Working as a sound designer

 28 June 2012

Steve Mayo is the Head of Sound for Barbican Theatres. He spoke about how he got the training and experience to build his career in theatre, and how he keeps the passion for his work.

Steve Mayo is the head of sound for Barbican Theatres.
Steve Mayo is the head of sound for Barbican Theatres.

"Audiences should see sound as something that’s just part of the production. And they should only ever really notice it when it goes wrong."

Getting into sound

When Steve left school, he wanted to work as a session guitarist. He was doing a BTEC in Performing Arts at Wrexham, but found himself fascinated with speakers and sound.

"I’d always look at sound and was fascinated with how it worked. It was more invisible as an art form in terms of setting it up. But sound was always this mysterious running in of cables."

"I was never any good academically. I was taken on due to my passion."

As his course progressed, Steve became more and more interested in sound. He went on to train as a sound technician in Manchester.

From there, he moved to London, and it was there he really decided that sound was for him.

One of his first jobs was a production of Dracula. The sound designer couldn’t be there for the technical rehearsal, so Steve had to take over at the last minute. That’s when he had a moment of revelation.

"The director changed everything on the Saturday night before the show started. I remember spending at least three nights, really late, changing all the sound set up.

"There was a key moment at about three in the morning where I was in a control room, a few microphones over me, with all these pieces of celery and half opened melons.

"I was putting my hand in to get squidgy noises, making the sound of a stake going through a heart. And I was thinking, god, this is a great job!"

Soon afterwards, he began working at the Barbican as a member of the team he now leads. Much of what he knows was learnt on the job as he helped change the set up between shows.

Working as a sound designer

Although there is a lot of rehearsing involved, Steve doesn’t find the work monotonous. Going from intimate stage shows to a production more like a rock concert keeps his job varied and challenging.

"Say you’re doing the Tempest and want to involve the audience within the story from the beginning. Then you make sure you’ve got enough speakers around the auditorium so that you can bring waves crashing out from stage through the auditorium.

"I was putting my hand in a melon to get squidgy noises, making the sound of a stake going through a heart."

"My job is really to facilitate all those requirements. Especially here at the Barbican, there’s always something new in what you’re trying to do."

Productions at The Barbican are varied. Complicite’s Master and Marguerita included lots of video and sound installation. Contrasting with that was Big and Small, a more abstract and subtle show.

"It requires a different way of thinking. Then we’ve just done a piece called Einstein on the Beach, which was having its British premier. It was a five hour long opera with twenty singers and ten people in a band."

"Our orchestra pit needed a monitor. Then there was one a front of house for the auditorium, and all the singers had in-ear monitors.

"So we put in split systems for every microphone that went in, allowing another three outputs to come out. It made this amazing piece of theatre, probably one of the things I’m proudest about that we’ve done here."

Getting experience in technical theatre

Steve took a degree in technical theatre, and feels that’s a good place to get a start.

"Given the various disciplines of technical theatre – stage management, lighting, sound, stage work, scenic painting, prop painting – if you do a course at a good college, of which London particularly has plenty, then it gives you the opportunity to try all those flavours."

"Students go in thinking they were going to do one thing, then completely change at the end of three years."

Initially Steve thought he was going to get into lighting when he started his BTEC, but experience changed his mind.

"I taught at Guildhall for a year and a half, and saw students having that same experience: going in thinking they were going to do one thing, then completely changing by the end of their three years."

A college course can be a great place to get a feel for what aspect you might enjoy. But that’s not to say it’s the only way in. Work placements are an excellent way to learn on the job. Many theatres and sound companies have schemes that could work for you.

"We’re very strong on work placements here in my department. I did a couple myself and they were really beneficial to me.

At the moment we’ve got seventeen-year-old, he started as a work placement and worked really well with us. He’s got one of the next two places on our apprentice scheme, so he’ll spend the next 18 months here.

"He’ll do three months in stage, lighting and sound. Then choose which one he likes and do a further six to nine months in the chosen department that he wants to work in. So we can nurture people on a more personal scale."

Where you should look for experience opportunites depends on where you want to go. With a bit of research you can find out which companies work in the field you’re interested in. If you get in touch with them, they can tell you what they might have for you.

"If you like musical theatre, Autograph Sound Hires do most of the musicals in London. If you want to do theatre, I’d personally recommend places like the National Theatre, the Almeida or the Royal Court. They produce their own shows in-house, so you actually see how that process gets put together."

Keeping the passion for a theatre career

"I was never any good academically, I had a minimal amount of GSCEs and stuff. I ended up being taken on due to my passion for sound and the excitement of having found something that I thought: this could be my career, I could happily do this."

"I watch the audience when they were doing twenty minute standing ovations. This is why we do it."

Finding something you’re passionate about is a big part of choosing a career. Once you’ve found that passion, it can sometimes get a bit lost in the day-to-day details of your job.

Like any theatrical work, you provide other people with entertainment. The hours you keep can be quite long and anti-social. After all, you have to work while other people are out to play! It can be tough to keep your morale up sometimes. Steve knows how he keeps himself switched on.

"If a production’s been really tricky to get on, every so often I get a ticket, or go and stand in the auditorium. I don’t watch the show necessarily.

"I watch the audience. It kind of reinvigorates the reason why you’ve done it. I did it with Einstein on the Beach.

"At the end, when they were doing twenty minute standing ovations, it’s one of those moments of thinking you know, this is why we do it."

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