Interview with Alexandra Faye Braithwaite

The Understudy, based on the best-selling novel by David Nicholls, is a brand new radio play that will be broadcast in two parts to raise funds for the theatre industry which is facing a devastating impact from the Covid-19 health crisis. I caught up with sound designer Alexandra Faye Braithwaite to find out more.

How did you first get into sound design?
I went to intern in the sound department at the Lyric Hammersmith as the Sound No. 2 on their panto, but I ended up staying there for a couple of years, working closely with their Head of Sound, Nick Manning, who had recently been nominated for an Olivier for his sound design on Ghost Stories. When the work was over we would sit in his studio and he’d just let me watch the work happen, and eventually that moved on to me associating for him on a few projects, and then designing my own shows.

What do you enjoy most about your role?
I love the freedom of being able to spend twelve hours sat in front of a weird synthesiser because you think you have an idea for a sound, or walking through the park recording the birds for a show, and that genuinely being work for me. I’m so completely obsessed with learning everything about everything sound-wise that I’m not sure if I could be anything else. And particularly at the moment where our industry is kind of on pause, that freedom has allowed me and my two pals, who all work in sound and music in various ways, to put our energy into creating our own company, Broken Bird studios, a Northern based audio production company specialising in sound design and composition for film, theatre, radio drama and more.

Can you tell me a little bit about The Understudy?
It’s a new digital play that’s been produced entirely under quarantine, with every single member of the creative team and cast doing their part from the safety of their own homes to create what will hopefully be a fun night in for all those who buy a ticket! It takes the form of a radio play but with added animation so there is a visual element to it. This form of digital content is definitely a new medium for lots of us working on the project, as many of us are theatre makers primarily, but we hope it brings some of the excitement that live performance does to people within the safety of their own homes. It follows the story of Stephen, an actor who is ‘always the understudy, never the lead’ and his relationship with his daughter, ex-wife and others around him as he navigates taking on an understudy role for a star in a west end show and the trials and tribulations that occur along the way.

What made you want to get involved in the project?
First and foremost, when theatres shut down across the globe it meant that my work and that of all my close friends went up in smoke overnight. And of course, there is so many things happening in the world right now that are far worse but to have the opportunity to work on a project that raises funds for the UK’s theatre industry is a huge priority to me. That, and to be working for The Lawrence Batley and The Lowry is always dreamy. Coming from Preston myself, working with Northern theatres always feels especially important.

How have you approached the sound design on The Understudy given the current lockdown?
It’s been extremely difficult to go from such a hands on, location based, immediate career to something much more insular, and solo – in terms of workflow. However, there’s something beautiful to be had in the amount of communication it forced us to have, every intimate element of your process shared, not only with the director and other members of the creative team, but the actors as well! You can’t just walk into their dressing room five minutes before the half with a zoom recorder saying “can you just say the word cats 5 times into this mic?’ and then running to stick it in the show file – you have to be on call to them, throughout the process, talking through mic technique, and trying to communicate to them how you would like each scene to be recorded and designed so that they have an understanding of what we need to achieve. And also, what’s not to love about dropping heavy objects on the floor and clanging pots and pans around the house to create Foley?

Why should people tune in?
There’s love, heartbreak, and a good dose of theatricality in there but on the most part it’s light hearted and funny, just what we all need at the moment! It’s also been made with real heart and love, from all sides, and I hope this translates. In a time of huge global uncertainty, I think anything that can bring a smile or a laugh is worth spending time on!

What inspires your work?
Artists, other composers, my friends. I’m currently really into Sevdaliza, an amazing Iranian composer. There are so many though – Ólafur Arnalds, Tim Hecker, Ryoji Ikeda…anything or anyone that pushes through your walls of expectation, because it proves there’s so much more to be discovered and adventured through.

The Understudy will be broadcast in two parts, Part 1 on Wednesday 20th May and Part 2 on Wednesday 27th May. Tickets are available at https://www.understudyplay.com/

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