The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards: Creating the sound of trauma and struggle

The sound designers nominated for The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards this year are Angie Seah (left), Vick Low (right), Teo Wee Boon and Chris Wenn.
The sound designers nominated for The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards this year are Angie Seah (left), Vick Low (right), Teo Wee Boon and Chris Wenn. ST PHOTOS: GIN TAY, DESMOND FOO
The sound designers nominated for The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards this year are Angie Seah, Vick Low, Teo Wee Boon (left) and Chris Wenn (right).
The sound designers nominated for The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards this year are Angie Seah, Vick Low, Teo Wee Boon (left) and Chris Wenn (right).PHOTOS: CHRIS WENN, TEO WEE BOON

Whether it is creating intimacy through the audience's use of headphones or recreating sounds live on stage, the four sound designers nominated for The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards this year created audio experiences to help viewers get inside the main character's head.

All are first-time nominees at the annual awards, given out since 2001 to recognise the best of local theatre in the previous year.

Australian Chris Wenn, 40, is nominated for his work on In The Silence Of Your Heart, billed as an "in-ear audio experience", where viewers listen to the voice of actor Lim Kay Tong through headphones, but never see the bedridden protagonist.

In The Silence Of Your Heart was staged last year for the annual The Studios season of intimate works presented by the Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay, as was Leda And The Rage, for which 34-year-old sound designer Teo Wee Boon is nominated. His soundscape alternated between the natural fury of thunderstorms, tense silence and music to portray the trauma of a sexual assault survivor.

Visual artist and performer Angie Seah, 40 - who goes professionally by "anGie seah" - used household objects, including knives and a chopping board, to recreate the sounds of everyday life in a Housing Board flat live during Lanang, Hatch Theatrics' work about mental illness.

The fourth nominee, 29-year-old Vick Low, scored his nomination for Watching, presented by Toy Factory Productions. He used recordings of sound from his HDB flat, as well as recorded sound from TV documentaries and static, to get viewers in the headspace of the main character, who finds that his TV set is talking to him.

Low says: "Sound gives the audience a clue whether or not it's a ghost haunting the main character or a different dimension he creates with his mind.

 

"Sound is part of the character since the whole play is about the TV and him. It puts the audience in the shoes of the character."

Similarly, for Lanang, Seah chopped vegetables, flapped cardboard and struck foil to create everyday noises that irritated the protagonist and also emphasised her painful struggle with mental illness.

"I thought of myself as a very strange neighbour, almost like a separate character, in the play," Seah says. "It was like a collaboration."

Creating sound for theatre was a new challenge for her, given that she is better known for live performances with the visual art installations she creates.

"Rehearsals were hard. My performance art is free-form, so I found it very challenging to stick to a time limit," she says.

For Teo, the hardest part was working from the perspective of Leda, the protagonist.

"My main challenge was to take the audience into Leda's mind and dive right into the scene so that they could feel the same pain and suffering she went through," he explains.

"I repeatedly asked myself how I could deliver the sound, so that it could punch a feeling of pain, emptiness and struggle through the audience."

The play was also designed to be accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing, and Teo used subwoofers to ensure the sound was felt as well as heard.

For In The Silence Of Your Heart, Wenn layered in-ear narrative with sound from external speakers in the Esplanade Studio Theatre to immerse viewers in the life of the bedridden protagonist.

He tells The Straits Times over the phone from Australia that using headphones gives listeners the idea that the sound is inside their heads while the sound from external speakers can be felt with the whole body.

"When you have both of these things happening simultaneously, it can draw the audience out of themselves."

The winners of The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards will be announced at the end of this month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2019, with the headline 'Creating the sound of trauma and struggle'. Print Edition | Subscribe