The Burnt City Part 3 – An Interview with Stephen Dobbie

By Kat Mokrynski

“I always see my role as providing the soundtrack for each individual audience member’s story as it unfolds for them. In some ways, the sound work that I do for these shows is less divisive in that it’s actively trying to tell a story – It’s there to support the physical language, the physical vocabulary of the performance, and to support the world that we’re trying to build.”

For the third article in this series on The Burnt City, I had the opportunity to speak with Stephen Dobbie, Sound Designer for The Burnt City and Associate Creative Director for Punchdrunk. 

How do you believe that sound tells a story, especially with immersive experiences like The Burnt City?

Stephen: Certainly within the work I do with Punchdrunk, I think sound is a very effective conjurer of atmosphere of the world we’re trying to create. Generally, my approach to sound design for these types of shows is about creating an atmosphere that is authentic to the world that we’re trying to create. Within that, there are scenes which happen and there are compositions and music that are applied to those scenes to help support the emotional narrative arc of that particular scene. Taking the term “story” in a very broad sense, and especially in the world of Punchdrunk, where there is a story, there is a linear narrative, but the audience’s experience of it is very nonlinear, I always see my role as providing the soundtrack for each individual audience member’s story as it unfolds for them. In some ways, the sound work that I do for these shows is less divisive in that it’s actively trying to tell a story – It’s there to support the physical language, the physical vocabulary of the performance, and to support the world that we’re trying to build. Sound, much like in film, just wants to be there in the background for the most part, not really noticing it, but just supporting and enforcing the aesthetic desires of what we’re trying to make. But then it comes to the front when we want you to notice it, and then sort of recedes. It never leaves – Just recedes and is there in the background to support your journey of discovery as you direct your own experience through the sound, the sights, the smell, and the performance aspects of these sorts of shows.

What was the process like creating the sound for The Burnt City?

Stephen: This one was a little different to previous shows. The development process has been ongoing for a long, long time. I’ve been thinking about the sound aspect of it for years, but only engaged with it probably a year out from opening. It was slightly different on this one in that the rehearsal period was slightly truncated due to availabilities. We had the month-long rehearsal period in September of 2021, which is where the performers, directors, dramaturgs, and rehearsal directors would all be in the room with the moodboard inspiration for what the world would look like. As they were developing the physical language and the physical vocabulary of the show, I would sit there and I would absorb not only what they were doing, but the visual references. We’re in this retro-future-noir parallel universe, but we’re in the aftermath of a huge war. So I was very interested in exploring what silence sounds like, what stillness sounds like and feels like – What does the world sound like immediately after your city has been overthrown by another dominant force? So it was a month of playing and sketching little sonic vignettes. I think I ended up making eighteen of these sketches, which were, for the most part, just instinctive gut responses to the vision of the show. And also, some of them were responding to my own desires as an artist to explore and experiment with different sounds. Because the show is rooted in this future-retro-noir parallel, it opened up a whole world of new sonic and sound aesthetics that we could access. A lot more synths and electronic sounds in this show than previous shows, which are rooted in 1930s New York, or 1960s Hollywood. So really, the full version of the show came out of these sketches that I did. And some were tailored for particular scenes, some were expanded to become very durational soundscapes, which sit underneath everything. But then as soon as we get to January 2022 and rehearsals begin on-site, everything you thought you knew goes out the window to a degree. Once you’re in a building, once you’re in a physical space, things change hugely. We had incredible challenges with sound separation between areas. We had to be very conscious of decisions around sound and what was playing where so we weren’t clashing. And then it was just expanding on those sketches that I did in September, exploring them, ripping them open, expanding them, adding to them, and then also responding to new scenes and new narrative arcs, storylines, and journeys that came out of the rehearsal process on site. So it’s very much about responding to what was going on in the building as it was being made. The chicken and egg analogy is quite good in this one, except there’s no real chicken or egg – Things are happening in parallel the whole time. So yeah, that’s how it evolved. Artistically, I think I was just really trying to create this omnipresent sound that gave the space the weight and gravitas of its own identity. So Greece and Troy very much have their own flavors and their own identity. Lastly, weaving in other pieces of more discreet composition and sound. Something to support the authenticity and the word that we were trying to build in a very instinctive way.

What was it like creating sounds for this piece where everyone is moving and there are repeating loops in the story? How do you figure that all out?

Stephen: It’s very much in collaboration with all of the rehearsal directors and performers. As long as communication lines are open, we can make sure that things are in the right place, but it really is an iterative thing. We start small, we start with a couple of “sound zones”. So there’ll be a whole chunk of the set which is Sound Zone 1, and then you work your way up. I think we got to about 35 or 40 zones, and each one’s got an hour-long soundtrack that goes with it. Scenes that we knew, scenes that had been greenlit, we dropped them in place so at least they were in the right place. As the performance journeys are being developed, we’ll put a baseline track down. And then once the music, score, and soundtrack are locked in, then it became a case of filling the gaps in between, feathering, and making those transitions seamless. There’s a level of complexity in this one which was unlike anyone before. In Greece, it’s essentially one sound zone because there’s no walls dividing anything. 


