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Exclusive interview with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s sound designer

Gareth Fry has had a magical task over the last 18 months: preparing the sound design for the West End debut of JK Rowling’s boy wizard and his pals (and his kids). But there was one sound Fry wasn’t prepared to use.

Gareth Fry has had a magical task over the last 18 months: preparing the sound design for the West End debut of JK Rowling’s boy wizard and his pals (and his kids). But there was one sound Fry wasn’t prepared to use.

Tickets for JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have become as rare as unicorn droppings. The play opened in June 2016 at the Palace Theatre and will no doubt run for years, as it gives its massive fanbase a (final?) fix of all things Hermione and Hogwarts.

Gareth Fry was brought onboard to design the sound for the play. Fry has worked with director (and co-author) John Tiffany since 2006: “It means you have a shared vocabulary for talking about things, shared reference points, and an understanding of each other’s tastes for things,” says Fry.

(Under the strict guidelines administered by the play, Fry isn’t allowed to talk about specific brands or equipment used in the production itself. You’ll just have to use your imagination…)

No spoilers of course, Gareth – but can you give us a brief synopsis of the plot?

Gareth Fry (pictured): The play carries on from where the last book [Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows] left off: from the last chapter of that story, we jump forward 19 years, and find Harry, Hermione and Ron all grown up with children of their own. Young Albus Severus Potter and his pals are being sent off to Hogwarts, as did their parents before. So the first scene is from that point onwards, exploring these characters and their situation. Harry is an overworked Ministry of Magic official, for instance.

The show explores what it’s like for the parents living in the shadow of what has happened in the past, and what it’s like for the children living in the shadow of their parents…

Were you a Harry Potter fan to begin with?

I’d read the books and watched the films, but I’ve since met a lot of people who are much more fans than I am! I really loved the books, so it was a real privilege to get to read the script and know what happened next before anyone else did! Then we started looking at how we could tell the story. Obviously, there’s a lot of magic in Cursed Child. That’s one of the fun parts: how do you make that magic real for the audience?

As a sound designer, if I work on, says, a play set in 19th Century London, I’d start with various recordings of horses and carriages and so on. But for this, because virtually everything is magical, we’ve had to create the sounds from scratch. You can type “horse and carriage” into a sound effects database and get lots of results, but if you type the name of a spell into it you get nothing!

Myself and associate Pete Malkin set ourselves two rules to create the spell sounds: no wind chimes and no ‘whooshes’. We ended up breaking that last rule a few times but it was a good limitation to set when starting out, so everything wasn’t just a ‘whoosh’. But there are no wind chimes! It’s useful to set yourself rules, especially ones to avoid the most obvious route – it makes you work harder and find more interesting ways of doing things.

Then there are magical creatures to bring to life, and that most everything has a magical quality of one kind or another to it.

It is as important as making the magic seem real as it is to create that sense of magic in how the story is told. I think this is why this play works so well as a theatre piece: theatre is a great form for conjuring the fantastical without having to render it into naturalistic form. That the magic is all real, is all done live in front of you, just adds to the evocation of the world.

How do you build the sounds for the production?

I do everything in Logic and Ableton Live. For Cursed Child, I was in the rehearsal room full-time from day one, and all through the technical rehearsal process and preview period. I made everything either in the rehearsal or the theatre. It proves much more effective to be making it >in situ< rather than in isolation in a studio.

Meaning, in the studio you can lose sight of the original effect you were after?

Exactly. If you take it away to work on you can get carried away with what sounds cool, rather than with what sounds right.

But if you construct it there [in the theatre], you can check it relates to the actor’s performance; to the gesture they are making, or the timing of it. Equally as importantly is that it should sound like it is coming from the correct place. I occasionally see theatre shows where the sound effects come out of the proscenium speakers, a sound that is supposed to relate to something happening onstage, whether that’s a phone ringing or a spell being cast. Sometimes that’s OK, it works for a particular moment, but often you want the sound to seem to originate from its supposed source. That’s something I spend a lot of time working on.

Equally for a lot of shows the actors reinforced or amplified voice originates from a central speaker above the proscenium, which makes it difficult to work out which actor is speaking – as all their voices seem to come from that one place. Many designers now are imaging the reinforced voice to the position of the performer on the stage. Sometimes that is done manually by programming the performers moves around the stage into the mixing desk – which is very time consuming, as during the tech and previews the choreography and blocking are often changing a lot. But increasingly we are seeing the use of performer tracking systems where the performers wear special tags and a computer tracks their position onstage and routes their microphone accordingly.

While you were going through previews, did you have to change a lot of what you’d created?

No. The whole system just slotted in to place very easily, and that’s partly because we spent time planning it, but also because we spent time with the manufacturers of the equipment I wanted to use finding out how to get the best from it. They were very supportive, and of cours,e we were very well supported by hire company Autograph too. We did do a fair bit of tinkering once we got into the theatre of course, adding things here and there, cutting others, moving things around ­– refining things rather than changing them. But actually the technical and preview process on this has been one of the smoothest I’ve worked on.

Was there anything ‘out of the ordinary’ in the set-up?

A few of the radio mics had to be mounted in unusual places in unusual costumes, I think that’s fair to say [laughs]. Also, we have two sound operators: even the biggest West End musicals don’t normally need that, and we’re a play not a musical. But this is really complex, so we have Chris Reid mixing the mics, and vocal effects, and Callum Donaldson, [triggering] the sound effects and music. There are a lot of sound effects, and a lot of Imogen Heap’s music that moves between underscoring and the foreground.

She has a great love of sounds and timbres and electronics – did you work together with her?

Yes, very much: Imogen and I started work about 18 months ago, I went to visit her in her Essex studio a couple of times, and she was at a lot of the workshops and rehearsals. We were both using Ableton Live a lot so that became a useful way to throw various sounds back and forth, and to eventually play back the music in the show. Martin Lowe worked as musical supervisor on it too, and between all of us we’ve done a lot to integrate the sounds and the music so they feel all part of the same world. Sometimes that was about embedding sounds into the music, and sometimes about matching the rhythm of an effect to the musical rhythm. We were all kept very busy on it! Phij Adams worked on the Ableton files for the production.

Go on: tell us about your favourite bit of the show…

Some of the smaller scenes between two of the fathers and between the sons, they talk about what it’s like in the parent-child relationship, those are my favourite parts: the writing is so strong and has such heart to it, it brings me to tears every time…

And that is what was always the strongest about the books too – not the magic, but the relationships between those characters. And that’s why people are coming to see it. It’s been an amazing show to be part of, because our audiences come along completely vested in those characters, knowing them inside out. It’s rare for a theatre audience – or any type of audience for that matter – to have such an emotional attachment to what they are watching, and that makes the show far more electric to watch than any show I’ve worked on.

Picture credits: Manual Harlan