Even Tropical Storm Isaias can’t beat us! After all of the craziness that has already been life in 2020, the East Coast has been hit by a devastating tropical storm. “Un-Block The Music” is based about an hour North of New York City and the whole county is in a State Of Emergency. Still 6000 people out of power a week later. But I had a story to go right when the storm hit…and here it is! Meet Emma Thomson!!!!
Emma Thomson is yet another amazing woman behind the sound consoles on the Dear Evan Hansen team. Emma is head of audio for the London production. As is the case for many of the talented people “Un-Block The Music” interviews, Emma didn’t start out with theater work as her goal career. She wanted to be a forensic scientist! Wow…all of the brains behind the music. Dear Evan Hansen’s Broadway head of audio, Maxine Guitierrez studied Electrical Engineering! (If you didn’t read the story about her, go to https://unblockthemusic.blog/2020/07/29/women-wednesdays-meet-the-ladies-of-dear-evan-hansen-with-a-special-bonus/). But, I digress. Emma’s path is totally her own. Read on.
Emma’s secondary school put on productions every year. She studied Music Technology, “but I was the only pupil in this subject so if the teacher hadn’t taken the time to teach me I may not be where I am now. I went back in my gap year to do the sound for the production and that’s when I decided I wanted to go into theater sound. It was my first experience of mixing a show with microphones,” she explained.
After doing a foundation degree in Commercial Music Production and Recording at Leeds College of Music, Emma went to Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance to study Performance Sound (BAHon). (A foundation degree in the UK is a combined academic and vocational degree sort of equivalent to two thirds of a Bachelor’s Degree in the U.S.) At Rose Buford, one of her tutors was the Head of Sound at Jersey Boys London. “He took us for ‘a day in the life of’ and I started working as a sub backstage on that show. Watching him mix the show and seeing how a production runs backstage, I realized that this was something I could do professionally.” That’s how Emma made contacts with other Heads of Sound and she had the opportunity to work as a sub on other shows in the West End.
As she finished her degree, Emma went on to work her first job as the A3 (various levels of work are classified under the head sound designer) on The Lion King UK & Ireland Tour 2012. After The Lion King, Emma went to work at the Chichester Festival Theatre. (Check out the blurb about Chichester after this feature). The theater offers both plays and musicals. “It was very nurturing environment and working there help me build my confidence and knowledge. I didn’t even know how much I needed. If hadn’t worked there, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” Emma said.
After two seasons at Chichester, the show Half a Sixpence transferred to Noel Coward Theatre on the West End, and Emma transferred with it. (Half A Sixpence was co-created and produced by Cameron MacKintosh. You may recognize his other shows…Phantom of The Opera, Les Miserables, Cats 😊) “They were looking for a number one, head of audio, for the show. I had been number two. My boyfriend said ‘throw your hat in the ring! All they can say is no!’” She heeded the advice and she got the job! “It was absolutely amazing; the biggest learning curve I have ever gone through. It was scary and exciting, and I loved the show!”
Paul Gatehouse was the Associate Sound Designer on Sixpence. “He helped me develop my mixing skills, and fine tune them,” Emma said.
(Another quick aside that shows how “small” the theater community is, and why I love it. The week of the shutdown, “Un-Block The Music” interviewed Paul Gatehouse who did the sound design for Six, The Musical which was scheduled to open on Thursday, March12th. I have been holding the interview thinking Broadway would re-open this year. Sadly, theaters are closed until at least January 2021, but truly even optimists expect that date to really be Spring 2021. I want to keep excitement going about the shows, and don’t want to wait any longer, so I will schedule that story to run sometime in September, keep watching.)
Ultimately, Paul introduced Emma to Sound Designer Nevin Steinberg when he was over in London for Hamilton (which of course he sound designed as well). When the position came up for Dear Evan Hansen in London, “I started listening to the soundtrack right before Nevin approached me. I was late to the (Dear Evan Hansen) party. It took me a little longer to discover it. But, then he hired me! I flew to America in September 2019 to learn the mix and met Broadway’s A1 head audio engineer Maxine Guitierrez.”
“While the area of sound design felt male dominated in the UK when I started, I feel that it is now equalizing. When I found I would be working with Associate Sound Designer Jessica Paz On Dear Evan Hansen, I was thrilled.” Jess was already making her mark (and went on to later win a Tony Award for Hadestown). “When Jess managed to break through, I felt she represented women and proof that we could all get there.”
As for the Dear Evan Hansen mix? “It was tricky to get the hang of it, but once you get into it, it so much fun.” The show is very quick and has lots of moments when characters are talking on top of each other. “It’s quick on your fingers,” she said. The show goes from big moments and it then totally shrinks down “That’s what makes the audience gasp!”
What’s to come of Dear Evan Hansen in London after this pandemic shutdown? “We are very hopeful the show will come back. I love my team. Theater is the escape from reality that people desperately need.”
Un-Block The Music says “Amen To That!”
About Chichester Festival Theatre
Before talking to Emma, “Un-Block the Music” never heard of this theater. Wow…what I was missing. The theater is in West Sussex between the South Downs and the sea. Its “bold thrust stage design” makes it one of England’s most striking playhouses – equally suited to epic drama and musicals. The architects, Phillip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, developed a brutalist theatre that arranged the auditorium around a stage that thrust itself into the center of the audience, combining ancient Greek and Roman precedents with elements of Elizabethan theatre.
According to the website, when Chichester Festival Theatre opened, it was Britain’s first thrust stage theatre in over 450 years. This staging was pioneered by former Royal Shakespeare Company director and Artistic director of the Stratford Festival Theatre, Tyrone Guthrie. Powell and Moya’s bold design combined the functional requirements of a modern theatre within strict financial constraints in post war Britain. Here is the website: https://www.cft.org.uk/
If you can’t get to the UK, we “hopefully” will be lucky enough to experience what the theater has to offer in New York. During 2020, productions originating from Chichester were to be seen across the globe, unfortunately the Coronavirus created theater chaos instead. Specific to New York City was the transfer of Caroline Or Change, which was supposed to transfer to New York’s Roundabout Theatre this past Spring. According to Roundabout’s website, the show will debut in Spring 2021. Keep an eye for announcements: https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2020-2021-season/caroline-or-change/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI2KD4m_qB6wIVg4nICh3JhQJHEAAYASAAEgLG__D_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds