Stage Notes: Frequency Hopping

Tom Murrin

Frequency Hopping is a play about a maybe romance and a successful scientific collaboration between two well-known artists. Hedy Lamarr was a glamorous movie star, known for her beauty and her turn as the femme fatale in Demille’s Samson and Delilah and Bob Hope’s foil in the comedy My Favorite Spy. Avant-garde composer George Antheil gained fame in the ‘20s for his radical Ballet Mecanique. However, their individual accomplishments and personal relationship were forever overshadowed by the fact that in 1940 they invented a key anti-jamming device to control torpedo guidance, thereby helping Allied submarines vs. German destroyers, and becoming the basis of a system integral to today’s cellular phone technology.

I recently spoke with Frequency Hopping writer/director Elyse Singer, who brilliantly produced a revival of Mae West’s first play, Sex, and has also done plays about Courtney Love and Eva Tanguay.

Tom Murrin: How did you come up with the concept for this play?
Elyse Singer: The play is inspired by the idea inherent in the invention patented by Lamarr and Antheil. The problem back then [during World War II] was how to evade German jamming devices, and they devised the idea of “shifting frequency,” or frequency hopping, thereby preventing the jamming of radio controls to divert the torpedoes.

TM: Where did that take you?
ES: It immediately made me think of human conversation and how, when we send coded messages, we shift frequency in everyday conversation. It made me think a lot about the patterns of communication, especially romantic communication.

TM: How is this done in the play?
ES: The play is modeled on this idea, so the script hops in time. The musical score hops too.

TM: I hear there are robots involved with the music.
ES: The robots are related to the orchestra. It is robotically controlled, and the robots envelop the set which looks like a movie set. The inside world of the set is surrounded by eight player pianos stacked on top of each other. There are also percussion instruments, a bass, bells, cymbals and a xylophone hanging from the ceiling. All robots.

TM: Wow! I’ve seen Hedy Lamarr on the screen, but I’m not familiar with Antheil.
ES: He was a composer, and what he brought to this collaboration was he thought of radio control in terms of music. And they used musical understanding to solve a scientific question. Radio waves permeate the whole piece. Ballet Mecanique is his most famous piece. In it, he tried to synchronize 16 player pianos. He wasn’t able to do it at the time, but with robotics, we are able to do so.

TM: I understand that this invention is still being used today.
ES: The patent he and Lamarr made is the pattern for wireless communication. Bluetooth, which came on as a sponsor of the show, uses the same idea. It’s how so many cell phones are able to share spectrum.

TM: Tell me about the play part.
ES: It’s a romance in a way. The two actors are the only live performers. They are two collaborators who are both artists and scientists and also passionate people, and there is a lot of missed communication there too. Their relationship is the central story of the piece.

It’s funny and very sexy because so much of their communication is coded language for sex. Everything has a double meaning, You know the way people who are not sure they are on the same wave length talk, like “I like him, but I’m not sure he likes me.” Well, we often send coded messages. It’s very intricate.

TM: I rcently saw Charles Mee’s Fire Island at 3LD and was amazed at all the technical facilities they have.
ES: Yes. We’ll have 3-D projections, and Eyeliner techniques. Lamarr and Antheil were friendly with the surrealists, Dali and Man Ray, so we have a lot of surrealistic imagery. We have torpedoes flying through the air. And Joshua Fried’s score is like a 1940’s music score.

3LD Art & Technology, 80 Greenwich St., (212) 352-3101. May 29-Jun. 29. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. $20.

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