Designing in the Moment

Evan Middlesworth is the Sound Designer for Constellations at Gulfshore Playhouse.

During the formative process of a production it is my job to listen to what the director has in mind for the bigger picture of the play.  This has always been an interesting time for me because usually by this point the director has lived with the play for several months and had time to conjure up a vision for what they would like.  When I come on board I have to quickly come up to speed and get to work on helping to fulfill the sound/music elements of the director’s vision.  Not only does my job include providing sound effects and music but it also requires that I design how the speakers are physically placed in the space.

For Constellations, we first wanted to place the acting area on the floor of the theatre, sort of – in-the-round, which was a fantastic idea.  This meant the Scenic Designer, David Arsenault, had to design a space that would work and the Director, Matt Pfeiffer, asked me to design the speaker placement that complimented the scenic design.  After submitting our design drawings it was determined this initial concept wouldn’t work.  David and I had to work quickly to redesign the acting space and speaker placement to what you’ll see when you come to the show.

 As for the composition of the sound, I’m currently waiting to hear back from the director about his thoughts on several pieces of music and sound that I sent him.  For me, this is a very important stage, it helps me understand what palette of sound we are working with.  Much like a painter uses specific colors for a painting, a theatre production will have a sonic palette that weaves in and out throughout the play.  For years I’ve recorded ideas and sent them to the director to get feedback.  Do they like it, do they not like it, is it too harsh, too mellow, completely wrong or is it perfect?

For this specific production Matt and I are focused on gathering a sonic palette that we can choose from more in the moment than what is normal for me.  Many times the music I write or the sounds I use will be present during the rehearsal process.  We discovered very early on that this wouldn’t be the case for Constellations.  We needed to be ready to try something out with the actors in the space and with lights to decide – yes, it’s perfect! or no, it’s wrong!

The other big question for Constellations is: do we need sound?  There are moments when sound supports the action and moments when sound gets in the way, it pulls focus from the dialogue and we miss something important on stage.  There is a somewhat steadfast rule in theatre that states: If there is a light shift, there should be a sound that goes along with it.  In this production we felt that lights should still shift to help decipher the mood, however a corresponding sound might be too much.  Sound isn’t needed all the time.  It’s also commonplace to have underscoring music but  again, for Constellations, we thought, it may end up being too much and decided to try using environmental sounds (birds, street sounds, etc.) instead to give us a subtle sense of where we are.

Now, as for the writing of the music, this is our current idea but by opening night, this may very well all change: Matt and I have drawn influence from music artists Radiohead and Jon Brion, atonal influence for helping to shape moods of the play, influence from everyday environmental surroundings and also are very influenced by the fact that we don’t need to have sound all the time.  We’ll discover a lot in the week prior to opening night.  In the end, our months of work, research, creativity and discovery all end up with us hoping you enjoy the show!

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Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell (Photo by Pedro Zepeda)

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