Sounds of the Sea: An Interview with Martha Goode

Martha Goode has worked with us on sound design for a number of shows and has joined us again for I Sing the Rising Sea (which is fitting because the venue for this production, ODU's Goode Theatre, was named after her family). The sounds in I Sing the Rising Sea range from ocean waves to thunderstorms to atoms bombs to dishes clanking in a busy restaurant, with so much more in between. To give you some insight into Martha's process and the challenges she faced for this show, here's our interview with her.

We’d like to start out with some information about you. A mini version of “Who is Martha Goode." Can give us a brief rundown about you, your background, and how you came to be working as a professional sound designer for theatre?

Martha Goode: One of my first memories is of theatre camp at Mill Mountain Theater in Roanoke, Virginia, which I think says a lot about my relationship with theatre. When my parents and I moved to Norfolk in 1990, I spent my weekends doing plays with the Young Peoples’ Theater Program at Norfolk Academy. I started studying sound design at Norfolk Academy under the tutelage of Ron Newman and Rob Fleenor when I was in middle school. Ron, wise man that he is, saw a talent in me for things behind-the-scenes and an ear for the world around me.

I went to Boston University to study sound design and moved to NYC immediately after graduation. In NYC, I worked on a lot of workshops for new plays, both as a sound designer and as a producer. I love working with playwrights and the full collaboration of artists that comes with a play that is finding its feet. I also love working on more recent shows and bringing them to a regional audience for the first time.  

As a sound designer, what tasks would you say your job encompasses?

MG: Most people think that sound design is just choosing effects from a library and finding the appropriate sound effects and music for the time period and location, but it is much more. Sound designers are also creating the aural experience, including — for a musical — the mix of voice to music and the texture of underscoring. A sound designer works closely with the director and other designers to create the right atmosphere and feel for the production. This includes artistic choices, but also the technical choices of speakers and where they are placed and whether or not the actors will have microphones.

Creatively, where do you begin your process? What does your process look like?

MG: I guess my first task is to sit down and read the play. Many things that a sound designer is going to find artistically won’t be in the stage directions, even after a play is published. A phone ringing, car horn, or other sound effects are only part of the design. I start with a cue list of what is explicit in the script. Then, as I sit with the script, speak with the director, and attend rehearsals, I add in sounds that will enhance the mood of the play or enhance the audience’s experience. Some of these may be as subtle as a breeze or distant traffic or as dramatic as a specific song playing on a radio that tells us a lot about the characters onstage.

How is designing the sound different for a musical versus a play?

MG: When I design the sound for a play, I am striving to create mood and environment through the use of atmospheric sound effects (animals, technology, traffic) and many times through music choices. There is a freedom to create the rhythm of the play with the director. When you are designing a musical, there is already an inherent rhythm to the entire show. If a phone rings or a bird chirps or a ship’s horn blows, it is vital that it works with the music written by the composer. Sometimes this will involve adjusting the pitch of a sound cue or timing it just right within the music. You also have to work with the music director to balance the sound of the musicians and actors.

What information is most important to you when you’re starting a new show and who do you usually get it from (or would like to get it from)? 

MG: When I start the design process, I get a lot of information directly from the script. But the information that is most important for my design process is often not something that can be given to me in words or a conversation. Sound design is an art of mood and emotion; so much of the information I need comes from the subtler hints in the script or directorial choices. When working on a play that requires music for transitions, I often ask the actors and director what is on their pre-rehearsal playlist; what music do they choose to get into character and prepare to inhabit the world? If it is a new play and the playwright is in the room, I ask them what they were listening to while they wrote the play. With this information and some research about the time and place, I am able to create the aural world that the play inhabits.

Do you have a favorite show or two that you’ve worked on?

MG: There are a lot of shows that I’ve worked on that have given me a unique opportunity for creativity. I love plays that are set in strange locales because that gives me a lot of room to play with the design. Right now, I’m working on one of the few plays that I’ve wanted to design again. In 2008, I designed a play in the New York Fringe Festival called Anaïs Nin Goes to Hell, which is set on an island in the River Styx. As a completely fictional location (we hope), I got to use my imagination to create the atmosphere. I imagine the water of the River Styx is slower and thicker, and that there’s no resonance at all. And what does a Hydra sound like? I’m looking forward to working with a new director on this play and finding new texture to the atmosphere.

I recently worked on a play by Gregory Pierce called Slowgirl, which is set in the Costa Rican jungle, which was quite fun to design. In that play, the jungle was an ever-present character surrounding the audience. I had fun adding specific birds and howler monkeys and iguanas on the roof. Shows that allow me to design atmospheric sounds that help transport us into the world of the play are always the most fun to work on.

What’s it like working on a show with your husband [I Sing the Rising Sea Set Designer, Blair Mielnik]? Do you often collaborate on productions?

MG: Blair and I have often collaborated together in New York and Vermont, but this is the first time we have done so at Virginia Stage. In most productions, the set and sound designers don’t have a lot to talk about, as long as they don’t need a speaker hidden on the set. When Blair and I work together, we get to bounce ideas off of each other throughout the process, which allows us to look at our design element in different ways. I also enjoy working with Blair because he has great ideas for creating sound effects and a very diverse knowledge of music that I can call upon when I’m searching for cues. Working together also allows us to really work to create a cohesive and completely immersive world for the play.

You’ve worked on a few shows here at Virginia Stage before. What keeps you coming back?

MG: As a teenager living in Norfolk, I dreamt of working at the Wells Theatre for Virginia Stage. When Chris Hanna asked me to design The Comfort Team here, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to work for a company whose work I had been watching for so long. Norfolk has something very special in this group of artists who work at Virginia Stage. The staff here have become good friends over the years, and it is nice to work with people who inspire you. I also like coming home and seeing how the arts community is growing in Hampton Roads, and getting to be a part of it is exciting for me. And my family enjoy having me around too.

What artistic piece has influenced you the most as a person? It could be an album or a painting or something along those lines, but what do you think has shaped you the most to be who you are?

MG: Growing up with parents like mine, the arts have always been a part of my life. I can’t imagine growing up without the theatre, symphony, opera, museums, etc. One thing I love to do is go to a museum and “listen” to the art. The Chrysler has done something like this, where they create a soundscape for some of their works. When I look at a painting or photograph, I imagine what it would sound like to be standing right there with the subjects. It’s definitely not a normal response to the visual arts, but I think that impulse is why I chose to do what I do.