Jillian Fargey, back, and Emma Slipp in The Concessions. (photo by Emily Cooper)
Sitting outside an East Vancouver rehearsal hall in the bright sunshine of an early spring day, Mishelle Cuttler is philosophical about going unnoticed. The 26-year-old sound designer and music composer, currently working on the play The Concessions for Touchstone Theatre, mused of her field, “I think it is a discipline that is often unnoticed. It’s kind of like lighting in the way that if you don’t notice it, it probably means that it’s done well.”
Cuttler’s sound design and music may not draw attention to themselves, she said, but they can have a profound effect on an audience. “Music,” she pointed out, “kind of bypasses your brain and goes straight to your emotional centre. Sound in general does that.”
Some of the work that will go unnoticed in The Concessions, then, includes complex sound effects and an original musical score. She will provide the production with digital recordings of animal sounds and rainstorms. She will compose and orchestrate music for scene changes and to underscore some of the action.
The Concessions, by Briana Brown, is the story of a shocking murder in a small Ontario town. Fear pervades the community, as the killer remains at large. Suspects are everywhere, safety nowhere, and the supernatural makes an appearance. The production is part of Touchstone Theatre’s Flying Start program that showcases work by new playwrights. It runs from June 6 to 14 at the Firehall Arts Centre.
The first time she reads any play, said Cuttler, “I keep my eye out for anything audible.” To her, The Concessions has a lot of noise in it, much of it coming from the outdoors. “This play is really about its environment. It’s about this town and there’s a lot of reference to the weather and these storms that are happening,” she said. “There’s the lake and then there’s this forest where this tragedy happens. I think the fact that this place is rural and in nature is very important to the script.”
She said her “number one” task is to create the weather. “It comes up all the time,” she said. “Raining and thunder and wind, there are also some animals referenced in the script that might come out. There’s water … and there’s a lot of silence.”
Knowing when to be quiet is also part of her job. “As a sound designer, I have to be constantly reminding myself that silence can be very important, and sometimes it’s better,” she said.
Touchstone artistic director Katrina Dunn, the director of The Concessions, said one of Cuttler’s greatest challenges is to create the important radio broadcasts that occur throughout the play. Speaking by phone, Dunn said the play has a “whole through-line” that involves the radio. “The local radio station is the conduit through which we feel the larger city,” she said. The play contains an element of magic and, during one five-minute radio broadcast, “the radio goes crazy and goes into another realm. That’s an interesting thing for a sound designer to get to do.”
“I’ve always found composing comes much easier to me when it’s for a purpose, when I’m trying to do something to further a story.”
Cuttler is also writing and orchestrating the play’s original musical score. “In this show, it seems like there will be some pretty complex and interesting scene changes, which is always the most important moment for me,” said Cuttler, whose music will cover the scene changes and underscore some of the action. On a show like this, she has only weeks to compose and, during rehearsal, it’s a matter of days. “I’ve always found composing comes much easier to me when it’s for a purpose, when I’m trying to do something to further a story,” she said.
Cuttler’s work continued through the rehearsal period. As The Concessions took shape, the music and sound design changed. “The music is the stuff that takes the most massaging and figuring out because it’s really tailored to the script specifically,” she explained. That meant composing on the fly, which, she said, is just part of working on a new play. The script “can be very fluid up until the last minute.”
The busy designer, actor and musician will spend the summer playing accordion for Caravan Theatre in the Okanagan. She has a sound design job lined up for next season, and her original musical, Stationary, will be produced at the Cultch in April 2015. “I think that I always dreamed of a life where I was doing lots of different things and I’m fortunate that I’ve sort of achieved that,” she said.
Cuttler was recently nominated for a Jessie Richardson Theatre Award for her sound design on Itsazoo’s April production of Killer Joe. Winners will be announced at the June 23 ceremony.
Tickets to The Concessions can be found at firehallartscentre.ca.
Michael Groberman is a Vancouver freelance writer.