Monday, August 18, 2008

Jen Raynak: Playing with Sound - From the Beginning & The Creative Process

August 18, 2008
Interview by Followspot

From the Beginning: Winnie-the-Pooh to the Winningstad

Followspot – How did it all begin? How did the Jen Raynak enter into the theatre community?

Jen – Even as a kid, I liked to play with sound. I would concoct devices that would amplify sound waves visually. Like long wires hanging off of tables with paper cups at the end of them that would bounce up and down when you yelled at the table. So then the vibrations at the table would get amplified at the end of the long wires and the cup would move up and down. I was fascinated by the invisible sound waves and trying to make that visible.

FS – How old was that?

J – Fifth and sixth grade I remember doing it. I’ve been playing music since I was a tiny child. When I was four I started taking piano lessons. And then, as I got into high school and college, the opportunities for home electronic music began to grow so I made a lot of four-track recordings by jerry-rigging a tape recorder at my house and figuring out how to record tracks on one side and then the other side, etc., etc. Then in college I got some actual equipment that did that on purpose and played a lot with that. And I also got into sound for theatre there. At my high school, girls were not allowed to do tech.

FS – There was a ban.

J – Yes. There was a person who was in charge of all the technical theatre who did not allow girls to participate. We could do makeup and costume but not do lighting or sound or any kind of construction, carpentry, anything like that.

FS – And this was okay?

J – It was the way it was. I graduated in 1987. It was protested by people like me, but it was the way it was.

FS – Were you able still to pick up anything from guys who worked in the [theatre]?

J – Not really. I didn’t know really what went on up there. I liked the idea of it but we weren’t allowed to look at it. My dad is very much into electronics so I was doing a bunch of electronic work at home, just ordering parts out of the back of magazines and putting them together into various concoctions. I was probably around 13 when I learned how to solder. So when I got to college – I went to a women’s college – and girls, it turned out, were allowed to do everything.

FS – So wait, back to high school. Is that when you did get into theatre?

J – I did some performing and it terrified me – and it still does. I’m done with that. I don’t have to do it anymore.

FS – What did you perform in and as what?

J – In seventh grade I was Winnie-the-Pooh. And then after that I got mostly the fat, brown-haired girl parts. So the skinny blond girls got the lead and ingénue parts, and then I got the other parts.

FS – Wow. That must have been a wonder for personal self-esteem.

J – Yeah, that was really superb. I have I feeling I was not a terrific actor also which probably didn’t help with my casting. [laughing] You know, I don’t feel bad about that.

FS – So college - that’s when you got into tech.

J – Yeah, I really had the opportunity to do a bunch of tech in college. I was a chemistry major for two and a half years, and then I realized I didn’t want to be a chemistry major. I was doing it because my parents wanted me to be a chemistry major. So I think they cried a lot of little tears silently without telling me, but I switched my major to theatre. Music for theatre and dance actually. I created my own major. It was a very small school.

FS – What school was this?

J – Wells College, in upstate New York.

FS – When did you also get into composition? Had you always also been into composing your own music?

J – I had done some of it. Again, everything was so informal – I was just doing it in my living room. We lived in such a rural area and my college was so tiny that I’ve never had classes in any of this.

FS – Self-taught.

J – Yes. Because I enjoy it. And I sort of make up how it’s supposed to go, unfortunately. Sometimes that works out well, sometimes not so much.

FS – And that’s how you still work today?

J – Yeah, I haven’t really trained in any of this. So, yes, I’m self-made.

My first paid gig was the summer after I graduated from college. I had moved down to Ithaca, New York. I was working at the Hangar Theatre. I volunteered for the first show of the season…and by the fifth show, they had hired me as their sound designer. So I just started out as a volunteer and I went and I helped and I sat with the sound designer and I went to his studio and I learned what he was doing; ingratiated myself I guess. And it turned out that Chuck was unable to design the fifth show, so they hired me to do it.

FS – And what was that like? Your first show, independently designing it?

J – It was fantastic. It was Major Barbara and it was a little bit of an abstract production of that, and I had access to the Cornell sound design studio through Chuck Hatcher, who was the designer for the other four shows.

FS – And I take it that must be a really good thing to have access to.

J – Yeah. It was a huge bank of midi equipment and a bunch of other recording gear. So this is 1991, and the show was run on reel-to-reel. Of course. Quarter-inch two-track I think. And maybe two decks. The booth was very tiny and we had to climb a ladder through a hatch to get in there. It was superb. The Hangar is still a haven for a lot of New York performers to get out of the city in the summertime. It was a very professional setting and some great people to work with.

