Tuesday, 12 July 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 trained in sound design with Thomas Ryder Payne (TRP) at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto and the Stratford Festival.

Episode III: Return of the Techie

Gustav at the Stratford Festival
(May 30, 2016) I have now come to the end of my mentorship with TRP, stumbling into everything and bumping into everyone along the way like a drunk baby giraffe. After seven weeks of this, I’ve come to realize that the most important things I learned had very little to do with sound design at all.

The first lesson is Zen. 

“Zen you have. Sword shwing you make.”
(Note: “shwing” is a very technical term used by TRP to describe the sound of the arc of a metal blade. Try to say it five times fast without sounding like a character from Austin Powers.)

When everything is falling to pieces in tech week, how does one, as a designer, stay cool and collected yet be able to change cues at the drop of a hat? When the clock is ticking away, and though a 10-out-of-12 day is called, it seems like there simply is never enough time to get all the cues done. Some say, expect 20-30% of your cues to change during tech week. And lo and behold, out of the blue the director might ask you to create the sound of a train arriving, or an eerie wind that sounds ambiguously like leaves or ashes falling to the ground.

Keep calm, and grab your headphones and your external hard drive. Observe how the scene plays out, and what works given the rest of the aesthetic of the show. There are innumerable tricks of the trade as to how to EQ or mix sounds to give them the illusion of approaching or leaving, to make them emotionally neutral yet dynamic, to give the audience the impression of unresolved conflict yet closure to the play. But having a huge sample library to draw from is what buys you a lot of time during tech week.

In many ways, being a designer seems similar to being a playwright. The cardinal rule is: never get precious about your work. You might have a brilliant idea that gets tried once and never sees the light of day again. You might spend half your time in rehearsal setting up microphones, testing them out, hearing how the actors sound in an aside sequence, adjusting the gain balance so that their footsteps echo eerily in a blackout, call an early break to change the microphone placement, and re-jig everything, ONLY to have ALL the microphone cues cut by the next rehearsal. This never happened in a tech rehearsal for Incident at Vichy at Soulpepper, and Alan Dilworth would never dream of doing such a thing.

It happens. And as it turns out, the scene played out way better the second time around.

The second lesson: don’t be a [starts with the letter D, rhymes with whooshbag].

Gustav and TRP
It’s all about the little things. In an industry where everyone knows everyone, and gigs are often attained through word of mouth, you cannot get by on talent alone. The first thing I universally hear when speaking to other directors, designers, and actors about my mentor is, “Oh, he’s the nicest person.” It really hammered home for me a relatively simple concept that is surprisingly difficult to come by: being nice gets you very far in this line of work. Ultimately, when you’re spending 12-hour days with the same group of people, you want to surround yourself with individuals who are easy to get along with and work well under stress. Being nice in no way means compromising artistic integrity, or lacking vision and creative drive. Being nice means you are willing to make concessions, compromise, and eschew your own ego in favour of allowing the production to flourish. TRP said, when getting into artistic conflicts between members of a creative team, ultimately as a designer you need to have full trust and confidence in your director. If you trust that your director knows what they are talking about, then allow them to call the final shots. It gets particularly murky when said shots might seem to conflict with what the script calls for or what the playwright intended but such is the nature of collaboration.

Speaking of collaboration, that reminds me of the third lesson. Perhaps it takes a village to raise a child, in which case it takes a company to raise an apprentice. I was able to witness how a community collaborates on a show, and how each element affects another. Although a lot of dialogue happened between TRP and his directors, there was a great deal of cross-talk across the production table between sound and lighting, sound and set, and sound and the stage management team. For instance, the pre-show fades of lighting and music can be timed to synchronize together; if a prop gun fails to go off in a show, a gunshot sound cue can be put on standby to make sure the narrative still makes sense; if a set change has numerous elements, a sound cue can be used to accentuate the theatricality of the set change and also to help muffle the sounds of stagehands dragging furniture off-stage. Creating sound cues that are intuitive for a stage manager to call is also imperative, and knowing where the cues should land (or peak) is just as critical.

These are but a few snapshots of the past seven weeks. As an apprentice, I’m another set of ears in the house, another pair of hands and feet. And then I slowly realize, I am not Luke Skywalker. I am Arya Stark. A girl is no one. A girl watches, a girl listens, and a girl waits. A girl watches as cursors blink, knobs are turned, faders are adjusted, cables are run. A girl listens as thunder crashes, rain pours, a guitar riffs, a bell tolls, an owl screeches, a town burns to the ground, and a man dies while his son escapes. A girl waits her turn in the shadows as the house lights go dark. The stage manager calls, “Sound cue fifty-six: Go.”

--Deanna Choi

Theatre Ontario Professional Theatre Training Program 2016

Sound design with Thomas Ryder Payne

Macbeth at the Stratford Festival, Incident at Vichy at Soulpepper.

Related Reading:

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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