As Oh My Sweet Land is being performed in home kitchens and community spaces, it offers a unique opportunity for audience members to be completely immersed in and connected to the play. One element that aids in this immersion is sound design. We talked to Oh My Sweet Land sound designer Mark Van Hare to discuss his role in creating this intimate production.
What is the difference between composing and sound designing? Do you prefer either?
I find that, in theater, composing music and designing sound are very similar. Both involve breaking down sound into its constituent elements of volume, duration, and pitch (which is more accurately described as frequency or collections of frequencies). Thought of in this way, there is little difference between sound and music. Soft sounds often have a calming quality, whether that sound is a distant bird call or a gentle clarinet melody. Sustained sounds often provide a feeling of stasis or immobility, whether that sound is the constant buzz of a fluorescent light or an endlessly looping synthesizer drone. The more plays I work on, the more I come to think of writing music and designing sound as the same thing. The goal of both is to support the story of the play using those essential elements of volume, duration, and pitch.
How is it possible to sound design in the intimate spaces of homes and community centers?
Designing sound for an intimate space presents a few unique challenges, but by and large it provides many more positive opportunities for the play. In a large, proscenium-style theater, the “sound image” (where the sound feels like it is coming from) tends to flatten out because it must reach hundreds of audience members. All sound in the show feels like it is coming from the general area of the stage rather than somewhere specific. Moreover, very soft sounds cannot be used because a soft sound for someone in the front row will be completely inaudible in the back row. In a small theatrical space, like a home or community center, the sound design can have extraordinary range. We can use delicate sounds and trust that every audience member will experience that sound in the same way. We can also place sounds in the space with incredible precision, building an immersive sonic environment where audience members can detect extremely subtle changes. For all of these reasons, I greatly prefer designing sound for small, intimate spaces.
What do you generally look for in a script to find inspiration for your designs? What provoked you about Oh My Sweet Land?
This is a difficult question to answer for this play in particular. So much of what this production of Oh My Sweet Land will be cannot be found on the page but instead will be discovered in rehearsal. The process of cooking during the performance is unusual and at this early stage I cannot predict what that will feel like for an audience or how sound and music might interact with those actions. The same can be said for the close proximity of Nadine, our actor, to the audience. My hope is to be present in rehearsal as much as possible so that we can experiment with a range of ideas. That being said, in the script I have responded most strongly to the rhythm of the language and how the text is displayed on the page: without punctuation and with varying line lengths, like a poem where vocal inflections are implied by the layout.
This play deals with questions of cultural identity. How can sound and music be utilized to create this identity?
Using sound or music to express something about a character’s cultural identity is very difficult. The sounds that signify “home” or “comfort” to one person may feel unusual or “foreign” to someone else, so we often cannot rely on the sounds themselves to communicate those feelings or ideas to the audience. Instead, I find it is better to allow the characters themselves to lead, with sound and music playing a supportive role. For instance, when the main character in Oh My Sweet Land begins describing her childhood, we might use sound design to fill in around the edges of her description of the place, providing specificity to the audience’s already-evolving mental image. The character is conjuring the sound with her language, giving it shape and meaning that it would not have if we heard it in isolation. And since the text of the play is so full of detail and specificity, the sounds we hear should add something novel to the environment being described rather than reiterate it. This is where research comes into play–what is the sound that naturally emerges out of the character’s dialogue but adds something of value to the audiences’ understanding of the place being described? Posing an answer to that question is the beginning of my process for designing sound for theater.
Oh My Sweet Land is a play about connecting to culture through food. Is there a recipe you rely on to bring you closer to home?
My grandmother often made pies from scratch and my father has carried on that tradition. I learned pie-making when I was in high school and two years ago, when my wife Kelly and I got married, we decided to forgo the usual wedding cake. Instead, I made five pies from scratch in a feverish marathon the day before the wedding. It was an awful lot of work, but in the end it made our wedding feel like home.