Sound designer, engineer and dBs technician Sam Furse illuminates the world of sound for theatre and explains why the medium is so exciting for audio specialists.
Theatre is one of the oldest forms of entertainment, and though the advent of radio, cinema, television and video games has continuously changed how we consume stories and ideas, it remains one of the most cathartic and unique art forms around.
Despite its longevity, sound for theatre is still something of a fringe pursuit, especially when compared to film, television and video games. For Sam, the medium couldn't be more exciting…
Treading the boards
"I've always been enamoured by sound design for film, television and video games, and have been a big fan of theatre since I was young, but when I first started studying at dBs Bristol, I wanted to be a studio engineer. But throughout the course, I learned about these techniques and these incredible practitioners in the industry and my viewpoint started changing. Understanding how sound is made and how it used to create these physical emotions in people got me really interested."
During his studies at university, Sam spent most of his spare time focussing on his band; touring across Europe, Canada and Australia during the summer breaks. While the world of sound design had it's hooks in him, getting that real-time feedback from an audience was still something he craved.
"I think that's why I really love sound design for theatre because your part of the performance. When you're doing sound for visual media, you're creating this moment and then you're letting it go. But when you're doing it live, it can change and it can expand, and it can be different at any moment. An actor could take another five seconds to deliver a line. That means that you have to drag out the note in the background to create that tension drag it out just that little bit further before you can then move on to the next thing and all of a sudden, that one moment can create a completely different vibe."
The stage is set
Sam's first foray into sound for theatre came through a mutual friend that wanted to put on a small production and enlisted Sam to oversee the audio. After the success of the production, the floodgates opened and Sam was soon involved in many more performances and honing his particular approach.
"One thing I always do is I really emphasise silence. There was one production I worked on where there was sound pretty much throughout, but during one of the actors monologues there was no sound, and it created this really uncomfortable atmosphere. The absence of sound was like losing a sense of security and that really helped elevate what was happening on stage."
While every sound designer working in theatre will have their trademark, understanding your role within the wider team and working in unison with them is more important than ever.
"When you're working in theatre, you're all working together as a big team to create this art for an audience. Our goal is to give the audience an hour or two where they can suspend reality, and to give them an experience that takes them somewhere or makes them feel something."
Though the role may share a lot of common threads with creating for film or video games, there are many unique challenges to overcome.
"You have a really big responsibility to understand the emotional connection that you're creating, but you also have to be mindful of its impact on the actors who are hearing it over and over again in both the rehearsal and performance of the show. If you're creating something that is really sombre, and it is really challenging to listen to; it could even just be a really big, loud sound - that takes a toll on the performers as well as the audience.
"Similar to video games, you also have to consider audio fatigue. You can't just stick a sample that you downloaded from freesound.org and think that's going to be effective on stage. You have to really consider the moment that you're creating so that people believe what you're doing and become immersed in the performance
Rehearsing for 'Sparks'
[Photo credit: Alex Brenner]
"If you're coming to sound for theatre with a background in film or television, the creative process remains fairly identical, except you need to allow you sounds to have room to breathe. That also means you can't be super precious with what you create.
"In film or TV, you might create this moment that builds to the perfect kiss and it works every time. With theatre, things change so quickly; someone could fall over, pause on a line or knock over a prop. You have to account for that by making your sounds more organic and allow them the space to move."
Sparks will fly
At the time of our chat, Sam had just returned from a three-night performance of Simon Longman's 'Sparks' in which he created by the sound design and music; a visceral and thought-provoking story surrounding two sisters who reunite after 12 years apart.
Knowing the core elements of what constitutes as 'good' sound for theatre, we were keen to know how Sam went one step further with this most recent project.
Major spoilers for 'Sparks' ahead.
"'Sparks' is two-person play centred around one very rainy night and shows the evolution of the evening; from them getting really drunk, because they're trying to get over the awkwardness to this really intense drug scene where the sister who arrives that night manipulates the other into taking drugs.
