Jane Shaw


Artist to Artist: A Conversation with Sound Designer Jane Shaw

By Alexander Coddington, Artistic Apprentice

What first brought you to Hartford Stage?

My professor, David Budries, brought his classes to Hartford Stage when I was a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama. We saw Cymbeline, Sueño and Richard Foreman’s Pearls for Pigs, among others. I was so impressed by the production values and wealth of theatrical experiments at Hartford Stage. I was thrilled when Darko (Tresnjak) asked me to design my first show, Breath and Imagination, and I feel so lucky to be working at this theatre that I hold in such high esteem.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to sound design as a career.

I’m from Lawrence, Kansas, and the daughter of two Classicists. My first introduction to sound design was my father encouraging me to develop background sound for a book report on cassette I did in the first grade. Attending theatre, opera and music concerts were a part of my upbringing, as were viola and piano lessons. I played in various youth orchestras and toured with a bell choir (!), yet it was clear I was not a performer and, therefore, I did not envision a career in the arts. Instead, I concentrated in Biochemistry at Harvard, working in a lab and considering a future in research. By my fourth year, I realized it was my extracurricular adventures in theatre that most obsessed and excited me. So, I left the lab behind and went to Yale for Sound Design/Sound Engineering. I love creating an aural context to lift and contextualize the words of the playwright – from diegetic sounds such as the radio in Seder to the eerie world of the witches in Macbeth. Each show continues my education in history, music, art and the human psyche.

Jane Shaw in the sound booth. Photo courtesy of SETC.
Jane Shaw in the sound booth. Photo courtesy of SETC.

You’ve designed classical and contemporary plays here at Hartford Stage; how is designing a world premiere different from a Shakespeare?

It is exciting to work on a new play and especially lovely to have the playwright in the room! Shakespeare is freeing – you know countless people have ‘figured it out,’ so to speak, and so you are free to work with the director to find the voice of this particular production. With a new play, there is a different responsibility. One is searching for the unique voice of a play – the words of which have never been heard before. Designers have to be open to the play’s development as the playwright and director refine text and intention. With all plays, we are striving to understand the voice of the playwright and how their story impacts us today. With The Engagement Party, how can we best share with the audience Samuel Baum’s examination of love, marriage, truth, betrayal and friendship? With a new play, this cuts closer to the bone. These words were put together in our lifetime, from circumstances we all share, in a world of which we are all trying to make sense.

It’s been great having you in rehearsal so early on; what sorts of things do you start to learn by being present in the room that you don’t get from just reading the script?

Technical rehearsals are exciting but quite the pressure cooker! All design elements coalesce in the theatre over an intense few days. Early rehearsals give me the chance to experiment, and sometimes simply to think, in the room with the actors and director under far less pressure. It also lets me live with the play as it is being created with this particular cast – an experience not delivered by the page alone. You start to know and love the living being that is this particular production. I especially value listening to Darko talk with the cast and the playwright (Samuel Baum) about choices, stakes, humor and all the emotional baggage each character brings to the stage.

This is your twelfth show at Hartford Stage, most of which have been with Darko Tresnjak. What do you love about coming back to Hartford Stage and the city of Hartford?

I love coming to Hartford, starting with the train trip from New York! I run (slowly) by the river when I’m here. I’m so thrilled that River Walk has been developed. Mark Twain’s house is also a perennial favorite. I enjoy working with the entire production staff – all the Aarons/Erins in props, scenery and lighting, Bryan (Holcombe) in production, and Robyn (Zalewski) in stage management. The sound team holds a special place in my heart, as Lucas (Clopton) and Darren (Alley) provide the perfect mix of humor and attention to detail that makes working here a dream. Designing for Darko has meant so much to me over the years. I’ve learned so much from his attention to detail, sheer brilliance in putting together the arc of the play, sharp comic timing, and I deeply value his trust as a collaborator. Thanks to all of you who have welcomed me to Hartford!