2: Interviews

Here’s two interviews with me talking about making stuff and all that.
The questions were from students at Bath Spa University.

1. Interview by Connor Sullivan on sound design and site-specific theatre.

– What Site-Specific Theatre Productions have you worked on?
Quite a few, but in recent years:
– ‘Salt In The Sugar Jar’, a performance about grief and cooking that took place in an everyday home. We hid speakers around a living room and kitchen which began by playing effects that felt like they were ‘in the room’; then slowly warped and layered and turned into a soundtrack.
– ‘The Stick House’, a huge immersive theatre show installed in the coal pits underneath Bristol Temple Meads, where scenes played out in a series of vaulted chambers, each with its own set and sound system.
– ‘Ice Road’, an immersive play about the siege of Leningrad, installed in a converted swimming pool in Jacobs Wells, Bristol. It also featured 60 portable speakers that were given to the audience at the top of the show, and were triggered to play files that turned the participants into a kind of orchestra, each with their own part.
– ‘Araliya Lands’, ‘Quartet’, ‘Death In Hikkaduwa’ and ‘Ocean Confessions’, all works-in-progress that took place on a busy tourist beach in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka, the latter at night.
– What are the main challenges that you encounter when Designing Sound on Site-Specific Productions?
It’s usually about the qualities of a space, and the kind of things its acoustics do to amplified sound. It can be really tricky and most of the time you have to design a sound score to fit the challenges of the site. Beyond that it’s usually about finding the right equipment, and typically making the most of limited resources — budgets are always tight and you have to be imaginative. Implicit in the idea of site-specific work is that you tend to be constructing a ‘theatre’ from scratch, and that requires a different mindset to stepping into a fully-tested, fully-maintained and regularly-staffed theatre environment.
– How did you overcome these challenges?
Talking to the director and producers, constantly — asking lots of questions, trying to pre-empt issues; but there’s always some unforseen glitch that crops up midway through, or in the middle of tech! I’ve become an advocate for R&D well in advance of the production period, and a very focussed R&D process that aim to either identify or answer very specific questions. It’s normally about testing technical propositions very thoroughly, so that you don’t end up patching stuff together at the last minute.
– Have you ever heard of either of the following Phrases; ‘The 4th wall of a Production’ or ‘The Barrier between Audience and Production’?
Yep, well I’ve heard plenty of variations on them. You’ve seen Deadpool where he breaks the 4th wall within a 4th wall break, and says “That’s like… 16 walls…”?
The barrier between audience and production is an interesting one because identifying where it stands is so connected to questions of taste. I think I personally make work for more curious audiences, and that sometimes means my stuff goes down better with younger people, because they haven’t always made up their mind about the world. It’s interesting, for instance, looking at the reaction to the use of microphones in theatre – they’re a technology like any other, like electric lighting or central heating, but some audiences have a very negative reaction to their presence in, say, an adaptation of Charles Dickens or a Chekhov play… as if the buzz of the lighting rig and the automated fading of the lights isn’t just as present, just as modern.
– Have you been able to ‘break’ the concepts above and put the audience at the ‘heart of the production’ through the use of Sound?
I think sometimes ‘breaking’ is the wrong idea. I think you just have to change the nature of an invitation to the audience, and I’m always very very careful about what invitations are made to the audience. There are explicit ways you can do it (eg The Encounter by Complicité which I saw on tour, where the performer explains all the tech at the top of the show) or implicitly, more subtly. There are lots of ways you might make people comfortable about change, and it so often relies on the relationship between content and form, the shape you mould it into.
There’s an interesting thing at the heart of all this, a thing about ‘immersion’ and ‘Immersive Theatre’. I’ve got a bit of a problem with the terms even though I have to use them all the time as a shortcut. They strike me as a bit redundant. All good theatre is immersive. And I’m a musician — music is, by default, an immersive artform.
But that aside I think it’s for an audience to tell me whether I’ve ‘immersed’ them or not. I think it’s one of a huge variety of possible outcomes. Sometimes feeling you’re at ‘the heart’ of something is actually feeling troubled, a bit unsure, a bit weirded out. It depends on the context.
– How have you been able to put the audience at the heart of the production through the use of Sound before?
My own company Sleepdogs have made a whole string of shows which use sound design as the principle or ‘leading’ element of form, as important to the invitation to our audience as the presence of actors or the nature of the room we were in.
We did one piece called “The Bullet And The Bass Trombone” which was a one-performer show about a concert orchestra caught in a tropical city during a military coup. The complex portrait of people and places and events was achieved almost entirely through sound — the acting style was low-key, naturalistic; the set was just a bunch of illuminated music stands, etc. The soundtrack was mixed and played live; we used news reports, recorded interviews, diary entries read out loud, field recordings that had been edited and arranged to become music, samples of orchestral instruments that we could loop and layer to become a symphony, and then some direct address to the audience in amongst all of it. You could see the performer manipulating all this, the equipment was all visible, there were lots of moments where the audience was just sitting and listening, or watching the performer slowly adjust something very very specific.
By the end of the show we’d always have people googling to see if the events we were talking about were real, talking to us about how moving they’d found it… so I think it’s fair to say we transported our audience to that place, those stories.
– Is there any particular technology that has made this possible?
– If yes, what is it and how did it help?
Yeah, see above. Digital tech is pretty much essential to the way I work, I’m usually laptop-based and my go-to technique is to create a palette of sounds from original sources at the beginning of any project, using it as the basis for everything that follows as much as possible. I don’t often use ‘library’ sounds or sound effects, I very rarely employ spot FX – I find them almost universally disappointing or comical – and if I do, I tend to make them from scratch somehow, so I also do a lot of location and studio recording. For Ice Road the sound of World War II bombers flying over the city was made out of recordings of cellos and double basses, for instance.
– Have you ever seen a production that has been able to successfully put the audience at the heart of the production before in any form of theatre?

