The stage adaptation of War Horse has transfixed audiences around the world and garnered multiple Tony Awards, including Best Sound Design of a Play in 2011 for sound designer Christopher Shutt.
While the recognition is satisfying, Shutt says, he tends to measure the success of his work by the average audience member’s impression of a show. “That they enjoy what we do, that’s the greatest pleasure; that and when the people I work with say, ‘You did a good job.’”
When I caught up with Shutt late last year, he’d just launched a new project at London’s Olivier Theatre – a production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens – and was preparing sound design for a trilogy of Shakespeare plays for the Cultural Olympiad at Stratford Upon Avon for the 2012 Olympics.
He was also getting ready travel to Berlin to finalize work on the European tour of War Horse, and then to Melbourne ahead of the Australian production’s December 2012 opening.
Moving on to the next thing, quickly and effectively, is often a necessity given the demands of the various productions Shutt works on at any particular time. To say he’s a busy man is an understatement, particularly these days when his schedule – owing in part to the global success of War Horse – is typically jam-packed.
Although the demands of each project differ and the technology Shutt has deployed over time has changed dramatically, what remains constant is the value he places on collaborating with and responding to others – designers, lighting designers and directors – in his efforts to help create an extraordinary experience for audiences.
“I assemble as big a vocabulary of ideas as possible, and I’ve learned to not be precious about them, or to put too much work into a first draft,” he explains. “Instead, I like to develop things live in the room as I see what everybody else is doing. So, because I’ve assembled a lot of ideas, I’m able to adapt quickly and effectively and to throw things out and move on to the next thing.”
Though born in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where his father served with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Shutt was raised primarily in Shropshire, in the West Midlands area of the UK. As a youth he got into sound reinforcement “by accident,” he explains, an indirect result of playing drums in various punk/new wave bands.
While those bands only caused “minor ripples in Hereford and the surrounding area,” recording with them sparked Shutt’s interest in audio. To that point, his only experience with audio had been hanging out in recording studios, but on the suggestion of a friend, he applied to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. “I don’t think I’d even previously been in a theatre, but I applied and somehow got in.”
During his time at the school in the early 1980s he interned at the Old Vic Theatre in London and, in 1982, took a job there as an assistant, a position created by the head of sound Nic Jones, Shutt’s mentor. After Jones moved on, Shutt took over as head of sound, then moved on to a two-year stint at The Royal Court Theatre in London before ultimately accepting a position at The National Theatre in London.