The next blog is from Owen Rafferty, our sound designer. I worked with Owen on Hidden and he’s brilliant. He’s someone I’ll work with again and again because of his passion, precision and innovation. He takes utter delight in contributing to a collaborative theatre process. He also laughs at my jokes. Owen is an great example of the benefit of giving your all to every project you work on, as it will certainly lead to more work.
My journey with Parallel started when I went along to a rehearsed reading at the Royal Exchange Studio in March 2015 I had worked with the writer Laura Lindsay on her first play – Hidden - a couple of years earlier, and I had been invited along to watch and share my thoughts from a sound design perspective. At this stage, the play still was using a working title - Waiting for Light, and all I knew going in was that it would have 3 female characters, it would be set in a train station in the middle of the night, and it would be loosely based on Beckett's Waiting for Godot. And that was all I needed to know – Beckett is one of my favourite playwrights, and any project that aspires to emulate his style is one that I am keen to be involved in!
As a sound designer my job is to add sound effects and music that help give a play atmosphere and production values. Usually this process will start with me reading a completed script, then meeting the director to discuss creative vision and talk through some early ideas. So it was a unique experience to see a play I was going to design sound for already on its feet, being read script in hand to an audience of over 100 theatre-goers. And it was really good. The character's were compelling, the jokes were funny and the audience really enjoyed it. Which begs the question – does a play like this even need sound? After all, it already works without it. In true Beckett style, there is minimal action, which brings the focus on the characters and the dialogue. The worst thing I could do is design something that sounds great on its own, but which distracts from this focus. I am the first person to advocate for the importance of good sound design in theatre, but some of the best theatre I have seen didn't have any production whatsoever. I was worrying about all this when I realised I had barely anything written down in my notepad, and the read-through was nearly over.
“I see this play as having a lot of silence,” Laura admitted to me after the show, apologetically. “I don't suppose...that's something you would be interested in working on?” she asked, as if by focussing on silence more than sound, she was asking me to sell out everything I stand for.
“Awesome. I LOVE making silence... actually it's kinda one of my favourite things to do.”
Not the answer she was expecting, but this was truly how I felt. There is an art to creating silence, and it can be really effective dramatically. But that doesn't change the fact that it feels a bit weird to talk about. You end up using nonsense phrases like “creating” silence, as if that were physically possible, and it all ends up sounding like a cop-out for a lazy designer who can't be bothered actually putting together any sounds. This has turned into a bit of a running joke about how the “silence designer” doesn't have any work to do, so he can just put his feet up until show day.
But actually it isn't as straightforward as it sounds...in a way it is harder to create a soundscape that is stark and minimal. You have to be incredibly delicate, as every little detail matters. It's not a case of having total silence throughout, it's about using quiet sounds that emphasise the stillness.
A critic once said of Waiting for Godot that it is a play in which nothing happens...twice. And while there is some truth in that – there aren't any of the typical dramatic developments we are used to – it also misses the point. The lack of conventional drama (or sound or set) gives space to the characters and brings our focus in to the details of their speech. And that's what I am aiming for with the sound – sometimes “nothing” will happen, but making that work turns out to be a fascinating challenge.
So why is silence interesting to me? And how do you “create” it? I guess it has something to do with that odd thing that happens when a fridge has been humming in the background, you don't notice how loud and grating it is until it stops. The contrast between the noise of the fridge and the sudden silence really grabs the attention and makes you very aware of the sounds around you. And this is one of the easiest ways to create silence – play a subtle ambient sound long enough for people to take it for granted and start tuning it out, then fade it out for effect.
When I first sat down with director James Baker to discuss the sound, he was also keen on the idea of using silence. It was great to see that right from the start we were on the same page about how we wanted the atmosphere to be. And I was able to cite the example of a fridge humming to demonstrate that not only was I onboard with the idea, but I already knew ways to make it work. I use this example again and again in early meetings, especially if directors use phrases like “subtle”, “minimal” and so on. Most directors are wary that sound can get in the way, so it is very useful to have a concrete example you can use to show that you share their concerns and know ways to achieve atmospheric and dramatic results with a stripped back set of sounds.
The next step was to decide on our equivalent of the fridge hum, luckily we had one in the form of a vending machine on set. This opens up the opportunity to use the mechanical sound of the machine as a drone that can be brought in and out subtly at key moments of the play. The setting had changed from being a train station to being more of an abstract world that could be anywhere. Like many Beckett plays, it takes place in a vague purgatory that feels empty and lonely. So it's important that the sounds echo and reverberate to give a sense of the size and emptiness of the space.
So I should probably get back to it. That lack of sound isn't going to design itself! I'll just sign off with this awesome video I found online about the use of silence in cinema. If you're still not sure of the dramatic benefits of using silence, the link before explains it much better than I ever could.
Working in partnership with West Yorkshire Theatre Network we'll be sharing the creative process of our next production, Parallel from start to finish.