“I like change,” says Alexandra Faye Braithwaite. In a career spanning seven years as a sound designer and composer, the 29-year-old Lancastrian has worked for more than 40 different theatres, from Theatre Royal Plymouth to Dundee Rep.
Her credits also run the gamut from pub theatres to prestigious producing houses such as Leeds Playhouse, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the Traverse in Edinburgh, Sheffield’s Crucible and Theatr Clwyd in Wales.
This is no accident. “I have a small game plan in that I’m trying to get as much experience in as many different places as I can,” she says. “Because with every different show and every new space there’s a new problem that you learn and grow from.”
That’s why, she says, the idea of a permanent position doesn’t particularly appeal: “You get more out of working at different places. To be honest, I like things going wrong. I feel like I’m really learning then, I’m really living.”
However, for Braithwaite’s current production, an adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, she has returned to Manchester’s Royal Exchange for the second time in as many years, following her work on the warmly received Light Falls in 2019.
This new version of Brontë’s classic – directed by the Exchange’s joint artistic director Bryony Shanahan – aims to be a “ferocious reinvention” of the tumultuous love story.
Braithwaite’s compositions for the show promise to be elemental, having taken inspiration from a windswept walk on the Yorkshire Moors with the production’s cast and creative team during the development process.
According to the content warnings on the theatre’s website, as well as strong language and violence, the show also features loud music. For Braithwaite, whose atmospheric electronic compositions tend to err more on the delicate and minimalist side, this is something of a departure.
“It’s the exact opposite of what I usually do,” she says. “It’s quite rock’n’roll and emotive. We didn’t set out with a plan of what the music was going to be like. We wanted to create something that sat the audience in what the characters were feeling.”
When we speak, in a rehearsal room deep in the Exchange, Braithwaite is in the throes of the final week of preparations. A tense time, she says. “Because I’m writing the songs as well as doing the sound, I’ve been in rehearsals pretty much non-stop. So at this stage it’s about working with the musicians, piecing the songs and sound design together and working out where it all sits in the play. I’ve been trying to make it cohere with what the director is doing.”
She’s been working on the project for a year and a half. “It’s been quite a long journey,” she says. “But the Exchange is amazing and the team is great, so it’s really lovely to be back. Having done Light Falls, I know the space a bit better.”
On the latter production, a heart-breaking family drama that was the last play directed at the Exchange by outgoing artistic director Sarah Frankcom, Braithwaite collaborated with Britpop legend Jarvis Cocker, who provided an original song that was woven into Braithwaite’s sound designs, and that she also ended up arranging.
“That was probably the best experience I’ve had in the theatre,” she beams. “It was mint. On the first day of rehearsals we just sat next to each other playing the piano for about an hour. I came out of the room and couldn’t believe I’d just been playing piano with Jarvis Cocker. It was like hanging out with a friend.”
Braithwaite describes her journey to becoming a sound designer and composer as being “a weird little path”. She wasn’t taken to the theatre much as a child. But getting a single A level in theatre and a love of “being silly and performing” led her to studying theatre for two years at the University of Northampton.
While there, a tutor suggested she apply for a stage management course at LAMDA. It didn’t include much sound design, but once she was there another tutor offered to stay behind after classes regularly to show her the principles. The world of sound was something she loved from the off. “I couldn’t focus on anything else,” she says. “It’s what I wanted to do.”
From there she started writing to people she knew who were putting on shows, sending them demos and offering them her services. It was while dividing her time between work as a stagehand at Hampstead Theatre and as a sound technician at the Lyric Hammersmith that she was given her first proper sound design gig, on a show called The Dreamer Examines His Pillow at the Old Red Lion in Islington, London in 2013.
“I thought I’d literally hit the jackpot. I felt like the luckiest person on earth,” she says. “I gave it everything. Luckily, people saw it and work started to trickle in.”
That trickle became a flood after she landed the number one UK tour of Grumpy Old Women Live, a stage spin-off of the TV show starring Jenny Eclair and Dillie Keane, among others, that ended up running for five years in various guises. “It stretched and expanded what I could do,” she says. “I have so much love for that show.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a waitress in a pub restaurant in a little village in York. I was really terrible at it and did things like pouring soup over people.
What was your first professional theatre job?
For a few years I was part of the stage crew unloading vans at Hampstead Theatre. There were loads of big strong lads and then me. Half the time I was doing that and the rest of the time I was working as a sound technician at the Lyric.
What is your next job?
I’ll be working on Nadia Fall’s Welcome to Iran for Theatre Royal Stratford East.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That it’s okay to be nervous and that being nervous is a good thing because it means that you care.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Nick Manning, who was head of sound at the Lyric Hammersmith. He helped me get my first job as a sound designer and then mentored me through it. He was amazing.
That Braithwaite’s career would evolve from sound design to composing as well now seems almost predetermined. She has had a deep love of music since childhood and when her beloved piano teacher died, she carried on teaching herself the instrument, soon adding guitar and cornet to her repertoire, and playing synths in various bands.
Yet it only occurred to her that the two disciplines could converge a few years into her career. “I realised that I could start writing my own music and putting it into shows. It didn’t have to just be all about the sound effects.”
She agrees that sound designers and – outside of musicals – theatre composers don’t seem to get enough credit, citing WhatsOnStage’s recent decision to reinstate its sound design award as a long-overdue step forward.
Good sound design amplifies the sense of sitting the audience inside a world
But then Braithwaite isn’t particularly comfortable being the centre of attention. “It’s actually exciting to be sat in an auditorium and manipulating how the audience feel without them knowing it,” she says.
“When it works, it’s like you’re sitting them in a world. Good sound design amplifies all of that. It amplifies what the characters are thinking and their situation. You’re being felt without necessarily being heard.”
Her favourite example comes from last year’s gender-flipped production of Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse. “For the final scene, when they all die, I recorded a washing machine and then reversed it to make this horrible sound,” she recalls.
“I could tell everyone was totally engaged with what was going on. That was amazing and it was just a washing machine going backwards. You don’t know how audiences are going to react until you get to that moment. There have been quite a few of those.”
But all this success doesn’t stop her feeling nervous about upcoming shows, even after her part in proceedings is over with. “The anxiety about things going wrong is pretty much constant,” she winces. “Even though the technicians are presenting it and it’s out of my hands, it’s still my work.”
But she says magical things can happen even when there are mistakes.
“You get music cues going on top of each other and it sounds great. And that’s the amazing thing about live theatre – beautiful things can come out of things going wrong.”
Born: 1990, Preston
Training: Higher National Diploma in Theatre, University of Northampton; foundation degree in Stage Management and Technical Theatre, LAMDA
As sound designer:
• Room, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London; Dundee Rep; Abbey Theatre, Dublin (2017)
• Things of Dry Hours, Young Vic, London (2018)
• Light Falls, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester (2019)
As composer and sound designer:
• Hamlet, Leeds Playhouse (2019)
Agent: Dan Usztan, United Agents
Wuthering Heights runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester from February 7 until March 7, 2020