How to get work as a sound designer
There are very few courses offering formal training in sound design for theatre, and many people sidestep into the industry from another aspect of theatre, or another aspect of sound / music.
Being a sound designer is about knowing how to communicate with an audience through sound, and how to communicate with a director through language. Working in the theatre industry is about working well with people. Your professional development, whether at via a course, or learning in the workplace, should be about developing the above three skills, and getting to know the equipment and the industry.
Sound design jobs are never advertised, and the first time you hear about an upcoming show, the chances are that the creative team will already have been appointed. Sound designers are usually asked to work on a show by a director, a producer or a production manager.
Directors often have favoured designers that they use for their shows, but as shows come along so irregularly there are many occasions where that designer is unavailable and they have to cast around for someone else, and so they ask other directors and producers for recommendations. Often if they've seen a show and liked a designers work on it, they will be approached that way.
It can take a few years to build a sufficient reputation to get regular well-paid design work. I spent several years working in an office, and then working as a sound operator as I developed my reputation to the point I could do this full-time.
It can be daunting, but there are always directors out there willing to take a chance with new designers, especially for low or unpaid design work that can't attract established designers.
There are a variety of ways of getting that first job, in fact getting work is something you need to work very actively at for the first few years - eventually a snowball effect will build up, whereby most shows will lead to another show, either by working with the same director again, in the same venue or through someone recommending you. But for the first few years you need to seek out work very actively, and develop your skills to be able to do further work.
You should get to know different aspects of the industry and get some idea of the type of work you'd like to do: are there specific companies or directors you'd like to work for, or venues? It’s also useful to get some industry experience - depending on your existing skills that could be a technical job, or it could be a work placement, or as a design assistant.
A technical job can be good to see how things work at floor level, and you get to be hands-on with sound equipment in a real-world scenario. This can be useful to see the implications that decisions you will make as a designer have on the people who'll be working with you.
As a sound designer you're you occupy a middle ground of talking artistically and conceptually with directors, and translating that into a practical reality, with the support of your sound team, if you have one. Industry experience is useful to see how the different stage, lighting and sound crews work and interact, and the role of a production manager. Once you know how they work, and what they’re trying to achieve you can better learn how to collaborate with them, not just to get what you want, but to collectively make a better show.
If you’re working a technical job with the ambition of moving into a design role, then the way you present yourself is very important. All the people you work with are people who can potentially help you get the kind of work you are after. So give people the opportunities to regard you as someone with a creative head on them. Speak to the director in their language instead of in terms of equipment and logistics.
Working as a designer's assistant can be a more prosaic job, but you'll also be in a good position to watch a designer's process, and to know the rationale behind the decisions they make. Different sound designers have different ways of working, different styles, different ways of using technology, different ways of dealing with internal politics, different ways of working with directors.
People will employ you on the basis of your work and on your manner, so learn how to sell both. Look at how you present yourself, how you dress. Find a common language to talk to a director in- there's no popular language for sound design, but there are popular languages and terms from the world of fine art, cinema and music that you can use to talk about sound. Develop your opinions on shows - if you don't like something, you need to be able to express why. You can’t talk about what constitutes “good” sound design without also talking about what makes a “good” show.
It’s useful to develop a peer group, of others trying to break into the industry. You’re more likely to get ‘in’ to the industry if you can find someone who is already working in the industry who can recommend you for work. These contacts can be made anywhere, from working as an usher to working in a hire company warehouse - it all comes down to how you present yourself.
Places to look for contacts include:
- Work Placements/Experience - These may or may not lead anywhere, but these can be very useful nonetheless to get your name/face known, to get more of an insight into the production process, and to get more of a sense of what work you might enjoy working on. They can range from a day or two to a couple of weeks - it’s up to you. (Internships don’t really exist as far as I’m aware - I’m not really a fan of this concept as it seems mostly exploitative.)
- Fringe Theatres - Often they can't afford to pay much for a sound designer but you'll get to meet a lot of people, and can be a useful way to build up design credits.
- Go to the theatre - press night parties offer good opportunities to meet people. But avoid hassling or stalking potential employers as that never goes down well.
Whilst drama school courses are expensive, and can saddle you with debt, they do afford opportunities, such as easier access to work placements. You will also get to meet visiting lecturer’s, have a peer group of others entering the industry, and of the year above you who may already have made some headway entering the industry, and many graduates form their own theatre companies, which can also present opportunities.
My first jobs came from going to a fringe theatre and asking to leave my business card on the office notice board - I got 14 fringe design jobs out of that alone, admittedly for next to no money. I spent 2 years working full-time in an office outside the theatre industry (in acoustics which has proved handy) to pay the rent whilst i did fringe designs. Then I did lots of technical jobs, operating shows, doing fit-ups, etc, to make contacts and to sell myself as a sound designer to industry people. It took about 5 years to get enough of a reputation to get jobs consistently so that I could design full-time.
When the phone rings:
- Who are you talking to? A Director, a Producer or a Production Manager?
- Show interest but never commit to anything during the first call: ('Sorry I haven't got my diary to hand at the moment, but can I take down the dates, show info, the fee and I'll get back to you when I can look in my diary')
- Then research the company, the venue, the people. Will it really work in your schedule?
- What other information will you need before you say Yes or No. If you spoke to a director they won’t know about the technical resources of the venue, or the fee structure. If you spoke to a producer or production manager, they probably don’t know how much sound is really in the show or how much the director wants you to be around in rehearsals. If they asked how much you normally charge it suggests they're not used to employing sound designers.
How not to get work:
- Be un-enthusiastic about theatre
- Be arrogant / assume that you know everything
- Piss people off - theatre is a very small world and you'll find yourself working with the same people time and again.
What to do between jobs:
- Organise your equipment & create resources - go through software you use, learn the keyboard shortcuts, learn features you don't use often, streamline your process, build up a small library of commonly used sound effects.
- Download and read the manual and data sheets of equipment you're unfamiliar with
- Do your tax, update your cv, website, portfolio
- See some shows