The Beautiful Noise

The Expanding Role of Theater Sound Design

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 sensibilities—he 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 1989–90 Obie for sustained excellence in sound design. John Gromada, who took home a 1991 sound design Obie for Machinal and 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."

Meat Is Floating By: "The use of sound is completely integral," says Collapsable Giraffe's Iver Findlay.
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
Meat Is Floating By: "The use of sound is completely integral," says Collapsable Giraffe's Iver Findlay.

CSC's Room: "soundscape" by Darron L. West
(photo: A.J. Zanek)
Audiotape, once a sound designer's most basic tool, is long gone. "The last show I did on tape was ’89, I'd guess," speculates West, who just finished Underwood Theater's Buicks. It's been replaced by instruments like the Akai S6000, a widely used sampler that goes for a few thousand dollars. That device and equally handy appliances with names like SFX , Audiobox, and Ensoniq are making sound designers happier than ever. "You really can do things that are not humanly possible," reports Schreier, who counts Into the Woods among his recent assignments. "I can have an unseen character such as a giant move through space. Not too many years ago that would not have been possible. That's the most exciting thing for me now, bringing sound into three dimensions." Schreier, more recently responsible for Topdog/Underdog and Radiant Baby, did the Into the Woods project without requiring heavy aerobics from Simon Matthews, who worked the console and got associate sound designer billing. Rather than jockeying a stack of tape players, as he might have a dozen years ago, Matthews sat at the Broadhurst boards merely hitting buttons, adjusting levers, and bopping his head in time to the Stephen Sondheim score.

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 amps—that'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 TFANA’s 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."

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