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White noise, as we know it, is any number of innocuous droning sounds, easily tuned out.
But what if it were a powerful force that dictated the nature of human interaction? In the alternative reality of Nicholas Wardigo’s play Hum, a world premiere in previews at Theater Alliance this weekend, a white noise both dangerous and comforting has denied people the ability to communicate verbally. But when the hum stops, people must learn to interact in a completely different way.
Wardigo, who is based in Philadelphia, workshopped the piece through the new play development conference PlayPenn. It got a staged reading in July 2010 and attracted the attention of The Hub Theatre’s Helen Pafumi. Though Pafumi felt it was not the right fit for Hub, she passed the script along to Theater Alliance’s Artistic Director Colin Hovde. Hum has been co-directed by Hovde and the company’s new associate artistic director, Nathaniel Mendez.
With five other original productions to his credit, Wardigo’s inspiration for Hum came, in part, from a need to explore new territory as a writer. “I think maybe in some ways I got a little bit tired of realism,” he says. “It occurred to me that many of [my plays] are things you could do on television. And I wanted to do the sort of thing that can’t be done on television. Things that just play better on stage.”
The first act is completely wordless, and characters communicate only through gestures and notecards (projected onto the walls so the audience can read them). After the hum breaks, says Hovde, the married couple Van and Eva “have to learn to communicate, have to learn to connect and rediscover their relationship in a frightening new world.” To the director, Wardigo’s story is “relevant in terms of how busy and crazy we get” in today’s tech-dependent society.
“Another idea was, boy, trying to explain to people why I don’t have a cell phone,” says Wardigo. “Between things like Facebook and texting and cell phone usage, it seems like everybody is losing a sense of the moment. They’re losing track of where they are in their own personal time and place and I kind of wanted to do an allegory of what that means to me.”
To create the hum itself, Hovde chose sound designer Brendon Vierra, whose work has been heard at Woolly Mammoth, GALA, and Signature Theatre. To build the hum, Vierra says he “picked a hybrid of organic and electronic sounds and kind of mish-mashed them together.” The result is not so much a composition but “two major layers” of hum. The first layer is composed of an “underlying base pulse kind of hum that ebbs and flows,” and the other is “very location specific,” comprising “action-driven hums that really interplay throughout the entire act.”
But how does a hum stay interesting? “The goal,” he says, “was to add enough of a subtle melodic structure… that it would not be static” nor “too dark and too depressing.” Hovde wanted a hum that’s not “like an air conditioning machine, because that would put everybody to sleep. But it’s actually a living—-it’s almost another character in the piece.”
Hum could be an indicator of how Theater Alliance plans to grow. Directing isn’t usually collaborative, but Hovde benefited from Mendez’s professional dance background when figuring out how to stage the play’s nonverbal communication. “I sometimes feel like I can tackle text better than movement,” says Hovde, “so it’s been a really nice balance.” Is it a sign of things to come? “I’m interested in moving Theater Alliance in the direction of ensemble-based work,” he says. “One of our goals is to actually build new work here in D.C.”
The play runs May 14 to June 2 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. General admission $35. $20 previews this weekend.