LOS ANGELES — In order to fully immerse yourself in a piece of theater, it's said you need to get into the character’s head.
Justin Asher knows just how to do that — but he isn’t telling.
“The worst part is I'd love to explain how this stuff works, and I can’t because it’s a proprietary trade secret,” he said, unzipping and then immediately rezipping a small black case containing the trick of his trade.
Let’s just say his technique involves two pieces of wood and whatever is in the bag. (Hint: It involved some wires. That’s all he revealed.)
As tight-lipped as he is about his top secret gadgets, Asher could have a career in espionage. Instead, he’s a sound designer with a knack for helping listeners slip into someone else’s shoes by letting them hear through someone else’s ears. The end result of whatever he does is a 360 audio experience.
Asher hears everything.
“It’s a curse,” he said with a laugh.
There are the sounds Asher loves, like the specific vocal-like tone the tracks make as a train approaches a Metro stop.
“That’s the most beautiful sound in the world to me,” he said. “I grew up riding the New York City Subway, and it doesn’t do anything that beautiful, for sure.”
There are also sounds that can be a real professional headache. Asher recalled one recording session where a bird tweeted every 2.7 seconds, forcing him to edit out each individual chirp.
Asher encountered plenty of audio challenges as he worked on "Chalk Lines," a series of audio plays that take audiences to different neighborhoods, using the Expo Line as a launch pad. While the actors recorded in a booth, Asher and his colleague Colin Wambsgans toured the locations, capturing the authentic sounds, including riding the rails.
"One of the difficult things about recording on trains, pretty much every ride someone was playing something," Asher shouted on a train bound for Santa Monica.
Jennifer Chang is a co-founder of Chalk Repertory Theatre, a company she says is dedicated to revealing Los Angeles to Angelenos. This project was conceived pre-pandemic when they applied for a grant to bring arts to underserved communities.
“How better to, you know, be able to create change or shine a light on humanity and make people be seen as people than to serve the communities that we live in,” she said.
It was originally meant to be sort of a Pokémon Go type experience, but the COVID-19 pandemic stopped that idea in its tracks.
“We couldn’t have people roaming around Los Angeles,” Chang said. “We couldn’t encourage people to be near each other.”
But thanks to Asher’s secret sounds skills, they didn’t have to.
“They came to all of the locations and captured the sound authentically,” Chang said. “They walked the path of the actors and the characters.”
The plays are 10 to 15 minutes long, set in neighborhoods like Leimert Park, Historic West Adams and Exposition Park — locations, Chang says, “that have these incredible stories, that have incredible history.”
While you can listen anywhere, Chang hopes that as more people are vaccinated, "Chalk Lines" will encourage them to venture out and take in the sights and sounds of these places in-person, walking in the footsteps of the characters just as Asher did.
“The thing that we can capture with the way we record is the sense of motion,” Asher said. “That’s what’s immersive about it. You’re immersed in the moment. You can even feel the world shift around you.”
How, you might ask? Forget it. Asher is not going to crack.
"Chalk Lines" is streaming for free through December. Audiences can listen to the shows in any order, from anywhere. But since each play is set conveniently at or within walking distance of a Metro stop, this is an immersive theatrical journey just waiting to be tapped into.