Teaching Artist Leah Reddy spoke with sound designer Jonathan Deans about his work on 1776.
Leah Reddy: What is your theatre origin story?
Jonathan Deans: I started off as a child actor and then when I left school and my body grew but my voice did not, I was finding it very hard to find work but was paying for myself. I needed some way of making a living. My hobby was sound, I loved playing with sound, I enjoyed music. I had been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company as a young actor, and while I was there, the sound guy had taught me how to edit tape.
Therefore I had this little thing I could do, and I got myself a job in a local theatre, Richmond Theatre, which at the time was a rep [repertory] theatre. Nobody wanted to do sound or deal with tape or making sound effects, et cetera, and that's all I wanted to do, so I arrived at the right time. Then when Richmond Theatre ceased to be a Rep theatre, I got myself a job in a recording studio, worked in recording studios for a couple of years but really missed being part of the theatre.
A few years later I became a technical ASM [assistant stage manager] in the West End, being able to do sound effects and stage management at the time. From there I managed to get a job at the Royal Opera House. After 18 months, there was a show that was coming over to England, from the US. They were looking for someone who could mix it, because at that time there were no huge musicals in the way there are now, sound-wise. I got the mixing position on A Chorus Line. And the rest is history. All driven by wanting to be a part of the theatre and sound.
LR: What is your process when you start work on a show as a sound designer?
JD: So you’re asked to do a show as a sound designer. You then put your team together. And that would be associate, assistant — or associate/assistant, depending on the kind of show — and a production sound person, the A1 (mixer), and the A2 (backstage).
When we go into the theatre, just think of it as an empty garage, there's nothing in there at all, just an empty space, so we have to bring everything. A list is made with all needed items that have to work together to complete a sound system for that particular production in that particular theatre.
After discussions with director, composer and producers, I look at the theatre building drawings and place my ideas for loudspeaker type and coverage into those drawings to position and get my ideas across to my team and other creatives. From there, an equipment list is made and is sent to a theatre sound rental shop. Meanwhile, I'm having my associate/assistant oversee what I'm doing to make sure I'm not completely messing it up.
I’ve decided the kind of microphones, how the actors are going to wear them, musician microphones and layout — I’ve actually done this before I make the equipment list, because I need to know how many musicians and all other input requirements to determine the needed equipment. I then have to make what I've drawn work as it becomes a reality.
The first part of my work would be more technical, knowing the equipment and its specifications, how it works and how one needs to use it or what the idea is of how you're going to use it. From then onwards it becomes completely creative. Working with the music team, the actors and other creatives, and of course the major person, the director, to start building a language, start building a sonic language. I'm there to help tell the story and if I've done it right, it should be invisible.
LR: In thinking about 1776 specifically, what was your approach to the sonic language, and how did you collaborate with that team?
JD: 1776 is a revival of a show that was done many times, and the Roundabout has also staged a production of 1776 in the past.
For me an interesting thing happened during the sitzprobe — sitzprobe is a moment when the music and the cast all sing together in a room standing around hand-held microphones to reinforce the voices for that single occasion. Anyway, during the sitzprobe, listening to the arrangements, I realized that I had to rethink my approach as to how my designed sound system would work. Not changing the equipment, but changing how I use the equipment, I reconfigured how the loudspeakers were grouped and a number of other things. I changed my concept of how to treat the orchestra because the new orchestrations impacted my sonic intention and how I felt the audience should hear them.
LR: I’m curious — what was it that you wanted to change?
JD: That's really hard to say because it's not straightforward — without knowing how I design and put things together, and then not knowing how other people design, and then not knowing what you can change and what you can't change, it's like a Rubik's cube. Basically [what I changed] was to treat the orchestra as if we had a controlled orchestra shell. If you attend a live orchestra recital where the orchestra sits in front of a big wooden half shell, this naturally focuses their sound into the audience.
If you've never heard an orchestra by itself, readers, go do it. If you're interested in music, and you get a chance to go, just go and listen to a live orchestra recital without any other distraction other than the musicians themselves. It is one of the best musical experiences you'll ever have. So, I had changed my designed music system to respond in a similar way.
LR: What advice do you have for emerging artists, someone who is perhaps new to a practice of any theatrical craft?
JD: Speaking on the sound side of it, I think there's so many things that one has to do in one’s career before you could be considered an artist. Most sound designers have been mixers and then became an assistant and an associate. Mixing a show day in day out, is a crucial layer in understanding the design process that has to be experienced by an individual and reflects heavily on the end result of a design and the designer. All of my past mixers and associates are now major designers in New York and the West End. It's the same for other designers, their associates become designers.
Now to get in the door, go to the sound rental houses and knock on some doors, or go to the theatre before or even during tech rehearsals to say hello to your favorite designers, leave a note, find out who the sound designer is and introduce yourself.
Speaking with high school students, many are not aware of all the different kinds of jobs that exist in the theatre. It's amazing the fact that I've made a living from something that I love doing, and I have the privilege to sit and listen to the result with an audience, taking in each unique performance, there's nothing better, there is nothing better.