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Sound designer Christopher Shutt: ‘A lot of our job is to not be audible at all – silence is so effective’

Christopher Shutt. Photo: Johan Persson

From playing drums in a punk band to being sound supervisor at the National Theatre, Christopher Shutt has worked on countless high-profile shows. He tells Liz Hoggard why subliminal soundscapes often work best

Sound designer Christopher Shutt has just been on a recce to Dulwich College in south London, to record “a small, quiet moment” at the school for a flashback in the National Theatre’s production of Simon Woods’ play Hansard.

The moment will be pivotal in the play, he says, as the audience watches a bickering married couple, played by Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan, fall apart as memories resurface “and the ground falls from under their feet”.

The location recording turned into a bit of a nightmare because Dulwich is underneath a flight path, he says, ruefully. But if anyone can capture that subtle public-school soundscape, it’s Shutt. One of the UK’s leading sound designers, he’s worked on productions for Complicité – The Elephant Vanishes, The Street of Crocodiles – the National and the Royal Court, and won a Tony award for War Horse.

Christopher Shutt’s soundscape effectively evokes trenches and battlefields in the National Theatre production of
War Horse, here seen during its UK tour in 2017-18. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mögenburg

“There was one golden fortnight a few years ago where, by chance, I had done sound design on every show at the National,” he says. “That was two in the Lyttelton, two in the Olivier, and two in what was then the Cottlesloe.”

Shutt, who started out playing the drums in a punk band in the late 1970s before studying technical theatre at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, talks with quiet passion about the power of sound.

The sound design of a show can transport audiences instantaneously without having to bring on clunking bits of set, he says. “That’s why directors love it, and it means you can be looking at less on stage because you can create an atmosphere like we did with War Horse. You can be out in the fields of Devon one second, and in the next second, in the trenches of the First World War in France, just by playing a sound that triggers a thought or a memory in the minds of the audience.”

Shutt, who was sound supervisor at the National for 13 years, is now freelance, and he has his own extensive library of sounds. “On my travels around the world I’ve picked up sound-effect CDs from Russia and the US. But increasingly I’m doing location recording for shows. I used to plumb the depths of any library I could find, and now I’m normally creating stuff from scratch.”

Q&A Christopher Shutt

Christopher Shutt. Photo: Peter Mumford

What was your first non-theatre job?
Playing drums in the punk band Nula and the Nauseators. It’s been so useful because I can talk to musicians on the same level. I use my musicality in everything I do, in terms of the pitch and rhythm of a piece of drama.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant to Nick Jones, the sound person at the Bristol Old Vic.

What’s your next job?
Four very short Caryl Churchill plays at the Royal Court. Next year I have two very big projects: one is a city-wide event in Plymouth, and the other is an extraordinary touring art installation piece that will harness people’s imagination using all sorts of different techniques.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That it’s hard work. When I was starting out someone told me: “It’s going to be easy, it’s a real skive.” I wish they hadn’t told me that.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
Simon McBurney has been a massive influence. His way of working is unlike any other, and I’ve used the skills we’ve honed together on everything else. War Horse wouldn’t have happened without the Complicité work I did.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
It’s really tough to make a mark in a crowded field. There are fewer opportunities, as theatres have to co-produce all the time. So be patient, create the work yourself rather than waiting for someone to give you a job. Take it to the people, however you can.

If you hadn’t been a sound designer, what would you have been?
I would have stayed in the music industry but even at the tender age of 18 I was getting disillusioned because it was full of awful people. The first time I walked into a theatre, it was full of nice, caring people. And great talent – there are no hangers-on in the theatre, so it was a breath of fresh air.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not using the number 13.

Trying to isolate sounds in the modern world is never easy. “For example if I want to record a crow for a show, trying to find a place where you’re not on a flight path or near a road or anything else that will ruin the recording is challenging.”

Many people assume sound design is just about audibility. “But that’s so reductive,” Shutt says. “I find it slightly insulting, because it’s like saying to a lighting designer: ‘You’ve just got to make it visible.’ I mean yes you do or no you don’t, and that’s a valid choice as well – but we’re doing far more than that. If we’re worth our fees, such as they are, we have to bring something creative to the table. We’re not just there to make things audible.”

Shutt prefers to call himself a theatremaker. “I’m interested in the whole thing, and achieving whatever it is we’re trying to achieve and using all the weapons in my armoury, but also harnessing everybody else to do the same thing at the same time.”

‘Sound design’s gone through huge change – you need to know how to harness all the advances in technology’

Sound design is a relatively new profession. “It’s developed throughout my life, so it’s great to have been there right at the beginning and in some way shape how it’s turned out along the way by various interventions. I’ve been lucky enough to have been through huge technological change, from the analogue to the digital age, from giant pieces of equipment to very mini pieces of equipment.”

