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British Theater Showcases Special Effects From The 18th Century

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The Old Vic Theatre in Bristol, England, is spending this year celebrating its 250th anniversary. And they're doing something pretty dramatic. They're taking a cue from their predecessors, by reviving some of the antique ways of producing sound effects for the stage.

For this summer's production of King Lear, the theater is using technology from the 18th century to create effects for rain, wind and thunder. Using old-fashioned wooden wheels, wooden gutters and wooden balls, they can recreate the sounds of a thunderstorm.

It starts with wind. "It's like a wooden wheel and a handle on the side of it," says the theater's artistic director, Tom Morris.

"That's cutting-edge 18th-century sound technology," Morris says.

Next is rain.

It "bizarrely looks like a sort of enormous, ancient, upside-down airplane wheel made entirely of wood," he says.

But the show-stopper is way up in the rafters, above the stage. There's an attic space that looks like an ancient barn. A gutter system in the roof runs the length of the audience, about 25 yards across. It's made of a single plank on all three of its sides, built from 1766 pitch pine.

They call it the Thunder Run.

James Molineux, the head-of-stage at The Old Vic, is the man who gives the Thunder Run its rumble. He shows off a small wooden ball.

"It's made out of beech. It's about six inch in diameter," Molineux says. "And we have a medium-sized one, probably about three inch in diameter that we stagger. So we're staggering the release of these balls down the wooden chute."

Morris describes how they get a variety of sounds. "There are slats of wood which act as retainers for the balls. So as Jim lifts up one of the slats, the balls are released and they run down. And he can vary the shape of the sound by letting them all go at once or letting a few little ones go first, then some medium, then some big in order to create a different style of thunder."

Phil Dunster, an actor at The Old Vic, says having stagehands create these sounds helps personify the elements. "I can talk to the person that's up there in the attic dropping the thunder balls. And it just creates this incredible relationship with the elements and with the machines that are doing it," he says. "That was really special, that was a real treat."

And the final product. Here is what some of the effects would sound like with Dunster during the play.

If you're now sold on the idea of a trip to the U.K. to see all this in person, The Old Vic Theatre will mount its production of King Lear — complete with the Thunder Run — this summer.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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