Ele Matelan didn’t plan on making a career out of sound effects. Like a lot of Chicago theater artists, she moved here after college (at Southern Methodist University) to pursue acting. She also did some stage management for her SMU pals who had formed the House Theatre of Chicago in 2001.
But one winter night in 2005, Matelan found herself in the audience at what was then called American Theater Company for their production of Jordan Harrison’s sci-fi/noir comedy Kid-Simple. Subtitled A Radio Play in the Flesh, the show used live sound effects created and performed by Scotty Iseri—and it foreshadowed and inspired Matelan’s current work as a foley artist (or, as she sometimes puts it, a “sonic storyteller”). If you’ve ever seen a live radio play, such as American Blues Theater’s It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!, then you’ve seen foley artists in action onstage. They’re not hidden behind the curtain. As Matelan points out during our Zoom interview, “Foley is performance.”
“A lot of people that do what I do now, they grew up listening to Prairie Home Companion and Lights Out and pretty much anything that radio theater has had to offer for the past century. But that wasn’t really part of my upbringing,” says Matelan. “My major association with radio theater onstage to date had been seeing it parodied on sitcoms. So I had seen that episode of Punky Brewster where they do a radio play.
“But [Kid-Simple] was the first time I had ever seen a sound-arts practitioner working without the luxury of a jump cut. Like, he was super present in all of the scenes. His physicality was really paying a lot of attention to what was going on with the other characters onstage. He was also making sure that he was revealing props in a way that helped sell the story as well.”
Matelan’s association with House also helped give her a sense for what foley could do. As another early inspiration, she cites the theater’s 2004 production of Stephen Taylor’s prehistoric tale Cave With Man, where sound designer Michael Griggs used live practical sound effects. “That’s when I saw a little bit of this kind of instrumentation,” she says. “It was a very traditional percussive-heavy sound design.”
Matelan reaches back and pulls out a rasp. “That was probably my first time seeing one of these in action.” She runs a small stick over the rasp as a demonstration. “In the context of the story, as needed, someone might consider this to be a cricket or a frog. I’ve used it for the sound of a baseball as well,” she says, punctuating herself by rapping the side of the rasp to create a sharp “pop” that does indeed sound like a bat making contact with the ball.
After that night at Kid-Simple, Matelan was entirely sold on the art of foley. But getting practical training was another matter. She notes that her theater education generally didn’t emphasize technical elements, so when it came to learning how to be a foley artist, she did it hands-on and in the field.
“The way I looked into it was by being friends with a lot of folks at Strawdog [Theatre],” she says. “Around the same time, some of them were starting Wildclaw Theatre. That was my first real exposure to getting to do this kind of work. The people that worked at or were company members at Strawdog that also went on and founded Wildclaw had been very active in Strawdog’s late-night radio-play series, which was originally supposed to be like a writing initiative for their ensemble members, so they could get more writing and producing experience. And it was cheaper, generally, to do radio plays than to fully stage and block and produce plays. And so that became like a real common practice for them. And then Wildclaw sort of stole that idea.”
Live sound is well suited to classic radio drama and comedy, of course, and Wildclaw’s focus on horror also lends itself to the use of foley. “The things that foley is uniquely suited for, I’d say, are the iconic and the fantastic,” Matelan says. “So basically everything.”
Matelan isn’t just jazzed about sonic storytelling. She’s also eager for people to know the history behind foley. The name comes from Jack Foley, a sound designer for Universal who helped negotiate the transition from silent films to sound, particularly with the 1929 release of Show Boat—the studio added synced dialogue and songs to the film after the success of the 1927 Al Jolson vehicle The Jazz Singer raised the stakes. “Sound film stole a lot of techniques from radio,” Matelan observes. “And radio stole all these techniques from the silent-film houses that would have percussionists playing in the house with them, as well as from vaudeville.” To underline her point, Matelan pulls out—what else?—a slapstick.
“One of my favorite historical stories is about thunder,” Matelan says. “There’s this playwright named John Dennis who was active back in the 1700s. And he had this play, Appius and Virginia, and it tanked. But what was successful out of this was the way that he created the sound of thunder by using a thin metal sheet that would get rattled backstage. Before that, a rumble cart was a more common way to go, which was just a big cart filled with rocks that the stagehands would roll backstage. That’s a pain in the neck. Who wants to do that? So thunder sheet. Pretty cool!
“A few months later, the same theater was remounting a production of Macbeth, because that was a big cash grab, and they were using the same technique that John Dennis used in Appius and Virginia. That’s where we get the expression ‘You’re stealing my thunder.’”
Matelan explores the possibilities of creating sound almost everywhere she goes. During our interview, she shows me a pair of plastic pastel unicorns she got at Party City—when she squeezes them, they squeak, and she notes that they sound remarkably like seagulls. In a 2019 talk for students in Northwestern’s sound arts and industries program, Matelan ran through some of her other favorites, including chamois, a soft and porous leather that she calls “one of the most reliable sources for gross. A soaked chamois can give you vomit sounds or squishy gore sounds, depending on how you squish, squeeze, or flop it. Dry and pulled taut, it can also make awesome heartbeats.”
“Found objects are the things that I enjoy incorporating into designs onstage as much as possible,” Matelan says. “Because anything that the audience has some sort of recognizable relationship with already? It feels like a gift for them, like it’s tickling the same part of the brain that likes wordplay. It’s putting something familiar into a new context.”
During the COVID shutdown, Matelan found herself increasingly busy with online radio plays, often via Zoom, and she also works in studios for film productions from time to time. But she maintains that there’s nothing like making sounds in real time in front of an audience, where she’s every bit as important to the ensemble as the rest of the actors.
“I absolutely use a lot of the physical training that I remember from college,” Matelan says. “And to incorporate what I’m doing onstage, there are elements of puppetry that come into play, when you’re acting as a physical extension of voice characters. Also the way that you’re throwing focus to the voice actors when you’re not engaged is also really integral to the way that I try to choreograph things.”
Matelan’s career has given her a fresh appreciation for sound in everyday life too, and as her seagull unicorns demonstrate, she seeks out unexpected sources. “I pay a lot more attention to things,” she says. “Just the possibility that a sound could be found somewhere, and that it might be interesting and compelling. It might not necessarily be something that I’m looking for for a specific gig I have going on at any given time. It might just be like, ‘Oh, I’m glad that exists.’”