20 February 2017
Prolific sound designer and composer Debashis Sinha is nominated for the third time in two years for his stirring and complex work on Stratford’s epic Breath of Kings. We caught up with him to discuss his latest Outstanding Sound Design nomination (shared with lighting designer Kimberly Purtell) and he gave us a fascinating glimpse inside one of the most technical and under-explored aspects of theatre creation.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
My mom, who was an accomplished classical Indian dancer, used to gather the community kids together to stage Hindu myths to perform at local gatherings. It was there that I first stepped onstage, and for many of us in Winnipeg that was a major part of our cultural education in those days.
How did you get into sound design?
I’ve always been interested in technology and sound, and tinkered and messed with a variety of gear in our Winnipeg home basement my whole life – from playing 2 radio stations at once on this great old radio we had, to making mix tapes, to weird four track experiments making radio plays (I remember vividly doing a solo setting of The Veldt by Ray Bradbury in my early teens). My musical life always had technology and story behind it – I wasn’t satisfied if it didn’t.
Moving to Toronto, I fell in with a group of people that were exploring world music, primarily music from the Middle East. At the time, the world music scene was not as nearly as developed as it is today, and finding music and studying it was an adventure. This satisfied me for a time, but as playing music and touring began to become somewhat rote to me, I searched for a place I could tell deeper stories about my own experience as well as contribute to the stories of others. My sister Pamela lived and worked in Toronto as an actor, and watching her in theatre was interesting and fun, but I didn’t think to get involved – I only did one or 2 shows here and there, and most of my solo work exploring this idea was in the realm of sound art, recording, experimental and radiophonic music. Finally, John Gzowski, who I played music with for many years in a band called Maza Mezé, asked me to babysit a few shows for him now and then in tech, while he was busy with other shows (we used the same software so it would be easy for me to make any changes). That was what started the growth of a deeper interest in theatre, and while doing the occasional show here and there as a live musician seemed fun, it wasn’t until my sister and Alan Dilworth asked me to do Crash that I really committed to the genre.
What’s the most important thing about sound design that people take for granted?
I think that people underestimate the power of sound – how primal it is, and how little it takes to have a huge effect. To be honest, I wouldn’t classify this as something people take for granted, necessarily, it’s just that I see time and again how the smallest aural gestures can have huge resonance, and the surprise of the people in the room when that resonance takes hold of a scene. Again, it’s not something I have to fight to get across in the shows I work on – I get to just sit back and enjoy the reaction! – but it is something I find I’m saying more and more to people who ask me about sound design and “how” to do it.
You were nominated last year for the sound design of both We Are Proud to Present at the Theatre Centre and Eurydice at Soulpepper. What stands out in your memory about both of those productions?
Both of these shows had a power that was for me impossible to deny. As a designer, you have the luxury of “hiding” behind the logistics and the pragmatism of your job (at various stages in the process that is the job). Of course you need to connect to the power of the story, but this connection takes place on many levels, not all of them emotional, and so you have an “out”, so to speak, that you can use when you need it. For both We Are Proud… and Eurydice, this “out” was….well, it was hard to engage. After the first preview of We Are Proud… I told Ravi (Jain, the director) that I would happily come to all the post preview notes and rehearsals after, but that I couldn’t watch the show any more. It was too hard and it left me in tatters every time. With Eurydice, the same kind of thing happened – watching Oliver (Dennis) and Michelle (Monteith) play daughter and father just cut me to the quick in the best way. I feel like I did some of the best work of my life on those shows, but come to think of it, there are always one or more cues on every show that just cut deep into my heart, where I feel like what I did lent itself to a moment that was special and perfect. I like that that is the case. It makes me feel like I’m doing my job right, finding that distilled stillness.
How does your process change when you’re working with a company with tons of resources like Stratford or Soulpepper vs. something smaller scale like the Theatre Centre or an independent production?
Well, to be honest, I don’t feel like it changes at all, at least not in the creative realm. It may be that I have to take on more work at one time if I am working with smaller companies, just to pay the bills, but really if I were to track my hours I bet I would see no appreciable difference – in terms of time spent creating vs length of show I’ll bet that the ratios are the same no matter what the house. Again, a little does a lot – it may be I have 6 channels to work with (or 4 or 72 or 2) – but really the guts of every sound design comes through through the same process, the same amount of time. Putting it into the space may take longer if the physical system is larger, but getting the sound world happening requires the same care and time and focus and collaborative spirit no matter what the resources.
You also worked on The Just this year, which had a very memorable soundscape. How did you capture the feeling of that show?
I loved working on that one – this was a show where Frank (director Frank Cox O’Connell) said in his initial meetings with me that the play is the play. It is where it is. We are in a room. There is a record player. It is in Russia. The characters are Russian revolutionaries. Those are the parameters. We are making a world that is that world. And frankly that slightly terrified me at the beginning – what do I know about Russian music?! I quit band in Grade 9! But the uncovering of the texture of the music, the palette I had to find, it all came from the story, from the world of the play, as it always does. I said that is what I was interested in doing in my initial meetings with Frank, and after a few sleepless nights, I eventually found that out. It’s one of my favourites, because I had to deal with the world as it was – it was a very different use of psychological space that I was not used to.
How did you get involved with Breath of Kings?
That was thanks to Lorenzo Savoini from Soulpepper – he mentioned my name to Weyni (Mangesha), and after getting in touch, I had a meeting with Mitchell (Cushman), Weyni, and Graham Abbey, the 3 directors of the project. I guess they liked what they heard – I sent them some sound cues, and we chatted about many of the things we’ve been chatting about here – and they asked me to come on board.