Yeah, all the time. Not so much in mainstream theatre, mind you. I tend to find experiences like this more in the fields of live art or performance art or music. I often find the best theatrical experiences in gigs or concerts or places that aren’t somehow connected to large institutions, and therefore institutional ways of thinking. I think the reason for this is that a lot of conventional theatrical practice is wrapped up in the idea of craft, of the correct way of doing things; the answer to the pressure of time is to develop conventions and immediately responsive techniques, and it doesn’t always make the right amount of space for innovation or deep, interesting questions. Brian Eno: “Craft is what allows you to be successful when you’re not feeling inspired.”

– How was putting the audience at the heart of those productions accomplished?

If there’s a common thread to things that I’ve felt have put me at the heart of a performance, it’s usually that they treated me as curious and willing, that they didn’t assume I was sitting or standing in that audience for any one overriding reason. I think this is an issue for creative technicians as well as directors, actors etc, it’s something that needs to infuse technical aims and ambitions – just don’t make assumptions and always stay curious.
I’m usually very careful and precise as a sound designer and I like making fluid, accumulative sonic worlds. But recently I worked on an adaptation of a punk film from the 1970s, full of anger and mess. The brilliant in-house sound team was often a bit perturbed at how unconcerned I was by the niceties of how things were sounding, about the quality of the voices in the microphones, etc. My take was – it’s punk. In places it’s gonna sound fucking nasty.

I mean for me, it would be a category error, it would knock me out of the experience, if I went to see a show based on punk and it had the deep and mesmerising tones of my usual stuff, if it was totally perfectly mixed. So my job there was to swallow my pride and make it all about the rage and the mess – that was my part in putting the audience at the heart of the show.


2. Interview by Douglas Murdoch on playwriting and cross-disciplinary working

– Obviously alongside your work as a writer, you are a composer and this feeds into to your work significantly. But I was wondering which came first, in terms of career aims – had you always wanted to pursue the composition/sound landscapes, and theatre was a way to explore that, or was it something you discovered later that enhanced your writing?

I don’t think I ever had a plan. I grew up loving music, playing drums, piano etc, but never really got into the sight-reading, theory-of-music aspects. That made studying music unrealistic but my dream was to work as a composer, for film especially. In my last few years at high school I got seriously into computer music and synths, and I’d invested in bits and pieces of my own tech. So I went to study Drama, Film and TV at Bristol University and aimed to be the person everyone went to for their soundtracks, and that’s pretty much what happened.

But I’d always written as a kid (prose and graphic novel mostly) and at university I also wrote my own plays, adapted certain things I loved, and got seriously into performance art, live art and what’s broadly called experimental theatre, which struck me as the most exciting form of theatre at the time – still does, for the most part.

When I graduated I worked with Edgar Wright, Matt Lucas and David Walliams on my first TV commissions, and subsequently managed to get myself typecast as a comedy composer, which left me a bit despondent – I was angling for ‘the next Clint Mansell’ I reckon. Throughout all this I kept writing spec scripts for screen, and got some meetings with agents and producers, but was then faced with a choice: sign a major label deal with my band, or keep working in comedy and go on various screenwriting schemes. I chose the record deal.

