“I Know What I Want Things to Sound Like”: Hollins Senior Earns Design Honors From Prestigious Theatre Conferences

Anna Johnson '21

When theatre audiences immerse themselves in a live drama, musical, or comedy, they delight in the playwright’s words and the director’s vision coming to life through a talented cast of actors. They marvel at the visual look and quality of the sets. Yet there’s one crucial aspect of a stage production where curiously enough, the better it’s executed, the less it’s noticed.

“People usually only notice the sound design when it’s bad,” laughs Anna Johnson ’21. “You can’t do it for the praise.”

Nevertheless, the senior from Asheville, North Carolina, “just fell in love immediately” with sound design when she served as the audio board operator for a production during Fall Term of her first year at Hollins. “Getting to see the impact theatre had on both the cast and the campus was just really incredible.” Johnson had enrolled at Hollins intending to study chemistry, but “from that moment I knew that I was going to be a theatre major.”

From the Black Box Theatre and new works from Hollins playwrights to Main Stage productions, Johnson has honed her craft through 26 shows. She recently earned coveted recognition from two of the nation’s premier college theatre conferences: The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Region IV and the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) both honored her with first place awards for her sound design work on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, presented virtually by Hollins Theatre in October 2020.

“It has this beautiful, natural rhythm,” Johnson says of the Tony Award-winning drama. “I was trying to honor that by breathing life into it, which especially in a static environment such as Zoom was really important.”

Johnson got to lead sound design on a production shortly after her initial experience as a board operator. Wanting to learn more about sound, she worked closely with Hollins Theatre Technical Director John Forsman and a senior who trained her in QLab, a sound design software program. At the end of Fall Term her first year, Johnson was approached by Todd Ristau, director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins, who was planning for the annual Hollins-Mill Mountain Winter Festival of New Works.

“Todd said, ‘Our sound designer can’t be here for Winter Festival, do you want to come design?’ I had never designed a play before, but he had full faith in me.” Johnson wasn’t exactly pleased with her debut design (“It sucked. It was not good.”). Still, she recognized she was building a foundation for subsequent success. “I formed relationships with my peers and the faculty, and I was willing to give it my all, even if I wasn’t very talented at that point.”

Despite the challenging start, the Winter Festival of New Works would ultimately become “my favorite thing that Hollins does,” Johnson says. “I’ve done seven shows with Winter Festival and I’ve gotten to know a lot of the playwrights. They’re truly incredible and it’s been fun to form those connections.”

Johnson discovered that she was especially passionate about working on new plays. “You get to be one of the collaborators in the room trying to bring the show to life, and that first production of a show is so important. Letting the playwright see their work on stage, fully produced for the first time, really informs them of how they want to proceed with their next draft.”

Johnson says sound design is unique from other areas of theatre design because “there’s not really a vocabulary for it. I’ve had directors say, ‘Oh, I want it to sound purple.’ That really doesn’t mean anything, so design is certainly a process.”

The sound designer’s work starts coming into focus even before the first production meeting. “Sound design is a lot of paperwork, so I create these cue sheets for my initial meeting with the director. It has every possible sound cue we could have in the show,” Johnson explains. “You come in with a statement for what you think the design is going to be for the show, and what’s going to help it. From there, you start collecting sound files and meeting weekly with the director.”

Preparations for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time began early in 2020 as the show was scheduled to be Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage spring production. All of Johnson’s work had been completed for what she describes as “one of the most technically complicated shows you can do” when Hollins announced in March that students would be sent home and all campus activities and events canceled because of the threat from the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson was hopeful her plans could still be put into action for a fall production, but the public health crisis was ongoing and large gatherings remained off-limits. With an actual stage production of Curious Incident on hold indefinitely, the decision was made to present the show virtually last fall via Zoom livestream. That meant the production company members, none of whom had ever done a Zoom show before, had to start from scratch.

“It was kind of wild. We only had a month and a half to put Curious Incident up for the fall and we had no idea what we were doing.” Johnson says it was initially heartbreaking to realize most of the original technical planning had to be cut, “but I just had to keep in mind that everybody was dealing with it. With this production, somebody was in Missouri, somebody was in California, somebody was in Pennsylvania. John Forsman and Kiah Kayser (McDonnell Visiting Faculty with the theatre department and video designer for Curious Incident) had to send every actor a box with costumes, props, and a green screen, which many people ended up duct taping to their living room walls.”

Working closely with Kayser, Johnson often put in 17-hour days. The show’s original stage manager graduated from Hollins in the spring of 2020, which necessitated Johnson and Kayser calling their own cues during the tech rehearsals and performances. “Usually you have maybe 30 sound cues, but our Zoom show had 200 official cues and over 1,100 internal cues, which doesn’t include the video cues. You have to gain a rhythm in order for it to be seamless. I would go to Kiah’s office every day and we would sit there and talk about the cues for hours: ‘This needs to coordinate here, this is how we should do this.’ You don’t always have the opportunity to do that in theatre, to collaborate with somebody that closely.”

Johnson cites one act of Curious Incident as an example of how their work came to fruition successfully. Christopher, the play’s main character, is a teenager on the autism spectrum who spends the entire second act of the play on a journey to London via his first trip on a train, even though he hates loud noises. “It’s beautifully written how he experiences things for the first time and you get to see him live those moments through. I had to create the entire world through soundscapes because in Zoom, you don’t have the benefit of a set. You don’t have a clear idea of where the actors are. Kiah’s video design really helped with that.”

The recognition from KCACTF and SETC has been gratifying for Johnson, but the enduring benefit she sees from her “incredible experience” working on Curious Incident has been the ability to step back and see the ways she has grown as a designer, paving the way for her to pursue an M.F.A. in sound design at the University of Memphis this fall. “As a sound designer, I know I have weaknesses, but I have a fairly clear artistic voice and I know what I want things to sound like,” she says. She’s incredibly busy this spring, submitting her work to festivals to build her portfolio, sound designing and acting in Hollins Theatre’s virtual production of Decision Height in April, sound designing another show, and writing a musical for her honors thesis, all while holding down a full-time job at a local Staples.

Over the past four years, she also believes she has grown profoundly on a personal level, thanks in large part to the support she’s received from the entire theatre department. “I suffer from bipolar disorder, and the theatre faculty have helped me through some difficult times in my life. I can take control of some things in ways I didn’t realize I could. Todd Ristau, Ernie Zulia, Kiah Kayser, John Forsman, Lauren Ellis, Anna Goodwin, Susie Young, and Rachel Nelson all saw potential in me when I didn’t see potential in me.”

Johnson holds dear Zulia’s description of Hollins Theatre not as just an academic department but as an artistic home where alumnae are always cherished. “Alumnae have gone out into the world and done incredible work, and then they get to come back and bring that love of Hollins and love of theatre. For students, that truly has an impact. I hope one day they’ll bring me back as a sound designer.”