Making some big noises in the theatre


The role of sound designer is crucial to a stage production, as these three Irish Theatre Award nominees illustrate, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL

The three nominees in this year’s Best Sound Design category in the Irish Times Theatre Awards have respective backgrounds in music, film and performance; all benefited from the ongoing appreciation of the way creative sound design can enrich theatre productions.

Whether it is helping move the action from indoors to outdoors, recreating a second World War environment, or developing a sophisticated musical soundtrack, their creative input shows just how diverse and broad sound design has become.

CARL KENNEDY, nominated for Doubt – A Parable

This is Carl Kennedy’s second consecutive year being nominated for best sound design, having been shortlisted last year for his work on Rough Magic’s production of Peer Gynt. Kennedy says part of his job is to retain an open mind and not allow his own personal tastes and preferences to dominate too much the vision a director may have. Sound can play different roles in a production, from simple background music to more in-depth accompaniment and description purposes.

“You can have a contrast between the sound design and what is going on in the play. Sometimes, sound is also good at locating something on stage or expressing the existing emotions. Other times, it might be as simple as moving the action from indoors to outdoors or a dining-room to a sitting-room.”

Kennedy has worked as an actor, and he still tries to perform in at least one show a year. This background helps as he can often relate to what an actor is trying to achieve in a moment and mould the sound around that ambition.

Working as a sound designer for the past four years, Kennedy has seen advances in technology that have made his work a lot easier. “Before, you would have to put all the sound effects, music and then the ambience on different machines and they were all mixed through a desk. It was a complicated process. One of the things now is that the process is automated with a programme called QLab. It means we can follow the action a lot easier and if something different happens on stage, we can follow it no problem. The technology is a lot more reactive now.”

Kennedy enjoys the process of creating the sound design and attempting to then pull it all together in the week leading up to opening night. “Being nominated for this year’s awards will do the CV no harm at all,” he says. “It is particularly satisfying when the production was such an enjoyable one to work on.”

LITTLE JOHN NEE, nominated for Sparkplug

Little John Nee has been playing music most of his adult life. He cites musicians such as David Bowie as having a major influence on his work, and his output combines both music and stage performance. Having written, performed and directed his show Sparkplug, it made sense that Nee would also add his considerable musical talents to the process. The fact he created all other aspects of the show meant he could incorporate sound design into the script and his own performance in an organic way. A version of the play was recorded for RTÉ Radio, and Nee got the idea to create a soundtrack relying heavily on loop pedals.

“Loop pedals can be quite demanding for a theatrical event,” he says. “People don’t mind you messing with a pedal at a gig but when you’re incorporating it into a narrative then it can be technically demanding. Laura Sheeran from the band Nanu Nanu introduced me to loop pedals in 2007 and I’ve been using them since.”

Nee also merged his interest in blues, soul and punk music into the soundtrack, playing the majority of instruments himself, from cigar-box guitars to six-string ukuleles. For previous productions, he generally performed with other musicians, but with funding for this production tight, Nee wanted to see if he could put the whole show together on his own.

“I usually have a few other performers, but while I was commissioned by the Earagail Arts Festival to write it, I didn’t get Arts Council funding. In a way, that was actually an empowering thing as I had the old punk attitude of, well, I’m going to do it anyway.”

TOM SPEERS, nominated for Macklin: Method and Madness

With a background mainly in film, this was Tom Speers’s first time working directly on a stage production. His work was made all the more challenging by the fact that the play was set during the second World War, and he needed to authentically recreate the sounds of that era, such as air-raid sirens.

Speers was able to mine his father’s collection of old BBC sound effects as well as trawl through online archives, to help create a startling and authentic soundscape.

“I had a stock that I collected over the years I could tap into,” he says. “The great thing with these archives being available digitally is that you don’t have to go with the version you find. You can alter it whatever way you like.”

The sound-design aspect of the production had an added layer in that the performers on stage also created their own, more traditional, sound effects, such as using coconut shells as hoof noises, while an old gramophone player played music of the era.

Speers (23) graduates this year with a degree in English and Philosophy from Trinity College. He has managed to merge his interest in both theatre and film through his work as a freelance film director. “Film is what I am passionate about but I have done a lot of promotional videos for stage productions, so that in a way combines my two interests,” he says.

He is currently working on a short film, and pays tribute to the production team that worked on Macklin: Method and Madness.

“The production team really helped and they deserve the nomination as much as me. The play itself gave me lot of room to get creative and the script was full of lots of different creative opportunities, which is all that any designer wants, really.”

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