A look behind the curtain into the often unseen world of the sound operatorRobert Woodland with permission for Varsity

Until I started making theatre in Cambridge, sound design was not something I thought about. It was only as I started to work with sound designers and engineers that I saw the importance of this aspect of a theatrical production. The technical side to theatre is so often underappreciated by theatre-makers and goers alike, and in no place is this more evident than that of the sound design, engineering and operation. Many roles come under the umbrella of “soundies”– in a theatrical context, these are the people who create the soundscapes that underpin productions and work to make sure that the technology can support these visions. From sound designers, engineers and operators to composers, conductors and musicians, the roles soundies play are many and varied.

Looking to gain an insight into the world of the soundies, particularly those who do musical theatre, I interviewed Robert Woodland, the sound engineer for Spring Awakening, and Felix Elliott, writer and composer of The Herb Garden. From these interviews I learnt about the importance of sound design, engineering and composition as well as the technical skill required to ensure these roles are carried out effectively during the performances.

“The roles soundies play are many and varied”

When looking at the hard work at the heart of these musicals, it became clear just how integral soundies are in the making of these shows. As I spoke to Robert about Spring Awakening, an angsty rock musical with songs that move the central characters through teenagehood into adulthood, he very humbly asserted that “if [the sound] goes unnoticed you’ve done it well”, confirming that shows “would feel empty” without it. This was reinforced as I spoke to Felix about The Herb Garden in which he will play piano and conduct the other band members simultaneously. This challenging role requires him to learn the music for his own instrument as well as the others’, whilst directing the audience through the story.

Robert’s role as the sound engineer begins before the show moves into the theatre and includes creating detailed plans for plugging in tech to ensure they get the right signals. He creates headphone mixes for each of the musicians so they can hear themselves. Then, he sets up microphones, stands and chairs for a large band and cast. When the show starts, Robert takes on the role of the operator, mixing the band and the cast throughout so they can be heard by the audience. There is much technical skill required in being a sound engineer on a big musical like this one; the main challenges include troubleshooting with faulty equipment and cables. Although this may sound like a daunting task, Robert assured me there is a community of soundies who are willing to help each other out.

“Both Robert and Felix are demonstrably passionate to do these musicals justice”

The sound designer often has more creative agency, as Felix finds in the production of his own musical, The Herb Garden. Having written the script, composed the music and played in the band for a workshop performance in the ADC Bar in Lent term, The Herb Garden is now set to be performed in the Corpus Playroom. Moving into the space has not come without its challenges, including scaling down on some of the instrumentation for the smaller space.


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Felix spoke to me about his process when writing the music and the script. He has taken inspiration from the likes of other musicals such as Falsettos and Come From Away, whose diversity in subject matter demonstrate that people can write musicals about everything. Felix told me how the story doesn’t provide answers to the questions that are posed about friendship, trust, identity and weed. Set to the backdrop of a Covid-19 isolation period, it follows Sky and Miss Court’s changing dynamic as they grapple with being thrown together. Make sure to listen out for the penultimate song (his personal favourite).

Both Robert and Felix are demonstrably passionate to do these musicals justice as they dedicate hours of their time to ensure the smooth and successful running of their respective productions. Sound is fundamental to the musicals that are put on in Cambridge and I was struck by how much those involved have a genuine love of what they do. Speaking to Robert and Felix solidified how hard those in the production and technical teams work to get these musicals up on their feet. Neither of these shows are to be missed!

Catch Spring Awakening from Tuesday 9th – Saturday 13th May 2023 at the ADC Theatre and The Herb Garden from Tuesday 16th – Saturday 20th May 2023 at the Corpus Playroom.