Falling Into Design

by Vincent Olivieri

A moment from A Picture of Autumn at The Mint Theatre, with sound design by Jane Shaw
A moment from A Picture of Autumn at The Mint Theatre, with sound design by Jane Shaw
Jane Shaw’s sound design helps A Picture of Autumn break out of realism

Jane Shaw has a problem. Two problems. Well, challenges, really. Shaw, a sound designer based out of New York City, is designing a new production of N. C. Hunter’s 1951 play A Picture of Autumn for The Mint Theater.  Like most productions, this one has a couple of looming question marks for both the sound designer and the production as a whole.

The first is that A Picture of Autumn is set in 1951 in the living room of a stately old British manor house, crumbling under disrepair. The disrepair serves as metaphor for the British empire and economy post World War II, so its physical condition needs to be clear. However, Shaw explains that director Gus Kaikkonen wanted to break the production out of realism. The set design, Shaw notes, was “very spare and very quote-unquote modernist. You don’t have a room; you have just a staircase and a fireplace and a mirror.” Rather, Shaw says that Kaikkonen looked towards sound to “help us with period and the world of these people in Britain.” This task was made all the more difficult by an additional note from playwright Hunter: the text specifically notes that the old house has no radio.

The second challenge Shaw faced was less dramaturgical and more practical and personal. The nurse (played by Barbara Eda-Young) is written to be singing songs during some of her entrances. Eda-Young, like many actors, is not as musically adept as her character and needed some additional help learning the songs. As is often the case in productions like this one, the cast of coaching the singing fell to the sound designer. Shaw worked with Eda-Young to develop different strategies for the songs (including exploring the idea of Eda-Young wearing a wire), but none seemed to be successful. How could Shaw help Eda-Young successfully manage her singing and use sound to support the decay of the house, all while supporting the rest of the production through her sound design?

Sound Designer Jane Shaw
Sound Designer Jane Shaw

Finding the Right Chemistry

 

Jane Shaw did not start out her collegiate career intending to become a sound designer. Like many sound designers, she studied music as a child, and while she was drawn to the theatre, she knew that she was not a performer: “I played a fortune teller in a junior high school production, and that was the beginning and the end of” being onstage. Wanting neither to act nor teach viola lessons, she decided on a career more suited towards reliable employment. At Harvard University, Shaw focused on biochemistry. But at the end of her first year she helped a friend run sound for a student production and discovered sound design. From then on, she was hooked on sound design, but she regarded it only as a hobby until she met designer Chris Walker, who was then working at American Repertory Theatre in Boston. Walker “was a person that I watched living his life and doing what he loved.”

 

He was an early mentor and inspiration for Shaw, but he discouraged her from attending graduate school in sound design immediately after finishing her undergraduate studies. “I remember him encouraging me to go to the city first—to live and work as a sound designer to make sure I really wanted to pursue design as a career,” says Shaw. But, since she “had no marketable skills for stagehand work, and certainly needed to earn a living,” Shaw was afraid that she’d be unable to find work in her chosen field. So after her undergraduate college career, she enrolled at Yale School of Drama.

Her time at Yale was a formative experience. Initially, her training filled in key gaps in her background: “Not only did I not have any technical knowledge, I was unaware that I didn’t have any technical knowledge.” (Emphasis Shaw’s.) Her graduate training filled in some of those gaps and also put her in a community full of other artists, all of whom had something to teach. “Here are a bunch of people you can learn from,” Shaw remembers thinking. “Most of which are other people in the program—not necessarily your teachers.”

Shaw particularly recalls how much she learned as a first-year student from her second- and third-year sound design classmates. She also remembers how valuable it was to watch fellow students live within the creative community; watching designers interact with directors, gathering for a drink after rehearsal, etc. “Figuring out how to enter the community of the theatre” was as important, Shaw says, as being around such highly creative people.

Shaw says that her choice to go to graduate school was the right one for her. “I just think if I had shown up [in New York City] with as little knowledge as I had, I would not have been good for the shows that I would have done. It would have been a really painful introduction to the city.” Still, she underscores that the value of a graduate program in sound design depends very much on the student. She rejects the idea of an MFA being a requirement for a design career, emphasizing repeatedly that graduate school training is not the right choice for every young designer.

