Edes Prize winner depicts female pioneer in radio sound effects

Since 2010, the Claire Rosen & Samuel Edes Prize for Emerging Artists has offered recent graduates of four universities, UChicago among them, the chance at a $30,000 award. This year, the prize was awarded to Lila Newman, AB’09, whose winning proposal is for a performance piece about Ora D. Nichols, a pioneer of radio sound effects.

Newman has reconstructed some of the machines that Nichols used to make her iconic sounds, and her performance will showcase this trailblazer’s penchant for audible metaphors—how a roller skate on a wooden plank can sound more like a sliding door than an actual sliding door, or how there’s no way to be too literal about deciding how magic, for example, should sound.

“I started writing for Prairie Home Companion this past fall,” said Newman, “and in doing so, got really interested in how radio tells stories. So I went down this rabbit hole into early radio sound effects. Also, full disclosure: My father is a sound man for a living, so I’ve been raised hearing sounds really differently.”

If you’ve ever heard Orson Welles’ 1938 radio version of The War of the Worlds, then you’ve heard Ora Nichols’ singular, innovative sounds, and you know how those sounds contributed to the near-mythical verisimilitude of that broadcast.

But even for her best-known work, Nichols herself is not particularly well known. Newman hopes to recover a fascinating, all-but-forgotten chapter in the history of sound. And given that the chapter in question has a female protagonist, the gender politics of the project are unavoidable. But for Newman, focusing tightly on Nichols’ work is itself a form of corrective history, a feminist gesture.

“We’re allowed to tell the stories of men without their families, or the domestic sphere, but I don’t think that’s the case with women, for the most part,” Newman says. “Where she [Nichols] was remarkable was in her artistry, and how she stood as a person. Not a woman, not a man, just a person making art and [taking] innovative steps in sound.”

Which is not to say that Newman is indifferent to Nichols’ gender. “I’m happy she’s a woman,” she concludes, “because then I get to play her.”

Witnessing a Trajectory

The Edes Prize allows some artists to dial up the scope and ambition of their projects, or to slow down their creative processes. When he won the prize last year, sculptor Shane Ward said that he’d been given “the gift of time.” 2011 winner Jacob Hurwitz Goodman echoed that sentiment: “Beyond any question of buying fancy cameras or fancy equipment, it’s how I’m able to sort of relax and use my time that makes a difference in the end.”

Heidi Coleman, director of undergraduate studies for Theater and Performance Studies and Edes Prize juror, is quick to point out that Newman’s project is a different matter. In theater, where collaboration and repeated performances are inherent to the medium, and where production costs can easily skyrocket—especially in New York, where Newman will perform her piece—$30,000 helps to make a project like Newman’s possible.

“This money won’t give her the luxury of time,” Coleman says. “What this amount of money will allow Lila to do is to really collaborate with people in a way that values their time and expertise.”

Coleman is confident that Newman can pull it off, having seen her work grow throughout her time at UChicago. Coleman sees Newman as an ideal Edes Prize recipient—an exciting new voice that will be transformed and amplified by the new opportunities that the prize money will afford.

“It’s so rare that you get to witness a trajectory like this,” Coleman says. “She was always remarkable. So I’m not surprised, but I’m very proud of her.”

The other finalists were filmmaker Sarra Jahedi, AB’09, composer Fusun Koksal, PhD’13, and poet Ariana Nash, AM’13. Visit the UChicago Arts website to learn more about the annual Samuel and Claire Edes Prize for Emerging Artists.

“The purpose of the prize is to provide a jump-start to the careers of promising emerging artists,” explains Mary J. Harvey, associate provost and chair of the Arts Council. “What other foundations do we know of who are giving a prize this substantial—risking, if you will, their money—to see young artists really move ahead in their careers?”