Interview: John Leonard, sound designer for A View from the Bridge

Interview: John Leonard, sound designer for A View from the Bridge

Friday, 20 February 2015

Meet the man behind the sound. John A Leonard tells us how he got into sound design and gives us an insight into the process.

How did you become a designer? Where did you train?
I became interested in sound and theatre from about the age of ten, but there was no such thing as a sound designer back then. So, although I knew I wanted to work in theatre from a very early age, there was no defined career path to follow. I did a one-year technical course at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, which covered every aspect of technical theatre, from prop-making to set design. Sound was just a part of the curriculum.

How did you get your first job designing?
I worked in the sound department of the Bristol Old Vic, which ran three theatres in four-weekly rep. There were two of us at first, then my boss left and wasn’t replaced, so there was just me. I did all shows in all theatres for the next four years.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career as a sound designer?
The hours are long, the work is hard and the pay is terrible. If you persist, get a good grounding in the technical side of things as well as the artistic side. Develop an eclectic taste in music and go to as many plays as you can.

What was your first experience of theatre?
My very first experience of theatre was starring in the nativity play at St Michael & All Angels Church. I had the lead and I was two months old. After that, school plays, pantomime at Christmas, Gilbert & Sullivan when those shows were in town and then a steady diet of rep at the Bristol Old Vic, where I was able to get cheap tickets from the age of 11 onwards. I had no role models other than the chap who did the sound at the Bristol Old Vic. This was in the late 1960s and theatre sound design hadn’t been invented. I learned from him or through trial and error and being shouted at or complimented by directors. 

What is a sound plot and at what stage do you work that out?
A sound plot is a list of all the sounds and music required in the show, when the sounds should start and finish, and the direction from which the sound should come. I’ll start with a preliminary list and then modify that over the course of rehearsals. Very often, there will be a sound system in the rehearsal room so that the sounds can be tried out during rehearsals, which saves time at the technical rehearsals and also gets the actors used to any sounds and music that we’re planning to use.

How do you approach sound design and how do you design a sound rig?
I don’t have a fixed way of approaching sound design: every show, every director and every venue is different and is approached in a different way. For example, on a complicated show, I may be in rehearsals for much of the time, trying things out and seeing how they fit with the action. On a simple ‘dog bark & doorbell’ show, I may just prepare a set of effects and visit rehearsals only two or three times.

The design of the rig depends on the content of the show and also, to a certain extent, on the available equipment and the size of the budget. Generally, I’ll use a specific computer-based playback system and distribute sounds to loudspeakers arranged around the stage and auditorium. If the show is touring, there are time pressures and staffing to be considered as well, so a rig may have to be simplified if there is neither the time or the personnel to set up a more complex rig.

How do you approach the different sound cues and when do you establish what these are?
This will be done in consultation with the director and, if there is one, the composer. Things will evolve during the rehearsal period as we all find out more about the play and the way it’s being staged. It’s essential to be a team player. There’s no point in putting together a soundtrack that doesn’t relate to what’s happening on the stage. In most cases, the audience has paid to see the play, not to listen to your soundtrack. 

A View from the Bridge opened at Theatre Royal, Nottingham, where it ran from 4 to 7 March 2015. It then toured to Cheltenham, Darlington, Wolverhampton, Bradford, Coventry and Edinburgh, where it concluded on 2 May.