Two Worlds

After receiving her MFA in 1998, Shaw relocated to New York City to begin her design career in earnest. She took a staff position at NYU and quickly developed a career split between theatre and dance design. In the theatre world, she maintains an extensive Off-Broadway career, with credits at New York Theatre Workshop, Theatre for a New Audience, and long relationships with many companies including The Mint & Theatre 80. In the dance world, her credits include work with Big Dance Theatre, Susan Marshall & Company, and tours with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The creative process for designing for dance versus theatre is similar, Shaw notes, but there are some key differences. “The main difference is text,” Shaw explains. “Text gives you something a little bit more structural to hold onto.” In her view, plays supply a foundation that the production team uses as a polestar to guide their work, but in dance, that foundation must be found elsewhere. Often, it comes from the choreographer, but structure can also come out of workshops with other artists, an inspirational painting or poem, or simply an intellectual idea.  Or, Shaw points out, there may not be a foundational piece of structure. She finds that her theatre experience influences her dance design experience in fundamental ways, particularly regarding this idea of structure. “I don’t think when I do a dance design, anybody thinks that it’s a Cunningham-esque thing, because I am more interested in story.”

The life of a freelance designer means perpetually keeping multiple shows in production, and Shaw manages this as ably as any designer. She has recently opened a number of productions, including Pinkolandia at INTAR and Basilica at Rattlestick Theater. She continues to develop dance pieces, including participating in a workshop/performance in Brattleboro Vermont in June, and, like any other designer, she is beginning work on shows scheduled for production in the coming months and years. But, right now, Jane Shaw is in tech for A Picture of Autumn.

A Picture of Autumn

The Mint Theater is a small theatre in midtown New York City, and unlike many theatres its size, its sound equipment inventory is of unusually high quality. The foundation of the sound delivery system are d&b Audiotechnik loudspeakers with two E12 and two E3 cabinets rooting the system. Additional loudspeakers come from EV (two EV SX100 boxes) and JBL (two Control 1 boxes), with a QSC 18-inch subwoofer producing the low end. Power comes from a motley collection of amplifiers by d&b, Crest and QSC. A Mac Mini running QLab2 through a MOTU UltraLite provides the playback content, and the audio is routed through a Mackie 1402 mixing console. Shaw notes that the leadership at The Mint has been very proactive about replacing aging equipment with high-quality new gear (the d&b inventory being among the most recent equipment purchased), which is unusual for theatres of this size.

Technical rehearsals are times of discovery for designers, and Shaw found that solutions to her two challenges presented themselves during tech of A Picture of Autumn. The pressure of how to aurally convey the decay of the home was tempered by the easing of the strict modernism of the set and by the addition of costumes, which served as visual indicators on what had been a very stark set. Further, Shaw’s research led her to a trove of period radio recordings that she was able to weave into the transitional music. A newscast about a Welsh estate being broken up or a advertisement about what happens when light bulbs grow old served to dramaturgically ground the production without needing to create the appearance of a practical radio onstage (the diegetic presentation of such content could have been too on-the-nose for the characters onstage).

The challenge of the singing nurse was solved without additional technology or extensive singing lessons. In Hunter’s text, the nurse sings only a handful of songs, so each piece draws attention to itself (creating a need to be performed on-tune, in-time, etc.). Instead of trying to hide the imprecision of the singing performance, the production decided to embrace it as an element of character. Shaw credits director Kaikkonen with coming up with the idea of having the nurse sing at every entrance. Through this small change, the nurse’s off-key singing became an endearing character trait rather than a glaring error. In fact, the last lines of The New York Times’ review specifically mentions Eda-Young’s performance, noting that “she sings cheerfully—or perhaps ominously—while bringing tray after tray after tray of unwanted hot cocoa.”

That the solutions to both of Shaw’s challenges on A Picture of Autumn came not from Shaw directly but from her work as part of a team of artists is representative of her work as a designer. She has many long-term collaborators and speaks often about the idea of working within a “community of artists.” Whether designing for dance or theatre, her dedication to the dramaturgy of the piece leads her and her creative partners to meeting unusual challenges with creative solutions.