A peek behind theatre’s sonic curtain

Most theatre-goers know that bringing a play to life is the work of more than just the actors onstage. There’s the director and stage manager of course plus the tech crew and also the designers who create costumes sets lighting — and sound. Sound design for theatre can range from musical scores to ambient sounds to crucial sound effects all to make the play a more immersive experience.

Peter Moller is a veteran theatre sound designer having worked with companies such as Theatre Junction Ghost River Theatre Downstage and The Old Trout Puppet Workshop over the past 20-odd years. He’s a multiple Betty Mitchell Award-winner for sound design and has also snagged a few Elizabeth Sterling Awards in Edmonton. Currently you can hear his work in Alberta Theatre Projects’ The Motherfucker With the Hat .

“Good sound design can be the soul of the production” says Vanessa Porteous Alberta Theatre Projects’ artistic director. “It can be the emotional life it can be a counterpoint it can highlight themes — it is another voice in the show with the actors and the text.”

Moller however downplays any singular importance attached to sound design. “The sound design necessarily has to work with everything to give it [a play] one big cohesive overall feel” he says. “I don’t think that an audience should really necessarily hear a sound design as much as it sees a really good theatre piece.”

Moller who also works as a graphic designer and musician says that the process for creating theatrical soundscapes isn’t so different than the work in those other arenas of his life. Sound design isn’t the type of creative pursuit that can done in isolation nor is it one with an established process or roadmap.

“Every project is different and that’s the beauty of it — very seldom is it the same process and it’s a learning curve for everybody” he says explaining that his work is particular to both the production and the director’s vision. “There are some directors who don’t ever want to use underscoring because they don’t want to manipulate the audience into feeling this that or the other thing. For other directors who want to use a lot of sound once they start hearing sound then they want to incorporate more of it.”

The trick is to stay flexible: “[Sound design] has to be malleable and serve the end goal which is a cool piece of theatre.”

When sound effects are required Moller collects his sound from anywhere and everywhere; with the advent of digital technology Moller is no longer confined to the studio to create specific sounds. For example the sound of a shower curtain in The Motherfucker With the Hat is Moller’s very own.

But that only goes for pre-recorded sound design; sound design can also be live just like an accompanying band. “If it’s live sound design then the world’s your oyster it depends on what you have in front of you” explains Moller. “In my percussion arsenal I have lots of different kinds of metal objects.”

Creating the sound of thunder is a classic example of the work of a sound designer and Moller can imitate it with thunder sheets. Still he says “I think that people appreciate that it’s not really thunder that it’s more of a musical interpretation of it.”

The tools of his trade however are all in service of theatre and Moller pools his talents with those of other designers directors tech crew and actors.

“The best art or the best creations seem to me to be things that incorporate many ideas” says Moller. “Every new theatre piece is just that a new theatre piece and it’s unlike the previous one that you did…. It’s a brand new day every time you start one of these and it keeps it fresh.”