Interview: Pete Malkin

Up for a Special Tony Award and having already seen success with the new Harry Potter play, Pete Malkin is seemingly in a position where he can do no wrong. We meet a sound designer at the height of his career so far.

First of all, congratulations on the Special Tony Award! How does it feel to receive this recognition?

It came as an incredible surprise and it’s a surreal experience. I feel so proud of what everyone on this show has achieved and to have our work as sound designers recognised in this way is a real privilege.

What was your reaction when you heard they’re bringing back the Sound Design categories? How important was it to you that the Committee made this U-turn?

I’m grateful that the committee listened to the appeal of the thousands who petitioned against their decision to revoke the award as well as for finding a new voting process to go along with it. It’s a great step forward. The signatures of the #TonyCanYouHearMe campaign, led by John Gromada, was a driving force towards the decision and I hope The Encounter has helped in its own way too. It’s an important U-turn as it rightly recognises sound design as a creative theatrical art form, much like the work of our colleagues in other creative theatrical disciplines.

Your Special Tony is for your work with Gareth Fry on The Encounter. What is it about that show that you feel has been so well received?

I think audiences attach quickly to Loren Mcintyre’s story and his tale of getting lost in the Amazon rainforest – it’s fascinating. Complicitè are great advocates of using new technology in theatre, but the story is always at the core of the work. We place the audience in the action using a combination of the Binaural microphone and headphones, which provides an intimate storytelling tool for McBurney’s performance to lead you through the show with a huge amount of energy. The audience perhaps responds so well because they are granted scope to use their imagination to form part of the theatrical experience. We suggest ideas of places, atmospheres, people, feelings, etc. using sound and music rather than the literal physical objects or set on stage, and it’s exciting to allow their imaginations to run with it.

We loved the clever use of binaural and other methods of audio trickery. Do you feel audiences are starting to welcome more experimentation with sound?

To a degree yes! The Encounter is a good example of this. There has been a wonderful response to the nature of the audio experience; of course there will always be some who find it difficult to welcome experimental work. Perhaps the more that we as creators are able to experiment with new technology, the more we’ll find great ways of integrating it into stories, which will lead to more audiences welcoming these interesting forms. There is a huge amount of innovative sound design work going on not just in theatre, which is always inspiring to hear and learn from.

How did your partnership with Gareth come about?

I’ve been lucky enough to work on numerous projects with Gareth over the past six or so years. I first got in touch as a graduate and he invited me to see his working process on Complicitè’s adaptation of ‘The Master and Margarita’. This swiftly became my initiation into Complictè. Since then he’s been a brilliant mentor and we’ve gone through all sorts of weird and wonderful projects together.

Then there’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, of course, which won a record nine Oliviers this year, including the one for Sound Design. We know you can’t give much away, but can you tell us about some of the challenges you and Gareth faced?

Sure, we do love to keep the secrets, which is a challenge in itself among plenty others. I can’t say too much, but the show is in two parts with a large cast, and if you’ve read the story, almost every page is filled with potential for interesting sound design. There was a lot of content to create and a lot of people involved. Our approach had to shift from time to time, but we spent a lot of time in rehearsals working with the creative team and actors in order to build palettes of sound effects and soundscapes that felt part of the world. We had a great time working closely with the Music team (Imogen Heap, Martin Lowe, and Phij Adams) as well to create a cohesive auditory world for the story.

Now we hear there’s going to be a Broadway version coming next year. When will work start on that?

It’s already begun! There will be lots of work over the next year to be ready for our official opening on 22 April 2018 and we’re excited for US audiences to experience it.

What other projects have you been working on recently?

I recently sound designed ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture’ at the Royal Court and ‘Beware of Pity’ at the Barbican, both directed by McBurney, with the fantastic help of associate sound designer Ben Grant. Both shows demanded heavy sound design and, much like The Encounter, we had two operators on each (Yamina Mezeli and Neil Dewar on the former; Sven Poser and Stephan Pinkernell on the latter) in order to react to McBurney’s style of collaboration. Everything is kept as fluid and reactive as possible.

There are a couple of interesting shows in the pipeline with other companies: one will be an experimental piece that will again use headphones, but this time accompanied by VR headsets, so that’s a venture into a totally new world for me. I’m also looking forward to working on The Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith in London, directed by Sean Holmes, later in the year.

Photo: Sarah Ainslie