FS – You came to Portland in 1995, and what brought you over here?

J – It was pretty. I was living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, being a ski-bum, and my brother was in graduate school in Seattle. And I came through Portland on my way to Seattle, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Flowers, grass, trees. So the following January I packed up everything I owned into my pickup truck and I moved to Portland.

FS – How did you get into the theatre scene? Did you jump right into it?

J – I took some classes at PSU [Portland State University].

FS – Sound design classes?

J – Lighting design and a scenic design classes actually, and I had to convince them I could come in at a graduate level. I had zero technical credits on my transcript but I tested out of all of their undergraduate technical classes. I think they had a three hour testing period - in two hours I had finished all of the exams for all of their undergraduates, and that sort of convinced them I could come in at a higher level. So I got to know some people through that, and my first gigs in Portland were with The Musical Theatre Company in the Newmark. I also volunteered for Tygres Heart as an usher, so I’d been already in PCPA [Portland Center for the Performing Arts] with the first theatre I came into.

FS – That’s a really good space to start out in.

J – Yeah. It was great. And some of my first gigs in town were with Tygres Heart. So in the Winni – that was one of the first theatres I ever went into in this city. And now it's my job.

FS – Where did you go from there? Did you make any connections you still have right now?

J – By working for The Musical Theatre Company, absolutely. And that was Demetri Pavlatos on those gigs, Don Crossley, Andy Berry, Clair Callaway, Meghan Newton, Jessica Flores worked for that company. Jason Winslow worked for that company. Lars Larsen. It really was a cauldron for young technicians at that time. We all came in and learned from each other, and told stories of our youth, and laughed a lot, and made really good technical theatre happen. It forged a lot of great relationships, working for $300 a run in the Newmark, doing insane things. And there was enough of a union crew there also – we were close to that, in a really good way. The rules made sense and they were enforced appropriately, and it made us all understand why it’s good to take a break once in a while. The phrase “sharing is caring”Don’t lift that thing up that’s too heavy for you to lift. Find a buddy, and the two of you carry it somewhere. Sharing is caring. Then no one gets hurt, nothing gets broken. It takes just a tiny bit longer but then you don’t have to do it twice, or send someone to the hospital.

FS –It sounds like you started out with some really good opportunities. Did it just keep snowballing from there?

J – Yeah. My first year in Portland, I worked for Manpower temp agency and that’s how I paid my bills. $300 for a three-week run does not pay the rent. But within a year I was done with Manpower and I was making all my money doing theatre. I was painting at Portland Center Stage, that was my first in with them. I was designing some at Tygres Heart. I was kinda working all over the place, just freelancing, like everybody does now. Run a show here, you know, help build a show there, etc., etc. And that all happened within one year of moving here, of knowing nobody. So it turned out okay.

FS – I was gonna say you were impressive from the beginning but that just sounds weird.

J – Just maybe aggressive, for getting in, that’s sort of the story of how I did sound for PCS [Portland Center Stage] also. Creon Thorne was the production manager at the time, and I would come in and volunteer my time on the sound calls during tech and just get to know the designers, watch how they worked, help where I could, and then I got – after, you know, a year or two of that - I got paid to be an assistant to the sound designer.

FS – And what year was that?

J – I don’t remember. ’98 maybe? Somewhere in there? I kept bugging Creon – ‘Will you let me design? Gimme a design. Please. Let me design something.’ I designed two shows at the end of the season for PCS and it went quite well, I thought. So come summertime I asked Creon if I could design again. And he said yes, and I said which shows, and he said, all of them. So that’s how I became the resident sound designer at PCS. He decided to hire me for everything. It was awesome.

FS – So you did that for a very long period of time.

J – I think…7 years?

FS – ‘Cause you went freelance in…

J - Right when [PCS] moved to the Armory [2006].

The Creative Process: “What’s the sound of monkeys flinging poo?”

FS – How do you approach a show? It sounds like a lot of what you do is just play around. Give me two different shows where you’ve approached them in different ways.

J – I have two great examples. One is O Lovely Glowworm at Portland Center Stage. The script is pretty dense with sound requirements to begin with, and the playwright was there, both times we did it – the workshop and the production, and then I actually worked on a production in Indiana since then. Three times, and Glen [Berger] has been there all three times. And he has veerrryy specific desires about the sound effects and I think we hit close to 200 sound cues.

