Much like light designers in theater, sound designers don’t expect the audience to notice their efforts or realize that it took the same decision process as costume or scenic design. But very few plays go up these days without someone adding an aural atmosphere.
"In a broad sense, the sound designer, like the scenic designer or the lighting designer, uses their medium to tell the story," said Brendan Hogan. As the resident sound designer for ACT Theatre, he has worked on more than thirty productions there since 2009. Locally, he’s also worked at Seattle Repertory Theatre (“Red”), Washington Ensemble Theatre, Seattle Public Theatre, Seattle Shakespeare Company, and Book-It Repertory Theatre. He received the Theatre Puget Sound Gregory Award in 2012 Best Sound and Music Design for “Red,” among other awards.
Hogan began working in sound design while pursuing a musical career. “I had access to and knowledge of audio equipment. When my friends were making a film, they’d ask me for help with the sound. When I moved to Seattle, I did a number of shows and decided that this was what I wanted,” he said. “My music background definitely informs my design today. I often think in musical terms when working out the design for a play.”
For ACT’s current production of Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” much of his work was dictated by the script. “It takes place in one location, one room, in a continuous narrative and continuous time stretch. There is a phonograph and the two 78 rpm records played are notated in script. Miller tells you specifically what you hear there,” he said. “When I met with Victor Pappas, the director, he felt we should use sound environmentally, establishing a cityscape. Music inherently conveys a specific emotion and he wanted to avoid that. So I created an aural world with city sounds, establishing where this play takes place, rather than a particular emotional world with certain music.”
When he needs to generate the sound of traffic or footsteps in a hallway, Hogan can draw on a large personal library of sound effects. “If the sound effect needed is more abstract, I’ll build it with synthesized sound or I’ll go out and record,” said Hogan. “Sometimes I’m creating an underscoring sound for a production. It’s just sort of there and when we take it away, then the silence is as emotionally effective as sound” in highlighting a key moment or creating an audience reaction.
One of the more challenging assignments in recent years for Hogan was creating a climatic scene for “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” at ACT.
“For this huge gun battle, we talked about the difference between using guns that fired blanks or sound effects. When I tested the blanks, they all sounded more or less the same, but there were four very different calibers in the scene, ranging from a massive weapon all the way down to little .38,” he said. “So it was decided to do the scene as sound effects, which made it necessary to be very specific in speaker placement. I placed half dozen speakers in the stage so each one could be specific sound effect in a specific location. It sounded like four distinct gunshots going off, and we had very large subwoofer in the grid to reinforce the type of air movement needed.”
For the audiences attending the show, most never realized that the sound of gunfire came from speaker rather than the weapons being brandished by the characters, and that was fine with Hogan.
“If no one comments specifically on sound design, then you’ve done a great job,” he said.