How do you approach designing a show?
There are many little nuances and unique needs that any given show requires. With that in mind and before I get too centrally focused on that, I try to start with the basics. What is the show really about? What am I feeling or learning when I read this play and what observations do I make about the characters, myself, or others? That’s obviously a big question for theatre designers in pre-production.
I also focus on where we are in the play and what that sounds and feels like. Collaboration really takes place from the beginning. A great way for me to get inspired by the world and start making some assumptions about the sound is in the scenic and costume designs. In our production process, the set and the costumes are the focal point of our early production meetings and often times do a great deal of creating a world for me to then start working with. For King Hedley II, this was very true. We started seeing models, renderings, and drawings for both of these elements starting as far back as about 6-7 months prior to this show’s technical and rehearsal process. Regina and Alex (set and costume design, respectively) had some really great and informative mock-ups to show us early on to give a sense of these things. That tends to really give me something to look at and match sounds and content to much more organically than creating it all on my own in my head.
From that point forward, the process remains very collaborative in that Ron (our director) will usually know early on what kind of musical vibe we are generally going to be using for the show. Ron is a lover of music and has a great knowledge of jazz artists in particular. So, conversations with Ron on these topics are also taking place in tandem from the beginning. So, really, from the very beginning of the process, all elements are informing each other.
Listen to some of the songs informing King Hedley II:
Does your process change at all when working with someone you’ve previously collaborated with?
I’d say that there is definitely ground work that can be helpful ahead of time having a repeating relationship with a director or other designers. There are tendencies that every artist has in their work in one way or another. Learning those things about a director in particular can be very helpful in approaching a show. Regardless of my prior engagements with a director or team, I try to look at a show as a singular entity. Sometimes we want themes to track in from other work and sometimes they do not. I find that if I look at every show or piece as a unique thing in itself, it has more of a chance of finding exactly what it needs from me. I know that Ron is very fresh in his approach to a show even though it may be a part of a sequence of stories and I think that is the right choice.
What have you and Ron learned from your previous collaborations?
Let it be said that Ron OJ Parson is definitely one of the most inspiring directors I have worked with. He has a perspective and feel that he is able to make unique to him and meaningful for the audience watching his shows. He knows how to interpret moments of a show in a way that isn’t fussy or over-complicated. I really respect that. I think he is very effective in shaking loose the fat of things and getting to the heart of it. Working with Ron in my role has always been a great experience. He is very hands on with the music and this oftentimes leads to sessions where we will simply sit and listen to music and talk about what works and what doesn’t. I know that sounds a lot like just hanging out with a friend, and it really feels like that which is a very special thing. All in all, being able to work with Ron has been a blessing and getting to see a show through his filter has been one of the great highlights of my career already.
What is one thing you wish people knew/better understood about sound design?
I would say that sound design can be many things. Sometimes it’s something that is very present and sometimes it may need to be something that isn’t. I think the show itself dictates that, but one thing I love about theatre is the sincerity we are often afforded. I feel that a lot of other mediums are prone to bashing you over the head with design or sound elements. Mostly to establish feelings in the content, but theatre, in my experience, allows my field to express some of these things in a much more subtle way. I really think that most times a great sound design can go largely unnoticed, and that’s what makes it good. It highlights what it needs to and stays out of the way when it needs to. It’s an element that is meant to shuffle in with the rest of it.
From a technical standpoint, and beyond the artistic decisions to be made, there is one very important bottom line. My job is also to make sure that every word and note played onstage is heard. A show like King Hedley doesn’t require microphones to accomplish that, which makes it much easier, but all of these things are what makes a sound design. That and a lot of online research for wacky things like what cicadas sounded like in the fall of 1973 in Botswana. I swear I’ve got that somewhere.