An Introspection on Theatrical Sound Design

Where to begin? An empty screen, a blank page, and a freshly printed script. Still warm from the printer. I love designing for theatre. It allows me to experience hundreds of different renditions of the same script. The same story, but from a different perspective. Theatre is the original never-ending story.

Thus, when I design for theatre, I begin by asking myself several fundamental questions. I approach it in its most basic form, a story.

What are some of the thoughts and emotions I feel during the first read-through?

I am currently sound designing and composing for a play titled The Revolutionist. I remember being awestruck, fueled with energy, and rereading passages several times. There were parts that I clung to and others where the action was so quick that it came spilling off the pages. This is what the script felt like for me at this point in my life.

If someone was to map this out they might call it a tension plot. Or a visual representation of the story arc. It might look like a rough line plot with descriptions. It might be a list of points with titles and corresponding symbols with emotive words. It could very well be a single paragraph talking about the story arc’s path. Understanding how the play feels and flows is important as a storyteller, regardless of how you explain the emotions.

Following this, you might begin to form questions or deeper contemplations.

What questions are asked and answered in the play and what is left unanswered? What might this mean for the overall storytelling?

As the collaboration process unfolds, some of these themes and questions will be brought up by the director and other designers. I think by asking questions, wondering why and how, and taking the time to look at the script as a team ultimately leads to a clearer and more cohesive form of storytelling. When you ask questions about the script, you are asking about the story, the author, the period of time it was written, and so many other factors. You are taking a step into that story. I find this perspective is vital when creating the musical world for live theatre.

Keep a dedicated journal or notebook. A sound designer’s grimoire.

I would suggest collecting all of these feelings, thoughts, and questions and writing them in a dedicated notebook. I have used the google drive method of typing notes and keeping my work mostly electronic until I had the pleasure of seeing a costume designer’s personal production notebook. It was cluttered in an artistic and beautiful way. It had swatches of fabric and sketches with descriptions. There were pages filled with words that illustrated her design. What I found on those pages was what I saw in her costumes. It was magical and I knew I wanted that for my artistic process.

I don’t think I could dedicate a grimoire for each design I do, but I do think it is beneficial for large designs and projects I am passionate about. As artists, our ideas flow fast and accumulate. We want to keep them close when we need to remember some tiny forgotten idea. My current one does not contain fabric swatches, but it does have a lot of character analysis, questions, poetry, and snippets of descriptive phrases. I create mood boards to go with the sounds and music I associate with characters and locations. By compiling these thoughts and feelings on paper in one place, I have easy and convenient access to all of it. Plus, you have the opportunity to get a fancy notebook if you choose. I am sure I have sold you on this.

What do these worlds/spaces look like? Sound like? Feel like? What are some keywords, sounds, and images you might associate with the vibe?

Each designer is going to be unique in their artistic approach. Whatever helps you convey what you have in mind is going to be the right approach for you. What something looks like can tell you so much about how it sounds. How big is the space? Are we inside or out? What creatures inhabit it? What kind of weather are they experiencing? Are we experiencing a non-diegetic moment filled with underscore and magical sounds?

Consider the tension plot. Where are we at in terms of emotions that you felt when you first read the script? Maybe you have added and developed these thoughts since then. What do those emotions infer to you? If you were excited and hanging onto every line when you first read it, then an otherworldly underscored moment might be necessary to tell that story and emotion.

What leads the story? The characters? History? An unseen fate? How does that flow? Is it a slow burn or is it staggering? How does this contribute to the story?

You might answer these questions differently compared to others on the production team. You are going to share similar opinions as well. This examination is going to help you further flush out the story’s arc. In Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, shifts in socioeconomics and the unknown fate of the orchard are what drives the plot of the story. In Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge, the story is forcefully pushed along by the three female lead characters.

The answer to these questions hints at how a designer might approach perspective and how their design can emphasize that. Audience members might find it easier to relate to characters unless they have been directly affected by the conflict in the story.  It is also going to help the production team guide the audience through the experience of the story. The actors on stage need our help to do that successfully. When all of these inner workings come together, the theatrical experience is truly magical.

How does the audience interact with the action on stage? Are we in the world or are we spectators? How does sound move around us or in front of us? Is it intrusive or is it invited? What does that mean in regards to how we tell the story?

Finally, we are in the physical theater space. The production team brings the pieces of the world into the playing realm. The play is becoming realized.

These questions will be answered as you have discussions as a team and with your director. The actor playing space will be decided early on. Some parts of the play might protrude out into the audience and some may remain separated. How the action and world move around the theater space is important because the sound might need to emphasize that. Or it might need to represent it solely. It could also contradict in an adverse effect.

This sound support might manifest itself in where you place speakers, effects like reverb and delay, panning and spatialization of sound cues, and the list goes on forever. I mixed a South Pacific where an invisible airplane taxied on stage, took off down the runway, got into the flight, circled around the perimeter of the audience, and flew away. For the most part, that show was separated by the viewer’s veil. The audience members were spectators. However, in that scene, the world of the Pacific crossed that divide and created magic.

Those are the instances that have audience members smiling when they leave the theater. They are special and so much fun for designers. It is a moment to flex your artistic muscles and shine in the spotlight. These scenes are made special because they are precise. The time was taken to consider when the audience becomes part of the world. They are special because they help us tell the story and in turn, we are better storytellers.


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