EXCERPTS FROM THE CONVERSATION
Recently Everyman Education Coordinator Andrew Stromyer sat down with Wait Until Dark's Sound Designer Patrick Calhoun for a short conversation about his career path and the joys and frustrations of designing for Wait Until Dark. Below is an excerpt of that conversation. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Andrew Stromyer: How did you become interested in sound design/composition?
Patrick Calhoun: I have always had an ear for music and the sounds of different things around me, but I never really thought of it as something that I would or could do professionally until college. I have always loved music, I sang a lot as a child and I played the trumpet in my school band all the way through high school. I wanted to act, but in high school I got into technical theatre and from there I never turned back. When it came time to decide what I wanted to do for a career, I knew I didn’t want a traditional desk job; theatre was something I was good at and that I enjoyed. I went to Greensboro College in North Carolina for my Bachelors in Technical Theatre. I had one sound class and then just started doing sound on a lot of productions. As I did more and more, I became less interested in the other design fields. Something about the way that the human body responds to sound really intrigues me; a soundscape can take you to a different place, and a piece of music can make you feel a range of emotion in only a few seconds, almost at a primitive level. I went to graduate school to learn more and improve my craft at The University of North Carolina School of the Arts. It is there that I learned to compose. The way it was taught in my class made it attainable and accessible, and I have been composing for shows ever since.
AS: What excites you about working on Wait Until Dark?
"Often when I work on a play, my job is to be as subtle as possible to enhance the story without drawing attention. This show, on the other hand, calls for the subtle sounds to be explicitly noticed."
PC: Wait Until Dark has an incredible amount of opportunity from a sound perspective. Even in first reading the play, the stage directions call for a great deal of sound. The fact that the main character is blind and that we at times want to hear the world as she hears it opens up a lot of doors for a sound designer. Often when I work on a play, my job is to be as subtle as possible to enhance the story without drawing attention. This show, on the other hand, calls for the subtle sounds to be explicitly noticed. On top of those opportunities, Wait Until Dark is a suspense thriller, which almost always cries out for help from sound to help to keep the suspense going and the audience on the edge of their seat; try watching a horror movie or a crime drama on mute and it is instantly less scary or exciting.
AS: What is your creative process like when working on a play?
PC: I always start with the script and trying to understand and imagine the world as the playwright intended. This usually gives me initial ideas, but I don’t start any work on it until I have met with the director and the other designers. Sometimes the director will have a concept for the show that is completely different from how I imagined it. It is important to me that the show be a collaboration and that we are all creating the same world. I then go through the script more [to] create my list of “needs and opportunities” and create a vocabulary for the show. If I have decided to compose music for the show I will research the genre I want to create to find inspiration, then make musical sketches, similar to how an artist would make an initial draft in pencil before painting the whole picture. Once I have a sketch that I like and that the director likes[…] I can create music for the rest of the show. It is important to me that the design sounds like it is cut from the same cloth or from the same album. I go through my “needs and opportunities” and turn it into a cue sheet where I map every sound, music, fade, or live microphone effect that is in the show. The design inevitably changes as we move into tech, but having a clear initial plan helps me be prepared for anything that comes, and I always give myself a toolbox of sounds to work from.
AS: How will you make Susan’s reality come to life for the audience?
PC: Through a combination of sound effects and microphones, of which I will have about nine all over the stage, I am attempting to create the world as Susan perceives it. Sound is the way Susan experiences the world and discovers things around her, and my job is to help the audience step into her shoes and experience it in the same way; if Susan is noticing a sound, it will be heightened for the audience.
AS: What are the advantages of composing original music for a play?
"Humans have a very strong associative memory when it comes to music and if you hear a piece used in a film, you will be thinking of that film and not the play you are sitting in."
PC: Composing original music for a play really opens up the possibilities. It can be challenging to find just the right thing for the moment to convey the mood and style that you want when using pre-recorded music. On top of those challenges, there are copyright concerns for any music created in the last 100 years. Creating original music is very freeing to me; I can craft the music to work exactly right for the moment, and I can even mash together genres and make the sound of the play completely unique. It also helps to take the audience away into the world and story we are creating. Humans have a very strong associative memory when it comes to music and if you hear a piece used in a film, you will be thinking of that film and not the play you are sitting in. Imagine if I underscored this play with music from Star Wars!
AS: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing sound design as a career?
PC: Education was the most important thing for me. There are an increasing number of college programs that teach sound design; research to find out which one will best give you what you are looking for. Outside of that, educate yourself: read books, watch tutorials, talk to other professionals, go to master classes; sound design is both an art and a science. Start paying attention to music: notice how film and television use it, expose yourself to different artists and genres. I never use music in a show just because I like it, I use it because it is appropriate and helps tell the story. Lastly, just listen to the world around you; the sound of the world is rich and interesting, all you have to do is notice. Close your eyes, wait until dark, and listen to the story that your ears are telling.