We had a great time but the record industry stuff didn’t work out for us, and it was a bit of a confidence blow to me – I seriously wondered if creatively I was too picky a collaborator, too uncompromising. In some ways I think I definitely was in the context of the mainstream music industry.

It wasn’t a grand plan, but looking back what happened was: for a decade I took a few part-time day jobs – working in libraries and archives (which I loved, ideal for a writer) while continuing to test the waters with various forms of creative process and discipline. It’s often said it takes 10 years to hone your writing craft to a professional level, and that seems to have been true for me, but it happened alongside other things: working out how to be the kind of artist I really wanted to be.

People were saying ‘focus on one thing, move to London, do yourself justice’. But I knew deep down I would be miserable giving up all aspects of my work to focus on just one. So instead I got seriously into mixing and matching influences, making the most of my cross-cultural connections. I wrote critically about live art for a while, making small performances that shifted between live art and fiction theatre, then getting back into writing scripts for stage and screen, all the time still recording and touring with my band, making my own short films, etc. I kept having little successes that pushed me forward, and with the support of my partner I was able to keep on top of what they all meant, what they marked.

One little victory was that I made a short film from archive material in the BBC vaults that got me noticed within the Beeb, and I spent some time shadowing the production of Doctor Who series III. One of the script editors, Lindsey Alford, kindly suggested an extremely off-the-record, unofficial trial run at a script for the CBBC series they were about to make, The Sarah Jane Adventures. My story would never be made, but writing it would tell me some home truths about the job. I had a go, and discovered something new: I loved the puzzle-solving aspects of scriptwriting, the craft of it. Lindsey gave me a whole bunch of theoretical situations that I had to respond to quickly in rewrites, and I had a great time. It was a shock. The back-and-forth that frustrated me when making music for other people, I absolutely loved when writing scripts. So around 2008 I started seriously writing things for other people to make, including the first stage plays I’d written since I’d been a student. I realised the way to work as a cross-disciplinary artist was to accept that I had a different ‘voice’ or attitude for the different fields, that it wasn’t a question of having some kind of big unified vision – just enjoying the ride, basically.


– After you’d decided to write your first piece, what were your first steps into making that a reality – how did you get it from page to stage, so to speak? Did you have to self-produce?

Yep, and I’d recommend it to anyone. I think it’s kind of essential actually. My partner and I formed our company Sleepdogs because the making processes we were interested in didn’t really fit the model of dramaturgical development we were seeing – even though what we were making was, definitively, scripted theatre. Our ideas perhaps fell between too many stools so it seemed sensible just to make them ourselves. Our first full-length play, BUZZARD, was commissioned and staged thanks to an open call by Theatre Bristol and Bristol Old Vic in 2009, the year that BOV was technically shut down. Then we formed the company a couple of years later, with the aim of making my scripts, directed in a way Tanuja felt was progressive and modern.

It’s a fantastic way of learning. I think you get better at working with other producers, it improves your writing no end to be working on your own costume design, to act, to write marketing copy, to rig the lights, etc. It doesn’t mean I’m a multi-tasking jack-of-all-trades but I’ve done the same on film sets or recording studios, and got stuck in whenever possible.

What I hope is that as a result your scripts become an enticing invitation to all your collaborators, because in the back of your mind you’re thinking: what challenges would I find interesting, doing those jobs? So for instance most of my scripts now have at least one ‘moment of magic’ for every single role, no matter how small, a moment that as I’m writing I think: yeah, I’d love to sink my teeth into that as a performer. The upshot of doing that is while my characters definitely have arcs, I rarely find myself consciously designing the ‘character journey’ these days, because it’s kind of summed up in those moments… so instead I can let the characters roam free and surprise me, knowing that I’ve always got that key incident where an actor can do some brilliant work and encapsulate a personality. When reading a script back, if I get excited on the performers’ behalf as well as from the point of view of an audience, then there’s a chance the script is working well.


– I’ve seen from your website and from your recent projects that you’ve spanned a vast variety of scriptwriting, from film to radio to theatre and so forth. How have you managed to jump from one medium to the other? I imagine it’s quite creatively satisfying writing for a variety of media, but do you find it difficult to flip to different styles? Or is it perhaps a necessity career-wise, and you’d rather just work in one medium in particular?

See the long and convoluted answer to question 1, I guess! No, I much prefer working in different media.

