Owen seems to occupy a unique position in the local theatre community, involved as sound designer and operator on a large number of the most high-profile independent companies in their most prestigious projects and yet always a sense of independence; the scene in no way revolves around his work despite him being a common thread that connects some of the most interesting and successful recent work, from 24:7 projects including Away From Home, long-standing relationships with Black Toffee and Square Peg, and work that has been taken internationally with House of Orphans. His work would be seen as integral to the success of all these shows, and yet he’d not viewed – and doesn’t view himself – as any sort of lynchpin. How he has made his way to this position is instructive, and how he works with each company is illuminating.
Owen largely puts his progression down to word-of-mouth. Since finishing his studies at SSR four years ago his work on one project will often lead to those involved, or those who experience his work, calling on him for future projects. One strong reason why Owen’s position may not be as visible on the scene is down to the way he will tackle each of those approaches; he doesn’t appear to have a signature style but while he will bring his experience and tools to a discussion with the director and an analysis of the script, he does consider that he adds something subtle and unique. He studied sound at SSR where it was the post-production elements that caught his attention. “That’s what I enjoyed most, it’s a really good background, you focus on the technical skills, this is how you’ll use this, learn the fuck out of that technical stuff first – then you are free to be creative with it.” It’s given him a breadth of ability that companies find invaluable.
“Early on, I’ll want to get a general feel for a show, whether it has high production values or is quite minimal, in early discussion.” These might well just be email exchanges, and doesn’t only set up the style of the piece but how he’ll work with the director. “I don’t like to get too specific, or pin down the finer details, but get the woolier stuff right. Recently, I’d already met the director, I’d set up a dropbox, threw in a couple of ideas and got feedback, but then I wanted, more generally, to know about the director’s taste in music and I put in some songs to suggest tone and he came back saying ‘Oh no we don’t want any songs.’” But for Owen if wasn’t about any specific songs or creating a soundtrack, it was about a general feel, which all feeds through to the final piece.
To an outsider the sound designer’s position in the rehearsal process can seem disjointed from the main company, if only because of the different tasks that are required. “With sound, you do need to go home and do the editing, so generally I’ll be there once at the readthrough, once a week until the last week when you’re in most days.” And when he’s in the rehearsal room, “I’ll sit at the side with a notepad, ass odd questions. Working with Square Peg they’ll bring me in, others I’ll wait till the end. In the early days, I was less quiet, working in the fringe everyone’s chipping in, you get to know when you’re not being helpful.” Owen gesticulates to emphasise how ridiculous his earlier default position would be when a rehearsal discussion reaches an impasse: “I know! We could fix it with sound! I’ll just put some music over the top!”
Although he understands now that sort of approach isn’t always helpful, and that as a sound designer that will always be his main way of tackling a problem that isn’t always appropriate, it’s clear he values those collaborations where he’s free to make those suggestions and they are accepted or dismissed on their own terms. “It’s not imposing anything, ideas are just ideas, they’re not threatening.” In that sense his way of working with Square Peg does fit with his style, while also being unlike his other working relationships. “Yeah, it’s definitely unique. They came to watch Hidden, they were friends with Laura Lindsay, they asked, they poached me. What was nice was I was discovering myself, they were discovering as well. By the time I was in they had the Waterside commission, and it was early in the process. For them the devising process includes the sound. We had the corridor ambience in the hospital, and live microphones we wanted to incorporate. I’ll have prepared some scrappy drafts, 3 or 4 ideas, and in the rehearsal room test which ones work. With physical theatre it’s very time-sensitive, matching sounds to movement, so you might have to go back to the drawing board.” As for what Owen might be manipulating live “microphones are really the only thing. They can be a nightmare, it’s very live, but it’s my favourite part of it. Sometimes I’ll have a few sound pads, reverb, echo.”
Owen’s cat seems fairly interested in our conversation at this point, or it could be the meatballs and pasta Owen has ready for us when I arrive but which we wolfed down. To contemplate that, from this small suburban cul-de-sac where the garden isn’t a wild-flower meadow but is simply overgrown, Betjeman’s Metroland now placeless with pattern-book architecture, can emerge the sounds of a World War Two sinking, a Martian space station, or a return to the beginning of consumerism of the 1950s; this is always strangely unsettling.
Out of the rehearsal room, much of Owen’s work will be done in front of a computer screen with headphones or his own stereo set-up. It’s the antithesis of the hurly-burly of the rehearsal, the tech or the adventures of touring. Taking a show into a space, especially when touring, “can be challenging, if the sound system is terrible, rickety, or there might be feedback issues.” The first thing to do in a new space is to “play one of the songs, that way you get a fuller range of frequencies, and you tweak until it neutralises. I remember Korova, it was a really tiny space, such a tiny space, and quite a bit of set, so the speakers ended up behind the set and I had to unmuffle them. Sometimes limited space is a blessing; wherever they’ll fit, that’s where they’ll have to go.” Most time lost with tech Owen says is when high expectations can’t be met so easily, so for one show Owen was presented with enough speakers and not enough amps and spent two days re-jigging and experimenting, “and we did manage to get the prop speaker by borrowing a hi-fi from our flat. You do tend to fill whatever time you’ve got, limits are not always a bad thing.”