How much guidance or input came from the co-directors of the production?
Each director had a world they were interested in creating and, ultimately, a story they wanted to tell. We hashed out a lot of things together as rehearsals got underway, but in essence, despite each show being 3 hours long, we went through the same process for each – finding moments and impulses with each director, looking for a sound world that spoke to the story, writing and writing and writing lots and lots of music and sound, trying it out, going back, trying again…the same as any play. The crux of the design and music is always for me nailing down where and how the sound lives, and you can only do that in the rehearsal hall and in trying to see and hear inside the director’s head. Once you find that, it’s just composing, and I’ve been making music my whole life – that part isn’t scary at all. Finding your place on the map is what counts. Mitchell, Weyni, Graham and I found those starting points pretty easily – I could hear the sound world right away once we spent some time together, and once I built a few sketches we were able to nail things down to a great degree (the broad strokes, I mean). But ultimately, you never really know until you’re in the space with the system and the set, so it was a little nerve wracking to put everything into the giant system of the Tom Patterson and press “go” on that first cue. It became clear though that what I had projected to be the sound of the space was what I was hearing in my head. OK, great. But. I was still on tenterhooks, because everyone’s imagination is different – would Mitchell, Weyni and Graham hear what I heard? Or had they been hearing something else in their heads? I remember the first levels session with Weyni and Graham. I played them a cue, blaring out of the 70 or so channels in the theatre – it was a particularly loud cue, and one of the stranger ones. I hadn’t played it for them over headphones, but I wanted to face it head on with them in the room to see their reactions. We were sitting in the bleachers and it began to play – Graham looked over at me with a huge smile on his face and said “what is going on in your head?!” in the most delighted way. Weyni immediately began talking about the staging as the music was playing. I knew it was going to work – not just that cue, but the whole world I was building. That was a great moment.
What were some of the practical demands of the production that you had to accommodate?
Writing a ridonkulous amount of music was the first thing that comes to mind. I know I just said writing music isn’t scary for me – and it isn’t – but it was a massive amount of work. Also, keeping these 2 gigantic stories straight in my head, keeping the thread through these colossal sound worlds was tricky. This was the thing I was most worried about. The dramaturgy of designing sound in the round was an unexpected challenge – place a cue in the centre above the stage? Put it in the speakers surrounding the audience? Both? What is the balance between these arrays for each cue? These decisions had a profound effect on the expressed intent and effect of each sound cue, and I wanted to be extremely precise. The sound crew at the theatre was invaluable, and they could take over where my technical knowledge failed to wrest the maximum from each sound I had and to help me achieve was I was aiming for. I often had 6 or 7 stems (layers) going at once, and in the battles, it was more – coordinating all that resulted in the hugest spreadsheet I’ve ever generated. But I learned tons and I’m very thankful.
You’ve worked with your co-nominee lighting designer Kimberly Purtell many times. Tell us about that relationship and how it manifests itself on a particular project.
I especially love working with Kimberly – we have done so many shows over the years that we have a kind of shorthand. It’s impossible to describe, but we can riff off each other without talking or even thinking about it. And when we do talk, there is an openness there that is deep and special. I do my best work when I’m working with her in the room. I wish I could say “we do this” or “we do that”, but it has always been a very profound and open bond we’ve had, from the first show we did together (Crash). Kim Purtell is a national treasure and I feel like I am where I am in large part because of the time we’ve spent together and what I’ve learned from her about theatre.
Did you have any big ideas that were edited out for practical reasons?
I personally didn’t, but of course some things got cut for whatever reason. I feel like I pushed things to the limit to the best of my ability, and that was important to me going in (I did blow a speaker, but that wasn’t totally my fault!). I’m happy with how far the sound went, and also maybe happier with how small it went too.
Were you pleased with how the design worked in practice?
Absolutely. Like any show, there were things that I wish I could have done more precisely, made my storytelling more elegant, but all in all I feel like I was able to help tell a story that was both epic and carefully constructed.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
There are a lot of favourites, but one that stands out is a moment when Tom Rooney as King Richard is in prison in Part I, where he hears some music in the far distance during a monologue. Getting that music right took an incredible amount of work and back and forth between Tom, Weyni, and myself – the instrumentation, the pace, the breath of it. You barely hear it, it’s only there for about 20 seconds way far upstage, and then it’s gone. But we spent hours on it. I loved that.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
I’ve been working on a theatrical/concert experience with Project Humanity, Freedom Singer, which opened in early February at the new Crow’s Theatre. It’s about a Vancouver singer who was inspired to find trace of his great great great grandmother Kizzy, who escaped to Canada on the underground railroad. It’s part storytelling, part documentary, part concert. Fitting inside the show is engaging my whole sound mind – there is a band onstage, there are field recordings, sound design, interviews. I’m loving it and I think the show is tremendously moving. It’s touring around Canada and I think it will have a long life. I’m also continuing in various contexts my long collaboration with choreographer Peggy Baker for a number of performances (as composer, not as a dancer!). After that, I’m in Stratford again doing sound and music for Treasure Island (with Mitchell Cushman, which is already a hoot because a certain amount of my job is writing pirate songs) and The Changeling with Jackie Maxwell. I’m also releasing a new record as Upanishads in 2017, and I’ll be doing concerts in Toronto and Germany in support of it. I have some things simmering for the fall and next year as well.