FS – And did you have to do it differently each locale?

J – Yeah, there were some differences in each one. Some of the stuff remained the same. Obviously this is what the mermaid music is, The Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals, so that had to be what it is. But what’s the sound of monkeys flinging poo? You know, that changes a little bit as my interpretation of what’s going on onstage changes. Or snow falling, or all the various other sound effects. And what the room, what the equipment can handle - how much am I limited by the technology?

FS – You worked with Glen [Berger], one-on-one with [the sound cues].

J – Right, and with Randy White, the director. So the three of us met and talked a lot and tried to interpret Glen’s requests, and figure out what the heck he was talking about, ‘cause he’s kind of a strange cat. He’s a beautiful and strange cat. And he will say things that are so poetic and then I have to translate them into a sound. I wish I had some notes from that show. So for that one, the process was very integrated, very collaborative. That the three of us were in constant communication – how the flow of the show was going to happen when there were specific motivational cues, like gunshots or explosions, or monkeys flinging poo, or the start of a horse race, you know, what that bell sounds like at the horse races, and trying six or seven different things and really really piling up sound cues on top of each other to achieve this really dense world that that play happened in.

Another example of a more recent [show] was Grace. [Produced by Third Rail Repertory.]

Two sound clips from Grace: One Two
(Jen asked me to point out that the "glitches" are on purpse.)

FS – For which you won a Drammy.

J – [Grace] was much more solitary as it turns out. I read the script and read the script and read the script, and we had a lot of meetings about how the heck this was going to work because it moved forward and backward in time, and where there were going to be sound cues. And it felt fairly standard of [the playwright’s] sound transitions. Craig Wright had written in “the music swells” but not sort of any indication of what he needed, except that it needed to have some sort of emotional underscoring. That one actually, we were into rehearsals, and I had nothing.

FS – Any particular reason you had nothing?

J – I couldn’t figure out what the heck it was. So I’m reading the script, I’m sitting in watching rehearsals, trying to figure out what the heck is this? ‘Cause the only thing that is mentioned in the play musically is that Amy Grant song, “In a little while/We’ll be with the father….” Whatever the dumb song is. And it can’t be like Christian rock. You can’t make a show out of that. It can’t be of the characters. It can’t be sort of this Florida beat music, which is where they are. It can’t be Jesus music. So it took me a veeerry long time to figure out what the heck it was. And when I did, it was more like a switch switching on, that it was just, in my head, Oh! That’s what it sounds like.

FS – Like you just woke up one night and you just had it.

J – And I knew what it sounded like. It was just - it took my brain a long time to process, to push out, you know, what it had been working on, obviously, for a long time. So once that switch clicked on, it probably was only four or five days later that I had all the cues built.

FS – How long were you in the rehearsal process before the click happened?

J – Maybe…six or eight rehearsals before moving into the theatre. We were close. It was getting down to it.

FS – So were people around you freaking out?

J – No no. Because they had a lot to work on too. I mean, nobody had seen the lighting cues yet, so nobody was nervous about it. I was just like, ‘I don’t know what it is yet, but when it comes, it will be right. Don’t worry about it, we’ll get there.’

FS – [Third Rail Repertory’s] your company. I mean, you’re resident sound designer. Any other company you’ve worked with where that might have been a more dangerous situation?

J – I think it might have been had there been more underscoring anticipated beforehand but early on the idea was that there would be music in transitions and underscoring that first scene, which is backwards. And it wasn’t going to change the direction, it wasn’t going to impact actors, they didn’t have to dance around my sound cues so it wasn’t gonna make a big difference to them as far as what they were doing onstage, I mean, hopefully it helped them get where the director wanted them to go but doesn’t have to change their timing, it doesn’t have to change their blocking, or anything like that.

FS – And that might have affected more like … O Lovely Glowworm?

J – Absolutely. But this one, we ended doing quite a bit more underscoring because once I figured out what the heck it was, which was a lot of static, a lot of glitching, some kind of music here and there, but mostly long, low pads. Pads: it’s a synthesized tone. Long low stuff that was oscillating. Then all this glitchy shit on top of it, various things from AM radio recordings, a little bit of music recordings. There were 20- 25 layers in every cue. But I knew where I was going so I got there really quickly, once I figured out what the heck it was. And then very little changed from those cues that I built in isolation to the finished product.

FS - Very different processes.

