John Leonard was born and educated in Bristol, in the south-west of the United Kingdom. His involvement in technical theatre began during his time at Bristol Grammar School and was developed at The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. In 1971, he joined the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company as a stage technician, moving to the sound department in 1972 and becoming head of sound for the company some six months later. At that time, the Bristol Old Vic was running three theatres in four weekly rep and John was responsible for providing sound for them all. As these theatres comprised The Theatre Royal - the oldest theatre in Europe with a continuous working history,built in 1766; The New Vic, - an adaptable space studio theatre and The Little Theatre - a mid-sized single tier theatre, he gained a great deal of experience in working in different theatre environments. This, together with the wide range of work presented – everything from Greek Tragedy to newly commissioned work – gave him an excellent grounding in the many forms that theatre can take.
During his time at the Bristol Old Vic, John introduced many innovative practices, including the use of stereophonic sound effects and surround-sound many years before these became commonplace in theatre. Towards the end of his time there, he co-designed, with his colleague Alastair Goolden, a revolutionary new theatre sound control system, which saw commercial success as the Libra Theatre Sound Desk, winning the prestigious ABTT Product Of The Year Award in 1979.
After a period spent working freelance, John was invited to join The Royal Shakespeare Company where, in 1984, he was to become Head Of Sound and an Associate Artist of the company. He worked on most of the RSC’s most successful shows during his ten-year period there, transferring many to Broadway and touring others around Europe. He also developed one of the first computer-assisted theatre sound systems for the company’s Pit Theatre at The Barbican Centre and initiated a concept design study for a digitally controlled assignable theatre sound console in 1985, once again, many years before the idea became accepted as standard practice. Sadly, the finance for developing the idea could not be found, so DAISY (Digital-Analogue Interface SYstem) never saw the light of day.
John left the RSC in 1989 to pursue a freelance career, with which he continued with great success, eventually forming a partnership with other like-minded designers under the banner of Aura Sound Design. During this period, he became sound associate for The Almeida Theatre, received an honorary fellowship from The Guildhall School Of Music & Drama, for which he is a visiting professor of Theatre Sound, won a Drama Desk award, a Sound Designer Of The Year award and wrote an acclaimed textbook on theatre sound which is now in preparation for its second edition, as well as contributing to other books, journals and radio programs. With his associates in Aura, he designed sound systems for The Almeida Theatre at all of its temporary homes and for the refurbished theatre in Islington, for the new Hampstead Theatre in London, and exhibition installations for Madame Tussauds at Warwick Castle, Amsterdam and New York. In 2000, with his long-term colleague John Owens, he designed the sound for the Millennium Mystery Places in York Minster Cathedral, the first time the plays have ever been performed in the Minster, which presented an immense technical challenge.
In 2002, John was invited to join the Broadway Entertainment Technicians Union, IATSE Local 1; an honour accorded to very few non-Americans. In addition to all of this and in addition to producing numerous soundtracks for shows in the UK and all over the world, John has found time to visit The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts as a guest lecturer, as well as lecturing in the USA, South Korea and The Philippines. He has been honoured with a Fellowship of The Guildhall School Of Music and an Honorary Fellowship of The Hong Kong Academy Of Performing Arts
At the end of 2004, the partners decided to lay Aura Sound Design to rest, and, back once again in the freelance world, John is as busy as ever with exhibition projects in the UK, North America and China and with shows in London’s West-End, The National Theatre Of Great Britain, The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal Court, The Almeida and The Lincoln Center Festival. He was part of the creative team for Druid Theatre Company’s acclaimed cycle of six plays by J. M. Synge and continues to work with them on other projects. He has also produced several sound effects libraries that have sold throughout the world and many of his effects are available in on-line libraries.
Some of the highlights of John’s career in theatre sound include Piaf, Nicholas Nickleby, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac, all for the Royal Shakespeare Company and all later seen in New York on Broadway: Medea, Hamlet, Plenty, Coriolanus, Richard III, Phedre and Brittanicus, all for The Almeida Theatre Company and also seen in New York; all but two plays in the Shakespearean canon for assorted theatre companies; work for The Norwegian National Theatre, for The Deutsches Shauspeilhaus in Hamburg; many productions with directors Howard Davies, John Caird, Michael Bogdanov, Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands, Kathy Burke, Michael Blakemore, Michael Attenborough and Mike Leigh, amongst others, and a continuing involvement with new writing in many of the UK’s leading theatres.
John is married to the ‘cellist Andrea Hess and they live in London.
Current Short-form Biography
John Leonard started work in theatre sound almost 40 years ago, during which time he has provided soundtracks for theatres all over the world. He has written an acclaimed guide to theatre sound and is the recipient of Drama Desk and LDI Sound Designer Of The Year awards and is a Fellow of The Guildhall School of Music & Drama and an Honorary Fellow of The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.
Recent sound designs include: Farewell To The Theatre (Hampstead), Heresy Of Love (RSC), Big Maggie (Druid Theatre), The Last Of The Duchess and Skane (Hampstead Theatre), Grief (National Theatre), Cool Hand Luke (West-End), Basket Case (Northampton & UK Tour) Beasts (Theatre 503) Rattigan’s Nijinsky and The Deep Blue Sea (Chichester Festival Theatre), 5@50 (Manchester Royal Exchange), Ecstasy (Hampstead Theatre & West-End), Rocket To The Moon (National Theatre), The Cripple Of Inishmaan (Druid Theatre, US Tour), As You Like It (Rose Theatre, Kingston), The Master Builder, Becky Shaw (Almeida Theatre), Tribes (Royal Court Theatre), The Master Builder (Chichester), The Silver Tassie (Druid Theatre – Galway, Tour & New York), Takeaway and Ceiling/Sky (Theatre Royal, Stratford East), The Train Driver (Hampstead Theatre) True West (Sheffield Crucible), London Assurance, The Power Of Yes, England People Very Nice, Much Ado About Nothing, The Enchantment (National Theatre), Measure For Measure, Rope, Waste, Duet For One, The Homecoming (Almeida Theatre), The Gigli Concert, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Druid Theatre – Galway, Dublin, New York and tours); Yes, Prime Minister, Cyrano de Bergerac, Calendar Girls, The Cherry Orchard, Taking Sides, Collaborations (Chichester Festival Theatre), Restoration, A Month In The Country, People At Sea (Salisbury Playhouse), The Glass Menagerie (The Gate Theatre Dublin) Carrie’s War, Duet For One, In Celebration, Kean, Donkey’s Years, Summer and Smoke, Glengarry Glen Ross (West End), Translations (Princeton/Broadway), Leaves, Empress of India, The Druid Synge (Druid Theatre Galway Dublin/Edinburgh/Minneapolis/New York).