MDM Faculty Patrick Pennefather on Designing Sound for Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach

MDM Faculty Patrick Pennefather on Designing Sound for Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach

The composer and former professional clown uses collaboration techniques from theatre and other artistic disciplines, and applies them to his teachings in the Master of Digital Media program.

MDM faculty Patrick Pennefather has a busy summer. When he’s not advising MDM student project teams, preparing for his course in the fall, or developing his PhD research chops, he’s working at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach. 

This is Pennefather’s fourth summer at Bard, and this year he’s designing sound for Elizabeth Rex, a play written by Vancouver author Timothy Findlay. Elizabeth Rex is the story of Queen Elizabeth I who spends the night in the stables with Shakespeare and his actors.

At the Centre for Digital Media, Pennefather teaches collaborative, creative and adaptive intelligence in his Interdisciplinary Improvisation course and in the industry facing projects that he facilitates. His teachings are built upon his experiences as both a designer and comedic performer. Pennefather is an award-winning composer, having designed sound on a staggering 500 live and multi-media productions over the past 30 years.

When I sat down to talk with Pennefather, one of the first things he said was that the show is “a lesson in commitment.” The 'show must go on' is not just an empty cliche in theatre. "Everything that can potentially go wrong does and everyone has to adapt, and we all do." That can amount to an actor dealing with an injury on opening night and performing despite the pain, or designers needing to make last minute adjustments to improve a seemingly inconsequential moment in the play.

As sound designer on the show, Pennefather’s role is to work with the director in mapping out parts of the play that need sound support and build a number of sound cues. Once the sound cues are identified Pennefather spends his time either constructing sound effects, composing or transcribing existing music, and, if performed live, rehearsing with actors.

Pennefather explains, “A large part of the job is research—what were the sounds in 17th Century England? What instruments did they use? What was the style of music? What was the difference between court music or the music of the street?” 

For this particular show, once the research was completed, Pennefather transcribed music from that time period and re-recorded it for guitar, recorder and hand drums. He also decided to use the actors’ musical skills and have them play live music as part of their performance— another example of the adaptable nature of the show.

 Standing Ovation at Elizabeth Rex

Standing ovation on opening night of Elizabeth Rex.

When asked how his work on Bard on the Beach translates into his work with the MDM program, Pennefather replied, 

“Both theatre and what I teach at CDM is about adapting to new situations and dealing with the unknown when you collaborate with others. Something can always go wrong and you can't panic, you just need to solve it. In theatre as in digital media projects we're always solving problems."

Just like in theatre, the digital media industry depends on the commitment and adaptability of its team members. The value of treating everyone with respect also plays a big role and part of that is developing your listening abilities.

You also learn that you can't take things personally. Your job is to be passionate about doing what's best for the entire production, to make everyone look good but also remain detached to what you think might be your best work since it might not work with all the other parts. At the end of the day, when a show starts and the audience responds, all of the little dramas that might have happened, adjustments everyone makes that are sometimes hard to do, extra time you are going to put into it that you didn't expect, are no longer important; the show has come together.

When Patrick isn't teaching or sound designing with Bard on the Beach he's working on getting his PhD. He’s currently interviewing members of the game industry in Vancouver, to gather insight into what key skills they are looking for in new recruits. He believes that through regular dialogue with the industry around us, teachers are better able to gather information to inform the design of learning.

When asked why people should come out and see Elizabeth Rex, Pennefather replied:

For the virtuosity of the acting and the topsy turvy role of gender in the play and at that particular time in history. It's a layered story about Queen Elizabeth I and the most important playwright in English theatre. It also provides critiques and insight into what might have inspired Shakespeare's writing. It’s also perfect that the play itself is situated in the context of a Shakespeare festival.

Plus, there's a bear in it. 

Elizabeth Rex plays at Bard on the Beach until September 11th. Buy Tickets here.

Check out Patrick Pennefather’s blogs on collaboration and the design process and his website at patrickpennefather.com.