Campus Celebrity: Isabel Coff



In the wide world of theatre, there are so many different trades, it feels at times it is almost impossible to remember them all. There are actors, directors, stage managers, technical directors, master electricians and so much more. One of the coolest trades in theatre, I believe, is the sound designer. Think about all of the different sounds we encounter within a 24 hour period of our lives, there are thousands upon thousands of them! Now, imagine being given the script of a play, and having to devise and design the different sounds to be heard within the course of the play. That is the job of Isabel Coff, a Madison native in her junior year, who is double majoring in Physics as well as Theatre and Drama. Isabel sound designed the University Theatre’s fall production of Is He Dead? by Mark Twain. She is currently in the process of sound designing University Theatre’s Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, and Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution, presented by Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre. She has kindly taken some time to tell me about what it is like to be a sound designer and her personal design process. In addition to her skills as a sound designer, she also has a knack for writing and performing her own music, which she just happens to perform live here in Madison!

What is the job of a sound designer?

A sound designer collaborates with the director and the other designers to develop the artistic concept for the show and then utilizes sound to help tell the story.


What is your favorite part about sound design?

My favorite part of sound design is seeing everything come together-- the sound, lights, set, costumes and actors-- and seeing how sound can play with all of them. I love to watch the actors react when they hear things for the first time, and how the sound can elevate what they've already been working towards.


Are you also a lighting designer?

I am not a lighting designer (though it is something I'd like to try). However, I do work at the Union and design the sound and lights for live music performances, and that's a whole lot of fun.


Knowing that you sound designed Is He Dead? could you tell us a little bit about the show?

Is He Dead? is a story about a group of artists who, debt-ridden and starving, enter into a suicide pact to make their art worth something. Before they can go through with it, one of them has the bright idea that the best artist of the bunch, Jean-François Millet, should fake his death and pretend to be his nonexistent "sister," the Widow Tillou, so that he can collect on the riches. The show unravels with tons of visual (and aural!) humor as it follows the hilarious lives of the Widow and the amazing cast of supporting characters into wealth and the public eye.

What does a sound designer have to do to design a show such as Is He Dead? (What was the process?)

The very first thing you need to figure out as a sound designer is the story the director and design team want to tell with the show. Once you have that information, there are two questions I have to answer: how will sound help tell the story, and what do I want the audience to experience. When I had those fleshed out, I moved onto more concrete things, like specific sound choices for moments throughout the show and placement of speakers in the space. After that, it's collecting content, setting up equipment in the space, and preparing for Tech Week!


When did you start sound designing?

I started sound designing kind of in my senior year of high school, but Is He Dead? is the first large-scale, formal production I've ever done.


Have you always been involved with the theatre? If so, how long?

I've been involved in theatre as an actor since fourth grade, and as a sound tech since my freshman year of high school.


What made you want to sound design?

I've wanted to try sound designing since I saw the kinds of bold choices I could make, and how sound could really bring a show to the next level.

How many shows have you sound designed?

I've sound designed only a handful of shows-- notably, several plays from the 2017 Marcia Léger Play Festival. I'm hoping to do more in the future!


What is your favorite show that you have sound designed thus far?

My favorite show that I've sound designed so far has to be Six Characters in Search of an Author, because I am excited to have the freedom to try some new and weird things!


I happen to know that you also sing, have you always been a singer?

I've sung since I could talk, and I've been in various choirs off and on since I was probably eight years old.


Do you write your own music or do you sing covers?

I both write my own music and sing covers, though actually it's mostly my own music. I learned guitar only so that I could play my own songs, ha ha!


Is there any correlation between your love of singing and sound designing?

I think there is. It's a certain love of creation-- of hearing a thing in my head and seeing it come to life on a page or a stage. It feels really good to have something of mine into which I've put so much of myself become a tangible thing, something I can point at and say, "That was me! I did that!"


If you are interested in hearing some of Isabel’s original music, click on the link to her Sound Cloud below!!