Introducing... Karen Lauke

Posted on: 19th April 2017 at 00:00
Posted by: PANDA
Location: UK
Discipline: Multi-disciplinary

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This week we're introducing you to PANDA member Karen Lauke. Working behind the scenes, sound designers are often the unsung heroes in the theatre industry, (amongst others). She's here to tell us a bit more about what she does and the representation of women in this particular artform.


Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Karen Lauke and I am a Sound Designer/Composer and Audio Artist working in theatre, installation, radio and more recently, film.

How did you get involved with Sound Design?

Good question!

I actually studied Popular Music with Music Technology at Derby University back in the day... However, my first job ended up being on Miss Saigon at the Palace Theatre which was fantastic experience and got me simply hooked on both theatre and sound, generally. I developed and taught sound and music degree courses for a number of years at Edge Hill University in the Performing Arts department, all whilst creating my own work and gaining a PhD in Composition and Sound Design at Leeds University. Having developed a portfolio of sound and audio research work in an ad hoc manner, and having been fortunate to create work nationally and internationally, I decided to leave the academic world behind and went 100% freelance in 2013/2014. Quite a scary concept for a wife, new mother and artist!

My work now centers around audio installations. I have been working with Salford City Council on Oral History projects for the Bridgewater Canal, Bluestone National Park (Wales) on outdoor site-specific audio-visual installations, and with theatre companies such as Feelgood Theatre, Theatre in the Quarter, Colour the Clouds, The Conker Group. More recently I worked on audio drama/radio programmes with The Dukes and Naked Productions.

Why do you think women are still underrepresented in your field?

I think there can be a number of reasons that this is still the case even now. Sound Design in theatre is often/generally an underrated artform. Look at the Tony Awards… In 2015 the awards for Best Sound Design for a Play and for a Musical were axed! There was no rhymne nor reason to this, and I, along with colleagues both in the UK and the USA, have only ever been able to put this down to lack of understanding and appreciation of the artform itself. So I just wanted to say that first and foremost – as this is already a discipline that is underrepresented itself.

Add into the mix the concept of a female designer – and you have yet another problem. It has often been speculated that the lack of women involved in design disciplines in theatre – specifically technical theatre areas – is because of the long, often unsocial working hours, the difficulties in balancing family and work, touring demands etc. I think all of this does play a huge contributing factor unfortunately for the bigger, more demanding designer roles in well-established theatres. I also think there is still a deep level of sexism involved in the industry. There are many well-respected male directors and producers who seem to prefer male teams to work with. Add to this the desire for many productions to work with already established designers, which further raises the bar for anybody, let alone female designers, to break into the field. That said, I know from the work I have been involved with as a Board Member of the ASD (Association of Sound Designers) that there is at least awareness for this issue and a desire to get more females involved in the discipline. There are a number of female members in the ASD, but they are far outnumbered by male designers. The female members I know or am aware of are fantastic at what they do, but notably none of them work in any of the big theatres or productions! 

What do you think can be done to address the underrepresentation of women in the sector?

I’m not sure what can be done to readdress this issue really. I know my presence as a Board Member on the ASD was to actively have female representation on the Board, as well as coordinating/curating the National cross-section of UK Sound Design work for the inclusion at World Stage Design 2013 and PQ 2011 & 2015. Having worked in academia for a number of years and having had the opportunity to discuss this with colleagues and validate other design courses at leading Universities/Design Colleagues, I know there are females interested in technical theatre and specifically sound and lighting design art forms – but they simply don’t all manage to break into the industry after they finish education. I fear that this might be because starting out in the industry can be hard, as is of course the case for most professions.

With sound design, you often need to do many years of technical support work, building contacts before getting the opportunity to actually design, and this might simply not be appealing to many. There are no easy ways in; there are very rarely jobs advertised, and those that are often come from other designers needing people to do a fit up or to execute their design (quite often at the last minute). While this can be a good entry point and allow newcomers to make connections, it isn’t always easy to make this work practically if you’re not able to commit to temporarily relocating at short notice (I still find the majority of this work is in London) and if you have a family/responsibilities.

I also wonder whether others like myself are simply not forward enough. Not pushing for opportunities. I have spent many years working with touring companies, rather than continually knocking on the doors of main theatre houses. In one respect because I didn’t personally know many of the artistic directors, they often feel unapproachable. However, over the years I have learned to reach out more, to have confidence to contact and build a relationship. You have to get out there, build your profile, and make yourself known to them. This is a lesson I am learning thick and fast as I try to spread my wings further!

What are you currently working on?

I have just finished working with Wired West on an audio-visual animation design that has been running at Bluestone National Park in South Wales (January – April 2017) as part of a light installation for visitors over the winter months.

I am presently just about to start rehearsals for Spring Reign – a piece written by Rob Johnston and directed and produced by Benedict Power about the conflict in Syria. It is a very poignant piece with the current political climate, although we have been working on this as a creative team since a period of R&D work in 2015. Spring Reign will be touring nationally from 10th May starting at The Lowry.

I am also creating further audio-drama work with The Dukes theatre in Lancaster related to Port Stories, which I designed earlier this year with associate artistic director Alex Summers. I will be designing the main house show in the Autumn with Alex, so conversations and production meetings will be starting on that shortly.

In addition, I am working with Salford Council’s Bridgewater Canal Heritage team on Soundwaves and Waterways, a community project that will culminate in an audio installation incorportating the aural heritage of the canal alongside memories and stories from past to present.

What do you have coming up?

I will be designing the main house production for The Dukes which will be in the Autumn, and I will be working in depth with both Theatre in the Quarter and Feelgood Theatre later this year and most certainly into 2018 on pieces that will be marking the end of the WW1 centenary, and I hope to be working with a few other theatre companies in between (funding dependent as always!) 

Why are the arts important?

Arts and culture can enrich people’s lives, give them new experiences allow them to see their own lives from a different perspective. Exploration and engagement through the arts can broaden people’s horizons and offer a form of expression.  I believe the Arts should be for all. Everyone is capable and able, although many don’t think they are ‘artistic’. The Arts are inclusive and are there for all. Many people find, like me, that you can express yourself to the fullest through an art form and that is very often a valuable and powerful tool.

What’s your relationship with PANDA?

Having been in academia for such a long time, I engaged with PANDA as an artist to network with others in the creative industry, to collaborate and build further contacts. I find PANDA to be an invaluable resource and am grateful to be included in their introducing section.