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  Sound Design for the Theatre
Interpretation, Research, Composition, and Execution

by Michael Rasbury, Assistant Professor of Sound Design
Department of Drama, University of Virginia
The design process for theatrical production can vary from several weeks to many months in duration and requires a large commitment from its participants. As a sound designer, it is important to apply the questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how throughout the design process. Although these questions are primarily used to interpret the script, at the beginning of the design process, these questions apply to the company and artistic team the designer is employed to work with, what specifically the team will work together on, how soon it will happen, why the team is proceeding with the work, and how the team plans to accomplish the work.

Often, a design meeting with the director or the company’s artistic director for a production occurs early in the process. A design meeting is a guide to the designer, helping to illuminate key concepts to specifically note while learning and interpreting the script. At times, the design meeting happens before a script is available but it is typical to be provided with the script before the first design meeting. In some rare instances, the designer is lucky enough to either choose the script or write it; however, it is common to be hired to serve on a team with other designers for the express purpose of supporting a script chosen by an artistic director or producer.

The designer must become very familiar with the script. It is a necessity to read it and reread it. The script is rich with descriptions and subtext signifying possibilities for environmental or mood enhancing sound and/or music (Example 1.)

Example 1:  An excerpt from The Lost Colony script written by Paul Green.  In this section of the script, the playwright suggests through dialogue that Old Tom is being thrown out of a tavern. Click here for an expanded version.
Script Example

Most scripts include stage directions, delineated from dialogue in italics or parentheses. In these stage directions, the playwright provides descriptions useful to each collaborative artist (director, costumes, lighting, etc.) in an attempt to accurately describe the play’s environment and specific design needs. Needs for particular sounds and music are often deduced from interpreting the stage directions. In modern scripts, playwrights may actually describe particular sounds and music in detail or even explain where the source of a sound should be within the play’s environment.

Stage directions often describe the incorporation of integral music. Imagine a script with a character that says, “Rusty, see that piano over there? Go play us a song.” The sound designer asks questions like, “How will Rusty play the piano?” Also, “Where is the piano, what kind of piano is it, and what does it sound like?” If the script does not suggest a particular song, the sound designer asks, “What song would Rusty play?” Finally, the designer may ask, “How will Rusty’s voice be heard over the piano, or is this important?” When learning a script, designers begin listing these potential concerns for sound in a spreadsheet or database (Example 2.) This preliminary list is the beginning of a formal cue list containing possible solutions to the questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Example 2:  A section of the sound cue list from Bury the Dead by Irwin Shaw. Sound design events are listed sequentially and defined by cue number, scene, page, event description, playback source, length, etc. Click here for an expanded version.
Cue List Example

During early design meetings, specifications about the performance space are shared by the designers, usually in the form of architectural drawings. The sound designer begins to learn the space from these drawings and imagine possibilities for installation of speakers, microphones, playback equipment and cabling. Questions are posed about visibility of speakers and microphones, cable paths and potential related concerns, sound system power, and location the sound operator in the performance space. All of these concerns are framed by the production’s budget for sound. Although sound designers may not concretely determine a sound system at this point, a plan for a system is established to better understand the potential complexity of the design.

It is a challenge to fully discern all of the characters’ relationships and intentions from just reading the script. It is extremely useful to attend a first rehearsal or read-through of the script by the actors chosen to perform it. The quality of the actors’ voices and the impact their collective personas superimpose on the script’s meaning solidifies the ideas already deduced from reading the script.

Interpretation of the script and of new ideas inspired by the read-through and other rehearsals continues throughout the production process, often until final rehearsals. As information is discovered from the script, director, and other collaborative artists, comprehensive research begins in order to provide solutions for the production’s needs.

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