“Did I just hear that?”  - Julian Starr.

Julian, thanks for joining me. Let’s start with some background information and how you got into sound design.

Yes. I studied at Australia’s prestigious drama school, the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) in Sydney. During my time in Australia I had assisted a number of Australian sound designers from the Sydney Opera House and other main theatre companies in both Sydney and Brisbane. With always looking for the next challenge I decided to come to the UK and take the gamble of arriving here with really only a dream of writing scores and creating sound designs for the theatre.

You started your work here with a couple of impressive commissions, so let’s hear about those.

Once I got settled and started to make contacts and network the hell out the theatre scene I could start to see (slowly) the wheel moving and I was very grateful to land some exciting projects as both lead and assistant sound designer and composer. I soon found myself as an assistant and associate working at The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo followed by The Comedy of Errors at Valtice Castle in the Czech Republic. As well as assisting award-winning sound designers, I’ve since added major productions such as An Inspector Calls, Rose (West End), Songs From Far Away with Will Young and ZOG UK Tour to my credits and I’ve also worked in some great venues such as Hampstead Theatre, Soho Theatre and the Park Theatre. I am also delighted to be the first Sound Design Associate appointed to the award-winning Finborough Theatre.

I love the fact that having come from Australia you ended up working in two castles for some of your initial work in Europe. Then, just as your efforts were paying off and you were set to become a sort-after designer, COVID arrived. What did you do during that time?

Well, the pandemic struck and we all got told to stay at home and stop work. I was in the middle of a fit-up for An Inspector Calls (the UK Tour) and was just putting a show on in Hampstead Theatre as well as being a week out of sending another show into Dublin. So, with work stopped, I decided to head back to Australia and wait for the pandemic to end. Australia was quite strict about travel and I ended up being stuck there for 18 months. Fortunately, work opportunities presented themselves. I landed a music editing job on the EMMY Award Winning TV series Bluey, which is a worldwide hit and is broadcast on all major streaming services. Then I was asked to do the sound design and compose for an Australia Touring production of Miss Peony, which is about to go back on a three-month tour, while I also worked on an award-winning production of Return to the Dirt at Queensland Theatre Company. And there were other productions after that. So I was very fortunate and quite busy during the lockdown. As I was working up and down the east coast of Australia I was able to take out a Sydney Theatre Nomination for Best Sound Design for Hyperdream and Best Sound Design and Score for Elektra/Orestes in Brisbane.

It’s comforting that what might have been a major blow to your prospects turned out to provide you with yet more opportunities. Then, with the pandemic over you returned to London. Was it difficult to get started again or did work just start to flow in?

Once I made the announcement I was returning back to London the emails and A/V checks were coming my way. I even remember being in Dubai on a stopover and being asked to sound design an installation at the V&A Museum, which was an incredibly exciting project and an amazing experience. Even before departing Australia I was writing music a few days before my flight for Artistic Director Kate Bannister for her Christmas production Kindred Spirits, for which I was pleased to receive another Offie Nomination for. So I was delighted that when I came back I was straight into work and last year was very busy. I was grateful to receive a total of 6 nominations for my work here in the UK and back in Australia. I think the most difficult thing was finding a new music studio to work from here in London which I eventually found and love to work from.

On that front I understand you’ve done a pretty good conversion job on your flat.

Yes, I was able to land a fabulous creative studio in East London. The studio runs two Macs which store a vast range of VST libraries from orchestras, a huge range of strings libraries, synths, drones, brass and more. If you’re looking for a certain type of sound I probably have it. I also have external analog synths, piano and other oddities. One of my pride instruments is that a friend in LA made me an instrument made out of gold. And that instrument creates some haunting atonal sounds which I have used in a number of my designs. I also have plants and artwork which enhance the creative space, which I think is very important.

You’ve now worked in many theatres and had numerous commissions, do any stand out in particular?

That is a hard question. I think in some way every project I take on I enjoy. Being a sound designer and composer not every project is the same. So from one month to the next I could be writing music and sound designing a thriller, a comedy, or a drama. The list goes on and each project has its artistic challenges and joys.

And the one we really want to talk about here is Rose. How did you become involved in that production?

