Behind the Scenes Spotlight: Sten Severson, Sound Director

At first thought, the creation of sound in theatre can seem like a purely technical task. Record some noises, program some machines, press some buttons, and voilà, all done! Right? Not quite. To hear Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) Sound Director, Sten Severson, talk about sound design is to hear an artist discuss his craft. When Severson explains that sound in theatre can be used to “bring the show out to the people and then to draw them back into the human drama” simply by varying the aural intensity, it’s impossible to ignore the artistry of sound.

As the Sound Director at CTC, Severson is essentially responsible for anything the audience hears during a production. He ensures that actors’ lines are intelligible, sound effects are properly layered, and music sets the appropriate emotional tone. He makes sure that the auditory experience of someone in the last row of the theatre is just as engaging as that of someone in the center of the first row. He views sound as an integral component of storytelling and notes that, “Designing the sound for a show is a technical but also emotional process.” He explains, “Because you can’t touch it, sound has a more direct path to the emotional centers of our brains.” Sound is intangible, and it can be combined with spoken lines, blocking, and visual cues to fully immerse audience members in the spectacle unfolding before them.

Sometimes people are unaware of the effect sound has on their psyches, and that makes it even more powerful. Severson gives the example of a quick, pulsing beat playing in the background of a scene where actors slowly draw out their lines. To the audience, the speech may seem agonizingly sluggish as it works against the beat, which creates an unbearable tension, even if spectators can’t discern why they’re so uncomfortable. Sound can also elevate audience members to partial omniscience—the sound of an idling engine offstage allows them to know that a car has pulled up outside without needing to see it; the thin, foreboding trembling of a string instrument gives them a window into the future, foreshadowing something sinister.

Severson’s wisdom regarding sound design is born of an impressive career to date. He entered college with interests in both science and theatre and jokes, “After taking a semester of chemistry and physics, I chose theatre!” Later, Severson moved to New York and was involved in sound designing over 20 Broadway shows. He lists his work as the lead sound designer on the 2009 Broadway revival of Hair as one of his proudest achievements in theatre, and he also worked with now-superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda on In the Heights when Miranda was “just a kid we thought might make good.”

As for his almost two years at CTC, Severson describes his role in producing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as one of his favorite experiences. (See below for photos) For this immersive show that took participants “into the bowels of the theatre” and through a maze of rooms and hallways, there was no single location for a booth or sound console, and each rendition of the show was slightly different, so it was impossible to set cues up on a timing system. Despite this unpredictability, the show still needed some way to cue the lights, sounds, and effects, so Severson helped create a system of Ethernet-connected black boxes that allowed costumed stagehands to trigger the effects. They simply had to flip switches on the inconspicuous boxes at certain times during scenes, and computers in a different room would run the proper sequences. Meanwhile, the audience had no idea how the lights and noises were being generated!

And so it goes in the world of sound design; the unseen transmits significance, wonder, and emotion. As Severson says, “Theatre is about people,” and, really, so is sound design. It’s the act of turning what people feel into something they can hear, and Severson is right to call it art.