J – Absolutely.

FS – Do you prefer one over the other?

J – Nope.

FS – What challenges you in design?

J – The collaboration, I think, is the most exciting for me. Anyone can sit in a class and make up something that they like and say, ‘I made this. I like it. It is perfect.’ But then once you get everybody else’s voices into the conversation, that’s the challenge - to do something that has artistic integrity for yourself yet that also fits the needs of the director. That, I think, is the best challenge of all, is doing this not in a vacuum.

FS – Because theatre is a collaborative process after all.

J – It is and you know, I believe that never, ever was a show written about a sound cue. My job never is to make something that exists in isolation. It has to bring the audience to where the director wants them to go. If it doesn’t do that, it needs to go. If it pulls them in some other direction, it needs to go. If it stalls the play and everyone has to stop to hear your beautiful sound cue, it has to go. It has to be part of that whole in order to be a valid sound design. I think that’s the biggest challenge, that I embrace.

FS – It sounds like a lot of it is toning down your ego.

J – When I’ve taught, I’ve told my students over and over again, 'You may work for six days on a cue and think it’s absolutely brilliant and you’ve finally got it sculpted exactly the way you want it and everything’s at the perfect volume, and moves around the room perfectly, and if the director cocks their head a little bit and goes ehh? Throw it out.' It can’t be about your work. It can’t be about I spent so much time on this! If it doesn’t work for the play, put it in your portfolio, put it on your website. Let people listen to it in isolation but it’s not part of a show anymore.

FS - And what challenges do you feel you haven’t taken on yet and you would like to?

J – I’m actually gonna do a little bit more of this this year – working with a composer. So for James and the Giant Peach at Oregon Children’s Theatre, Elias Foley is going to be the composer for that show and I’m gonna be the sound designer. I’ve seen that collaboration work really well in the past and I want to be good at that. I want to work with a composer. Elias and I have worked together. We worked together on defunkt’s In Apparati.

FS – As a sound designer working with a composer, how is that different?

J – What I’ve watched other pairs do and my one experience doing it, the sound designer expresses to the composer, 'Here are the tools that I think I’m gonna need for the show.' And then the composer goes and makes the arty part and then that collaboration happens almost in isolation for a long time – of ‘Okay, look, can I get something a little more up tempo, or something with a little more of a percussive feel to it, or something with more high end to it?’ And being able to just create those tools. We’re gonna make a CD of the soundtrack and then I’m gonna take those parts, just like I would if we were using some prerecorded music. I’m gonna take out the bridge from this. This tune will work great for this transition. So Elias works to build a whole and then I pick it back apart and use the parts for the various transitions.

There’s a different way that can work which is going to the composer to make, 'Oh I need a 15-second transition, medium tempo, with a tuba.' I like the other way better, personally. But it’s a new challenge for me, to actually work in two different languages. I’m working the tech/director language on one side and then working the music/composer language on the other side and to be sort of a Rosetta Stone in-between those two. And then also be the artist in the middle of that and produce the sound design.

FS – It’s like a giant puzzle.

Basically it’s you and Rody [Rodolfo Ortega].

Since 2003, Jen has won four and Rody, three, Drammys for Outstanding Sound Design.

J – There’s a bunch more sound designers.

FS – I know, I mean, do you ever feel like you’re in competition with Rody?
J – No no. I would love to work with him someday. We both do the same job. We have gotten to work together, because I’m [steward for] the Winny now. So he has come through there, and I’m looking forward to that happening some more. Directors, designers – there’s only one of each of those people in every show. The actors get to work with other actors, see what their practice is like. If you’re a stitcher, if you’re a carpenter. Designers and directors - directors never get to see other directors work unless they sit in on a rehearsal, or they act in a show, or they’re a designer for another director. So I would love the chance to work more with other sound designers but who can afford – no one can pay two sound designers.

FS – I never even thought about that – you guys are always working solo.

J – There’s not a good cross-pollination but it’s certainly not a competition. In fact, he’ll call me for things that he needs for shows and I’ll call him for things that I need for shows. And the same for all of us – all the sound designers. ‘Hey, does anybody know where a phone ringing machine is?’ ‘Yeah, well I have one or yeah, I think Rody built one time. You should call him to see if he still has it.’

FS – I’m assuming for now you plan to stay in Portland.

J – Oh yeah.

FS – You feel challenged by the work that’s going on here.

J – Yep.

Next Up! PATA & Bits of Color

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