Theatre sound engineer Eleanor Theodorou has come a long way since leaving the live music industry back in 2013, having established herself as one of the most versatile talents in the theatre sector. Daniel Gumble speaks to her about working on the West End and the challenges of mixing sound for the stage...
What attracted you to theatre sound?
Initially, I trained in sound engineering and design at a technical school. I was working within the live music industry back home in Manchester when I ended up getting a position as a technical assistant at the Manchester International Festival 2013. I had some free time and was interested in branching out so I jumped at the opportunity. I was first assigned to work on Kenneth Branagh’s production of Macbeth. During that time, I was involved in various aspects of backstage theatre – helping in areas like sound, lighting, stage management, props, wardrobe, and crew. It gave me a real crash course in everything that live shows entail, and I fell head over heels in love with the whole mad, fast-paced beast we call theatre! Getting that valuable insight into how all of the technical departments work made me realise that I could use my knowledge of live sound to pursue a career specialising in sound for theatre.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently sound no. 1 on Six The Musical at the Arts Theatre, West End. It’s a new, homegrown British musical from writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss about Henry VIII’s six wives, with the queens re-imagined as a kick ass pop group! The music is really catchy and contemporary, complete with a four-piece band. It’s been a really interesting show to work on. I’m really passionate about new work (specifically new musicals), so to be involved with such an exciting new piece, all the way through from the rehearsal room to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and then into the West End has been a dream come true.
How much does theatre sound engineering differ from FOH mixing with a touring band?
I worked with live bands back in Manchester when I started out, but I wasn't involved with the touring side of that. In a lot of ways, I imagine it shares some similarities, such as having to adapt the set up and system based on the different venues you’re working in. However, I think engineering with a touring band must be even more exhausting than touring theatre. Usually, on a theatrical tour, we’ll do weekly or fortnightly moves on the larger scale shows, whereas with a touring band, you’d be moving the show every single day.
Tell us about some of the biggest projects you’ve worked on to date.
In terms of numbers, the biggest project I’ve worked on was the UK tour of Funny Girl. We toured with a cast of around 30 and an orchestra of around 14 to large scale venues with a capacity of anything up to 3,000 (our biggest venue was Edinburgh Playhouse). Getting that show loaded and set up for a 7.30pm performance in one day was a feat of engineering and team work. In terms of excitement and hype, Six is blowing up right now. We’ve just won a What’s On Stage Award for Best Off-West End Production and have been nominated for five Olivier Awards. I’ve been a part of Olivier nominated productions before, but remembering this unknown little musical in the rehearsal room last summer and seeing it explode over the last few months has been incredible.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a theatrical sound engineer?
Finding the balance between managing expectations and executing the show that the creative team has envisioned. We are always constrained by practical limitations like budget, equipment resources, time, and space, but the biggest skill is to be able to work within these limitations whilst still producing the absolute best sound you can. Sometimes you have to think outside the box and come up with unusual, more creative solutions, but that’s one of my favourite parts of the job. It also helps if you are working with a creative team and music department who can appreciate the nature of such limitations and can work alongside the sound department to find a mutually agreeable solution.
What are your favourite pieces of gear?
On Six, we are using Sony Digital Wireless handheld microphones, which are an absolute dream. They’re really sturdy and sound beautiful thanks to their DPA capsules. We’ve also got a Digico SD10T mixing desk, which is one of my favourites to work with as I find Digico desks really logical to use and easy to navigate, as well as having lots of options for customising fader banks, macros, snapshots, and desk scenes, which makes programming the show a breeze.