TPBLeap - Creative Futures

by JJ Vernon

Chapter 7 : Pre-production

As a sound engineer for theatre you will be working as part of a team & you will have a designated role & a position in a hierarchy. It is very important that you understand what is expected of you & what it is that you are committing to before taking on the job & signing a contract. You also need to be aware of who you should take direction from & to who you can give direction.

Pre-production may start many months before you become involved. Normally by the time the production company get around to hiring a sound designer/sound engineer, the play will be chosen, the venues will be booked, the director will have been chosen & the play cast. It is normal to meet with the production company &/or the director before rehearsals begin, as it is only really possible to negotiate a fee once you know the amount of work you will have to undertake. Each production will require a different level of invovement & hours spent working on it & you need to bear this in mind when setting a fee.



It is common at these preliminary meetings to be given a script even though at this stage it may well still be a rough draft subject to many changes. It makes sense to read the script as soon as you can, as sound cues will most likely be marked in & you will be able to get a general idea of the type of direction the writer sees for the sound. (Bear in mind the director's vision of the sound requirements may be quite different!) You can mark the script at all the points where sound is mentioned & compile a spreadsheet of all the cues required. You will also get a feel for the style of the piece, the plot & the period. Reading the script should provide the answers to a lot of your initial questions.

For example:

  • What type of piece is it - drama, musical, pantomime?
  • How big is the cast?
  • Will the performers require radio microphones?
  • Will there be a live band/orchestra or will they use recorded backing tracks or a mixture of both?

Many questions will be answered by careful analysis of the script at this time. Write down the questions for which you can not work out the answers, there will be plenty of opportunity to ask them later.

At the same time that th production company are hiring a sound designer they will also be hiring the other key personel. These may include the director, the assistant director, the set designer, the costume designer, the lighting designer, the choreographer, the composer, the sound designer, the stage manager, the assistant stage managers & any other specialists the production calls for.

Obviously budgets play a vital part in how many crew are involved & what the pay will be like for them. Many small production companies have very little funding & it is here that you will probably start your sound design/engineering career.



On the first day of rehearsals there is usually a read through.This is attended by everyone involved in the production. The actors will read their parts from the script & this is the first chance that everyone will get to meet each other. There may well be discussion about the direction the play may take & discussion about technical requirements. There may also be a production meeting after the read through. It is important that you get to meet the technical people that you will be involved with including:

  • The set designer. (Your speakers are going to have to be put on their set.)
  • The costume designer. (Your radio mics & transmitters will have to be hidden by the costumes.)
  • The lighting designer. (Speakers may be hung from lighting bars & speaker placement will impact on the lighting design.)
  • The composer. (You will be playing their music on your PA system, which cues are music & which are sound effects? Will the composer be providing recordings of their music or will it be played live? What instruments does the composer envision using?)
  • The stage manager. This is the person calling the sound & lighting cues & is very often the person to who the director will delegate messages relating to technical matters.
  • The make-up artist. (They will have to conceal the radio mics on the actors.)
  • The choreographer. (Will the require a sound system set up for rehearsals?)



Production meetings are usually scheduled once a week during reheasal time & rehearsals usually run for about 4 weeks before the opening of the play. All the key technical personel attend these meetings & their function is to check on budgets, check that all departments are coping with their workloads & to try to resolve any technical difficulties that may have arisen during rehearsals. The producers/director will inform the technical staff of any new requirements & will normally enquire as to how each department is progressing. If you have technical queries regarding the sound, now is the time to ask them.



It is up to you to decide how much time to spend at rehearsals & obviously the production will dictate what is necessary. Early on in rehearsals, much time will be spent "blocking" the play - that is deciding who is where on the stage at any given time & organising the entrances & exits from stage by the actors. At this early point your time is probably better spent getting to work recording, editing, sourcing & collating the necessary sound & music cues. Encourage the director to let you know when things that are relevant to the sound design are happening in rehearsals.

Later in rehearsals there will be "run throughs" also sometimes called "stagger throughs" depending on how well the rehearsals have been going! These are a complete run through of the play from start to finish. It is useful to attend these with a stopwatch so that you can get rough timings for cues.

For instance, the director may say he wants a certain piece of music to run through a particualr scene. The piece of music's duration is 3 mins 22 seconds, but when you attend a run through you learn that the scene lasts for 6 minutes. Here is a problem that will have to be addressed. There are three options available:

  1. The scene is cut so that it fits the duration of the music
  2. You edit the music so that it lasts for the duration of the scene
  3. You agree that the music should start later or finish earlier in the scene