That one came out of the blue and like many projects was last minute. I had already met director Scott Le Crass and he and I work very well together; we have a shorthand and trust in each other's work. So, one day I got the phone call from Scott with the email of the script and he said to have a read and that he would like me to design the show. I remember reading the play and at the end I was completely overwhelmed by the story. And like any creative receiving an opportunity like Rose and working with Maureen Lipman, you question whether you are up for it. I decided I was, so said, “Yes,” and that evening I was straight at the keyboard writing themes and sketching out musical ideas.

Having seen the play I can imagine how stimulated you must have been by the script, but it’s a tough one, and Scott obviously had his vision for the production. How did you come together and agree on a style?

It took us a while to discover the tone of the play. As this is a memory play, with Rose on a bench sitting Shivah, we had to find the musical and sound language and when it comes in and out. A lot of the score is me and string players giving the sound of dissonant, haunting tones on the cello and violins. Like all productions, I needed to capture the tone and I knew I had to have that Eastern European sound. As the story is about a Jewish woman surviving the atrocities of World War II in Europe, I had to treat the score and sound with such delicate care and with dignity. I felt that I was carrying a lot of responsibilities, as music and sounds can be quite triggering for people.

How does the process work? Is it just a discussion and you take away the outcome to work on, or do you arrive with a plan that you present see how people react?

Well, Scott and I both agreed the production needed the weight of strings helping to support the storytelling. The strings from the orchestra have such a powerful and emotive way of storytelling, especially in times of grief as well as in hope and in victory. So I would come to Scott with material as well as being in the rehearsal room with Scott and Maureen, listening to the tone of Maureen’s delivery. Then I’d take that back into the studio and begin composing off a visceral feeling.

You mentioned the sense of responsibility you felt in delivering for Rose which certainly deals with very sensitive issues and has many different moods. It also moves location from the UK to Germany and the USA and through time, becoming a piece of memory theatre. How have you met the challenges of relating the sound and music to those elements?

Again, a lot of the memory sounds are done through the use of strings, with them helping to create the picture of Rose’s memory. As the script and story is so descriptive in time and location, mainly the sound is following the story and we might be hearing the waves as Rose is on a ship or the other sounds relating to her location, or faint parade sounds. A lot of the time the audience is also sitting in silence.

In addition, production started out at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester, went to The Park Theatre, London and is now in the much larger Ambassador’s Theatre. What are the sound challenges dealing with a change of theatre?

As you said, the production has been performed on a few different stages now. One of the sound challenges or briefs that Scott gave to me is that the audience should really sit and listen; hear the words and follow the story. As everything is amplified nowadays, this production is stripped back with the faintest sound and music that makes the audience question themselves so that, “Did I just hear that?” becomes a recurring point of mental wondering. One of the greatest experiences now is sitting in a West-End venue and hearing a still and silent audience with just Rose on stage telling her powerful story.

I was at the press night and you are absolutely right about the silence and stillness, and it was also a joy to have the quietest sound, creating and reflecting changing moods that never detracted from Lipman’s storytelling and certainly never drowned her out. Then, adding to that, is Lalljee’s lighting design. You presumably worked with her on the overall concept.

The whole production has been a great collaboration, working with the other creatives. In rehearsals and in tech, Scott, Jane and I would be in constant conversations of bringing sound and lights together and working simultaneously to help tell the story.

Well that unity of purpose certainly comes across in the production and Rose is just one of many shows that vouch for your remarkable impact on the theatre scene since your arrival in London. I remember noting how, as went to so many theatres, your name kept popping up and obviously with the nominations you’ve received your work is being recognised for its outstanding quality and you are increasingly in demand. So what’s next, that you’re allowed to tell us about.

Currently, I have two productions about to open. One is the Australian tour of Miss Peony which is headed to the Arts Centre in Melbourne, Belvoir St Theatre Sydney, Canberra Theatre Centre and Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane to name a few. Then there is as the hit production of Song From Far Away by Simon Stephens, starring Will Young at Hampstead Theatre.

I’m already booked in for Hampstead and look forward to seeing many more of shows for which you provide the sound and music. Many thanks and best wishes for the future.

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