Re: jumping around like a blue-arse fly. It kind of helps that I don’t really have a set routine as a writer, and only very rarely do I return wholesale to a particular writing process. Generally speaking every single project brings a different set of approaches, because I like surprising myself, and I foolishly believe it might result in surprising audiences. I don’t think it necessarily means that I fudge my own ‘voice’ and I hope it doesn’t disappoint audiences who like one particular aspect of what I do – I’ve spotted plenty of things that show up in pretty much everything I write.

But in order to be able to work on music and sound design at the same time as scriptwriting I’ve had to get good at working almost anywhere. My last play was written mostly on trains. The writing of the current Sleepdogs show has us wandering around the ballroom of an ex-social club in Bristol with bits of paper all over the floor, drawing ‘emotional maps’ of the show rather than plotting its ‘story’. And I’ve got a desk at Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, which has turned into the best place for my general productivity; the deal with PM Studio is you have to be professionally interruptible (within reason) available to talk to or advise other residents, to explain what you’re doing to any visitors, etc. It really focuses you and there’s the sense that everyone in the place is up to something new and exciting. Influences and ideas from random conversations there constantly creep into my work.

It doesn’t mean that I’ve perfected a working process, though. In the last few months I’ve had to turn down most composition and sound design jobs for other companies because of the sheer amount of time I spend on it, beyond the contract – I always overwork on anything music-related, and it’s begun to affect my writing output. So I’ve had to take a step back and make resolutions only to work on Sleepdogs sounds for a while, until the scripts get back up to speed.

The handbrake turns between jobs are what makes it exciting for me, though. There’s a space somewhere in the very middle of each leap that makes for magic. So that when I feel uninspired, rather than turning to pure craft as a solution, instead I’ll find myself thinking more like a musician when writing a stage play for instance. Or I’ll be watching a DVD commentary as research for a TV idea and suddenly it’ll give me a solution to the song lyric I’m writing. The method seems to be: just be open to accident, chance and any connections you might not fully understand until they’re put to work.


– Of course, I can’t go without mentioning the Bruntwood. Congratulations of course (although I’m sure you’re sick to death of hearing that), but I’ve seen that this was far from your first submission for the competition. What do you think made this the one that finally achieved the goal? Is there a particular theme that you’ve found is hot in theatre at the moment that you piqued, or do you think it’s simply that the practice has finally led to a mastery of your craft?

Woah dude, ‘mastery’? Don’t think I’m there yet. Kind of hope I never will be.

Thanks. I’m not sick of hearing it! Still doesn’t quite register if I’m honest, although the project itself gets more and more exciting each time it’s discussed which is a great sign.

I hope the script didn’t win because I found a ‘topical theme’ or that anyone read a message or statement of any kind into the play – or at least, if they did, I hope it was a different thing detected by each reader. But I genuinely didn’t expect Heartworm to make the headway it did, I thought I was handing in the most oblique thing I’d ever entered into the prize. Maybe I was. But something in there made a connection.

I wrote it so that it was like a waking dream, completely following my instincts, so I’m not sure it’s necessarily helpful to quantify what exactly its qualities are for the benefit of other writers. For me, as far as I can tell, the lesson seems to be: ‘be yourself, only more so’. Annoyingly.

But in terms of repeat entries, yeah – the biggest lesson of my last decade of creativity is that if you keep putting stuff out there, in whatever way, it keeps coming back to surprise you. It can take years, decades even, but people eventually notice, and if you’re really lucky they end up being good collaborators and partners too. Just working, working, working, makes you better. And you can keep doing it on your own terms as well – as long as you’ve got options B, C and D waiting for when the A options don’t quite pan out, or slow down, or crash and burn.

The late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson said (paraphrasing here) that the normal career model is you find what you’re good at, and keep doing that one thing; but he wanted to keep learning, keep growing, for every new step to be different. That resonates with me, that’s the journey I’m after.


– Finally, I just wondered what your favourite thing about writing is at the moment? What’s the thing that really drives you?

I reckon it’s always been the same: surprise, discovery, writing something I haven’t seen or heard before, or writing something that shifts gear unexpectedly on something I know and love. Broadly speaking I’ve always preferred art that transports and transforms as opposed to art that confirms and conforms. But at the moment, with the dominant political culture being one that denies empathy, that seeks to lock down and categorise human lives in material terms alone, to suppress and belittle human complexities, I think I’m especially focused on celebrating the wonderful uncertainties of the world. I’m convinced you can do that on pretty much any platform, as long as you’re respectful of the context and the audience. My usual strategy is to chuck in a shitload of jokes and hope that some of them work. So along with all the poncey socio-political stuff, I guess I’m driven to write by endorphins, cos I spend most of my time sitting at a laptop and having a right old giggle.