John Leonard is one of the most prolific sound designers working on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in England in October 1951, he is currently a partner in Aura Sound Design Ltd., and over the past 30 years has worked for The Almeida Theatre, The Bristol Old Vic, Chichester Festival Theatre, The Donmar Warehouse, The English Shakespeare Company, Robert Fox Ltd., The Gielgud Theatre, Hampstead Theatre, The Intiman Theatre, Joint Stock, Bill Kenwright Ltd., The Longacre Theatre, Method and Madness, The National Theatre, Out Of Joint, Prospect Theatre Company, The Queens Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company, Sheffield Crucible Theatre, The Tricycle Theatre Company, Upstairs at The Royal Court, The Vaudeville Theatre, Duncan Weldon Productions, Excalibur Productions and The Young Vic, as well as on and off Broadway. He is also the author of Theatre Sound. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux chats with Leonard about his life in sound design, which began at the age of eight when his father bought a Garrard tape recorder.
Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: Why did your father have a tape recorder in the first place?
John Leonard: He was a ham radio operator and we were surrounded by bits of interesting equipment. I played with the tape recorder and it fascinated me utterly and completely. That was the beginning of it.
ELG: How did you get interested in the theatre?
JL: My eldest brother, David Leonard, took me to see my first real show, Beyond The Fringe, and I decided to try and make a living in the theatre. Other than that we had just been to see the Christmas pantomime or Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Then as a student I got cheap seats on matinee days and saw everything at the Bristol Old Vic. It was a mix of modern and classic work, some on its way to the West End. The theatre was run by Val May in those days. By then I knew I wanted to go to drama school, not university.
ELG: What was the technical course at the Bristol Old Vic like?
JL: It was a one-year technical theatre course, very intensive; you did it all. They had a small, primitive sound studio, and I had it pretty much to myself. I started playing around with old tape recorders and making musical tracks, mixing and splicing, making what they call “musique concrète,” but I didn't know that's what I was doing until later. I spent a great deal of time experimenting in that room.
ELG: When did you go to work for the Bristol Old Vic?
JL: In 1971, when I was 20. I was a stagehand for six months and got to know the sound guy and became his assistant. Three months later he left as an engineer with The Rolling Stones. I got his job, but nobody got mine. We produced a new show every four weeks in each of three theaters, from Shakespeare to new plays. Howard Davies directed a lot there. We started out at the same time.
ELG: What came next?
JL: After five years, I went freelance for a while and eventually joined the sound department at the RSC in London. They were at the Aldwych and what is now the Donmar Warehouse that was their studio theatre. I was also offered the job as head of sound at the National Theatre and was ready to accept when the guy who had the job told me why he was leaving. I stayed at the RSC where there was more room to design shows. The job was more of a manager at the National. This year I finally designed my first show there, Tom Stoppard's Jumpers.
ELG: When did you create Aura Sound Design Ltd?
JL: In 1998 with business partner John Owens. And we are about to branch out with a new company called Aura Show Control, for exhibitions mainly, as an adjunct to our theatre work, with Scott George, another partner who is very good with show control. I have a long relationship with Madame Tussaud's, starting at their Baker Street venue with music, bird songs, frogs, and things like that for the interactive Garden Party exhibit. I feel show control is a big area of growth for the theatre as well, and it gets more sophisticated every day. For Ralph Fiennes' Hamlet, we used show control in the West End, but Broadway said no to having the sound and lighting controllers connected. It was a union problem.
ELG: How many shows do you do in a year?
JL: This year, 11, without counting two transfers of Midnight's Children from the RSC. It's not always easy but I can usually just move from show to show. Having the office in London to sort things out is very helpful.
ELG: How do you feel about new technology?
JL: Basically it means we can do a lot more now than we could then. You can make changes in a matter of seconds and don't need to go back to the studio. With a basic rig including an AKAI S6000 sampler, a Richmond Sound Design Audio Box, my Macintosh G4 laptop, and sometimes a mixing desk, but not always, and a pair of audio interfaces from Metric Halo in upstate New York, you've got a powerful set of tools. I can do multi-track recording on the laptop anywhere, really anywhere, from castles to a harpist in a shed or the subway in Times Square. I also use Meyer Sound loudspeakers mostly. The MSL2s are my all-time favorites. They suit the way I work. I also like d+b loudspeakers from Germany. For a musical, the console should be a Cadac, no doubt about that, but I also like the Yamaha digital consoles.
ELG: How do you feel about musicals in general?
JL: I'd love to have done Gypsy on Broadway, but the Acme Sound Partners did a great job. The score is perfectly written, and this production has one of the best pit bands I've heard since 42nd Street on Broadway in the early 80s. I think there is a tendency today to make the sound louder and brighter, but that can destroy a show. It's good for Rent or Tommy but with classic musicals there's no need for all that amplification. I think you need to let the music have its head when it needs to. The overture of Gypsy is a great example. But sometimes music can get in the way and be too loud. You have to leave holes for the vocals. The skill is to leave a space for the people to exist.
ELG: What do you do in your down time?
JL: I read anything I can get my hands on, and in addition to my book, Theatre Sound, I have written a guide to New York for people who have never been there before. How to survive it. My first trip to New York was in 1981 and I've been besotted every since. I also like to travel and have been to Japan to design three shows in Tokyo, the farthest I've been to do a show. I will get to Australia someday, and I'd like to go to Iceland. There are also chunks of America I'd like to see. I've lectured in Korea and gathered sound effects in the Ukraine. Recording sound effects is one of my passions.
ELG: What keeps you interested in the theatre after so many years?
JL: People keep writing new plays, there is always a new space, or a new director, and a new approach to plays you've done before. I just love the theatre. Always have for the past 40 years.
ELG: Is there something you would still like to do?
JL: Yes, I desperately want to record the ultimate thunderstorm.
THREE THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT JOHN LEONARD:
- He made his theatrical debut at the tender age of two months in the lead role of “The St. Michael & All Angels Parish Church Nativity Play.”
- He discovered the wonderful world of sound at eight years old when his father bought a Garrard tape recorder.
- He describes his wife, Andrea Hess, as a cellist, houseplant expert, and stunning cook.