Far from being daunted by a lack of sound instruction in the script, Brooklyn-based sound designer Nicholas Pope sees it as an invitation to open interpretation.
As published on ArtsCultureBeat.com on March 31, 2014 [a student-run site as part of the M.A. Arts & Culture concentration at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism].
Shakespeare is not known for elaborate musical numbers or sound effects. The playwright offered some indication as to sound settings, such as an approaching storm or a band playing, in his writing; otherwise, there was little in Shakespeare’s hand to guide future publishers or producers on the subject of sound. Far from being daunted by this lack of instruction, Brooklyn-based sound designer Nicholas Pope sees it as an invitation to open interpretation.
Pope, who graduated from the Yale School of Drama and has been in sound design for about seven years, most often works on musicals, but has done several Shakespeare plays in the past. This spring, he is the co-sound designer of a production of King Lear by the Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA), a New York company that has specialized in Shakespeare since its founding in 1979.
“There’s definitely no clues in the script,” explains Pope. “Shakespeare has been done lots and lots of different ways over the years, and because there isn’t a hard convention written into the script, you’re allowed to kind of find your own, if you will. So it provides lots of opportunities.”
For King Lear, Pope shares his title with composer Michael Attias, who has written the music for this production. Attias, having worked with Pope on other shows, brought him into this project. According to Pope, he and Attias work “incredibly close” with each other, though their roles are intrinsically different. While Attias, also one of three musicians for the play, is charged with producing the sound and musical material—including war-like drumming and eerie, metallic banging for a storm—Pope says it is his job to “apply it differently — to move it around the room, to allow people to hear it, to change it, to modify it, so on and so forth.” This production uses area microphones instead of individually miking each performer, so Pope must be in agreement with the director and actors when it comes to how each scene will be delivered. If an actor decides to whisper a line, for instance, it is Pope’s job to make sure the audience hears every word while still preserving that actor’s interpretation.
“Theater is a live art form of telling a story, essentially. And if we’re telling different stories, it doesn’t work very well,” Pope says with a laugh. “So, all of us have to be on the same page—the director, lighting designer, sound designer, actors, musicians, all need to be telling the same story and then it works.”
The biggest challenge Pope faces in bringing the words of King Lear to the audience is the theater space itself. Theatre for A New Audience’s new home at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn features a thrust stage, which Pope describes as “sound designers’ nightmares.” A thrust stage extends into the audience on three sides and is connected to the backstage by its upstage area. The left and right sides of the Polonksy main stage are about fifty feet long (from upstage to backstage) and upstage is about twenty feet wide. Each side has three tiers of seating—orchestra level and two balconies—surrounding it. Because of this setup, the number of seating areas is multiplied, complicating the way sound must be timed and amplified in order to reach each area equally. Ideally, however, audience members will be blissfully ignorant of any sound design whatsoever, wherever they happen to be sitting.
Much like King Lear favorite Poor Tom, Nicholas Pope is content with his identity being hidden despite the hard work he does, saying that “Most of the time I consider my job extremely well done when no one knows that I’ve been there.” But his role is very important to not only the audience but also the actors, director, and the rest of the production staff—without it, the story they are telling would not be complete.