"I'm going to spoil the ending now, but the story reveals that the sister who shows up at the door has had a child and can no longer look after it, and when the other wakes from this crazy evening, there's just a child on stage.
Performance shots from 'Sparks'
[Photo Credit: Alex Brenner]
"What was really interesting from a sound point of view was that although this was just a two-person play, the rain is a huge part throughout. It's constantly mentioned by the actors and symbolises a lot of things about their relationship.
"As a designer, I was treating that sound almost like a third character and that meant I really needed to make sure that it felt organic but not overbearing. Something as simple as playing a sample of rain recorded outside when the scene takes place indoors would ruin that immersion.
"There were moments where the sisters are reminiscing about living by the seaside, so I mixed in the sounds of the ocean and seagulls with the rain; they build a bespoke bar out of cardboard boxes, so I used the sounds of bottles against each other and bar ambience which builds and then transitions back into the quiet rain.
"Perhaps the most exciting soundscape I created was for the drugs scene. We recorded loads of the actor's lines and then they were played over the speakers as she was performing. The recorded lines were were really distorted, the audio was reversed and kept dropping in and out.
"The whole thing was created to showcase these two very different conversations, where the sister believes she's talking in this nice manner, but actually she's screaming at the top of her lungs. The final product was this really cool, unnerving juxtaposition that becomes this massive crescendo and then it's complete silence as the scene transitions into the next day and the child comes on stage."
A chance to innovate
The fluidity of theatre and the demands that puts on a sound designer's creativity is one of the things Sam loves most about the medium. Yet, in a world where technology has advanced to insane new heights, it's the potential for truly immersive theatre that really excites him.
"In a lot of the art industries, not just theatre, we're seeing more people pushing the boundaries of what's possible through technology, and I think as a sound designer you should be doing the same.
[Photo credit: Alex Brenner]
"On a previous performance, I was talking with the production manager and she worked on a play that explores the anomaly of how, when a group of people are in the same room together their heartbeats sync up. In this play, each audience member wore a sensor tracking their heartbeat and this was connected to a projector and affected the visuals. Something like that could quite easily be used to then trigger a sound or lighting.
"It all comes back to that idea of being able to see the audience react to the performance. Technology now allows for us to integrate the audience into a show and use their biometric feedback to change the component parts of the production. What's more, audiences are hungry these new advances, too."
Despite his effusive take on technology's relationship with theatre, Sam is quick to mention the potential pitfall with technology, and recalls an important lesson about not only restraint, but realism.
"I spoke with a sound designer years ago and they said something that has always stuck with me. 'If you've got a clock that's supposed to be on stage, why would you have the sound coming out of the speakers?'
It's so jarring when you're looking at an object like a clock or a radio on stage, but the sound is coming from the speakers. It completely screws with the immersion because your brain can't make sense of the object and the sound coming from a different place.
"You can use things like Arduinos and Raspberry Pi's, so that when an actor opens something, or walks across something, that will then talk back to your computer, which will then trigger the sound, which creates this perfect synergy between actor and sound. I think that marriage between performer and technology is what's really exciting, and is what a lot of sound designers are moving towards."
A new generation of theatre
If there's one challenge that faces theatre more than most visual art forms, it's capturing the attention of younger audiences. It's an issue that Sam's keenly aware of, but he's hopeful that the tides will change for the next generation of creatives.
"If you've got an opinion and you've got something to say - and a lot of artists and musicians do - to be able to express those feelings and see them come to life visually on stage is amazing. It's such a rewarding feeling to see a moment and an experience organically happen in front of you, and it can't be repeated - that moment doesn't just happen again.
"Theatre has been used for thousands of years as a forum to protest and change ideologies, and it would be fantastic for more people - especially more young people - to see how theatre creates this opportunity for people to discuss, to revolt, to be rebellious and to address really challenging subjects and thoughts in a group of likeminded people."
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Does a career creating sound for media resonate with you? Why not check out our BA (Hons) Sound for Film & TV degree.