Sound designer Emma Laxton tells Liz Hoggard about how she hears in colour, cutting her teeth on new writing at the Royal Court, and upcoming projects Blood Wedding at the Young Vic and Vassa at the Almeida
Emma Laxton has synaesthesia. “I hear in colour,” she says, “which, as someone once told me, is a completely useless superpower. When I talk about sound, I like to talk about feelings and textures. I’ll describe it as ‘a bit blue velvety’ or ‘sparkly white’. Josie [Rourke] used to find it hilarious.”
Laxton has been designing sound for plays and musicals for 20 years. She has stood for hours in corridors persuading actors to bark – for The Hundred and One Dalmatians at Birmingham Rep – simulated an airport bomb-scare for Terrorism, and then a ravaged shell of a Gaza Strip building in My Name Is Rachel Corrie, both at London’s Royal Court. “I love the diversity of projects you work on, both real and not-real, and the subjects and cultures you learn about,” she says.
In 2014, Laxton won the Falstaff award for best sound design/original score for Coriolanus at London’s Donmar Warehouse, starring Tom Hiddleston. More recently she worked on Measure for Measure with Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden at the same venue, and the West End transfer of Emilia, about the life of forgotten poet Emilia Lanier.
And now she’s designing sound for Yaël Farber’s production of Blood Wedding at the Young Vic, a dramatic reinterpretation by Irish playwright Marina Carr of Federico García Lorca’s 1932 tragedy.
Laxton is working closely on the soundscape with composer Isobel Waller-Bridge, who wrote the music for her sister Phoebe’s Fleabag. “Isobel has had conversations about some of the songs, and what we’d more specifically call music, but there’s a whole world of atmosphere in the play which the two of us will make together. I will probably say: ‘We need it to be in a certain pitch, so you’ll need to guide me, or I’ll throw it back your way.’ And that’s the fun bit, when you have a buddy. Because it can be quite isolating as a designer, sat with your headphones on, in your own little world.”
Set in a rural village surrounded by parched mountains, Carr’s Blood Wedding fuses Spanish and Irish mysticism, and has a cast that includes Brid Brennan and Aoife Duffin. “There’s a whole supernatural environment,” Laxton says. “The other day I was thinking: ‘What’s the aural equivalent of dry ice?’ So I’ll throw that at Isobel later – what does that sound like? I quite often use visual references to imagine sound. I do use my ears obviously, but I always want to know what the set and the space will look like.”
She cut her teeth on new writing at London’s Bush Theatre and the Royal Court. Back then they could never afford a composer. “I don’t write music but I can manipulate something that someone else has written. But today increasingly more people want original material in their shows and I’m often with a composer now. The director will ask for a feeling or a sensation, and you can look at each other and go: ‘Ooh, how do we do that?’ You come at it from slightly different angles but the aural world is ours between us.”
She likes to design sound spatially. “I care where things come from, where they sound like they come from, and where they actually come from.” She often creates themes or motifs for characters to guide the audience “which is useful in Shakespeare, when you go: ‘I’m 20 minutes in and who’s this new person?’”
For Coriolanus in 2013, sound was a brilliant way to convey “civil unrest and rioting on the Donmar stage where you only had 10 people, three of whom were political characters being themselves”. While on Emilia, a lot of her job was servicing how the music worked in the show. “Very boring practical things that the audience won’t notice, but how musicians hear each other, for example, because if they can’t hear each other, they won’t play in time.”
If you fix all the problems on stage, out front starts to take care of itself, she laughs. Though, she adds seriously, producers have said to her they didn’t want to pay as much when there isn’t a band. “And I’m going: ‘But the tech rehearsals will take the same amount of time. What is it you think I do differently?’”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I’ve never done a job outside of theatre, it’s every penny I’ve earned since I was 17.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Followspot operator at the Music Hall in Shrewsbury.
What’s your next job?
Vassa at the Almeida, then Peter Pan at the Birmingham Rep, directed by Liam Steel.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That it never feels like it gets any easier; knowing where your work will come from, when it will come, and whether there will be enough.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Working with Paul Arditti and Ian Dickinson at the Royal Court. Paul really nurtured me as an individual, working for him as an operator; Ian gave me an opportunity to design and saw something in me I didn’t even see. And Chris Shutt and Gareth Fry at Complicité. I operated for Complicité and still today nothing comes close.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself, don’t bullshit anyone.
If you hadn’t been a sound designer, what would you have been?
