Whispers to Thunderstorms: The World of Sound Designer Max Pappenheim |  Stage

Whispers to Thunderstorms: The World of Sound Designer Max Pappenheim | Stage

SUBWAYAx Pappenheim’s journey into sound design comprises a series of happy accidents. Music, and especially organ music, was his first love. He spent a year as a cathedral organist and it was only his penchant for experimentation and finding “the strangest corners of the repertoire” that prevented him from pursuing a professional career in liturgical music.

Instead, he went to Cambridge University, read classics, and began teaching at a school in the Midlands. There, he was asked to direct a musical, Sweeney Todd, and it was then that the ground began to move under his feet.

“There was something about the staging, putting the music, the images together and making it feel good, that was the key. Some of it really grabbed me, as did the incredible experience of collaborating with kids who were up for anything. What made me fall in love with the theater was collaboration, there is no theater without it ”.

Born and raised near Reading, Pappenheim was brought to the theater by his mother. When I was a kid, I loved the show; now, he says, he’s drawn to stories, particularly strong narratives with a sense of urgency.

Whispers to Thunderstorms: The World of Sound Designer Max Pappenheim |  Stage

At 26, he took a leap of faith. He quit teaching and moved to London, hoping to start directing.

“I started as an intern at the Finborough Theater. My first job was scrubbing the floors. It was a wonderful time of discovery. I did everything from counting the cash at the locker to working behind the bar. “

He directed some plays, but again, by accident, he found himself doubling as sound designer on Kafka v Kafka, the show he was co-directing on. the Jack Studio theater in South London. “We couldn’t find a sound designer so I thought I’d give it a go. What was critical was that he knew the program from the inside out. I was in rehearsal adding sounds every day, so there were lots of opportunities to experiment. “

That first “sound” concert was nominated for an Offie Award in 2012. “It was wonderful to be recognized, and there was a natural progression to sound after that. I never really made a decision. It just happened organically and I dedicated myself to it. “

Since then, he has been nominated for more awards, created the most innovative soundscapes for plays, opera, and radio, and worked with acclaimed writers and directors, including Alice Birch, Katie Mitchell, Richard Bean, and Lucy Kirkwood.

Sound, for Pappenheim, is vital in setting the mood of a production. “In almost every program, the sound is the first thing that strikes you,” he says. “And that is a great responsibility because if something is not quite right, it can confuse the audience and the cast.”

Whispers to Thunderstorms: The World of Sound Designer Max Pappenheim |  Stage

It is also elemental in its non-verbal effects: “There is so much subtlety in the sound. I really think that if you walk into a room and someone says ‘Hello’, you get more out of their voice than the expression on their face. With the voice, it’s visceral and that’s why I don’t get bored with the sound, there’s a lot to joke about. “

The most challenging sound designs aren’t always the loudest or most melodramatic, he says. However, some shows require it, such as Beth Steel’s globetrotting drama Labyrinth (about the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s), on which he worked as a composer and sound designer. “It was wonderful to evoke this huge financial system as something abstract. I don’t think you can tell the story without an emphatic sound. “

But more often, the programs that have the biggest problems are the ones where the sound is less noticeable. For example, The Night of the Iguana, starring Clive Owen and directed by James MacDonald, was performed in a large West End theater, and Pappenheim’s sound design required great subtlety. “There is a very slow construction of a thunderstorm in the interval and first you get a gust of wind on the leaves, then the grass began to whistle slightly, then the birds fell silent. The audience had to listen to everything from those wind blasts to the first drops of rain. ”Similarly, Trevor Nunn’s Beckett triple project at the Jermyn Street Theater, London, required intimacy and precision, with additional speakers mounted. so that the sound could be “clear but not loud”.

The pandemic brought a hiatus to his career and he worked as a delivery driver at a supermarket to pay the bills. “I felt very lucky to get the job. I know a lot of people who were looking for that kind of job and couldn’t find it. “

Since then he has worked on numerous plays and recently returned to work inside a theater with Outside at the Orange Tree, London. He will perform at the Silent Opera and the British Youth Opera at Hansel and Gretel this summer, along with Dragons and Mythical Beasts at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theater, London.

Looking back on his decade in sound design, Pappenheim is grateful for those who have given him a great opportunity: “Many times I have felt that I have been given an opportunity and I have done everything I can to overcome it. “

Whispers to Thunderstorms: The World of Sound Designer Max Pappenheim |  Stage

From CV

2021: Barnes’ People, Original Theater Company online, sound designer and composer

2020: 15 Heroines, Jermyn Street Theater Online, Sound Designer

2020: Beckett Triple Bill, Jermyn Street Theater, London, sound designer

2019: The Night of the Iguana, Noël Coward Theater, London, sound designer

2019: Macbeth, Chichester Festival Theater, Sound Designer and Composer

2017: The Children, Royal Court Theater, London / Broadway, sound designer

2016: Fleabag, Soho Theater, London, Associate Sound Designer

2016: Labyrinth, Hampstead Theater, London, sound designer and composer

2015-16: Ophelias Zimmer, Schaubühne, Berlin / Royal Court, London, sound designer and composer

2015-16: My Eyes Went Dark, Finborough Theater, London / Traverse, Edinburgh / 59E59 Cinemas, New York, sound designer, 2015-2016


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