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Student Journey: Sarah Sounds Off

Originally from Boulder, CO, Sarah Espinoza moved to Illinois to study theater at Loyola University Chicago. Now an accomplished sound designer living in Chicago, Espinoza is also a student in Northwestern’s Sound Arts and Industries program. We caught up with her to talk about how she got started in sound, what she loves about the industry, and more.

Q: You originally went to college to study theater; how did you make the transition to sound design?

A: I grew up dancing—mainly ballet and tap. I was also an actor and went to college to be an actor. I figured out about a week into college that I didn’t want to be a performer. I came across sound design and thought I also wanted experience in directing.

Q: What was the first professional show you had the opportunity to work on?

A: I worked with director Matt Hawkins on The Arsonists at Strawdog Theatre and we won a non-Equity Jeff Award. I’ve been doing freelance sound design in theater ever since!

Q: How do you approach your process as a sound designer?

A: My favorite type of situation to work in is when I’m involved in the process from the beginning. You talk with the director and work with the actors, sit through tech, refine the production, and then you open.

Q: Can you talk about some of your favorite moments in that process?

A: I really love tech—when you get to implement your design with all of the other elements. There’s something really cool about watching it come together and be cohesive. Working with lighting designers is always my favorite part. You get to make this really great moment together.

Q: How has your background as a performer impacted you as a sound designer?

A: Sound is like an extra character and I think that’s what’s really fun about it. It gives life and support to the actors. My performing background has made me ask a lot of questions about how the actors feel or what they envision. Usually the first question I ask as a sound designer is who is this play about? What is the perspective? When I think about how the character sees the world, it really helps me in terms of sound.

Q: What genre do you tend to work in the most?

A: I mainly do sci-fi and horror.

Q: Why do you think you were drawn to those particular genres?

A: I grew up watching Star Wars and loved the world building involved in science fiction. With horror, it’s fun for me to explore what scares me and what scares others. Why do we get some catharsis from being afraid? I think it brings us closer with an audience. And I think with both genres, there are endless opportunities.

Q: In addition to plays and musicals, you do some work on radio dramas and even an escape room. Can you talk a little bit about working on something like an escape room and how the sound experience compares to theater?

A: The premise of the escape room was a defender fighting against the clock to prevent a WWIII nuclear fallout situation. There are stations and games and puzzles. When we started it, we tried to make it like a play. We were all theater people making this experience. But, it is more technical of a process than theater because we can’t repeat the actions. It’s in no way the same show every night. And it’s 100% on us to make sure things are in working order.

Q: So, after having some success with The Arsonists and winning the Jeff, what drew you to the Sound Arts and Industries program at Northwestern?

A: As much as I loved theater, I needed more personal stability and I wanted to work in a more structured environment. I wanted to have the space to be creative.

Q: Has anything surprised you about the program?

A: First quarter, I took Intro to Sound Studies, Intro to Sound Production, and Audio Drama. I was really surprised, but I loved Sound Studies. I’m not usually a philosophy person but it was really cool. The class introduced me to different ways to think about sound.

Q: You’re working on two shows this year, Borealis at The House Theatre of Chicago and Second Skin at WildClaw Theatre. How are you balancing your professional work with school?

A: I’m being careful about it personally because I see this school experience as an opportunity to figure out exactly what I want to do. I’m trying not to overdo it. I think it’s smarter to focus on your studies. I think if I overdid it working outside of the program, I would miss those educational opportunities to grow.

Q: What are some of the things you’re looking forward to in the next part of your school year?

A: I’m taking a class in designing for virtual reality next quarter and I’m pumped about that. There are so many opportunities it’s both exciting and terrifying!

Learn more about Sarah and her work: