Sounding It Out

Different plays demand different things of a sound design, and there are arguably many plays that can be performed against a backdrop of silence. When working on a sound design, the basic rule I like to stick to is that all sound has to serve a purpose, and naturally these purposes are unique to the individual plays I work on. The sound design I created in my work on Constellations served three purposes; to mark location, the passage of time and create an atmosphere.

This first purpose, the creation of setting through sound, came about largely due to the design of the set. Megan designed a wonderful set whose main language was suggestion, a decision which really spoke to the deep thematic and structural basis of the play. However, this meant that sound had to sometimes be used to fill in the gaps. Therefore, I found certain sounds to highlight a particular location or aspect of location. For instance, a background hubbub to suggest a public location. As simple as that sounds, at times I had to be careful about what is suggested by a particular sound. For example, in the opening scene, the type of rain that was used to underscore the scene had to be considered, as rain hitting a window has a very different sound to rain hitting an umbrella. It’s all in the little details, sometimes.

As for my second purpose, to mark the passage of time, this also came in handy as a way to distinguish the structure of the play. The at times non-linear structure of Constellations and the focus on repetition could mean that an audience could get lost given that there are multiple forms of transition. Transitions between universe, backwards and forwards in time could get a little tricky to work out, and so distinguishing these with sound became another one of my tasks. In particular, I focused on the transitions forward in time, creating sound montages indicating a little of what had passed between the scenes. For example, I created a montage of sounds of a dinner, music and a cab ride to show the characters had just been on a date.

My third purpose, to create an atmosphere, was linked specifically to the scenes that fell out of chronological order. To make it clear to the audience that the sequence of time had been broken, I developed a soundscape that had an ‘otherworldly’ sound. This was the trickiest design to transfer onto the stage as it had a very discernible rhythm to it that needed to coincide with the pace and tempo of the scene. I therefore made a soundscape with many layers that could be stripped away to see which matched the scene best. As a golden rule, sound has to work with the scenes in a play, not against it.

As with any set of rules, they are sometimes made to be broken. Over the process of the design, I found myself re-evaluating multiple decisions and rules that might work for one scene, but not across the play. I also had to roll with the process; being AD on this project as well helped a lot with knowing where the living, breathing play was at, but also meant I would sometimes leave rehearsals dreading the re-evaluation of my design for the scenes we had just covered. The process of sound design can be that of trial and error up until opening night itself, but that is part of why I love sound designing; it keeps you on your toes.

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