Sound and performance have gone hand-in-hand since the dawn of time; cavemen used sound and music as a way of evoking certain emotions when performing dances. Indeed, any tribal chant you may have heard will be full of certain textures and sounds designed at evoking emotion, be that anger, envy, or lust.
Although sound and dance have long been comfortable bedfellows, the theatre only really adopted sound in the late 19th century and has endured a somewhat odd relationship with it since.
Unlike lighting, which is widely embraced by most theatre practitioners and is considered as essential to the theatre as the performers, the sound is sometimes shunted into the background and left as a secondary consideration. There are two principal approaches to sound in theatre, naturalistic and non-naturalistic.
Naturalistic sound is pretty much as it sounds – sound effects and music used to root a performance, in reality, to impose a strong sense of ‘this is really happening’ onto the audience. That can take the form of a gunshot sound effect when a gun is fired or a low din of jukebox melodies in a pub scene.
Taking a naturalistic approach can have its benefits, particularly if you are staging a ‘kitchen sink drama’-type show which trades off gritty realism. It does limit the ways in which you can use sound, however.
Your use of music will largely be limited to instances wherein characters would play music, such as in a car or on a stereo, otherwise, your carefully constructed reality could shatter completely.
Non-naturalistic sound can offer a great deal to production in terms of emotional impact and in contributing to the overall performance. When it comes to non-naturalistic sound, the aim is to affect your audience emotionally and psychologically rather than use sound as a way of adding a layer of reality.
The great thing about sound is that it still maintains that ability to shock and disturb or soothe and reassure, in a way that visual elements don’t. Thanks in part to the internet, it’s hard to produce an image so shocking that it causes audience members to cover their eyes or look away without either being too gratuitous or even potentially breaking the law!
However, a grating sound like nails down a chalkboard will always cause people some level of disturbance – evidence of the power sound potentially holds when it comes to conveying emotions and feelings to your audience.
Despite the distinction made between the two, naturalistic and non-naturalistic sounds aren’t mutually exclusive elements; in fact, most performances benefit from a combination of the two. You can construct a realistic world and bring it down again within a few minutes – in this respect, the sound is quite unique.
There are quite a few ways in which one can pump sound into a theatre, from a CD containing sound effects played on a stereo to an MP3 player hooked up to a speaker.
However, there is a lot to be said for having a full theatre sound system set up and storing a bank of effects and music on a laptop. It’s easy, produces the best quality sound, and leads to seamless sound integration which won’t derive from the flow of the performance.