“In the last couple of years, I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues drop out of the industry; a lot of them burn out and suffer serious mental health crises,” Edmondson told the ABC.
“David White’s letter resonated with me. We’re not far off that situation happening in Australia and I’ve seen people come uncomfortably close to that kind of point in their life because of the pressure in the job, and lack of understanding and support.”
Two jobs for the price of one
“Sound and composition … has the ability to truly creep its way into the back of the minds of the audience and help shape their engagement with the play, without being particularly overt. I think that’s a lot of the reason why it’s often overlooked,” Edmondson says.
Sound designers are responsible for all the sound elements in a production, from sound effects and mic-ing up performers to setting up speaker systems.
Edmondson, whose recent credits include Sydney Theatre Company’s award-winning six-hour epic The Harp In The South (sound designer, working with composer The Sweats) and Blackie Blackie Brown(assistant sound designer, to designer/composer Steve Toulmin), says sound designers often resort to unexpected sounds to achieve the desired effect.
In Blackie Blackie Brown, for example, Edmondson had to ask himself: “What is the sound of a giant pair of testicles exploding? … You’ve got to get creative.”
One solution? The “mating cry of foxes” — which when slowed-down sounds “low and haunting”.
Composers, meanwhile, write and arrange music for a production — but in today’s theatre, the roles of composer and sound designer are often combined.
Stefan Gregory, who won Best Sound Design at this year’s Sydney Theatre Awards for his work on The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (STC), is a composer and sound designer who has been working in Australian theatre for 15 years.
Gregory says the trend towards combining the two roles emerged within the last 10 years, as composers increasingly began to work electronically.
“The composition/sound design is expected to be fed actively into the room right through the rehearsal process,” Edmondson says.
After the day’s rehearsal, the sound designer/composer writes and mixes the music before programming it into the software. Then (hopefully) the director approves — or they’re forced to go back to the drawing board.
“Once you hit the theatre [for tech week] … you tend to come in for a 9am start and you’ll tend to work through till the theatre closes, which is generally 11pm. But larger productions you might not be out the door until midnight,” says Edmondson.
“If you’re a composer, you go home and sometimes rewrite a whole piece of music and you might be up to 3 or 4am and then back into the theatre early again.”
Gregory concurs, saying that in the final weeks of rehearsals he often works between 90 to 100-hour weeks.
And it’s not just the hours that are taxing.
“You’ve got to put your soul into this music — with the knowledge that someone’s going to listen to it for about three seconds and go ‘Nup, that’s not right’,” he says.
He estimates the ratio of music abandoned as opposed to used in the production as 10:1.
“The sound designers and composers I know all work extraordinarily hard and kill themselves, pretty much.”
J David Franzke is a Melbourne-based Green Room Award-winning sound designer and composer who has worked in the industry for 25 years. Last year, he worked on Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of The Architect; currently he is working on Malthouse’s forthcoming production of Cloudstreet.
“If you’re working as a sound designer in live theatre you’re doing it as a passion. It’s not a sensible career choice,” Franzke says.
“I feel like I’ve spent the best part of 25 years with my nose down, tail up, just boring along working. I’ve popped out the other side and gone: ‘Oh! Where are all the things you’re meant to have when you’re almost 50?’ Like a house or a car, I don’t have any of that.”
Franzke works for 6-week blocks at a time on shows.
He describes his financial circumstances as “hand-to-mouth”.
Edmondson says he’s able to make a living wage but that he puts his “hourly rate for theatre work at between $15 and $18 per hour”. In his Facebook post, he said: “The janitors make more money out of my shows than I do (no shade to janitors, of course).”
Gregory says the hourly rate for being both composer and sound designer is “not good”, and says he chooses to work for companies that pay on the higher end of the industry’s spectrum.
“I will be going back to finding work as computer programmer this year — despite being one of the most in-demand in my field and having plenty of shows offered to me in Australia and overseas — because I want more free time to work on projects that are meaningful to me.”
The changing scope of sound design
“Sound designers/composers are paid a flat fee and that hasn’t really changed much at all in the last 10 years,” Edmonson says.
“It’s been fairly static — as have most of the fees of other creative departments — but unlike other departments, sound design has changed a lot in its scope in that time.”
With the rise of prestige TV, theatre audiences have come to expect more complex and immersive sound design, and technology has emerged that can realise that.
These developments have meant that delivery time for work has been cut down while tech costs have gone up. Edmondson says sound professionals need between $10-20,000 worth of equipment to start out in the industry.
Inequity in the industry
In order to remedy “the significant gender inequity” in the industry, Theatre Networks Australia has compiled a list of female, non-binary, and trans designers.
But one woman who has been working regularly in Australian theatre as a sound designer and composer is Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers, with recent credits including cabaret show Hot Brown Honey and The Longest Minute (a co-production by Queensland Theatre and JUTE Theatre Company).
“I’m a mother and the theatre is not very conducive to that — especially [the role] of a sound artist. It’s a lot of late nights, and I wouldn’t say that I’m treated that great,” Bowers says.
“The last project I did seven drafts … a lot of that is hours that aren’t paid for,” she adds.
And it’s not just late nights that Bowers has to contend with.
“[I deal with] attitudes, ideas that because you’re a black woman, a woman of colour, that you’re only going to have a certain skill base, that you only work in a certain way … insidious stuff that is full-on.”
Better pay, recognition and education
While other designers in theatre are represented by the Australian Production Design Guild, Edmondson says sound designers are lacking specific union representation to advocate for change.
Yet, the time might be ripe for change.
“With all the cultural shift that we’re seeing in theatre at the moment surrounding safe spaces, mental health, appropriate behaviour and inclusion … I think that’s really opened the door for more honest, frank conversations,” says Edmonson.
“I’m seeing people really suffering from being overwhelmed and burnt out by this workload and … there’s such a small pool already in the industry to begin with, we just can’t afford to lose these people.”
The answer for Edmondson is better pay, improved mental health support, and bringing composers and sound designers on board earlier in the production process.
All of the practitioners interviewed for this piece feel that raising awareness is a crucial part of effecting change.
“It is about actually recognising the workload and recognising the number of hours [involved],” says Bowers.
Gregory says: “I think what’s really happening for the role is that it’s just become a lot more work than it used to be 10 years ago, and I think theatre companies haven’t really caught up … I find that I have to explain my role to pretty much every theatre company I work for.”