Industry Insights: Sound Designer Carolyn Downing

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014 by Tricycle

The House That Will Not Stand at The Tricycle Theatre. Photograph by Mark Douet  I80A3596

Today we have a guest blog from Olivier award-winner Carolyn Downing, the Sound Designer for our current production The House That Will Not Stand, as part of our #IndustryInsights series. Carolyn tells us about her career and how she became a sound designer, as well as what inspired her when working on The House That Will Not Stand.

I was enticed into theatre from a very young age and originally wanted to become an actor. This all changed when I realised I wasn’t having much success with acting roles in my school days and I knew I wanted to be pro-active and actually work rather than just wait for the right thing to come along… I met the late Steve Brown at an open day at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester and he invited me to spend a week shadowing him and the team in the sound department. This was completely inspiring, I loved the whole atmosphere, especially the fact that I was surrounded by people doing wonderful things, it was such a social environment, very addictive.

I have always been drawn towards the live element of theatre, the coming together of people, backstage, onstage and front of house. Live music, live bands and gig culture has always been a passion of mine and was a huge part of my life in my teenage years and early twenties. I was driven by the excitement of the live atmosphere and would much rather spend my last £10 on a gig ticket than buy the studio album, so my record collection was never particularly reflective of my musical interests.

Once I’d caught the theatre bug and realised that sound design was a real option and an exciting part of the industry to be involved in and with much help and support from Steve, I managed to score a place on the sound design course at Central School of Speech and Drama, London which was pretty wonderful and meant I was able to fulfill my ambition to earn a degree at drama school, surrounded by talented artists and crafts people, having the chance to experiment in a safe environment, meaning mistakes were huge learning opportunities rather than failures, which is very important, especially in what can be quite a cut throat industry at times.

From there I was lucky enough to land a No 1 operating job in the West End enabling me to gain invaluable technical and interpersonal skills that I still rely on now. Once I flew the nest into the volatile freelance world to hopefully start a full time design career, I was again lucky enough to meet some amazing and very inspiring sound designers who supported me and were generous enough to allow me to develop my skills on their watch, namely Gareth Fry and Paul Arditti, to whom I am forever grateful. I was also privileged to work with a number exciting and fascinating directors of varying degrees of experience, giving me a solid and thorough training in all aspects of the job whilst allowing me to be able to experiment and develop my own passions and styles.

The House That Will Not Stand at The Tricycle Theatre. Photograph by Mark Douet  I80A3969
I have worked with Indhu previously on Handbagged so had built up a good relationship with her already. When there was another opportunity to create with her I barely batted an eye! This time round she brought composer Paul Englishby on board so the dynamic would immediately be different. During our first meeting together it soon became clear that Paul and I worked in a very similar way. We were both very keen for the sound design and musical composition to be of the same world and always complement each other to create a score and sound palette such that the audience would not know where the music ended and the sound design began. It seemed that Indhu trusted us from the outset and tended to give us broad strokes of direction and leave us to fill in the details which is a real privilege and very exciting to have such freedom. Marcus’s text provided us with rich textures to draw from and although he had seemingly been fairly prescriptive in the way he’d described the environment and atmosphere, I found him to be very open to our interpretations so the text became this incredibly inspiring world to set us off on the journey.

I took inspiration for the design from a number of places, certainly from the text initially but also Tom Piper’s set design / visual references – I began to collect metallic textures to chime in with the cage imagery he had developed. Paul Englishby intended to use piano as a strong element in his orchestration and was keen that any accompaniments would be distant and haunting pianos / keyboards. With this in mind, we decided to explore the sounds of broken and smashed pianos as part of the language and voice of the house shaking / moving and Lazare’s hauntings, again working hand in hand with the metallic palette already established.

I would say my biggest challenge of the production was the final song. We were not sure how this would play out as we were definitely keen to keep it live although the story structure and the nature of the auditorium presented a number of challenges. It worked out very well however and I was very happy with the end result.

The people involved in the show have definitely been the highlight of the experience. Everyone of them is highly talented and professional, such a joy to work with, making the whole experience so easy and enjoyable.


The House That Will Not Stand is now on stage until 22 November. Click here to watch the trailer and to book.

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