the Foley table,” Smith raises his eyebrows with a smile. “We don’t know which scene to do until it gets drawn out, and then we have to scramble to assemble all the sound props that go with the scene. We only have enough room on the table for a single scene, and so we have to unload the previous scene and load up the next scene that we’re doing. We might be doing drip-drips in Gollum’s cave, or we might be doing a camp fire in the wind and rain with the trolls, or a barrel ride down the river. It’s never the same.”
Direct Mowry notes the “Greatest Hits” mixed-up scenes concept allows for people who are enjoying other events going on simultaneously in the building to come in and sit down and still have a chance to catch their favorite scene. It is a very fluid event with people coming in and out during the performance, but for most people who wander into the gymnasium while the show is going on, their imaginations get captured and they stay to the end.
The acting troupe will do the traditional opening scene, and follow with a number of other random scenes, and then take a break for intermission. During the intermission time is the much anticipated Costume Contest, which has gotten so popular with fans the director has had to divide it into “Adult” and “Children” categories. All entries are to be somehow connected to Tolkien’s Middle Earth and that is the only caveat.
“Ahhh, My fondest memories of this event are from the Costume contest,” director Mowry says. “The love and energy that the fans of The Hobbit bring every year is always inspiring. Everyone has a good time and we always have fun chatting with the kids about their favorite characters and the joy they have in getting a chance to be their favorites.”
The children’s costumes range from a small boy with rug samples glued to his feet as Bilbo, to a young girl wearing a flowing robe with flowers in her hair as Middle Earth’s elf queen Galadriel. In the adult session, some costumes can be quite surprising and even elaborate. Some highlights include: a cosplaying couple portrayed Aragorn & Arwen at their wedding; a pair of collaborating creatives presented a complicated wardrobe arrangement as The Lonely Mountain, and a puppet dragon Smaug; and once a very imposing figure over six and a half feet tall was wearing black articulated armor with a large black hand and half sword.
Across the front of the head piece helm was black screen so you could not see a face inside the helmet. Very imposing, very intimidating, and very well done. Director Mowry on microphone allows each contestant to introduce their character, though with this tall, dark outfit it was extremely obvious.
“And what Middle Earth character are you?” he asked with a knowing wink to the audience, who laugh good-heartedly. Then he raised the microphone up to the faceless figure. “I’m a Ringwraith,” came a high, squeaky and surprisingly adolescent voice from the dark and daunting armor. Middle Earth is populated with curious surprises, apparently.
Willamette Radio Workshop performances are a familiar sight at the McMenamin’s series of hotel/ restaurants scattered throughout Oregon. They are a regular attraction at the McMenamins’ Hotel Oregon in neighboring McMinnville during the city’s UFO Festival in May. WRW performs a science fiction themed radio offering there, such as a recreation of Orson Wells famous production of “War Of The Worlds”, or a classic “Flash Gordon” episode. On Halloween eve Portland’s Kennedy School McMenamins has Trick or Treating for children, a live band for adults, and WRW performs a horror audio classic in the gymnasium. So when McMenamins determined they were going to have a JRR Tolkien celebration in January, they contacted director Mowry and asked if WRW could do some kind of offering then, as well.
“The special events coordinator contacted us, we had done performances for them before in spring and fall, and they asked if we’d be interested in performing for the Tolkien celebration.” The Hobbit is a special favorite of Mowry’s and his wife Cindy McGean, who often writes adaptations for WRW to perform. She teaches grade school in Portland, and has a special ear for making stories accessible to children as well as entertaining for adults. “So, of course we said ‘YES!’.”
The special challenge was to take a very long winding travel story and condense it into a performance length time which would keep the attention of children as well as adults. It was determined a full “There And Back Again” script would not only possibly tire out the ear of the audience, but also make for tired voice actors as well. “We were very tired Hobbits by the end,” Mowry recalls of early versions of the show.
An intermission added allowed for audience members to replenish their drinks, the sound effects table to reload their props for the upcoming scenes, and for the costume contest which became a highlight for young and old. The “Greatest Hits” mix up shuffle of scenes added the final touch to keep the avid fans and followers guessing as to what was going to come next.
It’s a magical production, for costumed audience members ready to be transported through voice and sound into a magical world created by the magician of word and imagination. And that’s the magic that comes at a celebration of the fantastical world of JRR Tolkien, there’s something for everyone young and old. And everyone can travel to Middle Earth and mix and mingle with its denizens and settle in to hear a fantastic tale, and have their own “There And Back Again” experience.
The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
Prior Talking Tolkien entries:
Talking Tolkien – A New series at Black Gate!
Joe Bonadonna – Religious Themes in The Lord of the Rings
Ruth de Jauregui – The Architects of Modern Fantasy, Tolkien and Norton
Fletcher Vredenburgh – Of Such a Sort Should a Man Be – Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary
Anglachel – Tolkien’s Evil Magic Sword
David Ian is an author whose writings have been performed for stage, video, online and radio as well as being published. He is a national award-winning playwright and his two-time winning Shakespeareanesque play “Esther, the Hebrew Queen” was sold out every evening it was performed. David’s sci-fi short, “Been There, Done That” will be published on Amazing Stories web page later this month, accompanied with a dramatic audio version of the story that he produced. He is currently writing and creating a heroic fantasy series “Dungeons & Damsels” which you can listen to on Spotify, Apple Podcast and other platforms, its Facebook page can be found here.
David has designed and performed sound effects in live stage productions in the Portland area for more than twenty years with OPB’s Live Wire!, Tesla City Radio, Tapestry Theatre, Magenta Theater, Ralph Radio Theatre, and of course Willamette Radio Workshop as well as performing live film Foley on stage for Filmusik and Opera Theatre Oregon, among others. He was honored with Portland’s prestigious Drammy Award for his sound effects work in Tapestry Theatre’s live staged wartime radio musical. David has done instructional classes in Foley for Washington State University, Film Action Oregon, Portland Art Museum, Mediartz and more.
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made its Black Gate debut in 2018 and has returned every summer since.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’ He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series. Which is now part of THE DEFINITIVE guide to Conan. He also organized 2024’s ‘Talking Tolkien.’
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI, XXI, ans XXXIII.
He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.