Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Deanna Choi

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Deanna Choi will train in sound design with Thomas Ryder Payne at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto and the Stratford Festival

SOUND WARS: Episode I (of the original trilogy)

“What is a sound designer?”

When I tell people what I do for a living, this is the first inevitable question.

When I explain to them that I create scores, soundscapes, and sound effects for theatre, people look at me with a puzzled expression.

Then it suddenly dawns on them.

“Ohhh, you mean, you write musicals! Like on Broadway!”

I tell them that yes, sometimes I compose, and sometimes I write musical theatre numbers, but there are plenty of plays that also use sound and music without ancillary jazz hands and a Fred Astaire tap routine.

“Really? I’ve never heard music in a play before.”

Inwardly, I do the Captain Jean-Luc Picard facepalm. Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Chances are, if you’ve been to theatre often enough, you have heard sound created by a sound designer. Perhaps it was so subtle and seamlessly integrated into the show that you didn’t even notice it–the underscoring perhaps reinforced your suspension of disbelief and brought you into the world of the play. Perhaps there were specific sounds–gunshots, doorbells, a fridge humming in the background, crickets to denote nighttime, which again were crafted to match the hall’s acoustic and not seem intrusive. 

That being said, even many theatre professionals have a limited background and understanding of sound. Most notably, the sound design category was removed from the Tony Awards in 2014 due to the Tony voters’ lack of expertise and inability to assess it, and the notion that sound design is more of a technical craft than a theatrical one.

To this attitude, I say [an eight-letter profanity that starts with b].

And yet, here I am, embarking on an apprenticeship with Thomas Ryder Payne. A renowned sound designer who has collaborated on shows with leading directors across the country, his work has been heard at Stratford, Shaw, Canadian Stage, Tarragon, The Theatre Centre, and many others. His designs rebut the Tony’s willful ignorance; they exemplify the marriage of the technical and theatrical elements of sound. His soundscapes evolve dynamically throughout the show to reflect narrative arc and character development. His aesthetic is layered and textured, and different elements reveal themselves at different timepoints, the way an expertly-crafted perfume reveals its top notes, middle notes, and base notes depending on how long the scent has been worn. Most people, however, would not argue that there is both an art and a science to crafting perfume. Furthermore, being a dynamic entity on stage, sound has the ability to interact with the actors and influence their performance in ways that may not be evident to an audience member. Other designers often operate this way too: for instance, a costume designer creating period outfits for a Louis XVI era piece will have their actors wear dozens of layers of petticoats (even though they will never be glimpsed by the audience) so that the physical weight of the fabric can help actors develop their character’s social status. Another example: in an interview, Taylor Schilling (of Orange Is The New Black) mentioned that all the actors wear authentic prison-issue underwear (in all its saggy, baggy glory) beneath their jumpsuits, for a similar reason. Similarly, sound heard by the actors (often through monitors placed upstage of action) can be manipulated differently than what is played out in the house if necessary. It can aid pacing of lines, underscore tension, or play up dramatic irony.

What do I hope to learn from this mentorship? If I am Luke, then TRP is my Yoda. Like TRP, I come from a music background. (Sidenote for those who don’t know: TRP was a rock musician in a Canadian band in the 90s whose aesthetic was like illegitimate lovechild of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Neo from the Matrix). Being a classical musician though, this realm of digital audio processing (DAWs like Logic, Reaper, Ableton), playback (QLab, Show Cue System), and sound reinforcement (i.e., you plug this yellow end of the cable into this jack in the speaker but FOR LOVE OF BRECHT DON’T TURN THE SPEAKER ON BEFORE YOU HAVE THE AMP TURNED ON) is foreign territory. I will be shadowing him at the Stratford Festival production of the Scottish play, and Arthur Miller’s The Incident at Vichy at Soulpepper. I will observe how he interacts with directors and other designers during rehearsals and brings a director’s concept to life. I will learn how to use the Force (read: my ears) to wield my lightsabre (read: Logic and Qlab) with lethal accuracy to defeat the Dark Side (read: the sound design ignoramuses).

Stay tuned. This Padawan is setting off on her quest for a new hope [in theatrical design]. 

P.S. Throughout these entries you may see photos of a mouse named Gustav. He’s tagging along for the ride and will post regular updates from behind-the-scenes. He’s an aspiring photographer and posts on his own blog at www.the-muriniad.tumblr.com.

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 3, 2016.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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