I remember doing a school project where I wanted to be an astronomer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
As an operator for Complicité’s play Mnemonic I’d pace the corridors of Riverside Studios smoking a cigarette (I don’t anymore). One day I didn’t, and a cast member came out and said: “You’re normally pacing and smoking. Please do that, otherwise it’s weird.”
She never planned to become a sound designer. After working as a followspot operator at her local theatre in Shrewsbury, she studied stage management and technical arts at Royal Central School of Music and Drama, then stayed on for a third year to do a degree “because I wasn’t ready to go out into the world”.
Laxton continues: “I’d done a bit of lighting but I had this moment where I thought: ‘I don’t understand sound. It would be foolish to leave without having absorbed as much as I can.’ So I threw myself into it at Central and really enjoyed it.”
After working as a sound operator and production sound engineer, she became deputy head of sound at the Royal Court in 2002, where her first boss was Paul Arditti, followed by Ian Dickinson. It was Dickinson who encouraged her to design her first show in 2003, Terrorism by Siberia’s Presnyakov Brothers in the Theatre Upstairs. “I thought this is the safest environment to do it, surrounded by people I love and respect.”
In fact, she got her best ever reviews, she laughs. “The opening scene was this atmosphere of being at an airport. You walked in and planes were coming in over your head in that tiny little space. One critic said it was the best bit of the play.”
After five years at the Royal Court she went travelling. On her return she became a senior sound technician in the Olivier at the National Theatre and the associate sound designer of War Horse for its West End run.
She also did a series of new plays at the original Bush Theatre. Working “in that crappy room above a pub” was a great lesson. “When you work in a room with eight speakers, in the round, you have to think outside the box.” She worked with playwrights including James Graham and Nick Payne at that time. “I remember them all as kids when they were doing their first days – and they’ve all gone on to great things.”
Despite her award-winning design career, she’s nostalgic for the days of being a hands-on operator. “If something faded in and out, it was your fingers on faders. You had a cue sheet that said: ‘You fade the sound up between these lines or over this many seconds.’ But that was just a guide. I worked in theatres where we weren’t miking people. There was lots of music playback and you really had to be a part of what was going on.”
Technology has changed everything. “Now it’s all automated. There’s more flexibility for sound designers about what you can pre-programme at home and leave in someone else’s hands, as opposed to having to have such a close relationship with an operator, who is interpreting what you want.”
But it’s also made the art form more ambitious. “The origins of sound design – the practical need to have a phone that rings to interrupt a scene – has evolved into something more cinematic, more creative and atmospheric.”
Her next production is Mike Bartlett’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s 1910 comedy Vassa – written in 1910 as a vehicle for the Bolshevik message – for the Almeida. “I’m quite excited because it’s quirky and funnier than I thought.”
She talks with real passion about the power of sound. “If you have an empty room, it can give you temperature, a country, an era. In practical terms you can tell people a lot of information – you’re hot, you’re cold, you’re in the 1980s, you’re in the 1940s.” Musically there are certain chords and sequences of notes that create unease or hope. “And if you play a low, unnerving rumble imperceptibly it makes everyone feel a little bit worried.”
Sound is only limited by people’s imagination. “I’ve been asked for elephant armageddon at the Finborough Theatre,” she adds dryly, “And what is that?”
But she’s never precious. “I’d much rather walk into a tech with loads of sounds and if they don’t work, don’t put them in. I never feel like it’s time wasted. Anyway, one day that fun sound I found will come in useful.”
Born: Shropshire, 1976
Training: Stage Management and Technical Arts at Central, 1995-98
• Terrorism, Royal Court, London (2003)
• My Name Is Rachel Corrie, Royal Court, London (2005)
• Pornography, Birmingham Rep/Edinburgh Traverse/Tricycle Theatre, London (2008)
• 2,000 Feet Away, Bush Theatre, London (2008)
• The Whiskey Taster, Bush Theatre (2010)
• Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse, London (2013)
• Titus Andronicus, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon/ Barbican, London (2017)
• The York Realist, Donmar Warehouse (2018)
• The Writer, Almeida, London (2018)
• Emilia, Vaudeville Theatre, London (2018)
• Falstaff award for best sound design/original score for Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse (2014)
Agent: Davina Shah at Macnaughton Lord Representation
Blood Wedding runs at London’s Young Vic from September 19-November 2. Vassa is at London’s Almeida from October 5-November 23