Isobel Waller-Bridge: ‘People struggle with non-visual art, but you can paint with sound’
As a sound designer and composer Isobel Waller-Bridge works across stage and screen. She tells Catherine Love about the skills theatre has taught her, the 10-year rule and why she is always searching for a ‘bingo’ moment
Hooked on melodies at a young age, composer and sound designer Isobel Waller-Bridge says: “It was always going to be music. From really early on. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t.”
Though her achievements are eclectic – from a symphonic album of works for string orchestra to big-budget TV shows such as War and Peace and a long list of theatre credits – a love for music, performance and collaboration runs through her career.
Waller-Bridge and her sister Phoebe, the writer and performer of Fleabag, grew up in “a really creative environment” where imagination and experimentation were actively encouraged and theatre trips were a regular occurrence. “Mum would always encourage lots of performance in the house,” she says, “which was sort of cringey but also really brilliant.” She worked with her sister as the sound designer and composer on Fleabag at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013, where it won a Fringe First award, before moving to Soho Theatre and then its critically acclaimed adaptation for television.
For Isobel, older than Phoebe by a year, childhood piano lessons led to other instruments, which eventually led to a degree in music at Edinburgh University, followed by a master’s at King’s College London. It was only while studying as a postgraduate, though, that Waller-Bridge first considered composing music for theatre.
“I was interested in film and TV,” she recalls, but then a film composer advised her to try theatre instead. “He said: ‘Do theatre, theatre will make you good, theatre is everything’.” Following his advice, Waller-Bridge shadowed composer Stephen Warbeck at the National Theatre and suddenly something clicked.
“I remember the first tech I was in was Welcome to Thebes in the Olivier and it was incredible,” she says. “I’d never seen or experienced anything like it and that was it, I was hooked.” Looking back, with multiple theatre, film and TV credits to her name, Waller-Bridge still values that early advice. “He was right,” she says, “theatre has given me so many different skills.”
Waller-Bridge also believes in the power of saying “yes” to things. “Really from the word go I was just doing little writers’ scratch nights – literally anything, five seconds of music. And then maybe somebody would go on to write a play and ask me to do the music.” So much comes down to, as she puts it, “being around and being available” and, she adds, “you’ve got to have a lot of stamina”.
When we speak, Waller-Bridge is working as composer and sound designer on the stage adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestselling novel The Girl on the Train at West Yorkshire Playhouse. In some ways, this project brings her full circle, as she’s working once again with director Joe Murphy. The pair collaborated on Waller-Bridge’s first proper theatre gig, a studio production of Phil Porter’s play Blink, which went to the Edinburgh Fringe and Soho Theatre in 2012.
“We were all babies,” says Waller-Bridge, reflecting on the experience. “We all got together and did a gorgeous little show and got on like a house on fire.” The same was true when she worked with Murphy last year on the Old Vic production of Woyzeck – a jump in scale that reflects the burgeoning careers of both theatremakers. “It felt the same as when we did the tiny little show,” she says, “except there was a bit more pressure.”
Creative collaborations are one of the main reasons Waller-Bridge loves working in theatre. “The most important thing is the collaborative nature of it, which is such heaven,” she says. “That has been really nourishing.”
It makes a sharp contrast with working on TV, she explains, where the composer is “very much in post-production” and rarely gets an opportunity to have in-depth conversations with other members of the creative team.
Among the most rewarding collaborations of Waller-Bridge’s career to date was working on Erica Whyman’s production of Hecuba with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015. “There was just something about that process,” she says, trying to pin down what worked so well. “I started sketching things early on, so it gave us lots of time to explore, and I was feeding things in to Erica the whole way through. It was paced really well.”
For Waller-Bridge, working in theatre is all about the people. “It’s about relationships,” she says, identifying the common thread between her successful projects. “Relationships are everything. It’s whether you meet and collaborate with the people you feel you connect with. That’s the ‘bingo’ moment.”
Waller-Bridge adds that the best working experiences have all been on shows where she’s “fallen deeply in love with the script”. It’s also important, she stresses, to be able to commit fully to a project – easier said than done as a freelance constantly spinning multiple plates. “Always the most fruitful projects are the ones where you can dive in without any distraction and give yourself over totally to that thing,” she says.
Q&A: Isobel Waller-Bridge
What was your first non-theatre job?
I drove a transit van around London delivering flowers.
What was your first professional theatre job?
With Joe Murphy on Blink.
What’s your next job?
I’m writing the score for a TV series called Vanity Fair.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You’re not going to sleep for the first five years.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mum. She has a good radar, in terms of her tastes, how you get from A to B, which filtered well into work.
If you hadn’t been a composer, what would you have been?
In an ideal world I would have been a dancer, but that would have been unlikely, so probably an art curator.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I used to have a pair of lucky shoes, but I lost them. I’m superstitious about lots of things, but not work. I try to trust myself.
Although her name seems to be everywhere in theatre now – and increasingly in film and television – she wants to dispel the “myth of it all happening overnight”. Similar to any career in the arts, getting into composition and sound design requires persistence, hard work and plenty of all-nighters.
“They have this thing in music about the 10,000 hours. When you’ve put in 10,000 hours, that’s when you’re ready, or that’s when you’re going to get somewhere. And actually, weirdly, it’s a 10-year thing – or it seems to be, anyway, from talking to friends about this who also work in theatre.”
Even in the years since Waller-Bridge entered the industry, theatre composition and sound design have evolved dramatically. “It’s changed massively,” she says, pointing to productions such as Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, in which binaural sound technology was the star of the show. There are more opportunities than ever for sound designers to be creative.
“You can paint with sound beautifully,” she says. “It’s wonderful that people are starting to tap into that and take advantage of it. It’s fun for sound designers who are interested in that side of it.” As a composer whose work moves between the orchestral, the electronic and the experimental, the expanded possibilities for music and sound in theatre are a boon for Waller-Bridge.
And, she adds, these innovations open the way for greater recognition of the role played by composition and sound design. She believes acknowledgement from the industry is vital, pointing to the debate about sound design at the Tony Awards. The award for sound design was scrapped in 2014 – “it sent a weird message”, says Waller-Bridge – but has recently been reinstated.
“People struggle when it’s not a visual art, when you can’t see it,” Waller-Bridge suggests. “But now that people are becoming a bit more bold and cinematic, it’s being listened to in a different way. It’s being heard.”
CV: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Born: 1984, London
Training: Edinburgh University; King’s College London; Royal Academy of Music
• Fleabag, Soho Theatre, London (2013)
• Yellow Face, National Theatre, London (2014)
• Hecuba, Royal Shakespeare Company (2015)
• King Lear, Chichester Festival Theatre (2017)
• Woyzeck, Old Vic, London (2017)
• Best composer, Underwire Film Festival (2014)
• Best sound designer, Off West End Theatre Awards (2015)
Agent: Nick Quinn, The Agency
The Girl on the Train is at West Yorkshire Playhouse until June 9