Owen has been lucky, a lot of his time devising with companies has been in the performance space, and he’s become used to knowing what the requirements of a space might be, from the shape of the room whether it will be harsh or brittle, or muddy. All these words, it appears, have a specific meaning, and he talks me through the scale. “Do you want me to get technical?” He has to try to recall some of the specifics, where wavelengths aren’t a part of his everyday vocabulary “but for working with directors it’s great. Instinctive. It’s one of my favourite things, communicating like that. Directors can be apologetic, ‘sorry I don’t know the technical term, but it sounds a bit boxy?’ but it makes sense.” And Owen relishes the relationship that he can have using these descriptions. “One director came to be and he wanted something really specific but he didn’t know how to tell me and in the end he just said it’s a sort of joop effect and I was like, got ya.” It’s a crescendo, it’s the sound of space sucked into a vacuum, of the world being drawn to a freeze-frame. It’s a sound we all know from our cultural reference points, a trope that we can all indentify, a piece of our contemporary vocabulary and best described by an onomatopoeic pursing of the lips. The world of the sound designer.
Owen doesn’t hang back with his ideas in the rehearsal room. “I’m pretty proactive communicating how sound can be used, I want to make it all tie up as much as possible. The Man Who Woke Up Dead is a good example of that. The character of Evelyn is under medication, and there’s a character who washes up on the shore, so you take out the frequencies apart from the very low and it makes it sound underwater, but also a bit like you’re on drugs. When sound moves from one medium to another it loses a lot of energy, bass sounds have more energy so they’re able to cut through.” It’s a detail in the explanation for a simple effect that we’re all used to hearing in television or film as a figure gets dunked into water and the sound-world is evoked from their point of view, and it resonates in the theatre unexpectedly.
“Music will depend on the show; for One Hand Clapping we needed fifties music and Lucia Cox picked. For Roseacre I picked, from a playlist and songs I suggested.” But music isn’t where it’s at for Owen. “I’m much more interested generally in sound design, it can be more unexpected.” Mixing it up is something Owen tried with a project we did together, Yawp, producing a show that was different each performance and that responded to random elements within the show. “It was something I wanted to try. It needed more prep time to figure out what worked and what doesn’t. I’m a sleep-on-it guy, there’s been a few times when I’ve not been as prepared as I’d have liked and it’s affected the work, or it’s been unclear what the show is going to be till quite late. It’s better to be over-prepared. Nothing I’ve regretted creatively but it’s less stressful.”
“I’m careful who I work with, and I’ve been lucky to work with people who like to try ideas and push boundaries. People who don’t see sound as an afterthought. Some ideas have great potential, but in the end they get stripped down.” It’s clear Owen finds this frustrating, whether it comes from a lack of resource or ability but especially when it seems to come from creative cowardice or a falling back on the safety net of convention. Owen doesn’t often find himself in those preliminary discussions about creating a production, and although it does happen more now than it used to, the way sound is brought in on a production will radically affect how it is utilised. “It really helps to be in at an early stage. Otherwise it can just be incidental – okay – here they are in a park - park sound – fine - now they’re in a café - café sound” as he parks the production setting with the appropriate background ambience. What he really likes to do is present to a team “this moment has this power” as he draws his fingers in to a singularity. “How can we underpin that moment?”
I wonder whether he’d ever suggested changing or replacing a line, and he almost panics at the idea. “I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to.” I suspect he would be, but it would have to be the right place, the right production, more importantly the right collaborators. There’s a great openness and lack of defensiveness to Owen’s approach. He recalls a time he’d brought a sound to a production, “and the director just wasn’t digging it, there was something that needed to be brought out, and someone suggested something and then was like, oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to- I mean, she wasn’t part of the production, and it was obvious she felt immediately like she shouldn’t have spoken, like she felt it wasn’t her place but I was, like, yeah, that’s it, it was really helpful, and I wasn’t sure but it set the ball rolling. I like it when ideas can come from anywhere. I got into it because of the teamwork.” Or even, as in this case, outwith the team; ideas can come from anywhere, they can lead anywhere, and they can all be attended to.
There’s plenty of work in the pipeline to keep Owen occupied. He’s off to Edinburgh, and with shows lined up into the autumn. But creatively? “I’m bored of drones for a start. It’s an easy way, to get tense atmosphere with a drone. I’m looking for other ways to do simple things.” He has a sound from the recent Square Peg show Roseacre that he picks apart, with loops and rhythm; “and I’ve got into drums as well.” And so we start to discuss our own possibilities for collaboration [conversation redacted], and his cat returns for some attention, and the wild flower meadow garden draws the eye and the evening draws in.
conversation with Owen Rafferty took place at in his back garden in Withington on Friday 8th July 2016 from 6:30pm // @soundowen // www.owenrafferty.com