Getting a Tony Award nomination is pretty special. Broadway is already considered the top of the field when it comes to theatre, and getting a nod for its highest honors more or less means you’re the best of the best.
The only thing better than that would be a double nomination, a feat sound designers Ben Ringham and Max Ringham achieved this year with nods for their work on both Prima Facie and A Doll's House. But as we all know, sometimes life has a way of mixing the highest highs with the lowest lows. In this case, the Ringham brothers found out about their Tony nominations while sitting by their mother’s deathbed.
“It was the wildest Tuesday night, Wednesday morning of my life,” shares Ben, who we spoke to recently over the phone from the U.K., where the pair are already hard at work on their next production, Tanika Gupta’s The Empress at Royal Shakespeare Company. “Thankfully we were able to tell her, which brought a smile to her face.” Sadly, their mother passed away the day after nominations were announced. “It’s been a bit over a month now, and it’s tough. Really tough.”
Theatre is in the Ringhams' blood. Their father was an actor, as was their mother. They have a sister who’s an actor, and another who’s a wig mistress in the film industry. Luckily for Ben and Max, that aspect of their family makes the bittersweet timing of their latest success a little nicer. “Celebrating theatre in general is a great way for us in our family to celebrate mom’s life, and dad’s life, and everything that we’ve gone through, to be honest,” says Ben.
You don’t tend to see too many siblings choosing to work together as adults, but for this duo it was a natural progression. “Max is four years older than me, and we had a room together for most of our childhood until I was maybe 14 or 15 years old,” remembers Ben. “Even at a young age, when we’d stopped playing with whatever toys we had, we started saving up for musical instruments. We both loved playing.”
Out in the world, that love first turned them into composers. The pair released dance music in the U.K. that achieved a modest success, and then they became part of the avant-pop band Superthriller. A few years later, in the early 2000s, the Ringhams started dipping their toe into the world of theatre and eventually found themselves in demand as sound designers. “We didn’t really realize that sound design was a thing in and of itself,” remembers Ben. “We just always wanted to write music. And we always considered sound to be as much about music as music was about music.”
Ben says that he and his brother have lived in so many worlds professionally because they’ve always been open to wherever life takes them, leading always with curiosity and a sense of play. “The way that Max and I work is fundamentally a natural progression from when we were kids,” he says.
Generally, a sound designer’s work on a play is pretty straight forward. The most creative task is usually providing a score, incidental music for various moments in the performance. The rest becomes about assembling a sound system that serves the requirements of the production. Ben says that he and his brother’s guiding principal here is what they call a “democratic” setup, meaning everyone in the audience gets the same experience, whether they’re on the front row of the orchestra or the last row of the balcony. For Prima Facie, Ben says the biggest concern was making sure the theatre had enough sub-bass to handle Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s score (the Ringhams didn’t compose music for this particular production).
And then there’s the actors, and microphones. The typical Broadway play likes to at least give the feeling of the actor’s sound coming to you acoustically, which is to say un-amplified by microphones. There are almost always mics, to be clear, but sound designers work delicately to let the amplification do its job without going out of its way to call out the amplification as often happens on a bigger, louder musical.
And then there’s A Doll’s House. Directed by Jamie Lloyd and featuring a new adaptation of the Ibsen play by Amy Herzog, this Tony-nominated production takes minimalism to new heights. For a set, you get little else but a chair, a turntable, and the back brick wall of the Hudson Theatre (where the production is continuing through June 10). As for the cast—led by Tony nominees Jessica Chastain and Arian Moayed—things get minimal there too. They spend much of the performance barely speaking above a whisper.
But the Ringham’s sense of play and love for musical instruments and technology primed them to rise to this particular occasion. “Microphones aren’t just a technical thing,” Ben explains. “They’re another toy to play with on stage, in the same way that you would move a chair or have a doorway that you had to walk through, or a turntable. As soon as you stop thinking of mics as something that amplifies your voice, it becomes an instrument for you to use.”
They’re no stranger to pioneering new techniques in their sound designs. The Ringhams handled the sound for Blindness, an audio theatre experience that premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse before coming to Off-Broadway’s Daryl Roth Theatre during the pandemic. Because there were no actors and audience members could be seated distanced in a non-traditional space, the experience was the perfect halfway point back to live theatre when more traditional performances still weren’t possible. Theatregoers wore headphones, allowing the Ringhams’ sound design to become truly immersive.
Based on José Saramago’s novel and adapted by Tony winner Simon Stephens, the timely work focused on a society facing an epidemic of blindness. The “play” unfolded through recorded narration from Olivier Award winner Juliet Stevenson, mixed with a soundscape devised by the Ringhams. In order to make the experience truly immersive, the Ringhams had Stevenson record the material using a binaural microphone, a human head-shaped stereo microphone that has the microphones placed like ears. “She would just run up to the microphone, whisper in the air, and then somewhere else,” explains Ben. When the audience listens with headphones, it’s like they become the microphone, and it feels like Stevenson is truly whispering in their ear.
That level of detail brought an intimacy to the performance, something director Jamie Lloyd was searching for when he began working with the Ringhams. The trio previously collaborated on a new adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac starring James McAvoy, first at London’s National and later Off-Broadway at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ben says that production was among the first to show him the power of intimate mic-ing. “There’s a moment where Cyrano is giving a monologue to Roxanne, but he’s looking at the audience,” remembers Ben. “As [James McAvoy] did the monologue, he got quieter and quieter, and we pushed the mic up and up until it was so hot and he was so quiet that every single person in that room felt like he was talking directly to them. It was one of the most astonishing things to be a part of.”
You can’t use binaural mics for a traditional play—they’re too large to attach to an actor. But what the Ringhams have done on Cyrano, and now with A Doll’s House, is take the typical mics used in the theatre and, instead of trying to hide them in a wig like most productions, let them be fully visible and far closer to the actor's mouth than is typical.
“We spent weeks during the rehearsal period with each of the actors getting the exact perfect point for where that microphone should be,” says Ben of preparing for A Doll’s House’s debut. “If you get too close, you start getting blow off the mouth. You get it too far back, you’re not getting enough gain off of it. And each person is slightly different because everyone talks slightly differently.”
The effect is not only being able to hear the actors at a whisper, but being able to hear their entire bodies. “We wanted the actors to be able to sigh and really hear their body move when they sit down,” says Ben. “That becomes part of the experience of what you’re listening to.” It’s so different from the usual setup that the Ringhams had the mics brought into rehearsals, even before technical rehearsals in the theatre. “We played with the actors, telling them to embrace things an audience doesn’t usually hear. Embrace the fact that there was a moment where he stroked his beard and you hear it on the microphone. I love that because it’s embracing something that other people try and hide.”
It feels a little bit like bringing the experience of a film close-up shot to the theatre, which could sound like sacrilege to a theatre stalwart. Not the Ringhams. “I just love anything that’s new,” says Ben. “Something that I’ve really loved about working on Broadway is that there really is a sense of embracing new things. When we were working on this show, yes there was a cross-pollenization of film and theatre in the sensibility of the work, but it’s still a theatre piece, and that’s what I absolutely adore about it. What we’re doing is putting a spotlight on people the same way that a lighting designer might cut down to a single light on a single performer.”