By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
Even before the lights dimmed to start Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things one night at London's Almeida Theatre a few years ago, audience member Harold Pinter huffed out. His objection: the volume at which the Smashing Pumpkins blasted from the speakers. He was not in sympathy with the tactic chosen to get the audience charged, making news as perhaps the most famous theatergoer ever to register an extreme reaction to sound design.
In taking the walk, Pinter not only exposed his delicate sensibilitieshe called attention to the kind of heightened effect that sound design, which has become progressively more sophisticated in the last few years, is having on audiences, whether they realize it or not. Fergus O'Hare, the sound designer for The Shape of Things and a frequent LaBute collaborator, reports that he was amused at Pinter's abrupt departure: "I was told he has a fear of loud noise," he reports. The designer, whose current contribution is to the Day in the Death of Joe Egg revival, also says that when Shape was installed at Manhattan's Promenade Theatre, the Pumpkins were even more smashing. "I had a louder system in New York City," he boasts.
O'Hare, partnered with sound designer John Leonard in an enterprise called Aura, is one of many designers bringing sound to new prominence in theatrical production. One major reason for the leap: rapidly advancing technology. "The big thing is the revolution of digital technology," says Dan Moses Schreier, who won an 198990 Obie for sustained excellence in sound design. John Gromada, who took home a 1991 sound design Obie for Machinaland just worked on Tea at Five, notes that tech advances have "radicalized what you can do in a wonderful way. I can sit with a sampler instead of being somewhere away from the action in the theater. . . . We have the ability to work more like lighting designers. If we have an idea on the spot in the theater, we can create it." Darron L. West, a 1997-98 Obie winner for Bob, says the days are over when it was "frustrating to sit in your studio, creating in a bubble." Scott Lehrer, who works regularly at the Vivian Beaumont and most recently designed the sound for both Johnny in the Claire de Lune and My Life With Albertine, allows that he can "walk around the theater with a notebook computer and tweak by ear. I do adjustments live while the audience is in the theater."
CSC's Room: "soundscape" by Darron L. West
(photo: A.J. Zanek)
The kind of surround sound Schreier talks about has taken such hold that West, for instance, was credited under the word "Soundscape" on the title page of last season's Classic Stage Company Room program. In discussing his work for Jocelyn Clarke's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's writings, which was directed by Anne Bogart, West says, "The sound design is a character, a chord the audience holds on to. I imagine sound design as this little golden thread. I look at an entire play as a big piece of music." (The text for Room mentions no sound effects.)
West is not the only one thinking music. Many of his peers began as composers who saw theater as a way to get their ideas heard and sound design as the way in. Schreier was studying music with William Bolcom at the University of Michigan when Stanley Silverman and Arthur Miller came through with the musical Up From Paradise and needed an assistant on getting the sound they wanted. Before much time elapsed, Schreier was passed on to Richard Foreman and has kept going. David Van Tieghem was a percussionist who worked with Laurie Anderson; his recent sound design assignments include Scattergood, The Mercy Seat, and The World Over. "I haven't come from the audio-engineering part of it," Van Tieghem says. "Speaker models and ampsthat's not my forte. Actually designing the sounds is my forte." Mark Bennett, who worked on TFANA's Julius Caesar, talks about how he gets turned on combining composition with sound design. He describes the research he did for Brian Kulick's Winter's Tale for the Public Theater. "You're a chameleon constantly finding who you are, changing your vocabulary." John Peter Still, who works often with director Bartlett Sher, most recently on TFANAs Don Juan, even confesses, "I figured I'd never be a great composer, but I could learn what it takes to be good in theater."