Stephen: So it’s very much a case of leaning into that. How can we create a soundtrack which gives each space its own atmosphere whilst everything’s playing at the same time? As much as the performance uses choreographic language, there’s a huge amount of choreography that goes on in the sound world and lighting, making sure that they’re all working together. But it’s really just building it up. As the show’s developed, the sound just develops alongside it. Sometimes it’s responding very instinctively. Other times it’s knowing that the finale is going to be rehearsed in two weeks so we’ve got a couple of weeks to make something for the finale. But really, the detail, logistics, and intricacy of weaving all this together is kind of the fun part. It’s the real fun part of doing something which is actually in your head and on a computer, and then it only makes sense once it’s live and in a three-dimensional space. That’s the thing that I enjoy the most. And working with the technical team here – We’ve got hundreds of speakers and miles and miles of cable everywhere. It’s a real collaborative effort to make sure that the right sound is getting to the right place at the right time. So yeah, bit by bit, we get there. And it’s ongoing – The evolution of the sound world continues. I mean, we remixed the entire show for New Year’s Eve!

So you did new sounds for that? Or was it just re-mixing?

Stephen: Essentially, it’s switching out a lot of found pieces of music in the show. Whereas the show normally is quite heavily laden with war, battle, death, grief. But for the New Year’s Eve show, we definitely tried to inject a slightly different flavor. Acknowledging what the year is, it’s a party. So introducing some tracks that inspire an uplift. It’s quite a chunk of work, but also fun work, seeing if you can work your favorite pop song into a particular scene. 

Did you find it more difficult to create sounds for the larger spaces, like the giant warehouse of Greece, or the smaller, more intimate spaces like the rooms inside of Troy?

Stephen: I enjoy both, but I particularly enjoy Soundtracking and sound design for the larger spaces. As an artist, I enjoy the spectacle. I definitely enjoy having the opportunity to play music on a huge scale. But just seeing how sound can instantly charge a room with atmosphere, standing back and seeing how our audiences react and respond to a new sound coming from another area – Does that tweak their ear? Does it make them want to investigate? And also playing with, even in those big spaces, big sound, but then small sound as well. There’s a particular moment where we’ve got big sound everywhere, but then it focuses on a telephone that rings, so you get sort of the experience of both. And in many ways, I think the way the sound is imagined, oscillating between large and small, is actually very much how we experience sound in the every day – You’re on the street and you’re aware of the din of traffic in the distance, but you’re also very acutely aware of the person talking to you that you’re stood next to, or a telephone ringing, or a car horn, or a baby crying. It’s a fun and challenging part, designing the sound and scoring these sort of shows is almost creating that kind of effect, but in a very abstract environment. So playing into how we experience the world sonically as we would every day. But then there’s also a huge amount of satisfaction in creating soundtracks for some one on ones, working with the performers. It’s almost like soundtracking a short film or a scene in a film. And that’s incredibly satisfying as well because it’s finite – It has a beginning and it has an end. There’s a real journey and a real shape to it. And that’s equally a very satisfying thing to do. And then creatively challenging as well. Often having to make something for a small amount of time can be harder the making something long because you’ve got loads of time to explore different textures and layers, but when you’ve only got three minutes, packing enough in that gives it shape and a lot of weight and impact on the performance is challenging, but it’s very rewarding. Especially when they [one on ones] become such coveted parts in the show – The gift of having these very intense, cinematic one on one experiences. It’s great to be part of making those moments that stay with people for years.

Yeah, I was lucky enough to get a one on one my first time visiting The Burnt City!

Stephen: Which one did you get?

Zagreus, and intense is certainly a way to describe it!

Stephen: I mean, what happens in a one on one stays in a one on one.

Of course!  It’s funny, one of my friends does scents for theme parks and stuff, so I love hearing about how the senses all apply in ways you didn’t think of before. So the sound perspective is interesting as well.

Stephen: I think we’re trying to hit all the senses in these shows. It really is a sum of its parts – Sound is just one part of a much bigger picture that only works when all of those things are present. Though I will say, if the sound goes, it’s kind of a showstopper. [Laughs] If a light doesn’t work, it’s one thing. If the sound goes off, it’s incredible how the atmosphere immediately just disappears. We’ve got a very stable and foolproof system with redundancies built in to make sure that if there’s any sort of problem, then sound continues. In that respect, there is sound playing all the time. There’s no moment of silence. Even though I was talking about exploring what silence was, I think the more accurate word to use is stillness. What does stillness sound like, especially in this post-warring apocalyptic kind of situation? Trying to be minimal and gentle with all of the sound elements but also for there to be a richness. As you journey through the space, there’s enough sonic stimulation to keep your curiosity peaking and your intrigue, surprise, and shock – To blindside you with different sonic palates. It’s all part of creating something which is layered and as textured and as diverse as a show of this scale. Every show, we level up on scale, and it’s always a fun challenge to build it.


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