In the recent Broadway production of Closer, Patrick Marber's corrosive look at sexual mating among four London denizens (one of whom is an American expatriate, played by Polly Draper of "Thirtysomething" fame), the highlight of the evening occurs when Dan (Rupert Graves), an acerbic obituary writer, has a tantalizing cyberspace chat with the equally tart-tongued Larry, a dermatologist. Pretending he's a sex-starved, blowsy American blonde (a skewed version of the Draper character whom he longs for), Dan pushes online communication to the envelope of scatological bad taste by propositioning the lonely, but very game Larry, who truly believes he's speaking to a woman. As the short scene progresses to its hilarious conclusion, the laughter of the audience rises to a crescendo, making this brief pseudo-romantic interlude the show's most memorable one.

The scene is presented with both actors sitting behind their respective computer terminals at the opposite ends of the stage, in between a large screen that reveals the salacious contents of Dan and Larry's Internet conversation. Each one furiously pecking away in response to the other, both actors give the distinct impression they are indeed typing. Not so, says John Owens, a UK-based sound engineer and designer who has been involved with the production - principally the computer scene - since its inaugural staging over two years ago at National's Cottesloe Theatre in Britain, its subsequent transfer to the West End's Donmar Warehouse and its just-shuttered Broadway run. "It should look like [they are typing], which is the idea," says Owens. "What you're supposed to do is suspend your belief and actually watch the actors type. But if you think they did, that means we did our job right."

Owens came to the production on a fluke he describes as both fortuitous and necessary.  Simon Baker, Closer's sound designer, called Owens (whose company, Aura Sound Design, is well-known in the British theater community) before the show's initial incarnation in a last gasp of desperation. Magnanimous and enterprising, Owens succumbed to his friend's cry for help. That's when the headache began.

According to Owens, the playwright Patrick Marber (who also did double duty as the show's director) originally wanted the actors to type during the scene in regular time onstage; unfortunately, what  seems like a good idea in the abstract does not always translate well in the concrete. "In the original rehearsal period, we set [the computers] up and set [the actors] off," recounts Owens. "They started typing and 45 minutes later, they came to the end of the scene! So [Patrick, Simon and I] had to come up with a way that pretended they typed, but actually make it automated so [the audience] didn't have to wait 45 minutes to get to the punchline."

Soon a shaft of light penetrated the darkness of their dilemma. Knowing that Paul Groothuis, a sound designer at the National, was a bonafide computer wizard, they contacted him for his much-valued assistance. With facility and panache, Groothuis developed a simple computer program that he dubbed Simon One (in honor of Closer's beleaguered sound designer). 

There was also the matter of aesthetics. ôPatrick and Vicki [Mortimer, Closer's designer] were very keen not to have any trailing wires when the desks come on. We contacted Scharff Weisberg, Inc., a big audio visual company and spoke to them about the original ideas. The system is very basic. It's a standard Windows 95 machine running the software, which is a visual basic program. We take the standard wire output from that computer and split it to send to the various areas that the signal needs to get to.  All we are really doing is monitoring what is going on with the main computer," explains Owens in his thick, clipped British accent.

For the Broadway version, the program, downloaded onto Windows 95 software, is controlled by the sound operator who triggers the appropriate levers that begin the scene. "So Paul was the software developer," says Owens, "and I was involved in designing the system that would enable the vision and software to be utilized."

Owens, who trained 10 years ago in theater craft at Bristol's august Old Vic theater school, relished working on Closer during its myriad creative incubations. There was one aspect, though, that proved to be both a blessing and a curse: Marber, Closer's auteur and guiding force. "He's the most infuriating man," concedes Owens, "basically because he's so close to the project.  Patrick is very intense. Being the writer and director, he has an ultimate vision of what it should be like.
"It's different working with directors who haven't written the piece because they have an objective view.  But when you're working with a writer who is also the director, he knows exactly what it should be like. And won't accept anything else less and because of that, [he] is the most frustrating man to work with. But then again when you do get what he wants, he is ultimately very grateful. I think it shows in the fact that the original team has done the production four times, culminating in the Broadway success."


Key Subjects: 
Closer, Patrick Marber, Internet, John Owens
Iris Dorbian
Writer Bio: 
Iris Dorbian is the former editor of Stage Directions and a freelance arts writer.
How the Design Team of a British Import managed the Challenges of Cyberspace and Theater