Sound professionals have to keep up, he adds. “Otherwise people aren’t going to call you. You need to know how to harness all these advances in technology.”

He comes in early on a production. “There might just be a script and the germ of an idea. There might not even be a script, actually. And then I’m brought in because the impact I have might affect budgets and the practicalities of staging the piece.”

Complicité’s members literally sit in a room and start improvising like jazz musicians. “We may just have the fragment of an idea – say, Simon McBurney says he wants to do a show about his father. You go into the room thinking: ‘Is that all we’ve got?’ And then you create magic. There are 25 people in this hothouse of activity, with brains whirring away. You never leave the room, you’re in there finding scraps of text and pieces of music, making sound effects out of blocks of wood and a hammer. It’s a very concentrated, focused space. The risk involved is enormous so you need to have faith in your co-makers.”

Would he like theatre critics to mention sound design more? “Yes and no, because a lot of our job is to not be visible or audible at all. We don’t do stuff where you go: ‘Oh there’s a sound effect going on now’, or ‘They’ve put a piece of music in there’. We’re working on other levels in a way that you might not know. And maybe it would be a shame if you did know. You want to preserve the magic.”

Soundscape is often subliminal, he adds. “There’s nothing more successful than putting in a sound that is only there for the moment in which it stops. Because the absence of sound – silence – is so effective and can have such an impact on somebody’s imagination. Not doing something is just as valuable as doing something in our job.”

You work on the psychology of sound a lot of the time, he adds, using acoustics to deceive people that they’re somewhere they’re not, and working on triggers in the brain where sound builds – so the audience starts to feel tense, agitated or euphoric.

Recently designing sound for Peter Gynt, David Hare’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, Shutt had to facilitate 27 rapid scene changes. “There’s not a lot of set to do it with, so again it’s sleight of hand and flight of foot. You’ve got to move quickly from mountainsides in Scotland to on-board a ship in the Mediterranean. And you can do that really quickly with sound. You can start building the sea and crashing waves without doing anything with the set. It could be a blackout and yet you’re stimulating the imagination of the audience rather than giving them everything on a plate.”

Peter Gynt at the National Theatre, London – review round-up

As a teenager, Shutt was in bands, playing and recording music. “When we were recording a demo someone said: ‘You could do this in the theatre.’ It had never crossed my mind that was possible, but I decided to give it a go. They didn’t have separate lighting and sound courses back then, so I did a technical theatre course at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. And that helped me get a foot in the door at the Old Vic itself.”

He was head of sound at the Bristol Old Vic for four years. “It was the beginning of the digital age so things were changing.” Later he moved to London’s Royal Court, before becoming sound supervisor at the National, leaving in 2002 to do The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in New York with Al Pacino and Steve Buscemi, with music by Tom Waits.

Shutt’s punk background has taught him how to create with very few resources: “The imagination always comes free.” His work is ideas-based rather than him thinking, “I’ve got this fabulous piece of equipment, what can I do with it?”

Last year he worked on Debbie Tucker Green’s Ear for Eye at the Royal Court, about the Black Lives Matter movement. “Clearly I’m not black and haven’t suffered in the same way as those people we were portraying but through research and involving yourself deeply into an issue, you can get to the heart of it. It doesn’t really matter who you are or where you came from. It’s what you can bring to the table ultimately.”

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He’s had a long association with Caryl Churchill (working on Serious Money, Far Away and Love and Information) and is about to design the sound for four short Churchill plays at the Royal Court.

These days, when everyone is a critic, you need the hide of a rhinoceros to be a theatremaker, he laughs. But for Shutt the audience is always the missing part of the jigsaw. As he observes, a show can only develop “once the missing element arrives in the room”. Which is why previews are so important in theatre. “We’re very grateful they’re there to add your part to the process.”

CV Christopher Shutt

Training: Technical theatre course, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (1979-82)
Landmark productions:
• Street of Crocodiles, Complicité (1992)
• Mourning Becomes Electra, National Theatre (2003)
• The Elephant Vanishes, Complicité (2004)
• Coram Boy, National Theatre and Broadway (2005)
• Julius Caesar, Barbican (2005)
• War Horse, NT and Broadway (2011 to present)
• Love and Information, Royal Court, London (2012)
• Antony and Cleopatra, NT (2018)
• A Shropshire Lad
• Tennyson’s Maud
• A Disappearing Number
• After the Quake
• Tony award for War Horse (2011)
• New York Drama Desk awards for Not About Nightingales (1999), Mnemonic (2001) and War Horse (2011)
Agent: Amanda Evans at Scott Marshall

Hansard runs at the National Theatre until November 25; Peter Gynt is at the National until October 8; War Horse is on tour; Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. runs at the Royal Court Theatre September 18 – October 12

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